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A NEW ROUND of secret talks between the United States and North Vietnam will begin very soon in Paris. The continued offensive by North Vietnamese and PRG forces in South Vietnam as well as President Nixon's determination to defeat that offensive by all the conventional military means available does not augur well for the renewed negotiations.
The last round of secret negotiations which ended without agreement in November 1971 may help provide some insight on the present military and diplomatic dilemma.
On April 26, President Nixon told the nation that after the U.S. presented its eight point plan to Hanoi on October 11 of last year:
...Hanoi's answer to this offer was a refusal even to discuss our proposals and, at the same time, a massive escalation of their military activities on the battlefield. Last October, the same month when we made this peace offer to Hanoi in secret, our intelligence reports began to indicate that the enemy was building up for a major attack. Yet we deliberately refrained from responding militarily. Instead we patiently continued with the Paris talks....
President Nixon's statement may lead the reader to believe that last October the North Vietnamese were perfidiously sabotaging the President's plans for a negotiated settlement in favor of their own military goals. It is thus instructive to consider what President Nixon said at a news conference last November 12 concerning the "most recent trend towards the infiltration by the enemy":
...The infiltration rate has come up some as it always does at this time of year. However, it is not as high now just as the casualties are not as high now and the level of enemy activity (Ed. is not as high as it was last year. We want to see, however, what the situation is in December and January....
As of November 12, it would therefore appear that the rate of infiltration was not as high as it had been in 1970. And yet, on November 17 the French paper Le Monde reported that five U.S. aircraft carriers were cruising along the Vietnamese coast and that there was a great deal of activity at U.S. air bases in Thailand. Le Figaro of the same day reported that the North Vietnamese were strengthening their air defenses in the event of attacks by B-52s.
In relation to the use of air power. President Nixon said on November 12:
As we reduce the number of our forces, it is particularly important for us to continue our air strikes on the infiltration routes. If we see any substantial step-up in infiltration in the passes, for example, which lead from North Vietnam into Laos and, of course, the Laotian trail which comes down through Cambodia into South Vietnam--if we see that, we will have to not only continue our air strikes; we will have to step them up.
Could it be that through excessive concentration of air power in the Indochina area during a period when by his own admission North Vietnamese infiltration had not even reached the comparable level for the previous year, President Nixon convinced the leaders in Hanoi that the U.S. did not really want to negotiate?
THE ANSWER to the above question is as yet unclear. Perhaps a chronological summary of what happened between October 11 and November 22 will shed some light on the reasons that the last round of secret negotiations did not succeed.
* October 11: The U.S. delivered to North Vietnam an eight point proposal which "goes to the limits of possible generosity" and "does not join the enemy to overthrow our ally." The exact content of the plan is unclear, but the U.S. did call for secret negotiations in Paris on November 1 to discuss it.
On the same day in a dispatch from Moscow in the London Evening News Soviet agent Victor Louis stated, "A negotiated end to the Vietnam war appears to be in sight. All the indications are that, with Russia and the United States finding a common interest over the conflict, a race for peace has begun."
* October 22: The South Vietnamese Embassy in Paris published a call for a step up in the Phoenix campaign. In order to gain a "lasting peace," all of the PRG soldiers and cadres infiltrated among the populace would have to be wiped out, the article said.
* October 25: North Vietnam sent a message to the U.S. in which it said that Le Duc Tho would be coming to Paris for secret talks on November 20 rather than November 1.
* October 26: In an interview with L'Aurore. President Thieu of South Vietnam called for the formation of a united "loyal opposition" among rival factions in his country. He also discussed the need to form a strong majority party which would prepare the public for new government programs and which would keep the legislative and executive branches in touch with each other. Thieu's new ruling party would avoid the excesses committed by Ngo Dinh Diem's party.
Thieu commented that his government and people had successfully completed the purely military phase of the war. He said that 1971 was a year of transition which had allowed consolidation of gains and improvement of the well-being of the citizenry. The war--in going away from the most productive rice growing areas in the countryside and from the large urban centers toward "fall-back" zones in remote areas--had now become a strictly military affair.
