277. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Major General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Ellsworth Bunker, American Ambassador to Saigon
- President Nguyen Van Thieu
- Vice President Tran Van Huong
- Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem
- Foreign Minister Tran Van Lam
- Foreign Policy Assistant Huyhn Phu Duc
- Special Assistant Hoang Duc Nha
At the outset of the meeting, President Thieu instructed Mr. Nha to brief General Haig and Ambassador Bunker. Initially President Thieu spoke only in Vietnamese. Mr. Nha, standing adjacent to a chalk board which contained hand written organizational comments in Vietnamese, pointed out that this discussion would cover the following four points:
- A presentation of the South Vietnamese Government’s understanding of the Communist September 26 proposal for a peace settlement in Vietnam.
- The South Vietnamese Government’s assessment of this proposal.
- The South Vietnamese Government’s understanding of the proposed U.S. counterproposals.
- The South Vietnamese Government’s assessment of the U.S. counterproposal.
Mr. Nha stated, reading from the Vietnamese chalk board, that the Communist September 26 proposal included the following: (1) a proposal for agreement between the United States and Hanoi on ten principles; (2) upon agreement on these ten principles the U.S. would stop bombing and mining actions against North Vietnam; (3) there would then be an overall agreement; (4) the overall agreement will be followed by the withdrawal of all U.S. and foreign troops, dismantling of bases, and the removal of technical advisors within 45 days. Simultaneously, an exchange of prisoners of war would occur; (5) the next step would be the institution of a ceasefire and the cessation of all aid; (6) point 4 of [Page 1029] the Communist proposal would require the following: (a) the resignation of President Thieu, (b) the materialization of democratic liberties through the abrogation of all current laws and regulations of the Government of South Vietnam, (c) the creation of a provisional Government of National Concord, whose tasks would be the organization of a general election to take place six months following the overall agreement, and the cessation of a Constituent Assembly to ratify the Constitution which would be drafted by the Government of National Concord.
The preceding steps would result in the creation of a new definitive government for South Vietnam, a new government consisting of three components. First, the PRG, second, representatives of the Saigon regime, and third, political forces which are obstensibly neutral. The governing body would consist of 12 men or a praesidium with rotating leadership. There would also be five committees which would be responsible for implementing the following: the ceasefire, the institution of democratic liberties, the drafting of a constitution, provisions for general elections, and the conduct of foreign affairs. This, in essence, would be the government of South Vietnam with regional sub-committees which would function down as far as the provinces, districts, and villages. They would be of the same composition as the national level government. Following President Thieu’s resignation, the Saigon administration would continue to control the areas it now controls. There is specific provision for two governments, the GVN and the NLF, with language that states no party will dominate and a requirement for unanimity rule.
Mr. Nha then explained the U.S. counter proposal. He stated that at the outset that only the broad outlines would be covered. The first U.S. counter proposal would provide for a Constituent Assembly with five possible variants, involving the functions of the Assembly and the Committee for National Reconciliation. A Committee which would be tripartite, similar to the Communist proposal and guided by the principle of unanimity.
Procedurally, the U.S. visualizes an overall agreement, the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, including technical advisors, the redefinition of military assistance, and a simultaneous release of all prisoners of war, with the latter two measures being accomplished in 75 days versus 90 days in the earlier U.S. proposal.
The third event would be for the United States to reduce its assistance to the Indochinese countries.
The fourth event would be the establishment of a ceasefire with international supervision now including a cessation of the bombing and the clearance of U.S. mines from North Vietnamese waters. It would also include the cessation of all infiltration and a reestablishment of democratic liberties.[Page 1030]
The fifth step would involve the political solution itself, the creation of a Committee of National Reconciliation which would organize elections for a Constituent Assembly. Although the composition of the Committee is not specified, it would have three components as in the Communist proposals. The above Committee would be assisted by regional sub-committees down to the municipality and provincial levels. All this [the establishment of sub-committees] would be accomplished 30 days after an overall agreement. There could be five variants to this overall solution.
First, the CNR would organize the election of the Constituent Assembly which would draft the constitution.
Second, there would be a Presidential election followed by the election of a Constituent Assembly which would draft the constitution.
Third, the Constituent Assembly would ratify the constitution drafted by the CNR.
Fourth, the Constituent Assembly would designate a President as its first item of business and then draft and ratify a constitution. Five, the Constituent Assembly would designate the President but merely ratify the constitution which had been drafted by the CNR.
President Thieu interrupted and said that this arrangement would formalize the existence of two governments.
Mr. Nha then turned to the second U.S. counter proposal which he stated was identical with the exception of point 4, which would be amended as follows: there would continue to be a CNR with two governments and President Thieu in power together with the NLF. The first order of business of the CNR would be a Presidential popular election followed by a National Assembly election. The Presidential election would occur five months after the overall settlement and the election would be organized by the CNR.
