Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 8

But Johnson and his entourage proceeded with a rare combination of ineptitude and intransigence. They sent Cooper to London without informing him of Johnson’s strong letter to Ho. So Cooper advised Wilson that the two-phase formula still represented the American approach, though in fact it was now obsolete. The hope was, Cooper explained, that the halt in bombing for the Tet truce could be pro¬longed indefinitely if the North Vietnamese responded positively through Kosygin.
Cooper and David Bruce, the American ambassador in London, with guidance from Washington, drafted an outline for the U.S. pro¬posal. It appeared to Wilson to match a separate message that Johnson had sent him, and he handed the document to Kosygin. Cooper, assuming that the operation was on track, went to the theater—leaving word where he could be found, just in case. Midway through the first act of Fiddler on the Roof, an usherette roused him. Walt Rostow was telephoning from Washington. The negotiating script had been amended. A new, tougher version was being cabled.
Wilson was staggered. Johnson had switched policy just as the So¬viets, for the first time in the war, were consenting to risk their own precarious influence in Hanoi and act as brokers. Not only would the aggressive Chinese taunt them for cooperating with the West, but Kosygin’s own prestige in Moscow might be in jeopardy. Wilson fired off a furious personal cable to Johnson, blaming him for “a hell of a situation.” Johnson, equally testy, replied that Wilson had mod¬ified the verb tense in the proposal, thereby weakening his demand that the North Vietnamese stop their infiltration before the American air strikes ceased.
Wilson, Cooper and Bruce, desperate to benefit from Kosygin’s last few hours in London, hammered out a fresh formula: the United States would continue the bombing pause past Tet, in exchange for which North Vietnamese forces poised to go south would remain in place. They sent it to Washington for approval on February 12, a Sunday, as Wilson asked Kosygin to stand by. Responding late that night, Johnson agreed—on condition that the North Vietnamese accept by Monday afternoon, London time. The deadline was “ridiculous,” Bruce told Rusk by telephone—to no avail. The North Vietnamese kept silent. Kosygin went home. And on February 13 Johnson re-sumed the air raids over North Vietnam. Wilson would afterward deplore the waste of a “historic opportunity”—though it was, in reality, simply another refusal by the belligerents to shift to the con¬ference table before they had improved their battlefield postures.
Henry Kissinger learned the same reality later in 1967, when he made his diplomatic debut in the Vietnam drama. Then a Harvard professor, he became involved accidentally in June at an international gathering in Paris where he encountered Herbert Marcovich, a French biologist. Marcovich mentioned that a French friend of his, Raymond Aubrac, an official of the Food and Agriculture Organization, knew Ho Chi Minh personally—having housed him when Ho was nego-tiating with the French at Fontainebleau in 1946. Marcovich suggested that the acquaintance might contribute to a political settlement. Kis¬singer transmitted the idea to the State Department, which agreed. With Kissinger as their American connection, Aubrac and Marcovich flew to Hanoi in July in a new, unofficial operation, code-named Pennsylvania.
They had a courtesy meeting with Ho, who was old and ill and no longer managed daily affairs; then they discussed substance with Pham Van Dong. He listened carefully as they offered yet another variation of the proposal for a cessation of the U.S. air strikes in exchange for assurances that the Communists would not use the bombing pause to gain a military advantage. Pham Van Dong again demanded an “un¬conditional” bombing halt as a prelude to negotiations, but he sounded a few moderate notes. The air offensive could be ended without a public announcement because, as he put it, “we do not want to hu¬miliate” the Americans. And, though North Vietnam’s goal was a political role for the Vietcong in the south, he envisaged a “broad coalition” in Saigon that could include, “without consideration of past activities,” members of the “puppet” government as well as “puppet” army officers. Pham Van Dong, sincere or not, dangled visions of national reconciliation before his two French visitors, saying: “The essential thing is to forget the past.”
Aubrac and Marcovich reported to Kissinger in Paris. He trans¬mitted their account to Johnson, who immediately sent a message back through them to Pham Van Dong, officially endorsing the pro-posal they had made in Hanoi—in diplomatic shorthand, the “no advantage” formula. Johnson even made this milder approach public in a speech in San Antonio in late September. He was willing to stop all air strikes “when this will lead promptly to discussions”—assum¬ing, of course, that North Vietnam “would not take advantage of the bombing cessation or limitation” to strengthen its forces in the south.
A semantic minuet followed. Wilfred Burchett wrote from Hanoi that the Communists were “in no mood for concessions or bargain¬ing”—and would agree only to “talks” and not “negotiations” in exchange for a bombing halt. The North Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, had said in January that talks “could” start if the air raids stopped; now, in December, he changed the tense—saying that his government “will” talk after the bombing had ceased uncon¬ditionally. Soon afterward, Clark Clifford, about to become secretary of defense, responded to this minute move with a tiny step. Testifying before a Senate committee, he interpreted the “no advantage” phrase liberally, suggesting that the administration would not object to the North Vietnamese transporting “the normal amount of goods, mu¬nitions and men” into the south during a cease-fire.
But the nuanced dialogue was a smoke screen. Even as he clamored for peace, Johnson was intensifying the bombing campaign—target¬ing, for the first time, sites near the center of Hanoi and close to the heart of Haiphong. And the Communists were also escalating—their infiltration into the south was up to some twenty thousand men a month in preparation for a major offensive. The diplomatic explo¬rations would go on, but the protagonists were edging toward a “fight and talk” strategy.

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