The Peace That Never Was

On February 21, 1970, in a dingy little house located in an industrial Paris suburb, Henry Kissinger met secretly for the first time with a North Vietnamese figure who was to be his tenacious diplomatic adversary for the next three years. Le Duc Tho, a gray, austere, aloof man then in his late fifties, had none of the charm of Ho Chi Minh, the flair of Vo Nguyen Giap or the warmth of Pham Van Dong. Like his senior comrades, he was of middle-class origin. The son of a functionary in the French colonial administration of Vietnam, he had attended French schools before joining the struggle for independence. He helped to found the Indochinese Communist party, was a charter member of the Vietminh and spent years either in jail or fleeing from the pohee. As the top Vietminh commissar for southern Vietnam during the war against France, he continued to be chiefly responsible for that region after the United States intervened to underwrite the Saigon regime, hiding in jungles or remote villages as he supervised the growing insurgency. He was one of the few Communist leaders who refused to be inter¬viewed when I visited Hanoi after the war. To Westerners, his career is largely a mystery.
So, as their marathon dialogue began, Kissinger faced a specimen he had never before encountered—a professional revolutionary for whom negotiations were a form of protracted guerrilla warfare. The exasperating haggling over trivial details was to test Kissinger’s en¬durance, and he not only displayed remarkable stamina but developed a perverse respect for Le Due Tho’s determination. “I don’t look back on our meetings with any great joy,” Kissinger confessed to me af¬terward, “yet he was a person of substance and discipline who de¬fended the position he represented with dedication.”
It seems peculiar in retrospect that Kissinger and Le Duc Tho should have resorted to clandestine talks on the outskirts of Paris while a formal peace conference was being held within the city. But they shared an obsession for secrecy, and they both saw practical advantages in the covert approach.
From Kissinger’s viewpoint, the surreptitious discussions enhanced his flexibility. He could bypass the Washington bureaucracy he de¬tested, even to the extent of cutting out Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, who were only informed of the conversations a year after they had started. He was also able to plug leaks to the press—except when he himself managed the news by slipping selected tidbits to his favorite reporters. And there was the delicate matter of relations with Nguyen Van Thieu, South Viet¬nam’s president. Though Nixon and Kissinger had sworn to him that no peace agreement would be concluded without his assent, they realized that Thieu stood to lose the most from a compromise deal with North Vietnam. Thus, while they briefed him on the bilateral negotiations, he was kept at a distance. Thieu was aware of this ma¬neuver, but since he relied on American aid for survival, his options were limited.
The North Vietnamese, despite their avowed solidarity with the Vietcong, also welcomed this chance to negotiate without their south¬ern comrades interfering in the bargaining process. The northerners calculated as well that, by talking directly with Kissinger, they might drive a wedge between the United States and the Saigon regime—or, at least, exacerbate Thieu’s suspicions. At the time, stymied militarily, they hoped to gain at the negotiating table what they had not won on the battlefield.
Unlike Kissinger, to whom Nixon had given considerable latitude, Le Due Tho had to check his every step with the collective leadership that had taken over in Hanoi after Ho Chi Minh’s death in September 1969. The two men therefore held only three sessions between Feb¬ruary and April 1970—with no visible results. But they had no in¬tention of quitting. They resembled a couple of boxers in the early rounds of a match, sparring to size each other up, both knowing that neither could score a quick knockout. Nevertheless, they were under different time pressures. With tolerance for the war dwindling in the United States, Kissinger could not negotiate forever. The North Vietnamese, untrammeled by domestic dissidence, were prepared to talk endlessly.
Le Duc Tho began by insisting, as his comrades had previously, that a peace settlement must simultaneously resolve the military and political issues; an armistice had to be related to the replacement of the present Saigon regime with a coalition government containing Vietcong representatives. The package was unrealistic: no American president could appear to be scuttling an ally to appease an enemy. Yet the North Vietnamese were to cling to this condition for two years. In 1954, after beating the French, they had been virtually com¬pelled by the major powers at the Geneva conference to stop fighting in the expectation that nationwide elections would assure their control over all of Vietnam. But the big powers, including their Soviet and Chinese allies, tacitly conspired to cancel the elections soon afterward, thus depriving them of probable victory. They were not about to repeat that mistake.
Kissinger proposed a slight variation on the mutual withdrawal plan he had presented the summer before to Xuan Thuy, head of the North Vietnamese diplomatic delegation in Paris, who had since been superseded by Le Duc Tho. Kissinger suggested, as a “face-saving” device, that North Vietnamese combat units in the south be accorded “legal” status separate from that of the Americans: they could be repatriated to the north without a public announcement from Hanoi as long as they were in fact pulled out. Le Duc Tho predictably spurned the idea, as Xuan Thuy had. The North Vietnamese regarded their military presence in the south as imperative, since the Vietcong forces alone were too weak to resist the Saigon regime’s superior army. Besides, they were wedded to the principle that, as Vietnam’s only legitimate nationalists, they had the right to deploy their troops any¬where in the country. After all, their soldiers were defending sacred Vietnamese soil; to equate them in any way with the American “ag¬gressors” was an outrage.

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