Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 7

But the administration’s military and diplomatic departments had not been synchronized. American aircraft had been striking targets within ten miles of Hanoi since the summer, and they hit oil depots and railroad yards even closer to the city during the first two weeks of December. Polish officials, presumably in touch with the North Vietnamese, warned that continued attacks would jeopardize the War¬saw talks. Harriman and Cooper, until then unaware of the scheduled raids, appealed to Johnson for a pause, and they were backed by McNamara. But Rusk cautioned against a trap, and he was seconded by Walt Rostow, who had recently succeeded McGeorge Bundy as head of the president’s national security council staff. On December 6, Johnson vetoed a bombing halt, and the North Vietnamese canceled the Warsaw rendezvous a week later.
So Marigold wilted—or perhaps it was never destined to bloom. A European Communist defector later alleged that Lewandowski had been acting on his own; Wilfred Burchett also dismissed the initiative as inconsequential, saying that “well-meaning friends” of North Viet¬nam had unilaterally tried to put together a deal. Johnson later brushed aside the episode, saying that “the simple truth was that the North Vietnamese were not ready to talk with us,” and John McNaughton of the Pentagon concluded that the ambiguous overture had been “like making smoke signals in a high wind.” But to Chester Cooper, pa¬tiently scouting every hint of a bargain, it was Johnson who had not been ready to talk—unless, of course, the enemy submitted to his terms.
Johnson similarly sidestepped another possibility, proposed by a pair of private U.S. citizens, Harry Ashmore and William Baggs, who visited Hanoi in January 1967 at the invitation of Ho Chi Minh. Both newspapermen associated with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a liberal California think tank, they were briefed by State Department officials before their departure. They met with Ho for two hours, and he sounded receptive—implying that all issues were negotiable once the United States stopped bombing and ceased the buildup in the south. This was hardly a major breakthrough, but the amateur emissaries discovered to their chagrin back in Washington that neither Johnson nor anyone else showed the slightest interest. Johnson refused to see them, saying that he could not talk with “every¬body who’s been over there talking with Ho”—as if Americans were flocking to Hanoi. But to assuage Fulbright, whom Ashmore and Baggs had consulted, the president ordered Bill Bundy and Harriman to help the two men draft a message telling Ho that the administration would enter into “secret discussions at any time, without conditions.” And the message suggested, as evidence of “good faith,” that both sides display “some reciprocal restraint” to indicate that they would not use the negotiating period to gain a “military advantage.” Without informing Ashmore and Baggs, however, Johnson preempted their message with a tougher letter of his own. He would not halt the bombing or make any other conciliatory gestures, Johnson told Ho Chi Minh, until he was “assured” that the North Vietnamese infiltration into the south had stopped. Johnson stiffened his line, he later explained, because the North Vietnamese were then taking ad-vantage of a temporary truce over Tet, the lunar New Year holiday, to move men and supplies southward. Ho predictably rejected John¬son’s demand—and the exploration ended, leaving Ashmore and Baggs to charge the administration with “duplicity.” Johnson had drastically revised the U.S. negotiating position, and the two free¬lance intermediaries were not the only ones who were baffled and disappointed.
An earlier plan devised by Johnson’s aides—the so-called Phase A- Phase B formula—proposed that the United States would first suspend its air raids against North Vietnam and then, without necessarily pub¬licizing it, the Americans and Communists would both gradually re¬strict their military actions in South Vietnam and withdraw. The idea was to give the Hanoi leaders an opportunity to retreat without “losing face.” The scheme did not preclude negotiations, but Johnson wanted to avoid a repetition of the Korean experience, when U.S. soldiers died as ceasefire discussions dragged on. Besides, he considered the proposal generous, since he reckoned that America was winning the war.
In his letter to Ho, however, Johnson completely reversed the two- phase formula. Now, he insisted, the Communists would have to wind down the conflict before the United States halted the bombing. Or, as he put it, he was not going to stop the air strikes “merely for talks” but to promote “a long step toward peace itself.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who planned to entertain Aleksei Kosygin in London for a week in early February 1967, believed that his Soviet counterpart could be persuaded to urge the North Vietnamese to compromise. Wilson presumed that the Soviets favored a settlement to prevent their Chinese rivals from increasing their in¬fluence in Southeast Asia. He also speculated that the North Vietnam¬ese, then upset by the convulsions of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, might be leaning toward the Soviet Union. But Johnson, resentful of Wilson’s criticism of America’s bombing strategy, was also worried that Wilson might claim credit if the effort yielded results. Still, the president could not afford to alienate an ally—who would surely in¬timate that a chance for peace had been missed. So he accepted Wilson’s proposal to bring Kosygin into the game. Chester Cooper, whom the British trusted, flew to London to serve as liaison man in the opera¬tion—code-named Sunflower.
Kosygin seemed eager to cooperate. A British intelligence tap on his telephone recorded his prediction to Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Communist party boss in Moscow, that a “great possibility” for a deal was in the offing. His optimism did not guarantee a solution, since the North Vietnamese could be stubborn, even to their Com¬munist patrons, yet the prospects looked promising.

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