Vietnam Negotiations: Where They Are and Where They May Be Headed

By David Wurfel. SEADAG Vietnam Task Force Meeting, Belmont Elkridge, Maryland October 15-17, 1970

Chester Ronning expressed the views of many Americans, as well as of Canadians, when he called Nixon’s latest proposals for negotiated peace in Vietnam “a great disappointment”. He had hoped for the declaration of a ceasefire, not just a proposal. Hugh Scott, Republican leader in the Senate, was, of course, merely indulging in hyperbole when he claimed that Nixon had “opened a new chapter in United States diplomatic history”. And the prediction by Washington’s Under-Secretary of Defense that Hanoi would accept the Nixon plan within a week was nothing but high-flown campaign oratory.

Mr. Nixon put a stand-still cease fire in Indo-China chronologically before either agreement on the character of an interim South Vietnamese government or announcement of a timetable for total United States withdrawal. Though the Cambodian situation makes this arrangement somewhat more attractive to the Communists than when it might have applied to Vietnam alone, Vietnam is still the main arena and thus this timing is totally unacceptable to them, as Hanoi’s authoritative Nhan Dan was quick to point out. A standstill cease-fire as the first step would appear to admit, the newspaper said, that the U.S. had a right to be in Vietnam. It would also deny to the Communists some bargaining levers they now have with the continuation of armed combat. Thus this crucial element in the Nixon proposal could be the most important stumbling block to negotiated settlement if the U.S. delegation should stick by its guns. One can be confident that the “Nixon plan” will not in itself provide the outlines for a future peace.

Understandably, therefore, many long-time opponents of the war have been surprised at the alacrity with which dovish Senators, as well as such presitgious critics as the two former Paris negotiators, Cyrus Vance and Averell Harriman, have endorsed President Nixon’s initiatives. Perhaps they have been promised more than has yet been revealed. In any case, it should be understood that most of these endorsements of the new proposals have been only as a basis for further discussions in Paris. In the land of Richard Nixon one must be thankful for small blessings, admitting, as Chester Ronning did, that this is a “move in the right direction”. But for the Vietnamese and all who have suffered, the urgent question remains, “How far away is peace?” Let us then examine each of Mr. Nixon’s proposals with this question in mind.

1. A cease-fire in place has been advocated by many in and out of the Johnson and Nixon administrations for years.

At first it was regarded as the position of a daring dove, but more recently has emerged in tactical debates among U.S. policy planners. At last it has been endorsed by the White House.

There is no question that a war can only be stopped with a cease-fire, of one kind or another, But in the long run a cease-fire which is un-accompanied by fundamental political compromise does not bring peace. So it was in Korea in 1953 and in Indo-China in 1954. The Communists have not forgotten, nor should others. The Nixon proposals of October 1970 are identical in their sequence to the agreements surrounding the 1953 and 1954 cease-fires. In neither case were the provisions regarding procedures for subsequent political settlement ever implemented. It is particularly inconceivable that Hanoi’s leaders will be tricked twice in the same manner and on the same battlefield within a single generation. Their sense of history is keener than that.

Nevertheless, a cease-fire in October 1970 is more attractive to Hanoi than it was in March. Since then “American forces” have cleared out Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia”, were subsequently withdrawn, and the Communists have rebuilt their bases) as well as moving on to control over half the Cambodian countryside. A standstill cease-fire would partition the country and force Lon Nol to negotiate with Sihanouk’s exile government. Even so, Hanoi and the NLF do not appear to be on the verge of abandoning political goals in Vietnam for a risky Indo-China cease-fire.

A cease-fire has been called “risky”, and this it would certainly be. Unlike Korea, or Laos, or even Cambodia, in Vietnam there could be no “cease fire line”. President Thieu has aptly called a standstill truce in South Vietnam, a “leopard skin formula”. The only place in Asia where a cease-fire was called in the midst of a guerrilla war, prior to a political settlement, was in Indonesia in 1947/48.

