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 You are in: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs: Office of the Historian > Foreign Relations of the United States > Johnson Administration > Volume VII
Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, Volume VII, Vietnam, September 1968-January 1969
Released by the Office of the Historian

Summary

Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, Volume VII
Vietnam, September 1968-January 1969

(This is not an official statement of policy by the Department of State;
it is intended only as a guide to the contents of this volume.)

Since 1861, the Department of State’s documentary series Foreign Relations of the United States has constituted the official record of the foreign policy and diplomacy of the United States. Historians at the Office of the Historian collect, select, arrange, and annotate the principal documents that make up the record of American foreign policy. The standards for preparation of the series and general guidelines for the publication are established by the Foreign Relations of the United States statute of October 28, 1991. (22 USC 4351, et. seq.) Volumes in the Foreign Relations series are published when all necessary editing, declassification, and production steps have been completed.

The documents in this volume are drawn primarily from the Department of State Central Files, the papers of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas (including excerpts from tape recordings of the President’s phone calls), the decentralized lot files of the Department of State, the historical files of the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the files of the National Security Council, the records of the Secretary of Defense and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, the Official Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the files of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Almost all of the documents printed here were originally classified. The Information Response Branch of the Office of IRM Programs and Services, Bureau of Administration, Department of State, in concert with the appropriate offices in other agencies or governments, carried out the declassification of the selected documents in accordance with the applicable provisions of Executive Order12958.

The following is a summary of the most important issues covered in the volume. Parenthetical citations are to numbered documents in the text.

Introduction

This volume covers a period of 4½ months culminating in mid-January 1969 when the Johnson administration finally achieved, after much agonizing deliberation and consultation, formal four-party peace talks on Vietnam. In the fall of 1968 peace seemed beyond President Johnson's grasp, even though talks were taking place in Paris between the United States and its North Vietnamese adversaries. These two-party peace negotiations were deadlocked over Johnson's insistence on reciprocal guarantees for the complete cessation of the bombing of North Vietnamese territory. Within weeks, dramatic changes created the groundwork to bring together the two parties in formal talks on substantive issues of a peace settlement. The peace talks struggled to move to formal session while the United States held its Presidential election amid suspicions by the Democratic and Republican candidates, and the President himself, that their respective opponents were using the peace process to influence the election.

Movement Toward Final Peace Talks

President Johnson firmly believed that a hard line approach to the negotiations would compel the North Vietnamese into an agreement on formal four-party peace talks that would justify a bombing halt. "If we can stay for a few weeks with our present posture in Vietnam, we can convince the North Vietnamese that they won’t get a better deal if they wait," he confided to his staff during a September 4, 1968, meeting at the White House. (4) The North Vietnamese had refused to discuss any assurances of reciprocity throughout the late spring and summer of that year. During the fall, however, the impasse slowly began to ease. One minor but significant indication was the so-called "nuanced language" used by the North Vietnamese during a private meeting on September 15 with the American negotiators in Paris, W. Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance. The general feeling was that this might represent a breakthrough. (14) In a subsequent meeting of his foreign policy advisers, Johnson insisted that any breakthrough meet his three minimal requirements for a halt: withdrawal of enemy forces from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a termination of attacks on major South Vietnamese cities, and admission of the South Vietnamese Government (GVN) to a seat at the conference table. Johnson was also adamant about not stopping the bombing without concessions from Hanoi. Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford had tried repeatedly without success to persuade the President to end the bombing for the sake of moving the peace process forward. (15) The Soviet Union began to exercise greater initiative in pressing the North Vietnamese to moderate their stance on reciprocity for a bombing cessation. A meeting between Presidential Special Assistant Walt Rostow and Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin on September 10 led to a message from the Soviet Government that appeared to indicate readiness on the Communist side to move forward if the United States terminated its bombing and related military actions. (9)

