284. Editorial Note

On October 7, 1972, President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger flew to Paris to meet with Le Duc Tho. By that time, Kissinger believed his earlier meetings with Le to have been preludes to the most serious negotiations yet, those scheduled for October 8–10. He later wrote: “we were approaching a crucial point. We had in principle settled all military issues: cease-fire, infiltration, withdrawals, release of prisoners, international supervision, Laos. We lacked agreement on Cambodia. Le Duc Tho was still pushing political formulas designed to undermine Saigon. But his eagerness for a three-day meeting . . . left no doubt that we had not yet heard the last word. That might prove unacceptable and when we came to drafting what had been agreed in principle [emphasis added] the whole process might evaporate. But we had come a long way. The next meeting would bring either a breakthrough or a commitment to another military test.” (White House Years, pages 1337–1338)

As the United States and North Vietnam came closer to common ground in these negotiations, however, it became even clearer that serious differences over objectives, strategy, and tactics existed between the United States and its ally South Vietnam. As Major General Alexander M. Haig later recalled, he did his best to reassure Thieu that an agreement would not bring about, as Thieu feared it would, the disappearance of South Vietnam, but Thieu was “beyond reassurance.” (Inner Circles, page 294)

Thus, in the run-up to October 8, the most insistent challenge the Nixon administration faced was that posed by President Thieu. “We had to prevent Thieu from making our dispute public,” Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, “which could undermine both our negotiating positions with Hanoi and our domestic position with Nixon’s constituency on the right. But we had also to put him on notice that the evolving negotiations might force us to return to some of the political proposals that Haig had discussed with him.” (White House Years, page 1340) More starkly, shortly before Kissinger departed for Paris, Nixon told him that should North Vietnam accept the September 15 proposal, the United States would have to, despite Thieu’s objection, “cram it down his throat,” and Kissinger agreed. (See Document 279)

In the upcoming round of negotiations the Communists also had to reconsider their approach. The Easter Offensive had faltered in June and stalled in early July. Despite the fact that North Vietnamese troops had won and now occupied a good deal of territory in northern and western South Vietnam, they had not won the day. In consequence, the senior leadership in Hanoi had to craft a new plan of campaign regarding how best to achieve the long-term goals of defeating South [Page 1075] Vietnam and uniting the two Vietnams. The necessity for accommodation became obvious to the leadership and to key advisers after the South Vietnamese retook Quang Tri City in mid-September. The situation seemed, therefore, to dictate a return to the negotiating table to make short-term concessions to achieve long-term goals.

How Hanoi came to that conclusion is related in the writing of one of the participants, Doan Huyen, a seasoned mid-level functionary and policy analyst/adviser in the Politburo Sub-Committee CP50. The subcommittee analyzed topics relevant to the peace talks and advised the Politburo on how to handle the negotiations. Doan Huyen reported to Nguyen Co Thach, Deputy Foreign Minister and Central Committee member who reported to the Politburo. Later Doan wrote about the conclusions his section reached and the advice they gave in mid and late September 1972:

“After weighing the current battlefield posture of both our side and the enemy in Quang Tri, considering the fact that we had been forced to switch to a purely defensive posture following the loss of the Citadel, after reviewing the primary issues of greatest contention between the two sides in the negotiations (these issues were the political issue in South Vietnam and the issue of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam), and after considering the fact that the negotiations were now being conducted during the final phase of the U.S. Presidential election, we recommended to Comrade Nguyen Co Thach that he ask the Politburo to make decisions on the direction we should take on dealing with these two issues and that the Politburo provide guidance to our delegation in Paris on whether we should stick firmly to or loosen up on these two key issues. . . .

“We also recommended that we lower our demands, to some extent at least, on the South Vietnamese political issue. This was an issue of great contention between our side and Kissinger and involved the government structure in South Vietnam: Should it be a tri-partite coalition government, a government of national reconciliation, or a Committee For the Peaceful Reconciliation of the Nation?

“Comrade Nguyen Co Thach agreed with the way I and the other CP50 specialists had presented the problem. He briefed Comrade Nguyen Duy Trinh and recommended that the Politburo meet to provide its thinking on this matter.