Despite repeated U.N. resolutions and an active observer team, it could not be maintained. Two cease-fires by international agreement have not stopped the war in Laos even when there was an approximate “line”. The experience of both Laos and the Middle East has taught us that once a cease-fire has broken down, mutual distrust is even greater than before, so that it is very difficult to halt the fighting again. In fact, the difficulties in obtaining, maintaining or renewing a standstill cease-fire in South Vietnam are so great that one wonders whether Mr. Nixon’s proposals were made with a serious expectation of success — or with confidence that a truce will not come about, thus assuring propaganda gain at no cost. Certainly the military would have been easier to persuade in the latter course.

Presidential advisor Henry Kissinger, writing in Foreign Affairs just before he was appointed by Mr. Nixon, appeared to be fully aware of Communist fears. Said he, “A formal cease-fire is likely to predetermine the ultimate settlement and tend toward partition. Cease-fire is thus not so much a step toward a final settlement as a form of it.”

If so, Hanoi and the NLF can hardly be expected to accept a cease-fire as offered. Agreed regroupment of forces following a cease-fire would be even more unlikely—Saigon officials being as fearful of a new partition of South Vietnam as are the Communists.

Nevertheless, Kissinger’s assessment appears to have been made in the context of two opposing parties which were each stable political units, in a stable relationship with each other.

In South Vietnam today these conditions do not obtain. The cease-fire itself would probably produce changes on each side and in their relative positions. A cease-fire under international supervision is more easily violated by guerrillas than by conventional forces, partly because foreign observers can more readily see what regular units do. It is extremely difficult either to detect or to establish responsibility for resupply, infiltration of new personnel or terrorist attacks by guerrillas. Though both the NLF and the Saigon regime would have severe morale problems, the Communists have consistently shown their superiority in indoctrination.

A prolonged cease-fire,whether or not accompanied by demobilization and reduction in military expenditures would produce a severe crisis in Saigon-held territory, both economic and psychological in origin. Only a massive increase in U.S. economic aid could head it off, and this does not seem likely.

Full scale resumption of hostilities by the U.S. would be strongly discouraged by domestic political considerations, whereas Communist leadership might well see such a resumption as a solution to some of their morale problems. In case of resumption, the Communist base in Cambodia would be wider and more secure than in 1969 and communication links with the North through Laos better developed. Should calculations in Hanoi and the NLF proceed in this fashion, then what is now inconceivable that they would accept might well be conceived. But let there be no mistake , a cease-fire proposal is a complex political maneuver, not simply a humanitarian gesture. To fully understand its significance we must go on to Mr. Nixon’s other points.

2. Wider Peace Talks.

This is clearly premature, though all parties have indicated that the security and neutrality of the Indo-China states is properly the subject of wider international agreement. The Vietnamese Communist leadership insists on the making of certain crucial decisions in essentially bi-Iateral talks before bringing in their larger “friends”, who sold them down the river in 195~—or so they believe. Mr. Nixon did not specify which powers outside Indo-China should be included, but China and the USSR were certainly implied. The New Reasonableness in Peking and the trend toward Sino-Soviet rapprochment, confirmed by the sending of the first Russian ambassador to China in over three years only last week, apparently make the prospect of Sino-Soviet participation more palatable to the Nixon Administration. As usual, Nixon is putting too much emphasis on the moderating role of the Soviets, who undoubtedly have less influence in Hanoi today than before the bombing halt. Nor will China and Russia more nearly in tandem be less formidable than when they were more quarrelsome. In any case, China would probably participate only if Sihanouk were invited, thus constituting a great gain for pro-Communists forces in Cambodia. For the moment Hanoi and Washington have come full circle from the mid-1960s in the priority they place on a new Geneva Conference. Eventually they will probably agree.

3. Withdrawals.

This is close to the heart of the matter.

