45. Editorial Note

On March 3, 1972, President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger approved a plan devised by Ambassador William J. Porter for the public plenary sessions of the Paris Peace Talks. It required that the United States refuse to meet with the Communists on March 9, then agree to meet on March 16 and 23, but suspend future talks on the latter date. (Memorandum from John D. Negroponte to Kissinger, March 3; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1135, Jon Howe, Trip Files, John Negroponte Negotiations File, 1972–1973)

In the meetings on March 16 and 23, Porter urged the Communists to engage in meaningful negotiations and discussions on the prisoner of war issue. At the end of the March 23 meeting he suspended the talks, saying that the other side refused to engage in genuine negotiations and refused to take seriously the prisoner of war issue. Regarding the latter, Porter said: “It would be a mockery of our concern for them were we to sit in this room with you and listen to more of your blackmail and distortions to the effect that the prisoner of war issue is an ‘imaginary problem.’” (Message 5594 from USDel Paris, March 23; ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27–14 VIET)

President Richard M. Nixon, at his press conference the next day, emphasized that Porter had acted in accordance with his orders, saying: “There has been about a 3½-year filibuster at the peace talks on the part of the North Vietnamese. They have refused to negotiate seriously. They have used the talks for the purpose of propaganda while we have been trying to seek peace. Whenever the enemy is ready to negotiate seriously, we are ready to negotiate. And I would emphasize we are ready to negotiate in public channels or in private channels.”

For the moment, however, the President said, “we are not going to continue to allow them to use this forum for the purpose of bullyragging the United States in a propaganda forum rather than in seriously negotiating peace.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, page 488)

When the United States had proposed on February 14 that Kissinger meet in private with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, North Vietnamese officials in Paris accepted the invitation, indicating any time after March 15 would be acceptable. (Message from Walters to Haig, February 14; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 862, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Memos, January–August 1972) The United States suggested March 20 and the North Vietnamese on February 29 agreed to that date. However, on March 7, claiming that the United States had bombed North Vietnam in violation of its promise not to, and also had refused to meet on March 2, the Communist side cancelled [Page 151] the meeting. (Message from Guay to Haig, March 7; ibid., Box 869, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Cables, January 1–July 31, 1972)

Categorically rejecting the Communist accusations, the United States nonetheless accepted the cancellation and counter-proposed April 24. (Message from Kissinger to Guay, March 11; ibid., Box 867, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, HAK II, May 2–October 7, 1972 [5 of 5]) The North Vietnamese agreed but only on condition that the public talks be restarted. “If the United States wishes to show its serious attitude,” proclaimed the diplomatic note handed to the Americans, “they should attend the customary [i.e., public] sessions of the Paris Conference. The RDVN wishes to inform the American side that if the work of the Paris Conference is resumed as is customary, Special Counselor Le Duc Tho and Minister Xuan Thuy will agree to a private meeting with Dr. Henry Kissinger on 24 April at 1100 hours at the usual place.” (North Vietnamese diplomatic note, undated, attached to memorandum for the record, prepared by Guay, March 28; ibid., Box 864, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David Memcons, May–October 1972 [5 of 5])

North Vietnam valued the public talks and wanted them to continue. On April 17, Special Counselor Le Duc Tho in Hanoi cabled Minister Xuan Thuy in Paris: “We should maintain the Paris conference as a propaganda forum for our benefit and for direct settlement with the US later. The maintenance of the Paris forum is not because of our weakness but because we need it to combine with the battlefield in the struggle with the US.” ( Le Duc ThoKissinger Negotiations in Paris, page 214) The public talks did resume on April 27; see Document 102.