In separate meetings with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the President, and the rest of the Cabinet, Harriman, who had returned from Paris during the third week of September for consultations in Washington, failed to convince Johnson that termination of the bombing, the only trump card he held, would be worth playing without firm assurances of DRV reciprocity. (19, 20) The doves within the administration remained convinced that the North Vietnamese had gone more than far enough to ensure that a bombing halt would not be in vain. (22) On September 18 the Department of State instructed the delegation in Paris to press the North Vietnamese for agreement on the issue of South Vietnamese representation at the talks as an important element in "facilitating" a complete bombing halt by the United States. (23) Harriman and Vance responded that a more direct link had to be established between agreement on South Vietnamese representation at expanded talks and the termination of the bombing of North Vietnam. On September 25 the delegation submitted a revised proposition to the North Vietnamese delegates. (32) Meetings between Harriman and Vance and Soviet diplomats in Paris, as well as other indications through third-party sources in Norway, suggested that the Soviets were prepared to pressure the North Vietnamese into substantive peace talks. (26, 27, 28, 29, 33, 34)

North Vietnamese reluctance to negotiate on terms acceptable to Johnson was not the only problem he had to contend with during the period covered in the volume. The United States was involved in a bitter Presidential election campaign in which Vietnam was the principal issue. In a September 30 speech at Salt Lake City, Democratic Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, the sitting Vice President, began to distance himself from Johnson’s Vietnam policy by publicly stating a unilateral U.S. bombing halt was an "acceptable risk for peace." (40) Although Johnson refrained from public criticism of Humphrey’s new position, his lack of any political assistance or public support of Humphrey during critical moments of the campaign made it clear how he viewed his Vice President’s public statement. In a private conversation with Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), the President questioned Humphrey’s speech but acknowledged that Humphrey’s position did not diverge too far from the position of the administration. (42) What most annoyed the President was Harriman's tacit approval of the Humphrey speech. (50, 51)

Toward a Breakthrough on Negotiations

The last weeks before the election brought a dramatic breakthrough at Paris. In an October 2 meeting with Harriman and Vance, the North Vietnamese delegates requested further clarification on the three prerequisites for a complete bombing halt. (45) In expectation that a breakthrough would soon follow, Vance immediately returned to Washington for a brief round of consultations. (49) On October 9 the U.S. delegation in Paris reported that the North Vietnamese had addressed the issue of GVN participation in the talks, the issue that had remained deadlocked for months. (54) Two days later Hanoi's representatives requested a clarification from the U.S. delegates as to whether the United States would end the bombing of North Vietnam if Hanoi accepted the Saigon government’s presence at the talks. (58) The next day Vance received a message from the Soviet Embassy in Paris, which more strongly reiterated the North Vietnamese agreement to hold substantive talks after a complete bombing halt. (60) During this period, the President called upon his top advisers, and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu as well, to review the North Vietnamese proposal. (61) Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker assured the President that Thieu concurred. (62, 64, 66)

The road to peace talks was still not clear. On October 14-15 the administration debated a new condition for a halt. Wary of a last-minute effort to take advantage of any halt, hawks within the administration convinced the President to insist upon a 24-hour maximum interval between the cessation of bombing and the start of the expanded talks. (67-70, 72, 73) Hanoi's representatives reacted strongly to what they perceived as a "new condition." (76) In an October 16 conference call briefing the three primary Presidential candidates, Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace, Johnson cautioned them not to say anything publicly that would undermine the ongoing negotiations. All three candidates expressed unanimous support for the negotiating process. (80)

President Thieu, however, began to equivocate on his previous commitment to the peace process by raising a series of objections and procedural concerns. Starting with concerns regarding participation of the NLF as a "separate entity," his objections only increased as the days went by. Thieu insisted that the National Liberation Front (NLF) should not have an equivalent status to South Vietnam and should appear at the Paris negotiations only as a part of the North Vietnamese delegation. (87, 89) The Johnson administration believed that it could work out a satisfactory resolution to the problem of NLF representation and of other issues, such as the seating arrangements for the two sides. (94) On October 21 North Vietnamese delegation chief Xuan Thuy proposed a joint communiqué for release by the United States and North Vietnam, so that "there be no further misunderstandings" in light of "the statements coming out of Saigon." Thuy insisted that both sides devise a secret minute of the October understandings and stated that Hanoi would only accept a lengthy interval between a bombing halt and the beginning of formal negotiations. (95) Such a delay was unacceptable to Washington.

