President Johnson is under increasing pressure both at home and abroad to stop the bombing and thus open a way towards peace negotiations.
At home, at least two virulent former hawks, Senators Stuart Symington (D. Mo.), former democratic candidate for the presidential nomination, and Thruston B. Morton (R. Ky.), former national chairman of the Republican Party, are urging a change in policy.
On the international scene, foreign officials of such different political coloring as U Thant, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia, the Canadian Minister for External Affairs, and Premier Kosygin of the Soviet Union have been taking a similar tack.
Johnson has everything to gain by succumbing to this pressure. By stopping the bombing he will rob his critics of their strongest argument. But, argue the hawks, there is no reason to stop the bombing. A halt would not bring Hanoi to the conference table; it would only result in increased American casualties as the North Vietnamese take advantage of the pause.
This, it seems, is also official Washington's policy since the President would otherwise be willing to accept the risk of temporary casualties in the South with the knowledge that negotiations would bring about an eventual cease-fire.
But continuing the bombing, from the point of view of both hawk and dove, is a senseless policy. Let the President stop the bombing. Let him call Hanoi's bluff--if it is a bluff. Should Hanoi then refuse to negotiate, the President's bothersome dove critics will have no ground to stand on, and he will have every justification for "bombing the North into a parking lot" as California's Governor Ronald Reagan puts it.
In the light of this reasoning, the key to peace becomes not the negotiations themselves but what the United States will propose once negotiations have begun. There has been a dangerous silence on this question.
If Washington comes to a conference with what seems to be its present position on the future of South Vietnam--a withdrawal of all North Vietnamese troops to be followed by peace within South Vietnam on the Saigon government's terms--it is obvious that it will be a brief and fruitless conference. Neither Washington nor Hanoi would have anything to discuss.
It is possible that the Administration is purposely playing its cards close to the vest. It may want to keep the outline of its negotiating position secret lest China put pressure on Hanoi to become more militant in her demands.
At this point, however, that the Administration has more to gain and nothing to lose by articulating its idea of a post-war Vietnam clearly, and articulating it in terms less intransigent than in the past.
Bombing or no bombing, Hanoi is hardly likely to agree to talks, unless it feels that there is truly something to talk about. Washington should stop the bombing and must define its position if it is serious about discussing peace.