The Peace That Never Was 11

Nixon emerged from his biggest foreign policy crisis to date with public approbation. Though the twenty-two thousand letters and tel¬egrams that poured into the White House favoring his actions against North Vietnam were not completely voluntary, having been organized by the Republican national committee, the opinion polls nevertheless showed his approval rating up to nearly 60 percent. But he was pol¬itician enough to know that Americans always back the president in a pinch, and that his support would slip, particularly on Capitol Hill. Among the other legislation making headway, an amendment pre¬scribing a total U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam, contingent only on the release of the American prisoners of war, was passed by the Senate on July 24. So, as Kissinger sourly observed, the Communists merely had to wait until “Congress voted us out of the war.”
The North Vietnamese also faced problems. For one thing, they were bothered by Nixon’s trip to Moscow just as they had been by his journey to Beijing. Hanoi’s official newspaper, Nhan Dan, plain¬tively warned the Communist giants that concern for their “immediate and narrow interests” was a betrayal of their “lofty internationalist duties” and would damage the “world revolutionary movement.” Nor did the U.S. political scene offer the North Vietnamese much cause for comfort. An antiwar figure, Senator George McGovern, had won the Democratic nomination for president, and his appeals for peace had propaganda value. But the Communists soon realized that, with the Democrats split over his candidacy, McGovern’s chances of winning were slim. They would have to deal with a reelected Nixon— now, after successfully brandishing force, more certain than ever that military might was the answer.
As they contemplated their next step, however, the Vietnamese Communists were fundamentally riveted on the situation in Vietnam itself. They had not crushed the United States and its South Vietnam¬ese allies in a showdown battle, as they had beaten the French force at Dienbienphu; thus they were in no position to dictate the peace. On the other hand, their spring offensive had netted them gains in the Mekong Delta and other regions. They could have phased back to guerrilla tactics and pressed for a coalition government in Saigon, in which case they would have to contend with a more belligerent Nixon, who was not about to dump Thieu. Or they could concede to a temporary compromise by discarding their insistence on Thieu’s removal, in which case the Americans would go home, leaving them the opportunity to resume their struggle at a later stage. They decided to compromise. But they had the same options years before, so why now? Because now they expected explicit U.S. recognition of their right to maintain North Vietnamese troops in the south—the key to their future bid for power.
Despite their cries of outrage against Nixon, the North Vietnamese had promptly resumed their talks with Kissinger. On August 1, Le Duc Tho returned to Paris with his earlier demands diluted. To Kis-singer, he appeared for the first time to be moderating his previous requirement that the political and military issues be resolved in one package. Moreover, he seemed to hint that Thieu’s abdication was no longer a prerequisite for an accommodation. A speech by Pham Van Dong not long afterward made no mention of Thieu, and intelligence reports further indicated that Communist political cadres in the south were being told to prepare for a settlement. Among other things, the cadres were directed to extend their reach over as much territory and as many people as possible in anticipation of a truce. Under a “leopard spot” arrangement, the Saigon regime and the Vietcong would hold the areas they controlled at the time of the cease-fire, pending a final settlement.
The Communists, having set the American presidential election as their deadline, showed increasing flexibility in September. Then, on October 8, 1972, came the climax.
The secret rendezvous for the meetings in France had been shifted to a pleasant house near Paris, this one at Gif-sur-Yvette, the former home of the painter Fernand Leger, who had willed it to the French Communist party before his death in 1955. Le Duc Tho presumed that the Americans “were in a rush” to reach an agreement before the presidential election. He thereupon opened with “a very realistic and very simple proposal”: the United States and North Vietnam would between themselves arrange a cease-fire, American troop withdrawal, prisoner exchanges and other military matters; political problems would be left to the opposing Vietnamese sides, which would form an interim body, later entitled a “council of national reconciliation,” composed of Saigon government, Communist and ambiguous “neu¬tral” representatives—its task, to supervise eventual elections and, in theory, achieve permanent peace. In the interval, the Saigon regime and the Vietcong would continue as distinct entities, their respective armies remaining in the areas each controlled, the pattern as crazy as the spots on a leopard.
The proposal was “very simple” in one respect: it would hasten the American departure from Vietnam. But as a practical arrangement, at least for the Saigon regime’s security, it was flimsy. Nothing in it guaranteed that the council of reconciliation would actually be created, much less lead to a durable peace. On the contrary, the two Vietnamese forces would probably go on fighting it out, the Communists from a superior military posture. Kissinger explicitly acquiesced in the pres-ence of North Vietnamese troops in the south, extracting only a vague pledge that they would not be resupplied. But he had no choice. A North Vietnamese withdrawal had been “unobtainable through ten years of war,” as he later explained. “We could not make it a condition for a final settlement. We had long passed that threshold.”
The breakthrough, though incomplete, elated Kissinger. But he had more trouble with his own staff than with Le Duc Tho. His specialist on Vietnam, John Negroponte, argued that the Communists’ offer was badly flawed; by leaving the enemy forces intact, it left the sit¬uation “basically unresolved.” He and other aides scrutinized the text word by word, even looking for subtle differences between the English and Vietnamese versions. Kissinger exploded. They were “nit-picking,” he shouted. “You don’t understand. I want to meet their terms. I want to reach an agreement. I want to end this war before the election. It can be done, and it will be done.” Turning his wrath on Negroponte, he added: “What do you want us to do? Stay there forever?”

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