The last days of October, however, saw progress in Paris and Washington. The Soviet Embassy in Paris and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoliy Dobrynin communicated the strong desire of the Soviet Union to see substantive talks begin quickly. (92, 98) On October 22 the Soviet Government proposed "splitting the difference" between the two delegations on the time interval, a proposal that both Harriman and Vance supported. (99, 101) President Johnson and his advisers decided to agree to this 3-day interval. (103, 104) In addition, by October 24, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon had arranged an apparent agreement with the South Vietnamese Foreign Minister on most of the remaining procedural problems with South Vietnam. (118) On October 24 a Soviet diplomat in Paris told Vance that "his government was deeply interested in finding a solution and that he was acting under the instructions of his government." (119) Dobrynin assured Rostow during an October 25 meeting that the U.S. representatives had expressed themselves "very clearly" on the "facts of life" prior to a full halt and the opening of talks and that the North Vietnamese understood the U.S. position. (122)

Progress toward a breakthrough accelerated during the last week before the election. On October 27 Thuy proposed that talks begin on November 2 if the United States terminated the bombing on October 30. "We have now got everything we have asked for," Vance reported to Washington. "We should accept." (128) In a meeting that evening at the White House, the President’s advisers were virtually unanimous in their support for moving ahead on the basis of this new position. Johnson first wanted a candid assessment regarding the impact of the halt on U.S. troops in Vietnam from the field commander there, and he directed that General Creighton Abrams return to Washington. (129) Arriving in the early morning of October 29, Abrams immediately met with Johnson and other senior officials. Following a review of the breakthrough, the President pointedly asked Abrams if implementation of the three key parts of the understanding would further endanger U.S. forces in Vietnam. Abrams assured the President that the cessation would not result in further casualties and that the enemy would not be able to take advantage of the halt and undertake any further offensive actions. He added that he had no reservations regarding the implementation of the halt; indeed, providing the enemy kept to the understanding, the halt would work out to a military advantage to the United States. Johnson decided to go ahead with the bombing cessation. (139)

The Position of South Vietnam

It was at this moment that the South Vietnamese Government began to equivocate on participation in the expanded talks. On October 29 Thieu informed Bunker that the November 2 date was too soon for him to have his representatives ready to attend. (149) Johnson was outraged but still hoped for the successful initiation of the peace process. In order to give Thieu more time, Johnson opted for a postponement of a few days. (151) The President and his advisers already believed there was a conspiracy to derail the negotiations to help the Republicans in the election. Anna Chennault, an associate of Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon and co-chair of Women for Nixon, had been in contact with Bui Diem, South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States. "There is no hard evidence that Mr. Nixon himself is involved," Rostow reported in an October 29 memorandum to the President. "Exactly what the Republicans have been saying to Bui Diem is not wholly clear as opposed to the conclusions that Bui Diem is drawing from what they have said." (145) During the regular Tuesday luncheon with his foreign policy advisers, Johnson expressed dismay at Bunker’s reports on his unsuccessful efforts to arrange a meeting with Thieu. Thieu's uncharacteristic unavailability seemed to confirm Johnson's belief in a conspiracy between the Republicans and the South Vietnamese. Presidential Consultant Maxwell Taylor suggested that "it may be sinister, or it may be ineptitude," while Johnson prophesized that "Nixon will doublecross them (the South Vietnamese) after November 5," election day. (148) Later that day South Vietnamese Foreign Minister Thanh informed Bunker that the dispatch of a delegation to Paris would require approval from his country’s National Assembly. Bunker assessed that the GVN would not be ready to go ahead at the current time. (149) Concerned about proceeding to Paris without the GVN aboard, Johnson agreed to a further postponement of 2 days in order to give Bunker more time. (150) He also sent to Saigon a stern letter that Bunker could use. (151, 155)

In contrast, by October 30 the North Vietnamese definitively dropped their demand for a secret minute of the understandings. (158) In light of these developments, members of the administration universally objected to Thieu’s latest effort to stall the talks. (161) Johnson decided to proceed with the announcement of the bombing halt on October 31, which would be followed by talks on November 6, in order to give the South Vietnamese the maximum amount of time to consider joining in the expanded negotiations. (167) On October 31 Bunker reported that Thieu was "coming around," but informed Thieu of Johnson’s decision to proceed regardless of the GVN’s official stance on the expanded talks. (165) The President’s speech announcing the halt aired that evening. (169)