President Thieu stated that he would like to comment on the three proposals and then give a general assessment of all. He stated he would focus on point 4 of each proposal and avoid commenting on the details of the other points. He stated that with respect to the Communist September 26 proposal, he would only touch upon basic principles.
In the first instance, it was apparent that Hanoi hopes to establish the principle that only North Vietnam and the United States have the power to settle the political future of South Vietnam, and the Saigon Government can only implement what the two powers decide.
The second principle is that the Communists would still maintain the Provisional Government of National Concord.
The third principle is that the Communists would abolish every existing structure in South Vietnam and then start from scratch.
The fourth principle is that the Government of National Concord would operate under the unanimity concept but its membership would [Page 1031] arbitrarily have three elements, which would not be based on any discernible criteria.
In this latest proposal, the Communists are more vicious than ever, because they waited until now to surface their motivations on regional committees which would extend down into the villages. It is obvious that they wished to ambush Dr. Kissinger by bringing him along and then surfacing this provision at the last minute. This is a typical Communist tactic. They are broad in designing a principle, and arrogant and stubborn in delineating details.
President Thieu then turned to his assessment of the two U.S. counterproposals. He emphasized that he would not cover the 11 points but only the broad principles as he saw them.
The first principle suggests that the U.S. has rejected the term “government” but would substitute a Committee of National Reconciliation, but the U.S. would pursue the same spirit as the proposed Communist government with three arbitrary components representing three arbitrary factions.
The second principle in the U.S. counter proposal would be tantamount to installing a new Constituent Assembly, a new constitution, and a new government. Everything would disappear but there is no specific reference to what happens to President Thieu. He himself has no problem on whether he should remain since his government is wiped out. Saigon can only assume that everything will disappear, the President, the constitution, and the General Assembly, even the government itself.
In point 4 of the second U.S. proposal, the outcome is the same except there would be an election for a National Assembly. In the end, however, there would be four new elements: a new President, a new government, a new National Assembly, and a new constitution. Thus everything is really the same in the two U.S. proposals except in the second proposal there would be two elections, one for the President and one for the National Assembly. All other elements would be the same. Since Dr. Kissinger’s visit to Saigon, worrisome things have occurred. In discussing with us the Communist August proposal,2 he assured us that the Paris talks were secret and that their contents would be held that way by agreement between both sides. But then we saw on September 11 and 16 that Hanoi began to leak the contents of the Paris meetings. Dr. Kissinger had assured us this wouldn’t happen, but it did. Lastly, Pham Van Dong in his speech indicated that there should be a Constituent Assembly, a new constitution, a new government, and confirmed that what Hanoi wanted was a parliamentary system, not a [Page 1032] democratic system. We also suspect that Hanoi is in collusion with the French on the three part government. President Pompidou in his September press conference stated that France must not insist on a coalition government or a government of national concord.
At this point Mr. Negroponte joined the group as official U.S. notetaker.
Thieu: We feel the Communists and the French have colluded to advocate a Government of National Concord with three components. We have further evidence in the fact of President Pompidou’s press conference even though he said it was not for France to advocate any solution, he made two other statements which were ambiguous. Also Pompidou has been quoted as saying that the Americans are not discussing the principles of a solution with the North Vietnamese but the implementation of the principles. Moreover, Pompidou has affirmed that there are three political forces.
My fourth assessment relates now to the situation in Saigon. It is no longer a secret in the eyes of many politicians what the U.S. and GVN are now discussing. Such politicians as Tran Van Tuyen, Nguyen Gia Hien, Big Minh, and Nguyen Ngoc Huy have all been discussing what we are talking about. I cannot tell whether this is a maneuver of the Communists or the French.
I think the French here are very active. They play an active role here and we wish to propose that the United States be careful in its rapport with the French Government.
I have completed my assessment of the proposal. The Vice President now has a few words.
Vice President Huong: My first point is that the Communists have always wanted to make the U.S. accept their demands. In 1968 the Communists demanded unilateral cessation of bombing and they obtained it. Furthermore, they got from the United States the acceptance of the installation at the Paris talks of the NLF. What is the NLF? It is an unknown force in South Vietnam. No one even knows where its headquarters are located. As a result of what the United States has done, it [the NLF] has gained international recognition.
The North Vietnamese have made a number of unilateral demands of the United States. They demand the U.S. withdrawal, that the U.S. dismantle its bases, that it withdraw military advisors, technical personnel and so forth. I have a question, have the North Vietnamese done even any little thing to reciprocate? Now, since the cessation of the bombing, the United States has carried out the unconditional withdrawal of its forces while the North Vietnamese have done nothing. Their position is even more evident in that they call themselves “Vietnam” and not “North Vietnam.” They do not make provision for the fact that, even though the country is just temporarily divided, there is [Page 1033] legitimate provision for two separate sets of authorities to operate in each part of the country. This is coupled with the fact that the United States does everything and the DRV does nothing in return. This to them is just a confirmation that the United States is the aggressor. What do the North Vietnamese want? What they want to do in place of the United States is to act as the big brother and settle the question of Vietnam between the GVN and the NLF. They want to be free to settle the problem in any way they wish.