There will be no negotiated settlement that does not assure complete U.S. withdrawal. This latest proposal is notable for its lack of emphasis on North Vietnamese responsibilities. Madame Birih’s first remark was that she found this portion of Nixon’s speech “unclear”, a hopeful term at the bargaining table. The White House quickly clarified the term “withdrawal.ยง.”, pointing out that it was intended to apply to the North Vietnamese as well. But that this point was left to low level “clarification”, and not included in a presidential speech, gives cause to. hope that the U.S. will not demand a public pledge-which Hanoi has adamantly refused to give—but will accept a private assurance. In the new NLF proposal announced last month, Madam Birih moved farther than ever away from her initial demand for “immediate, total, and unconditional” U.S. withdrawal. She offered release of U.S. prisoners in return for a commitment to withdraw completely by July 1971. Nor would Communists forces fire on retreating U.S. forces, she said. This did not constitute promise of a cease-fire with GVN troops, however, which presumably would still have to be tied to creation of coalition government in Saigon. Thus, while the two sides are closer together than ever before on the question of withdrawals, the political composition of the Saigon regime—itself the origin of the entire conflict—remains very much at issue.

4. Political Settlement.

In Mr. Nixon’s reference to “a political solution” it is not clear whether it is to be sought in the present talks at Paris or in the proposed “Indochina peace conference”. If the latter, Mr. Kissinger’s earlier dictum that composition of the Saigon regime should be left to discussions among Vietnamese has certainly been ignored.

Since U.S. officials had forced President Thieu to eat his July words about a cease-fire, it is understandable should that Nixon was, emotional defending the general’s tenure as president. He vehemently condemned the attempt by “the other side” to “exclude through negotiation whomever they wish from government” in Saigon. Nowhere did he renounce the American right to do so, however. And he did suggest that changes could come about through the electoral process—which includes nomination. The way is therefore left open for the U.S. to accede to NLF demands without appearing to do so, i.e. by persuading Thieu and Ky not to file nomination papers next spring.

In fact, the American stand on the issue of Theiu’s re-election will be the acid test of whether or not Nixon really wants peace. To put it simply, Thieu is against it.

Despite Nixon’s mention of elections, he gave them less emphasis than in his first pronouncements as president. This is encouraging, since there is no chance that elections alone will bring about a coalition government. According to the South Vietnamese constitution the president has the sole responsibility for appointing the cabinet. A three-quarters majority in the National Assembly can remove a cabinet, but the Assembly has no part in appointing the successors of those removed. Thus even if the NLF could elect a majority of legislators, which is unlikely to say the least, they could not form a government. Nor does there seem to be much prospect of an avowed NLF candidate winning the presidency under the election law now in force. A secret NLF supporter would be remarkable indeed if he could hide his identity in an election campaign.

Thieu’s steadfast rejection of any means other than elections for NLF supporters to enter the political arena is thus really designed to deny to any Communist or pro-Communist any role in government whatsoever. Many NLF legislators could be elected, but watch powerless as their backers were imprisoned and tortured, if Nguyen Van Thieu were to remain as president. It is not just honesty and freedom in the electoral process that must be guaranteed by means of political settlement, but something about the government that is to ‘follow. There are already legislators in South Vietnam who were freely elected but are now Unconstitutionally imprisoned. One can hardly blame the NLF for wanting to avoid repetition of this practice. Thousands more are behind bars, suffering from torture, disease and starvation, whose only crime was to advocate peace, or speak against the regime—or to have a relative who did so.

5. Prisoners.

Prisoners are a timely subject. “Prisoners of war” in the supra—or sub—legal never-never land of Vietnam tend to be the people the U.S. wants to draw to public attention. Much publicity has been focused by Washington and the media influenced thereform on U.S. fliers imprisoned in North Vietnam. North Vietnamese soldiers captured in South Vietnam must also, in Mr. Nixon’s negotiation strategy, be given the spotlight to try to prove what Hanoi will not officially admit, that their troops have gone South. But just as truly “prisoners of” this very political war are the 30,000 to 100,000 men and women whose beliefs or purely political acts, or misrepresentation thereof, have caused their imprisonment.

No settlement in Vietnam will be just which does not very quickly give them the same benefits as those who have knowiagly, and perhaps willingly, engaged in violent, destructive acts against the land and people of Vietnam. Most of the hapless political prisoners are in the South, but if there be any in the North they are just as worthy of release. Anyone whose concern for Vietnam is humanitarian as well as political must give the most urgent attention to the plight of the “prisoners of political war”.