“On the day of the meeting, after participating in the Politburo discussion, Thach returned and briefed us on the thinking of the Politburo and the decision it had made. Without providing any additional analysis of the situation, he told of the conclusion that Brother Ba (Comrade Le Duan) had reached. Le Duan had said: ‘If we want to speed up the negotiations in Paris and sign an agreement before November 1972 (meaning before the U.S. Presidential election), we must concentrate [Page 1076] our efforts on doing whatever it takes to resolve our first objective, which is to fight to force the Americans to withdraw. [Italicized words indicate Le Duan was quoting from a document, possibly from the Politburo meeting.]The achievement of our first objective will create the conditions necessary for us to subsequently attain our second objective, to fight to make the puppets collapse.’[Italicized words are the second phrase in a famous wartime saying of Ho Chi Minh: Fight to make the Americans get out, fight to make the puppets collapse.]

“For that reason, Thach said, during the upcoming round of negotiations we had to firmly grasp the two requirements that we had to meet in order to attain our first objective:

  • “1. Completely and permanently end all U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam; end the American war in South Vietnam; achieve the complete withdrawal of all American and satellite [allied] troops from South Vietnam; and end the bombing and mining of North Vietnam.
  • “2. Vietnamese armed forces in South Vietnam would be frozen in the positions they currently held. Under no circumstances would North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn from anywhere, and under no circumstances would there be any regrouping and withdrawal of troops similar to what had been done under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Agreement.

“The achievement of these two requirements would lead to the recognition that, in practical terms, there were in fact two governments, two armies, and two zones of control. This would create a new balance of forces that would be extremely favorable to our side and these favorable conditions would allow us to continue the struggle to achieve our second objective.” (Doan, “Defeating the Americans,” in The Diplomatic Front During the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam, pages 138–140)

Based on the work of Sub-Committee CP50, Nguyen Co Thach recommended concessions (“loosening up” the CP50 called it) on the issue of the future structure of the government in the South. He and the specialists in the Sub-Committee believed that this was the best way to get the Americans out of Vietnam. Therefore, as Doan later observed, “we do not need to demand that the Saigon government be eliminated or that Thieu be forced to resign. All we needed, he [Thach] said, was some kind of governmental structure involving national reconciliation and concord, in accordance with our lowest-level requirement.” (Ibid., page 140) The Politburo accepted the recommendations presented by Nguyen Co Thach and together they became the approach Le Duc Tho was to follow in Paris.

Hanoi also believed that it was important to get agreement as soon as possible. Therefore, on October 4 it sent instructions to Le Duc Tho in Paris that read in part: “We must strive to end the war before the U.S. Presidential election (7 November 1972) and defeat the American plot to prolong the negotiations in order to get past the elections. We [Page 1077] need to pressure the U.S. to officially sign the treaty, implement a cease-fire, and withdraw U.S. and satellite troops from South Vietnam. In order to accomplish this, we must take the initiative on the requirements of a solution, the content of this agreement, the timing, the type of negotiations conducted, the method for signing the agreement, and how to conduct the struggle during the meetings to be held in the coming days.” (Ibid., page 141)

By October 7, the Politburo and its advisers had devised a sophisticated and complex approach to the upcoming round of negotiations, one that in critical ways meshed with that of the United States. Realizing that the United States was the single most important obstacle to defeating South Vietnam, the Politburo had instructed Le Duc Tho to offer the precise concessions often insisted on by the Americans—Thieu no longer had to resign, the South Vietnamese government no longer had to be dismantled, and the Communist coalition government proposal would be watered down to an election commission, the purpose of which was to effect a political settlement between the Vietnamese—that would secure their departure. If these concessions, viewed now as tactical by Hanoi, were offered to and accepted by the United States, agreement on the terms of American military withdrawal, Hanoi’s great strategic objective, could be quickly had. After all, these terms, including the return of prisoners of war, were fundamentally those the United States had advocated since mid-1971. Furthermore, Hanoi’s proposal as structured reflected to a substantial degree Nixon and Kissinger’s longstanding desire to separate the military and political issues in the negotiations. By separating the issues, the American leaders believed that the military ones could be agreed to quickly with relative ease and, in the wake of such agreement, the United States could honorably depart, leaving the political issues to be settled by the Vietnamese parties in further [Page [1078]] negotiations.