Prompt opening of expanded talks proved elusive. On November 1 Thieu announced that on the next day he would deliver a speech regarding the talks. Johnson dispatched a message for Bunker to deliver to Thieu admonishing him to "move forward together in Paris," but Thieu refused to see Bunker before he made his speech. (175). On November 2 Thieu publicly stated that he would not send a delegation to the expanded talks in Paris, effectively preventing the convening of the four-party meetings. (178) In turn, the North Vietnamese refused to accept further meetings solely between U.S. and DRV representatives. (196) Late in the evening of November 2 Johnson discussed with Senator Dirksen, his old colleague and an intimate of both Nixon and Chennault, the connection between the Republicans and the South Vietnamese. The President described the actions of Nixon’s supporters as "treason" and instructed Dirksen to transmit a warning to Nixon that he must act to prevent any adverse impact upon the Paris talks. (181) On November 3 Johnson called Senator George Smathers (D-Florida), who had been in contact with Nixon. Smathers stated that Nixon denied any knowledge of the affair, and the President countered that he had documented proof of a Republican connection to the GVN. (186) Apparently at the urging of both Dirksen and Smathers, Nixon made a telephone call to Johnson that afternoon to disclaim personally any involvement with the entire affair. (187) In light of Nixon’s denials and Johnson’s own reticence about revealing the full range of government surveillance and wiretapping of Chennault and Diem, the decision was made not to make public the information gathered regarding the Republican-South Vietnamese connection. (192-194) In a close vote, Nixon won the 1968 Presidential election. (199)

With 2½ months still remaining in office, President Johnson was determined to open substantive talks, but Thieu would not see Bunker for a week. (203, 206) When they did meet, Bunker unsuccessfully pressed Thieu to dispatch a delegation to the expanded conference. Bunker reported afterward that Thieu "wants to find a way out of the situation in which he finds himself." (208) Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Bundy also delivered a stern admonition to Bui Diem. (210) In addition, Johnson asked Nixon to transmit to Thieu a message pressuring him to join the Paris talks. (205, 207, 209) It was not until a November 11 meeting with Nixon that Johnson secured the President-elect’s promise to present a "united front" on Vietnam. At that time, Nixon agreed to communicate formally to the South Vietnamese his desire that they participate in the Paris talks. (211) At the President’s behest, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, in a November 12 news conference, strongly rebutted continuing recalcitrant statements coming out of Saigon. (213) Agreement between the U.S. and South Vietnamese Governments on a joint position relating to negotiating issues was worked out during November. (217, 228) In Paris the U.S. delegation’s protest of enemy attacks on unarmed American reconnaissance planes as well as its shelling of certain South Vietnamese cities helped to re-establish trust with South Vietnam. (222-228, 233) On November 26 Thieu finally agreed to dispatch a delegation to Paris, and made a public announcement the following day. (235, 236)

The official talks still did not begin. South Vietnam raised a series of procedural issues, the most prominent of which were the particular use of flags and name plates, the speaking order of the participants, and the physical arrangement of the conference, including most notably the shape of the conference table. On the latter issue, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) insisted on a four-sided table to emphasize equality between the parties, while the United States and especially the GVN favored a two-sided arrangement that did not obviously give the NLF equal footing with the GVN. (250, 260, 264) On January 2, 1969, the North Vietnamese relented on their requirement that made flags and nameplates contingent upon the acceptance by the other side of a continuous round table. (268, 269) On January 7 Johnson sent Thieu a strongly worded message to desist from the "continued stalemate on present lines" that was undermining public support within the United States for South Vietnam. (276) Thieu continued to refuse to consider such a trade-off from his original position on the shape of the table. (277-279) Pressure on Thieu from Washington coupled with the involvement of Soviet diplomats eventually overcame this impasse. On January 13 the Soviet Ambassador in Paris directed his subordinate to propose a resolution: a round table with two smaller rectangular tables at opposite sides; no flags or nameplates; and speaking order arranged by the drawing of lots. (280, 281) Both the North Vietnamese and the American delegations agreed to this proposal on January 15, as did both South Vietnam and the NLF the next day. (283, 284) On January 18 the first meeting between the four parties, which focused solely on modalities for the substantive talks, was held. (286) The Johnson administration left office on January 20, 1969, with the knowledge that peace talks were finally underway.

 


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