1. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1

First Steps Toward Normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese Relations

I. General Approaches to Normalization

The major problem facing the Administration is to begin the process of normalization without giving up the essential bargaining levers we need to assure a satisfactory outcome on MIAs.

In any negotiations with us on normalization of relations, we can expect that the Vietnamese will press hard for their maximum position—UN admission, unrestricted trade, U.S. economic aid which they can represent as reparations—rather than seek early compromise. This is their consistent negotiating style, reinforced in this case by a strong moral conviction that they are completely right. We nevertheless retain a fairly wide range of action opportunities and bargaining instruments for dealing with Hanoi on this issue. Several different combinations of these are possible, but three general approaches suggest themselves:

1. We could continue our present policy, insisting on an MIA accounting as a required first step to normalization and envisaging further steps gradually on a reciprocal basis. We could continue making clear that official aid would not be part of the new relationship we seek.

2. Major or minor U.S. initiative approach. We could undertake a major U.S. initiative through both unilateral gestures and negotiations which, in exchange for a reasonably satisfactory MIA accounting, would offer prompt and full normalization of relations to include [Page 2] humanitarian assistance and possibly even some future economic aid (though not as reparations). We could make one or more of the following major unilateral gestures:

—not retain Vietnamese admission and entry in the United Nations (see separate section on UN membership below);

—sending a delegation promptly to meet with the Vietnamese, the level of such a mission depending on the signal to be conveyed;

—offering immediate diplomatic relations and exchange of embassies without conditions;

—eliminating or significantly relaxing the trade embargo and foreign assets controls.

Alternatively we could initiate the same process with some minor unilateral steps as listed below.

3. Big Package-Minor/Major Steps Approach. We could seek early negotiations with Hanoi, either through diplomatic channels or a special emissary, to deal with all issues and aspects of normalization on a comprehensive basis, making no major unilateral gestures but taking several minor unilateral steps immediately to indicate our positive attitude and improve the atmosphere for talks.

—lifting of current minor wartime restrictions on shipping to and from Vietnam;

—lifting of controls on travel to Vietnam;

—making further individual exceptions to our trade embargo and assets controls;

—taking a more positive attitude toward Vietnamese participation in international agencies and financial institutions.

Under this approach our negotiating objective would be the establishment of diplomatic relations without direct economic aid but including trade and travel on the same basis as with the USSR and PRC, UN membership for Vietnam, and exchange of diplomatic missions.

The first approach would leave it to Hanoi to take the first step to indicate its attitude toward the new Administration. It would be the easiest and most controllable course, but it would almost certainly result in a continued stalemate. It would lose us the opportunity for a fresh start afforded by the change in Administration and, if carried on too long unsuccessfully, would probably work against our overall best interests. We do not recommend it.

The second course clearly offers the best possibility of rapid normalization, but on terms which could cause us both domestic and foreign political difficulties by implicitly accepting much of the Vietnamese view of our alleged war guilt and perhaps promising more than we can reasonably expect to deliver over the long run. Any indication of [Page 3] intention to provide aid, for example, would be highly controversial and require repeal of existing legislation. This course might also result in wasting some of our best bargaining counters if our unilateral gestures were not reciprocated by significant Vietnamese moves on the MIA issue. We do not recommend it. However, if the question of UN membership comes up soon, we may find our hand forced on that matter as we prefer not to have to veto a Vietnamese effort to join the UN.

We recommend a course along the lines of the third approach, which offers a middle ground between these two. It retains our major bargaining power intact and provides for a comprehensive rather than piecemeal settlement of the issues involved in normalization, including MIAs. It maintains our flexibility, permitting us to step up our actions in the direction of the second approach if circumstances dictate, yet does not commit us to a specific course of action at the outset. It is likely to result in a more realistic and mutually beneficial relationship over the long run. At the same time, through limited early unilateral gestures of a minor nature (plus UN membership if our hand is forced) we could be publicly demonstrating the Administration’s break with the past and willingness to move ahead.

There is no guarantee of success in this or any other approach. We have no indication so far that the Vietnamese are willing to drop their demand that our relationship must include a U.S. aid obligation of some sort. In the course of negotiations we could point to the substantial U.S. contributions to international agencies already aiding Vietnam and perhaps consider making further limited humanitarian assistance available through such channels if necessary. However, it would be better to probe Vietnamese intentions thoroughly before making any such commitment.

II. Suggested Scenario

We should begin by contacting the Vietnamese at an early date to indicate our general trend of thinking and to head off any actions on their part which might make things more difficult (e.g. pressing for an early reconsideration of their UN membership application). This would be consistent with your recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee2 when you indicated your hope that the question of Vietnamese admission to the UN would not arise until we were able to work with the Vietnamese on the question of our bilateral relations.