President Thieu: As I said earlier, the Communists hold the position that they and the United States should agree on ten principles including a political solution and after that they will direct the GVN and NLF to implement the signed agreements.
Vice President Huong: I have a third point. Can we really believe what the Communists say? In 1968 the United States stopped the bombing unilaterally. Has the DRV done anything in return? Then the United States started to withdraw unilaterally with no concession on the part of the North Vietnamese. Since 1968 they have done nothing in Paris either. It shows that the United States should not believe so much in the North Vietnamese.
Another point. With regard to the Committee of National Reconciliation or the Government of National Concord proposed by the United States and the Communists [respectively], we should not pay so much attention to the principle of unanimity. Can the United States give us any example of a three-tier government in which the Nationalists prevail? Look, for example, at Czechoslovakia and the example of Mazaryk and Benes. They were in a coalition with the Communists and eventually were killed or had to commit suicide and everything went into the hands of the Communists. I, myself, have had personal experience. I have many friends who lived in North Vietnam for five, six, or seven years. I am well placed to understand the situation. Those friends came back from North Vietnam. I was also a leader of the Resistance Movement in Tay Ninh in the 1940s and I was elected to the National Assembly in Hanoi, but I did not go. I understand the Communists.
General Haig: Mr. President, I am honored to have heard the views of your close personal advisors and key members of your government as well as yourself. Let me speak briefly about the concept and objectives governing our conduct in Paris. As you know, there has been a slow evolution of the DRV position in the most recent round of talks. Our purpose has always been and remains not to put ourselves in a position where our opponents can accuse us of refusing to make an effort to find a peaceful solution.
There is a dilemma on the United States’ side. We have a problem of popular support. Just the other day we had a close legislative vote and just this week we overcame a resolution which would have stripped us of the ability to fund the war at the very time when [Page 1034] President Nixon’s popularity is very high and we won by just two votes.
In all our discussions in Paris we have been guided by two conceptions. First, to continue the talks so our opponents cannot immobilize us from continued support for the war but also by the conception that a solution must provide for the continued existence of the GVN to be sure that there will be no gimmick which will strip the GVN from its ability to control the army, the police, and reflect the realities of power in South Vietnam after a settlement. Up to now Hanoi has played into our hands because they have demanded the dismantlement of the GVN and the resignation of President Thieu and, had the content of our talks been made public, we could have said that they wanted us to impose a Communist solution on South Vietnam.
We have two fundamental objectives. First, the continuation of your government after a settlement with the power to govern effectively. Second, to insure that President Thieu cannot be victimized as long as we do not have a situation of true peace. Frankly, we think that for President Thieu to step down now would be the worst possible thing for South Vietnam.
Now on September 26 the North Vietnamese substantially moved from their earlier demands that your government be dissolved out-of-hand. If we rejected this new offer without a counterproposal to show United States opinion that we conscientiously tried to find a solution, not because of our election, not for the sake of President Nixon, but for the long-term prospects, in a situation where Hanoi had made a clear shift, if we had refused to discuss this constructively, we would then be in a very difficult position even though this new North Vietnamese proposal is still unacceptable. Moreover, if we do not explore this constructively, then we run the serious risk that Hanoi will go public.
Frankly, we were rather pleased by President Pompidou’s statement and the fact that he moved away from a coalition government solution. He also brought members of his own government under firmer control and, as you know, some of them held rather strong views on the Vietnam issue.
So, looking at the situation over the long-run, the first question is, are we going to be able to handle the negotiations in such a way that we can continue to provide assistance, continue to bomb and mine North Vietnam, should its peace proposal merely prove to be a subterfuge; are we going to be able to do this until they come forth with a proposal with which we can be reasonably confident that your government will prevail? These are our motives. Now, if I return to the United States and tell President Nixon that we cannot work out a counterproposal to the North Vietnamese which will protect the Republic of Vietnam, we will be posed with a major crisis with a disastrous effect for your government and our government. The Communists make [Page 1035] a great deal about the realities of power and not the form, and in a counterproposal we want to be sure that we keep the reality of your government’s power. We think that our proposal, if accepted, would provide and preserve your power. I don’t think we will reach that point. There are still many differences with the North Vietnamese position. We are not trying to settle behind your back or impose a solution on South Vietnam from Hanoi and Washington. We are not trying to impose conditions on you and we know that it is you who will have to abide by the outcome. We are trying to reach some principles. We doubt that we can reach agreement with Hanoi but it is conceivable. Why? Because they are in trouble. We want these principles to insure that President Thieu has real power to control the destiny of his country after the principles have been agreed. We want a vague political formula that insures the reality of power for you.
