78. Memorandum From John D. Negroponte of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
- Vietnam Negotiations
Hanoi is obviously eager to talk to us, I doubt with genuine compromise in mind, but there can be no question that they want to get discussions under way with a variety of possible objectives in mind [Page 254] such as (a) restraining our response to their current offensive; (b) locking us into a position before they have joined the battle on all the fronts where they now have forces and supplies positioned; and (c) demoralizing the GVN/RVNAF, particularly if word of private U.S. talks got out.
The scenario is not new. You yourself have referred to the analogies between now, 1964 and 1968. The principal difference is that we are not now on the defensive domestically—not yet at least—and the Communists are probably not as confident as they were in earlier episodes of this sort that if the military drama is allowed to play itself out that the outcome would be so favorable to them. It might even be calamitous for Hanoi.
Hanoi’s eagerness to get us into conference is accentuated by the fact that they are openly signalling Le Duc Tho’s readiness to come to Paris—even as we are bombing North Vietnam—an almost unprecedented phenomenon since they perceive our present response as moving up the escalator rather than down. Their agreement to talk with LBJ in 1968 was under the converse circumstances.
An added feature which suggests that Hanoi may not have anything serious in mind is their insistence on resumption of plenaries, which they know to be sterile, as a fig leaf for Le Duc Tho’s return. If they were really earnest, the fact of plenaries or no plenaries would be an irrelevancy to them.
The foregoing notwithstanding, Hanoi may have some substantive wrinkles to add to their position designed to move us away from our negotiating posture or take us up on aspects of our position which would have appeal to them in the current military context.
With 12 divisions outside their borders and only 3 or 4 of them really bloodied so far an in place cease-fire could have some appeal if they can register some significant military successes. I would define significant as the capture of two or three major province towns, the encirclement of Saigon and other populated areas and a major disruption of our LOC’s.
Were they to achieve this, then an in place cease-fire would enhance their professions of victory and in effect be seen by them as ratification of their right to deploy their whole army throughout Indochina.
Another aspect of the situation which may be giving them pause is our massive air and naval redeployments. I can think of no single factor which might compel them, more than ever before, to consider separating the military from the political issues—particularly if they could achieve this before their offensive has expended itself.
Arguing against this approach, is that Hanoi is probably reluctant to give President Nixon even a partial settlement before the elections, probably thus assuring him another term in office.[Page 255]
The Situation on the Ground
The situation on the ground is clearly the commanding variable; but the record of the war shows that more often than not Hanoi’s willingness to talk has usually been associated with major offensive activity and almost always signalled prior to the activity itself:
- —This was true in 1954 when the allied foreign ministers in Berlin, meeting from January 25–February 18, agreed to call for a conference at Geneva to discuss Indochina and Korea. The siege of Dien Bien Phu began on March 13 and Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7. The Geneva conference opened on May 8.
- —This was true in 1968 where the Tet offensive followed their shift in language from “could negotiate” to “will negotiate” if we stopped bombing the DRV.
- —Again in 1968 it was true when following Hanoi’s April 1 announcement that it was ready to talk with us, it then proceeded to mount preparations for the second wave of its Tet offensive and kicked it off on May 4 nine days before the first procedural meetings between us and the DRV in Paris on May 13.
- —There was another high point in August 1968 following two months of private meetings between Vance and Ha Van Lau in June and July—meetings which laid out the essence of the understandings subsequently reached between Harriman and Le Duc Tho in September and October.
- —A final high point in the Tet sequence came in February 1969, after we had opened four-way talks in Paris on January 25.
- —The next major communist assault was launched on August 12, 1969 against 100 SVN cities, towns and bases barely a month after Thieu’s July 11 political proposal and after your first private meeting with them.
The foregoing chronology could be used to argue both ways as to the most appropriate timing for substantive negotiations; but on balance and, taking into account only the situation on the ground in Vietnam, without reference to great power relationships, I believe the weight of evidence suggests we should move slowly on the negotiation front until Hanoi’s offensive has played itself out.
As you know from the WSAG meetings, the time frame foreseen for this eventuality is mid-summer. By that time we will have a more decisive picture of the situation on the ground, bearing in mind that even if Hanoi shoots its bolt in April and May, the GVN will need a month or two to pick up the debris, pull up its socks and restore whatever disruption has occurred to its pacification figures as a result of deploying its regulars to the fields of battle. Time is probably on our side but, given its rigidity, this point can probably only be driven home to Hanoi by a decisive defeat on the battlefield.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 854, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Sensitive Camp David, Vol. XIII. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Sent for information.↩