The contents of our initial message to Hanoi could include the following:

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—An expression of the new Administration’s desire to move rapidly toward early normalization and its intention to seek full discussions with the Vietnamese promptly, perhaps within a month. The message could indicate the proposed site and level of talks, (e.g. Paris, Hanoi, or New York; Deputy Chief of Mission, Ambassador, Country Director, Deputy Assistant or Assistant Secretary, Under Secretary).

—We would point out that in the meantime the Administration is taking several concrete steps to demonstrate its attitude and would describe those steps (see below).

—The message would make reference to the continued importance to us of a satisfactory accounting for MIAs and state that we would welcome early significant gestures from them in this regard.

—We would also point to the more positive U.S. attitude toward Vietnam in various international organizations and programs such as the UNDP, Asian Development Bank, and others.

At the same time, we would take some or all of the following measures to demonstrate our new attitude:

A. —Lift wartime restrictions such as: 1) the prohibition of U.S. bunkering of vessels in the Vietnam trade; 2) prohibition against carrying government-financed commodities in such ships; and 3) prohibition against finance or export of PL–480 commodities by any corporation engaged in trade with Vietnam. These prohibitions are lingering war-time restrictions which no longer affect Hanoi significantly (in fact, they are more of an irritant to some of our friends). Their removal would cost us nothing. Most could be done easily by the executive branch without affecting the trade embargo per se. We could work with Congress to lift additional similar restrictions requiring Congressional approval.

B. —Without lifting the trade embargo itself, we could begin to approve certain categories of commercial transactions with Vietnam on a case-by-case basis. We already have one such license application to consider, and this would be clear departure from our previous policy of refusing all commercial requests.

C. —We could decline to reinstate existing controls on travel to Vietnam when they automatically expire in mid-March. (However, this must be considered in the context of similar controls on travel to Cambodia, Cuba, and North Korea, which expire at the same time).

We should keep key members of Congress and staffers closely informed of our approach and seek their assistance where necessary. There is apparently strong opposition in Congress to any official aid to Vietnam, as reflected by specific prohibition against such aid in [Page 5] current foreign assistance legislation and by a pending resolution by Senator Harry Byrd calling for even stricter prohibitions.3

Other Nations

We should keep our friends and allies in Southeast Asia as well as Europe and Japan at least generally informed about our attitude and actions. This would have the effect not only of reassuring them but also of encouraging them to help persuade the Vietnamese of our changed attitude. We might also make a similar effort with the Soviets and Chinese for this purpose, as well as for the purposes of our bilateral relations with each of them.

The Vietnamese might respond with a gesture toward us, such as releasing more MIA information or returning the bodies of some of those already publicly identified as dead. While we would welcome any such gesture, we would have to assess it carefully to determine its significance in terms of the overall MIA problem to decide whether and how to respond. If it were significant enough (for example, information on several dozen MIAs and/or return of a like number of remains), we might consider responding with a major additional gesture of our own.

III. Vietnamese Admission to the UN

The question of our stance on Vietnam’s admission to the UN requires special consideration. We have been totally isolated at the UN on our previous vetoes and widely criticized for basing our action on bilateral issues rather than strictly on the Charter qualifications for membership. It is an issue on which Hanoi can force our hand at any time, by bringing it up again to the Security Council or at a UNGA Special Session which could be called this spring. On the other hand, the last Administration made UN admission a major bargaining counter for MIAs, and this linkage has some Congressional and public support (Senator Griffin has already introduced a resolution insisting on continued linkage of an MIA accounting to removal of our veto).4 It is also consistent with President Carter’s campaign statements endorsing this linkage. Although this has been modified somewhat by your confirmation hearings and those of Ambassador Young. Moreover, Hanoi clearly places a high value on admission to the UN, and we should not expend this bargaining counter too easily.

We should therefore consider carefully how we wish to handle this issue as part of our initial general approach. We could:

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1). Indicate we will continue to oppose Vietnamese membership until the MIA issue is resolved. This would be most consistent with President Carter’s campaign statements. It would retain what was previously our major bargaining chip on MIAs. However, it would incur widespread criticism at the UN and elsewhere and would be inconsistent with the more flexible attitude conveyed in Ambassador Young’s recent statements on the issue. Hanoi would consider it a negative signal. We do not recommend this approach.