We reject the Government of National Concord because it is psychologically unacceptable for your people that such an entity be called a government. The other side says they are prepared to apply the principle of unanimity. We have to see if this is so, and if it is, any member could veto the operation of the Committee. This is different from Laos or Czechoslovakia. It means that your government can stay in power. If agreement is reached in principle, then we insure the retention of your power and our ability to sustain your economy.
You would control the situation until the details would be worked out with you and if you were not satisfied, then there would be no settlement. We have proposed a formula for your continuation in power until political changes are agreed upon which are satisfactory to you.
I hope I can return to Washington with a proposal. I recognize that your country and your people have lost more in this war than we. It is presumptuous for me to tell you what solution should be reached but we very frankly want to be able to continue to support this conflict with the funds, the firepower and the bombing. We could be stripped of this if, because of intransigence here, we failed to get a counterproposal. I want your views. For example, I gave you some illustrative variants yesterday regarding a counterproposal.3 We have reflected on some of the variants that I suggested such as the ones wherein the Constitutional Assembly would select the President. We have thought about this and decided that it would be wrong to allow the Constitutional Assembly to choose the President but we think we must go with the Constitutional Assembly approach along the lines that I gave you in writing yesterday and you should tell us whether [Page 1036] you want the Committee of National Reconciliation to draft the Constitution or whether the Assembly itself should draft the Constitution. We want to abide by your solution. We need your advice.
With regard to the subject of establishing committees down to the village and hamlet level, we know that this is a Communist subterfuge so we want to establish provincial and municipal committees where your control is the strongest. Moreover, we don’t intend to surface our proposal for provincial and municipal committees at the next meeting but I want to go back to the President with a counterproposal which will force the North Vietnamese in Paris to go back to Hanoi for further instructions. Then, Dr. Kissinger can come here to consult with you. In the meantime, we will keep down our opponents in the United States who criticize this as an endless war without any prospect for solution.
I obviously cannot describe for you the attitude of the South Vietnamese people, but it would seem to me that they too must have confidence that you are making an effort for a just peace. It doesn’t destroy their morale; it gives them hope that the sacrifices they have made have been worth it. If we leave our peoples with no hope for a solution, we have deprived them of a fundamental need.
I think the Committee of National Reconciliation is nothing more than a form. It has no substance. It has no ability to influence events in the South. We are not trying to impose a solution on you. What we want is to get agreement on principles and then you will work out the details so that you determine the future events. I don’t think a large majority of the DRV proposals will prove acceptable in any event. President Nixon doesn’t think so and Dr. Kissinger doesn’t think so.
Hanoi is in bad shape. They are uncertain of their rear area. The very fiber of their existence has been affected by the war. At some point there may be a change in Hanoi. It is important that we avoid giving anything to them that can result in our being accused of wanting nothing short of total surrender. There must be some risks that we can take. President Nixon has supported President Thieu for the past four years in Cambodia, in Laos, in your own Presidential elections in 1971 and on May 8th4 he laid it on the line for South Vietnam. Don’t misread what we are trying to do. We want an intelligent counterproposal that prevents Hanoi from breaking off the talks and going public. And above all, we want to enable the United States to be able to go through next winter and next spring and continue to provide the essential support to you.[Page 1037]
Tell us your specific comments so we can go back with a counterproposal. We are not here to ram this down your throats. Work with us so we can have a counterproposal that holds up.
President Thieu: As you know, on September 13 I sent to you a memorandum in which we outlined some suggestions concerning your proposal. In our September 13th memorandum we covered all the ten points.5 On September 15th we learned that Dr. Kissinger had not tabled a proposal which contained our suggestions.6 We do not know what happened to our suggestions.
General Haig: Let me explain the circumstances surrounding September 15. Earlier we had come to you and asked for your comments on a suggested counterproposal. We waited a long time for an answer and then Dr. Kissinger went to Moscow. We received your reply only 72 hours before the scheduled meeting in Paris. In our judgment—in the judgment of President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger—if we had not tabled our proposed counterproposal, it would have resulted in a breakoff of the talks.7 The President did not want to take this risk. But as you know, we threw away the procedural proposals as you had asked us to and we changed the language of the Committee of National Reconciliation to make it vaguer and less precise. Had we not done what we did, there would already have been turmoil in the United States. This was the proposition that President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger were faced with. I recognize and understand that we are faced with a growth of suspicion here just as in 1968. But President Nixon is not being driven by election considerations. In fact, it is just the opposite. He is way ahead. He wants to use the United States position of strength to get more concessions from Hanoi.
If I go back and say that you are holding to your September 13 memorandum, then we will have a major problem with President Nixon.
