73. Backchannel Message From the Acting Ambassador to Vietnam (Whitehouse) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) in Paris1
505. 1. In what follows I have set down my appraisal of the situation here as Thieu approaches a final decision on whether or not to sign the draft communiqué.2
2. The question of adherence to the draft communiqué is viewed by most of the principal actors in the GVN in a highly emotional light. These men are deeply disappointed by the Communists’ non-compliance with the Paris Agreement and extremely upset by the emergence of a “three Vietnams” situation. To them this is a major retreat from the Geneva Accords of 1954 and a giant step forward for the North Vietnamese in their efforts to subdue South Vietnam. Illogically, they do not see it as the inevitable result of their military failure to eject the NVA from the south but blame it instead on the Paris Agreement itself.
3. I think GVN disappointment in the Paris Agreement is understandable for many reasons. The GVN believed when they signed that the Agreement would lead to a freezing of the military situation—and eventually to the attrition of NVA forces remaining in South Vietnam—and that this would set the stage for a political solution in South Vietnam. They were told that North Vietnamese infiltration through Laos and Cambodia would stop. They were also told that, if there was massive violation of the Paris Agreement, we would mete out dire punishment to the North Vietnamese.
4. None of these things has happened in the more than four months since January 27. Instead, the Communists have strengthened their forces by infiltration and have stockpiled large quantities of weapons in the south in obvious preparation for a future offensive. They have emplaced large numbers of anti-aircraft weapons in areas of SVN they control, have repaired and extended airfields, and have built a network of roads in remote areas. In this way North Vietnamese power is entrenching itself permanently in large areas of SVN and the GVN is powerless to do anything about it.
5. Similarly, the articles of the Paris Agreement dealing with Laos and Cambodia have been systematically violated with the result that [Page 314]the threat to the GVN’s western frontier appears greater than ever before and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, now largely free from air attack, can be used freely by North Vietnamese trucks and armor. Moreover, the long-term implications of the strengthened Communist position in Laos and Cambodia are not lost on Saigon’s leaders. In fact, Lam told us this morning that the only way to respond to this was to “hit them hard.”
6. In the face of these major and blatant violations of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. response has seemed very mild and quite ineffective in persuading Hanoi to live up to its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Thieu and his advisers of course understand the problems that President Nixon faces domestically in responding strongly to Hanoi’s subversion of the Paris Agreement, but they cannot escape feeling that the peace we sold them with so much vigor last autumn has left them with less than they had before and the North Vietnamese with more. These reflections cause them to look on the draft communiqué with suspicion and doubt.
7. Several times in my conversations with Vietnamese during the past two weeks I have been told that the draft communiqué should provide for the North Vietnamese to remove from the south the troops and weapons they have brought in since January 27. Not to do so, they say, puts the stamp of approval on past violations of the Agreement and constitutes an invitation to Hanoi to continue its infiltration tactics. Such arguments ignore the realities of power in the present situation, but they clearly show the deep sense of hurt felt by many here at the way the ceasefire has worked out.
8. As they contemplate the decision before them, South Vietnamese leaders are not reassured by the intelligence indications. They have numerous reports showing that Hanoi is planning another “land-grab” offensive timed to coincide with signing of the communiqué. There are also reports detailing Communist plans to build up a strong “third Vietnam” in the south. Their fears are further stirred by Communist propaganda surrounding PRG “National Day” a few days ago and the ceremonial presentation of credentials by “Ambassadors” from some eight countries in Dong Ha in South Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province.
9. The question of general elections has become an emotional one here because they see a political settlement with the PRG as the only way of averting the rise of a third Vietnam. The PRG representatives at La Celle St. Cloud have been engaged in an obvious filibuster designed to delay elections indefinitely, and the GVN has drawn the conclusion, with reason, that the Communists intend not to honor the basic political provisions of the Paris Agreement. Here too they feel put upon: while the terms of the Agreement providing a political solution [Page 315]are ignored, the Communists continue to beat their drums about alleged GVN violations of the articles concerning political prisoners and democratic liberties.
10. An even more basic factor in the GVN’s current mood is its judgement of developments in Washington. I think Thieu came back from his trip to the United States buoyed up by his meetings with the President and by his own success in presenting the GVN cause to members of the formidable American Congress and the critical American press. On his return he began at once to draw up a grand design of economic development based on the hope, strengthened during his trip, that adequate American economic aid would be forthcoming. It has then been a serious blow to these plans to learn of the disarray in Washington created by the explosion of the Watergate affair. Thieu is not an experienced observer of the domestic American political scene, and I fear that from what he has read in our press and heard from his advisers may have led him to take a too tragic view of the effect that Watergate has had on President Nixon’s ability to maintain his policies on Indochina. He and his advisers may wonder whether the proposed communiqué will be enough to retrieve the present critical situation in our Congress.
11. There is also a tendency in Saigon to place an almost superstitious trust in the luck of the Vietnamese and of President Nixon. South Vietnam has been saved so many times by United States action, even when things appeared hopeless, that Vietnamese are tempted to feel that, whatever they do, some miracle will save them. When describing to Lam and others the parlous state of congressional support for the administration’s Indochina policy, I have often felt that my listener discounts my words and takes mental comfort in the thought that President Nixon will win through again, as he has so often before. In short, I doubt that GVN leaders are wholly convinced of the gravity of the present situation in the Congress.
12. The leadership here is also suspicious of your negotiations with Le Duc Tho. They resent drafts which are in concrete, short deadlines, the muscle applied through Presidential letters and the apparent warmth of your relations with the other side. They believe you put more negotiating heat on Saigon than you do on Hanoi and are prone to accept Le Duc Tho’s intransigeance while castigating theirs.
13. A helpful factor in the present situation, and one that may finally determine the GVN’s decision, is a new cockiness among the military. Having stopped the 1972 onslaught and turned back the various Communist attempts to expand their holdings under cover of the ceasefire, these men are not inclined to view the future in tragic terms. They are, of course, alive to the threat posed by Hanoi’s military preparations, but they never believed that Hanoi would live up to its Paris [Page 316]commitments anyway. In their eyes, South Vietnam’s only insurance is its military strength, and they are confident that this will remain adequate as long as US support continues. They know that South Vietnam could not survive long were this cut off and they have no patience for men like Duc and Nha who see as much danger in signing a communiqué with a word out of place as in the possibility of losing US aid as a result of refusing to sign.
14. It is probably foolhardy to try to predict how Thieu will in the end decide. As a soldier he has a soldier’s practical instincts and I believe that these will overcome the suspicions and doubt which I have tried to describe in this message and which have been so vivid in recent days.
15. Warm regards.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 415, Backchannel Messages, Bunker/Whitehouse, April–July 18, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive; Immediate. Sent through the White House.↩
- Kissinger requested Whitehouse’s personal assessment in backchannel message WH31677, June 10. (Ibid.)↩