In combination, Mr. Nixon’s proposals are a significant contribution to the negotiation process, if he is willing to regard them simply as a bargaining position.

Some concessions have been made since 1968; more are necessary.

It may well be that a rather conservative Republican in the White House is a political prerequisite to U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Perhaps only a master of media management, a speaker accomplished in the art of inuendo—and whose right flank is covered—can persuade the American people that their retreat is glorious. It is indeed ironic that the man whose Cambodia folly has handed half that country to Communist control would claim that the “successful campaign in Cambodia” now justifies offering to negotiate the timetable of American withdrawal from Vietnam. Nor can the bitter humor be hidden in the military’s boast that lower U.S. casualty figures give proof that the Viet Cong has been brought to its knees. For the welcome decline in the number of Americans killed and wounded is primarily the result of command policy to minimize losses, low morale of the “grunts” which greatly improves on this particular command, and a VC strategy to avoid placing obstacles to U.S. withdrawal, especially when military action in Cambodia is now so much more rewarding politically.

Some years ago Senator Aiken of Vermont proposed-perhaps facetioulsy at first—that the only way to end the war in Vietnam was for the U. S. to declare it had won and get out. One man’s jest may have become another man’s policy.

There is little chance that Hanoi and the NLF will give Mr. Nixon his “election gift certificate” that an immediate cease-fire would entail. But if the Nixon plan is an indication of his true desire to withdraw completely, and if the Communists have decided that, on balance, they have more to gain from a negotiated settlement than from a continuation of the war, then the likely outlines of a settlement may now be dimly viewed. The prospect of events and their approximate timetable might be somewhat as follows:

  1. Sometime between January and March, 1971: (a) Agreement on complete U.S. troop withdrawal by July 1972, with tacit assurance from the North Vietnamese that all “ their organized units would be pulled out by the time the U.S. reached the 25,OOO-man level. (b) Release of U.S. war prisoners in North Vietnam, of North Vietnamese military prisoners in the South, and—Iess well publicized—of several thousand of the more innocuous political prisoners by the Saigon regime. © Announcement by Thieu and Ky that they would under no circumstances be candidates for re-election, and appearance on the scene of one or more prominent peace candidates, e.g. Tran Van Don, “Big Minh”, or Au Truong Thanh. (d) A cease-fire in place throughout Indo-China. (The assumption underlying the suggested timing for the following is that a cease-fire of this type could not be maintained unless there was frequently visible progress toward a political settlement.)
  2. Sometime in May or June, 1971: Accelerated implementation of the Constitutional provision for the popular election of province chiefs, supervised by a commission composed of Saigon, NLF and international representatives, permitting election of a number of candidates sympathetic to the NLF.
  3. During August and September, 1971: Election of a “peace candidate” to the presidency, along with 25-30% of the House of Representatives supporting or friendly to the NLF. Beginning of secret negotiations between the new president and the Front on a coalition cabinet and mutual demobilization.
  4. During October or November, 1971: (a) Announcement of a coalition cabinet, and formal merger of the Government of Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam into the Provisional Government of Vietnam under a slight modification of the GVN constitution pending fundamental constitutional reform. (b) Announcement of a schedule of partial demobilization of all armed forces in South Vietnam and their merger into a single organization, and completion of release of political prisoners.
  5. In January, February and March, 1972: Calling of two international conferences, (a) one to organize a consortium of donors for Vietnam’s economic rehabilitation and development; (b) and one to agree to neutralization and partial demilitarization of all Vietnam, as well as to political settlement in Cambodia and Laos.
  6. July 1972: Completion of U.S. troop withdrawal after announcement from Washington that all organized North Vietnamese military units had left the South.
  7. August 1972: Richard Nixon is nominated for re-election.
  8. November 1972: Nixon is elected.
  9. 1975: Reunification of Vietnam through confederation, with capital in Hanoi.

This is a sequence of events which would probably make Richard Nixon something of a hero, temporarily, to a majority of Americans. But peace is often costly.

Categories Vietnam, The War Years