President Thieu: I would like to be frank. I would like to ask a direct question. You referred earlier to our September 13 memorandum and the proposals it embodied. You say that if the United States had not presented its proposal to the Communists, that they would have gone public. I do not understand why our proposal would break up the talks. Why? Is it because the proposal was not forthcoming enough or is it because it was contrary to something agreed between the United States and the DRV?[Page 1038]
General Haig: It was not forthcoming enough and after we tabled our proposal on September 15, we held to it until the other side made a new concession which allows the Government of the Republic of Vietnam to exist and proposes a Government of National Concord which is essentially an advisory group. Of course we won’t accept the word “Government.”
We have proposed some counterproposals including a Constituent Assembly and some variants. You tell us which approach you prefer. Do you want the Committee of National Reconciliation to draft the constitution or the Constituent Assembly to draft it? In theory, I don’t think it will happen and you will emerge with even greater strength. Let’s throw out the various variants and the subcommittees. The essential need is for the continuation of President Thieu in power and the continued existence of the GVN and to work on the conditions for improved security. The latter questions are the vital ones. Where does the NVA go? What happens in Laos and Cambodia? If we table this kind of political counterproposal, it gives us greater leverage on the security issues. Give me some changes but don’t tell me to go back to President Nixon with nothing.
Mr. Duc: In our memorandum of September 13 we proposed that our position be conveyed to the North Vietnamese as not being on a take it or leave it basis. Now why do you think our position would have broken up the talks?
General Haig: Hanoi itself is involved in a very difficult decision. They have the option to go back to protracted warfare. Our view is that we should take advantage of a number of factors, such as their isolation from China and the Soviet Union. That could change tomorrow. President Nixon’s popularity is attributable to the fact that he bombed and mined North Vietnam and was still able to go to hold the Moscow summit and seek peace. If that delicate balance breaks down, then Congress will pass resolutions to get out of Vietnam in six months or less. For these reasons, we tabled our proposal on September 15, and also, because we had been holding discussions in Moscow. And Moscow for its own reasons—and I don’t say that their motives are pure—wants this war settled. All of these factors went into our judgment. If the talks broke off, then there would have been a chain reaction. Also, we want to exploit whatever opportunity exists for Hanoi to make concessions. Do you not agree that there are some concessions in this proposal? It is obviously not good enough; but don’t you agree that there has been some movement?
President Thieu: Before you come to the first variant, I want to make a very frank statement. Dr. Kissinger does not deign to consider what we propose. He just goes his own way. Our August 26 memorandum was flatly rejected 24 hours later. That is my feeling; that is my impression.[Page 1039]
General Haig: It is quite obvious there has been a breakdown in mutual confidence. We have really been driven by mutually agreed policies in the past four years. It worries me because I have just realized what a breakdown there has been. I wish I had known it sooner. We are headed for some sorry days ahead if we cannot have confidence. The driving motivation of Dr. Kissinger is to insure the objectives that I have described, to insure that President Thieu remains in power. Any other alternative would be a disaster. If we moved too precipatately on September 15, I must accept the burden. Until September 13, I had no reason to suspect we were not working closely. It is essential to re-establish mutual confidence. I will impress this on Dr. Kissinger and he will talk to you.
President Thieu: Another serious problem is that you only give us 24 to 36 hours to work on these proposals. As far as the talks are concerned, I recognize that Dr. Kissinger is entitled to set the date and the schedule for his talks with the North Vietnamese but I want to make a point and that is that prior to the meetings and after the meetings you give us very short notice, sometimes 12 hours, sometimes 24 hours. In the case of these counterproposals, you only give us 36 hours. Moreover, these proposals have a Top Secret/Sensitive character and you insist that I must limit the discussion within my National Security Council so I can’t even get other people’s ideas.
Dr. Kissinger has a large staff. He knows what is ahead. He has ample time to analyze what the North Vietnamese are saying. Our staff and our time is limited. Our assessment that we have given you today is on basic principles. We can’t possibly decide the details in the time you have given us.
Before going into any solution, I want to ask General Haig to tell President Nixon once and for all and for the last time that President Nixon should devote his policy to the 17½ million people of Vietnam and not to President Nguyen Van Thieu.
On this point 4 of your counter-proposal, I don’t want to pose any problems about my staying in power two or three months. The question of my staying in office is not what is important. It is only in this way that President Nixon and I can work toward a reasonable solution. I do not want the people of the United States to accuse me of being the only obstacle to peace. I don’t want any drastic measures to be taken because of me. If President Nixon takes any drastic measures, it should be because of South Vietnam alone.
Returning to the second counterproposal, in order to work we recall what we told you in various memoranda, namely, those of September 13 and August 26, that is to say a Presidential election followed by the formation of a government whose composition would be chosen according to the proportion of the number of votes received in that [Page 1040] election. Alternatively, we propose that the Committee of National Reconciliation be chosen by referendum and that that Committee organize the Presidential election. Under our proposal, for proportional representation in the Government, we would, in effect, have an elected national coalition government. A government represented according to the proportion of the votes. And we also agreed to a review of the constitution. In what respect is this not forthcoming? What do you propose?