2). Indicate that we will no longer stand in the way of Vietnam’s UN admission, either on our own initiative or in response to Hanoi’s re-raising the issue promptly at the UN. This would represent a major gesture on our part designed to improve the atmosphere for negotiations or normalization. It would be welcomed at the UN and elsewhere and might induce Hanoi to make a major gesture on MIAs in return. On the other hand, it risks wasting a significant negotiating chip and incurring Congressional and public criticism. It might only encourage Hanoi to hold out more strongly for aid from us in exchange for major movement on MIAs. On balance, we think it unlikely that Hanoi would make a major gesture on MIAs in return for a unilateral gesture from us on UN admission. For this reason, we do not favor taking the initiative on this at the present time.

3). Approach the Vietnamese to delay their application until serious negotiations on normalization can get under way. This would be consistent with both your and Ambassador Young’s recent remarks. If successful, it would give us time to assess Hanoi’s real attitude toward the new Administration in light of our early positive steps. It would permit us to retain some flexibility on the matter and to consider as we go along whether we wish to retain UN membership as a bargaining chip in our comprehensive negotiating approach or use it to help spur ongoing negotiations. Some reserve on our part at this point might also induce the Vietnamese to make a further gesture on MIAs, which if significant enough could have a substantial positive impact and justify our acquiescence in their UN membership apart from negotiations. We recommend this course of action at this time. If it does not succeed in stimulating a major MIA gesture, and Hanoi presses us on the membership issue, we will have to review the situation and our options at that time.

IV. Initial Contacts with Hanoi

How we choose to convey our attitude initially to Hanoi deserves further consideration. Basically, we have three choices under the general approach recommended above, plus a fourth which leans more toward the “major initiative” approach. They are not mutually exclusive.

1. In a personal letter from you to Vietnamese Foreign Minister Trinh . This would be the simplest and most direct approach. It would likely [Page 7] evoke a response which would help indicate Hanoi’s current attitude. We recommend this method for our initial approach, to be followed up as necessary either in Paris or New York. The letter could be delivered through diplomatic channels or carried to Hanoi by a special envoy (see below).

2. In Paris. The normal diplomatic procedures are already established in Paris. The Vietnamese are better-represented there than anywhere else outside of Hanoi, and it is the most accessible “neutral” ground for meetings between higher-ranking officials than the resident diplomats. On the other hand, Paris evokes the long 1968–1973 negotiations5 and the 1973 Accords,6 which we have repudiated.

3. In contacts between our respective UN delegations. These offer better prospects than Paris for regular discussion under less publicity. They could take advantage of Ambassador Young’s already-expressed views on Vietnam to instill greater confidence on the part of the Vietnamese that they would get a fair hearing. (Initial contacts should nevertheless be at a level below the Ambassador, as in the past). However, Vietnamese representation is weak in New York, and access for higher-level Vietnamese officials would be difficult.

4. By sending a special mission to Hanoi. This would be the most dramatic way of emphasizing a new U.S. attitude toward normalization and would be consistent with President Carter’s campaign statements that he would consider such a mission to deal with the MIA issue. The mission could be at one of several levels: Office Director; Deputy Assistant Secretary; Assistant Secretary; Under Secretary for Political Affairs—either in their own capacity or as a special presidential emissary. An emissary from outside the Department is also a possibility. (A DOD representative should accompany for expertise on MIAs.) A major drawback is that such a mission would constitute a major gesture at almost any level. It would greatly raise expectations both here and in Vietnam. The mission might be construed by the Vietnamese as overeagerness on our part. There would have to be preliminary contacts in any case with Hanoi to arrange such a mission. Technically, communications would be extremely difficult for us in Hanoi, and we would be completely dependent on the Vietnamese for procedural arrangements. We recommend against this means of contact initially unless Hanoi [Page 8] first gives us an opening by offering to return more MIA remains, in which case we should consider a special mission to pick up the remains and at the same time begin discussions.

V. Annexes7

The attached Annex A provides further background on “U.S. and Vietnamese Interests in Normalization”. Annex B describes the present state of our relations with Cambodia and Laos and discusses whether or not we should make parallel approaches to these two countries along with our moves vis-à-vis the Vietnamese.

  1. Source: Department of State, Miscellaneous Old Vietnam Political Records, 1968–1991, Lot 94D430, Viet Nam Normalization of Relations (SRV). Secret. Drafted by James D. Rosenthal (EA/VLC). The paper was prepared for Secretary Vance.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. Reference is to S. 41, 95th Congress, introduced on January 10.
  4. Reference is to S. Con. Res. 5, 95th Congress, introduced on January 14.
  5. The negotiations are documented in the following volumes: Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970; vol. VII, Vietnam, July 1970–January 1972; vol. VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972; and vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973.
  6. Reference is to “The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” which was signed on January 27, 1973, in Paris. For the text, see Department of State Bulletin, February 12, 1973, pp. 169–188. See also Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. 9, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 340.
  7. Annexes A and B, both undated papers prepared in the Department of State, are attached but not printed.