5. Editorial Note
In a televised address on January 25, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon revealed the secret talks with North Vietnam in Paris and unveiled his latest peace proposal. He informed viewers that his Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger had, since August 1969, engaged in secret talks to end the Vietnam war, traveling to Paris twelve times on these missions. Kissinger had met seven times with North Vietnamese Politburo Special Adviser Le Duc Tho and Minister Xuan Thuy, head of the Communist Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, and five times with Xuan Thuy alone. (Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pages 100–105)
The secret talks ran parallel to the public ones, called the plenary sessions, which also took place in Paris. In the plenaries—held intermittently from mid-1968 and more regularly from early 1969 when Nixon became President—United States and South Vietnamese representatives faced the North Vietnamese and members of the Viet Cong’s political arm, the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Scheduled for Thursday of each week, the plenaries tended to be meetings where the two sides read statements to one another and on occasion one side or the other canceled a meeting because of the other’s conduct of the war or the negotiations. For a report on the first plenary session, which set the pattern for most that followed, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume VI, Vietnam, January–August 1968, Document 230; see also Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War, pages 241–243.
In both the secret and the plenary venues, the President observed in his January 25 address, progress had been disappointing. “The American people,” said Nixon, “deserve an accounting of why it has been disappointing. Tonight I intend to give you that accounting, and in so doing, I am going to try to break the deadlock in the negotiations.” The President declared that the necessity for secrecy had prevented his responding to accusations by domestic and international critics about the lack of progress in the negotiations. At first, because these meetings were secret, Nixon hoped that the two sides could be [Page 29] more flexible in offering new approaches and discussing them “free from the pressure of public debates.” The President reviewed the record of the secret negotiations, noting specific moments between May and November 1971 when the United States had made accommodations to its adversary’s demands without receiving similar accommodations or indeed anything in return from the other side. He also noted the frustrations brought on by North Vietnamese public charges that he had ignored or refused to respond to their proposals when the United States had already answered in the secret channel. He further noted that the only perceptible reaction to the most recent proposal of October 1971 had been an increased infiltration of troops from North to South Vietnam since that time, and a parallel increase of combat activity by Communist forces in Laos and Cambodia.
In the televised talk, Nixon presented a new negotiating proposal to Hanoi (Document 8) based on a plan the United States put forward in October 1971. Despite the Communists’ failure to respond to this proposal, Nixon believed that it would “prove beyond doubt which side has made every effort to make these negotiations succeed. It will show unmistakably that Hanoi—not Washington or Saigon—has made the war go on.” Substantively, Nixon believed that his plan contained all that was needed for a comprehensive agreement, including a cease-fire in place, withdrawal of U.S. troops, release of prisoners of war, an internationally supervised election in South Vietnam, and a commitment to implement these within six months of an agreement in Paris. Additionally, the United States would fund a major reconstruction program to help the region recover from decades of war. South Vietnam’s special contribution to the new proposal was that President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Tran Van Huong would resign a month before the new election while the Chairman of the South Vietnamese Senate would form a caretaker government.
President Nixon directed Ambassador William J. Porter, head of the Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, to present the plan publicly to the other side in the next plenary session on January 27. The United States was willing to work within the framework provided by the new plan but was open to at least two other approaches. In the first, the two sides would negotiate the easier to resolve military questions immediately, and began implementing the solutions to these questions while negotiations on the other issues continued. In the second, they would agree at the outset to settle the military issues and then leave the more difficult political issues to the Vietnamese, North and South, to resolve after the Americans had left. President Nixon was certain he had presented a negotiating proposal that could produce a lasting peace.
Toward the end of the speech, he did indicate a point beyond which he would not go. “The only thing this plan does not do,” he said, “is to [Page 30] join our enemy to overthrow our ally, which the United States of America will never do. If the enemy wants peace, it will have to recognize the important difference between settlement and surrender.” However, Nixon continued: “If the enemy’s answer to our peace offer is to step up their military attacks, I shall fully meet my responsibility as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces to protect our remaining troops.”
The day after the speech, January 26, Kissinger held a news briefing to explain the President’s peace proposal. Excerpts are printed in The New York Times, January 27, 1972, page 14.