Gen. Haig: We propose going—we have already gone beyond this. We are not meeting Hanoi’s tripartite formula. They have moved ahead of us because they have proposed a government of national concord or a committee with the veto power given to any member. If we ignore this, we are faced with a high risk of a break in the talks, and all you come back with is substantially less than what we propose. Why does a tripartite committee with a veto which would make it as ineffectual as the United Nations—I don’t understand your objections. Your proposal has been overtaken by events due to the other side’s September 26 proposal.8
Pres. Thieu: Your answer is that in light of the DRV September 26 proposal we must make another counterproposal. This is a divergence of views between the U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam. We do not consider their proposal a concession. Where will this lead to? If each time we have to be forthcoming because we consider them forthcoming. Where does this lead? Speaking about the forthcomingness of proposals we have come quite a long way since 1968. First there was the bombing halt, then in March of 1969 we agreed to talk to the other side, then I made my political proposal and then there was the proposal of January 25. We have gone the extra mile. If you say the Communists are more forthcoming, we think they are more stubborn and vicious than ever. We think any proposal should be logical.
In my letter to President Nixon of September 16th, I set forth my views clearly on how forthcoming our proposals were.9 I made clear that any proposals he made should be justifiable to the internal opinion of the South Vietnamese people and National Assembly, and must meet the basic objectives of self-determination and should reflect the existing political structure. Otherwise, there would be three risks: first, instability; second, loss of morale on the part of our troops; and third, a loss of confidence on the people in the U.S. and the GVN.[Page 1041]
That is why we cannot accept a three-tier arrangement. It does not affect the existing political arrangement in South Vietnam. But why three tiers? Why not ten or why not 85? I only give these as examples. It is not logical. We cannot justify this to our opinion and I can’t explain it. Furthermore, we have not yet gone public, but if we go public the National Assembly will see that we made unreasonable and illogical proposals. If our proposals are discredited we will no longer have the prestige to search for peace.
Gen. Haig: I know that the President has been in the forefront of this search for peace and has made many responsible initiatives. I agree that on occasion he has been ahead of the United States Government. It is precisely because of this that we find ourselves where we are today. It is precisely because of this that we have been able to continue our support since 1969. It has been the leadership of President Thieu and President Nixon, and their courage that has enabled us to go ahead. That is the reality of what we face today.
I understand the problem of theory. People must be logical; people must understand our proposals. I think we are reaching a point in our talks when a decisive change may come about. At least a change in the character of the war. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that there are three broad political groupings in Vietnam. First, there are the Communists, and then there are those who owe their allegiance neither to you nor to the Communists, and then there is a third group—the overwhelming majority—which supports your government. Now it’s true that in the Committee the others will be disproportionately represented. You will choose one-half of the Committee, they will choose one-half. But when you take away its functions, this becomes a far less significant fact. I am convinced we can keep pressure on Hanoi and above all we must have in any settlement adequate security arrangements if we are going to accept something that reflects the status quo. I have difficulty understanding your problem in regard to the Committee.
Pres. Thieu: I have run out of ideas. (there was then a brief break)
Prime Minister Khiem: In regard to the tripartite Committee of National Reconciliation and your question as to why we don’t accept it, I can explain to you that we have had experience with coalition arrangements. Take for example the history of Vietnam from 1945–46–47, we had experience with the Communists. Some of our people here have had experience including the Vice President. That is why we reject the tripartite arrangement.
There is one more point which shows why the Committee of National Reconciliation is not justifiable. I recall the experience of 1963 at the time of the coup against Diem. There were rumors of his intention to talk to the Communists and for that reason the Army was frightened [Page 1042] and overthrew him. Then later, in 1964, there was a counter-coup against General Minh. The reason for that was that Big Minh followed the neutralist line of General DeGaulle. So for these reasons, I doubt that conditions of stability could be materialized under this formula. It would create instability in Vietnam.
[At this point in the conversation President Thieu was visibly crying.]
Foreign Minister Lam: On the point of the Committee of National Reconciliation which General Haig talked about and says that the government, President Thieu, the Army and police would be retained—that government would lose its authority, its prestige and its credit and it would have to coexist with another government. It is another government which is nothing. That other government is just like a poor man who has won the sweepstakes.
If our government were not disbanded under such an arrangement, it would die by itself. Such a government would be non-existent. There would be political chaos in South Vietnam.
Throughout the past years the Communists have accused us of being puppets and Nguyen Van Thieu is the United States’ man in Saigon and it is U.S. responsibility to replace the government in Saigon. If we accept this counterproposal, it will be wrong. We Vietnamese found the President’s May 8th proposal very logical and this is what we have wanted all along.