* October 28: According to Philip Warden of the Chicago Tribune, "Members of the Senate were told (on October 27) that the Army's Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Denver has been alerted to handle 200 prisoners of war from Vietnam.
"The Senators were told that when President Nixon makes his report to the nation on Viet Nam on November 15, all end-the-war proposals of Congress will be obsolete."
On the same day, the PRG negotiator at Paris claimed that Saigon was beginning to relocate civilians from Quang Tri Province in the northernmost part of South Vietnam to areas of the southern part.
* November 2: The North Vietnamese Worker's Party paper Nhan Dan reported that the U.S. Senate's defeat of the foreign aid bill was "an indelible brand on Nixon's tenure." Congress later passed the bill.
* November 16: The London Times carried a report from Hanoi which quoted an article in Thong Nhat (Reunification) in which one of the editors answered a reader's question as to whether "Nixon will succeed in imposing his conditions for withdrawal" through his "sensational moves" toward Peking and Moscow. The editor said, "I am convinced that very shortly other moves on the military and diplomatic fronts will help you find a better answer to questions of the moment."
Le Monde from Paris on the same day carried an Agence France Presse report from Hanoi which said that Minister Xuan Thuy had returned to Paris and that special envoy and Politburo member Le Duc Tho would also arrive there probably by the end of November.
* November 17: Le Monde reported that a source close to the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris had stated that there was as yet no information which would allow him to foresee a visit to Paris by Le Duc Tho soon.
On the same day, North Vietnam sent a message to the U.S. which stated that for health reasons Le Duc Tho would not be coming to Paris, but that Minister Xuan Thuy would willingly meet with Dr. Kissinger on November 20.
* November 19: Washington sent a note to Hanoi which pointed out that Dr. Kissinger would only meet with Minister Thuy if Thuy was accompanied by some other member of the North Vietnamese political leadership.
* November 22: In an editorial sent to press on November 20, the Vietnam Courier from Hanoi reported editorially that President Nixon was determined to put off a determination of a final date for troop withdrawal as long as possible; the article said that he intended to maintain a residual force in Vietnam, to step up the air war in Indochina, and that he refused to terminate "the bloody 'pacification' operations of the 'Phoenix' type, licked into shape by the Americans."
Concerning U.S. strategy to maintain Thieu in office, the Vietnam Courier said that Nixon "wants to prosecute (in South Vietnam) a kind of war of attrition in which the patience and strength of the South Vietnamese patriots would experience a hard trial whereas the affluent U.S., which has only greenbacks to lose--though less than previously--will be able to hold out indefinitely and come out victorious at long last."
Intertwined in the events between October 11 and November 22 are many themes. The role of the Russians and the Chinese in the secret negotiations between the U.S. and North Vietnam is as yet unclear. Nor are Saigon's motives readily apparent for accelerating the Phoenix program and for relocation of civilians at such a disadvantageous time for the secret negotiations. Who encouraged false optimism among the Senators on the prisoner of war issue and why? Why was the Le Duc Tho trip to Paris cancelled the day after Agence France Presse reported it was to take place? The questions that could be asked are innumerable....
ONE OF THE problems that will complicate the new round of secret negotiations in Paris is the unwillingness of the U.S.--as expressed by President Nixon on April 26--to discuss as the first order of business anything other than the questions of an end to the "North Vietnamese invasion" and the return of American prisoners of war. Clearly, for the secret negotiations to succeed a wide range of political and military matters will have to be discussed. The talks will be complicated and prolonged, and their chances for success are dubious.
It is no longer realistic for either party to maintain that it has "key goals" which must be discussed to the exclusion of other goals. Last year, one of President Nixon's "key goals" was to bring home U.S. prisoners of war: however. Nixon refused to persuade President Thieu not to run in the October election, which thereby prevented an accommodation with Hanoi on the basis of withdrawal of U.S. troops by a specific date in exchange for return of U.S. prisoners of war.
If the Vietnam war is to end by negotiation and thereby not become any more of a confrontation between the "great powers" than it is at present, all parties concerned will have to exercise restraint in order to make it possible to hammer out a proposal for an end of the conflict.
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