Pres. Thieu: If Dr. Kissinger still plays the role of middle man and keeps talking to the Communists on the political aspects, he will confirm the Communist theory that we are puppets even on the technical aspects (sic) of the fact that Kissinger is talking with the other side—there will be an endless deadlock in those talks. The Communists use these talks to place all responsibility for a settlement on the United States. This is a road without end. If once and for all the United States would say that the U.S. and the DRV will only solve the military questions regarding Indochina while the political questions will only be settled if North Vietnam and South Vietnam talk to each other about relations between the two countries and the GVN and NLF will talk to each other about the internal problems, then the problems can be solved.
Mr. Duc: I have two questions, why does the U.S. think that North Vietnam has the competence to discuss political matters affecting South Vietnam? Secondly, in August, Dr. Kissinger presented a communist proposal and the U.S. counter-proposal.10 And he said he would ask no more concessions from us. Since then, there have been two more counter-proposals. In view of the successive Communist counter-proposals, [Page 1043] I would like to ask whether the United States has developed a concept of final settlement or do we simply react to their proposals, each time trying to embody as much of their language as possible.
General Haig: I will answer your second question first. As to whether there is a concept of an outcome which would visualize a settlement, frankly I have not, but we do feel that there are a number of pressures on Hanoi now which are not permanent in character and which could put them in a position—to bring them to change the character of the conflict they could change their tactics, not their intentions, their tactics. We have an obligation to explore each Hanoi initiative in an honest and constructive way. First, because there might be an outside chance of settling. Secondly, we must establish a negotiating record of having been as reasonable and forthcoming as possible. I don’t think any man at this table is naive enough to think that the realities of power are not the determining factor in the outcome of this conflict. We will explore every opportunity for peace. We have an obligation to do so. What we want is first of all to keep the support of the United States people behind President Nixon’s action on behalf of South Vietnam. Secondly, should Hanoi be sufficiently hurt to scale down its activities—it won’t change its objectives—it will modify its tactics.
If Hanoi modifies its tactics, we have an obligation to explore these opportunities. We would never accept a Communist takeover here. No formula is acceptable that prejudges the outcome. I must know what you think of our suggested counter-proposals that I can take back to President Nixon. If you feel that all I should give him is a memo and the personal letter which you will prepare for him, and that’s all, well that’s fine.
President Thieu: We agree that any political solution should be based on the right of self-determination and political reality. The U.S. has the right to explore a political solution between the GVN and the NLF and serve as the go between. But a political solution must, in the final analysis, be between the GVN and the NLF and between the GVN and Hanoi, and the U.S. should use its pressure to influence Hanoi. You should not be caught in the dilemma of acting on our behalf. Whatever plans are made and whatever policies are followed should be for the survival of the whole Vietnamese nation and not for the sake of President Nguyen Van Thieu. In the proposal you have suggested, our Government will continue to exist. But it is only an agonizing solution and sooner or later the Government will crumble and Nguyen Van Thieu will have to commit suicide somewhere along the line. I will send a letter to President Nixon.
Mr. Duc: You have not answered one of my earlier questions. What right does the DRV have to talk about a political solution in South Vietnam?[Page 1044]
General Haig: Assuming they are in trouble, there must be a point where they can gracefully move out of the conflict. If we insist on total surrender or humiliation, we are inviting protracted conflict. At some point, if it appears to the U.S. people that there is no hope of ending this war or progress in negotiations, the U.S. people may lose their will to continue to sustain the effort. We don’t know if Hanoi is looking for a face saving device or just to push us prior to the election. I don’t think we know, we can’t prejudge it. We want to go on with the talks, at least in the short term, to see how far they are willing to go. If Hanoi does not go far enough, then we can ask the U.S. people to continue to provide support. Believe me, President Nixon’s intent is very close to yours. We cannot ignore forthcoming proposals even though they are still unacceptable. There is no way we could accept it. But it may be the first sign of a fundamental shift which we cannot ignore. There is nothing trickey in this; we are not looking for gimmicks. We are looking, hopefully, for a breakthrough. The pressures on Hanoi may never be greater than they are now, and that is what we are joining you in looking for.
President Thieu: We have not decided on a time to make public what we have done together to answer the Communists. But we are not afraid of revealing what the Communists have advanced since August 1st and revealing our own proposals, and we are not afraid of our position. It is very forthcoming and defendable. Now we shouldn’t have an erroneous concept about saving face for the DRV because the North Vietnamese are the aggressors. All we ask is that they withdraw from South Vietnam. This would not be a humiliation for the DRV. In 1968 you said we shouldn’t humiliate the DRV. We accepted to have the NLF in our political system.
In 1967 when I was asked by Ambassador Lodge how to absorb the NLF, I said we were a sick man, please don’t give us another spoon of microbes. It will kill us. We must get better first. Now we are prepared to take the risk, a great risk, in fact, and let the NLF participate in the future government, and in the Committee of National Reconciliation. We have answered the question as to how to absorb the NLF. It is certain that the NLF will be represented in a Presidential election and after that they will be represented proportionally in the future government. It will be an elected coalition government. Furthermore, with our proposal for proportional representation, we have answered former Ambassador Harriman’s question about how do we reach a coalition government. This will, in essence, be an elected national coalition government.
I can assure you that on the day we make this offer public, we will have more internal political difficulties in South Vietnam than we experienced in July of 1969 or in January of 1972.[Page 1045]
I am sorry I don’t know whether President Nixon has enough time, perhaps three or four hours in the last few weeks of his campaigning to hear me.
General Haig: I am grateful to you and your principal advisors that you have had this time to explore this subject. I think we have explored it as much as we can. And, it appears that we are on a divergent course. I want to be sure you understand what I said about saving Hanoi’s face. There is no inclination to do this in Washington. We would like nothing better than the collapse of the North. You must understand my point. What we want to know is are they serious or is it just a tactic. Don’t misunderstand me by thinking that we are looking for a face saving solution for Hanoi. We have had a good exchange, I have not yet seen your written memo. [President Thieu hands the memo at Tab A to General Haig]11 I will take it back and discuss it with President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger. There is no question in my mind where you stand. It is clear to me. It means we are going to have to reappraise our negotiating procedures because we have gone beyond this point already. I can’t prejudge that. It is up to President Nixon. We will be in touch through Ambassador Bunker.
President Thieu: In my last letter to President Nixon, I said that we have already encouraged the Communists enough. If we go beyond that in South Vietnam—if the U.S. really still intends to defend Southeast Asia, then any solution should be used as a stand-down (sic) solution. With the situation resolved in Vietnam and only a few divisions in Laos and Cambodia.
Since 1962 the political solution on Laos and these three recent proposals of the Communists and our concession to them in 1968, it all comes back to what they want in Indochina. It is, whatever you call it, it is a Laos solution, disguised or not, it is a Laos solution. This is a very important point. In my position as President of Vietnam—if you were in my position as President of Vietnam—I don’t know how you would explain this to the Vietnamese people. We are on the edge of catastrophe, on the brink of an abyss.[Page 1046]
After I finish—after I make a concession—how many more last miles will there be? Very frankly, and very sadly, we have a big friend in the U.S. and it is a big power. On the other side, Hanoi has a big friend and boss. No one tells Pham Van Dong or Thong Duc Thang or Nguyen Huu Tho to step down. That would be a humiliation for them. I have endured that humiliation for two years and I am ready to sacrifice my position.
If President Nixon has any drastic measures to take against South Vietnam, he should go ahead. As a soldier I am not afraid to say such words.
General Haig: We are not driven by motives to keep you in power. We also think in terms of supporting the best interest of the Vietnamese people. I know you are prepared to make a political sacrifice. You told me that in September of last year when you said you were prepared to step down if there was a true peace. I don’t think a true peace is around the corner. I will convey the outcome of our discussions to Dr. Kissinger and President Nixon.
The meeting ended at 12:50 p.m.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1018, Alexander M. Haig Special File, Additional Material Vietnam Trip, September 29–October 4, 1972 [1 of 4]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting took place at the Presidential Palace. All brackets are in the original.↩
- See Document 225.↩
- Haig is presumably referring to his October 2 meeting with Thieu; see footnote 2, Document 275 and Document 276.↩
- See Document 136.↩
- Bunker reported his September 11 meeting with Thieu and the September 13 memorandum in backchannel messages 155 and 156, both September 13. See Document 258.↩
- See Document 266.↩
- See Document 259. For a record of the September 15 U.S.–DRV meeting, see Document 263.↩
- See Document 267.↩
- According to Kissinger, the letter also agreed with all of Nixon’s general points and “warned that no further concessions should be made” to Hanoi. (White House Years, p. 1334)↩
- See Documents 243 and 245.↩
- Attached but not printed at Tab A is an unsigned and undated memorandum prepared by the GVN. From Saigon, Haig sent the text of the memorandum to Kissinger in message Haigto 13, October 4. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1018, Alexander M. Haig Special File, Wire Traffic, September 29–October 4, 1972) In another message to Kissinger, Haig reported on the October 4 meeting and wrote the following about the memorandum at Tab A: “Finally, I would caution you that the GVN memorandum sent separately does not in any way capture the real thrust of Thieu’s arguments. The memo is offensive and laced with Duc’s language. Thieu’s arguments were respectful and largely devoid of polemic. He is unquestionably frightened and apprehensive about what lies ahead.” (Message Haigto 12, October 4; ibid., Box 1017, Alexander M. Haig Special File, General Haig’s Vietnam Trip Haigto/Tohaig, September 30–October 4, 1972 [2 of 2])↩