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Why the Paris Talks Are Getting Nowhere

In the process, we lose sight of one of the cardinal maxims of a guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose.—Henry Kissinger, Foreign Affairs, January, 1969.

The Nixon Administration is not prepared to negotiate in Paris under any terms short of capitulation by the other side. An impasse strategy has taken shape, based, unfortunately, on that glimmer of marsh gas known as Vietnamization. Listen. A war bureaucrat speaks on the Paris talks: "The only alternative to their absurd demands is for us to improve our position militarily while reducing our forces." Another: "Our interest is in letting it become a totally Vietnamese impasse."

An excellent example of the impasse strategy is the US handling of the Vietcong's new negotiating proposals. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research predicted months ago that the other side would try to make it stormy for Mr. Nixon during the pre-election period. The forecast was for new proposals which would link a US withdrawal to the prisoner of war issue. The Provisional Revolutionary Government did, of course, recently make the predicted proposals. Just as predictably, Ambassador David K. E. Bruce quickly labeled them with a botched cliché as "new wine in old bottles" (an aide later reversed the adjectives).

The PRG's proposals are perhaps not the Grand Cru Mr. Nixon wants, but they are better than anythingserved up in Paris in the past year and a half. Thefirst point of the VC's new eight-point package states:"In case the US government declares it will withdrawfrom South Vietnam all its troops and those of theother foreign countries in the US camp by June 30,1971 the People's Liberation Armed Forces will refrainfrom attacking the withdrawing troops of theUnited States and those of the other foreign countriesin the US camp, and the parties will engage at once in discussion on:

"The question of ensuring safety for the total withdrawal of US troops and those of the other foreign countries in the US camp.

"The question of releasing captured military men."

As seen through the State Department's tinted windows, Point One is old PRG hash salted with the POW issue and garnished with an extra three months' grace time for a US withdrawal. Last December, the PRG offered to discuss the modalities of withdrawal in return for a US commitment to get out in six months.

In their haste to discredit the proposals, however, the US negotiators apparently failed to give them the deep study they deserved. More strangely, the PRG's proposals have been left largely undiscussed by the national news media, which are suffering, perhaps, from battle-fatigue or are too absorbed with the Mideast.

First of all, what's really in the proposals for the US? Just a nine-month eviction notice, another artful dodge by the North Vietnamese, as the Administration would have us believe? Hardly. Some Vietnam experts say, for openers, that a signal from Mr. Nixon would bring a quick response from North Vietnam on the modalities of a withdrawal. If the US firmly said it would get out, these sources predict, North Vietnam would first extend the withdrawal time, perhaps up to 18 months. This particular point could prove extremely damaging to the Administration if the public awoke to its possibilities. Mr. Nixon has indicated that most US troops will be withdrawn within the next year or so anyway. Why not, then, make a firm declaration that we're getting out and get negotiations for a permanent peace started?

Moreover, a close reading of Point One of the new proposals uncovers a lot more hidden doors, perhaps one leading to that mutual troop withdrawal by Hanoi and the US that our policy makers long for. It doesn't take New Math to calculate that North Vietnam will never openly agree to a mutual troop withdrawal, especially when you add the Asian desire for a face-saving device to the Communists' undeniable strength at the bargaining table. The problem must be approached from a side entrance. Point One's double-jointed emphasis on troop safety during a withdrawal may be the key.

Were this simply a call for a unilateral troop withdrawal, North Vietnam and the PRG could have stopped with the first phrase "the People's Liberation Armed Forces will refrain from attacking the withdrawing troops…" Instead, they followed up with "and the parties will engage at once in discussion on the question of ensuring the safety for the total withdrawal…" The ideal method to "ensure the safety" is, of course, by 1) cease-fire and 2) mutual withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops. North Vietnam is well aware that these would be priority US demands in any "discussions." Obviously, should Mr. Nixon declare he intends to withdraw totally and the secret talks on "ensuring the safety for a total withdrawal" later break down, the US would be under no obligation to carry out its part of the bargain.

Sweeping all major US problems into one tidy pile, a withdrawal declaration would also trigger talks on freeing American POWs. At stake would be not only some 500 pilots held in Hanoi but also the undisclosed number of soldiers and Marines rotting in jungle camps in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Presumably, the progress of US withdrawal would determine the speed of their repatriation. The POWs are indisputably North Vietnam's trump card. Not a thousand propaganda missions by Colonel Frank Borman are likely to lower the price of getting these Americans back.

As for the South Vietnamese—the PRG's new proposals, in effect, make it possible for Thieu to set up his own front government to begin immediate negotiations with the Vietcong for a political settlement. The PRG said, for the first time, it was willing to negotiate with an interim administration in Saigon that would specifically exclude only Thieu, Vice President Ky and Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Binh, the PRG's chief negotiator, said the interim administration need only stand for "peace, independence and neutrality." This description fits 99 percent for South Vietnam's weary population.

The Vietcong will not, of course, negotiate with Thieu's brother or another general. But the broad-brush definition of who they will negotiate with clearly limits their rights to dispute the makeup of the interim administration. Too many peremptory challenges would result in a loss of their credibility in international eyes, and a subsequent loss of sympathy. Since Mr. Thieu's power comes mainly from an arrangement of allegiance within the military establishment, he could still retain control of South Vietnam's overall direction during the transition period from, say, the position of Army commander. Similarly, Ky and Khiem could return to their roles as generals and still maintain their particular bases of power.

Following the scenario set up by the PRG several, weeks ago, Thieu's front government—or whatever interim administration materializes after Thieu steps down—would first negotiate with the Vietcong to establish a mixed electoral commission, called a "provisional coalition government" by the PRG. The PRG specified that the elements forming such a temporary government would be members of the Vietcong, as well as those persons associated with the present Saigon government who stand for "peace, independence, neutrality and democracy, including those who, for political reasons, have to live abroad." This provisional coalition government, or electoral commission, would then set up and supervise a general election, which would, presumably, produce a de jure coalition government.

In short, the PRG's new proposals could kick off the two-tier negotiations Mr. Henry Kissinger once suggested as a formula for solving the Vietnam deadlock. On one level, Hanoi and Washington could negotiate the strictly military questions of troop withdrawal and the release of POWs. At the same time, with some bending by President Thieu, Saigon and the PRG could begin to discuss a settlement that would reflect the political realities of South Vietnam.

The prospects of such discussions ever beginning, however, are almost zero. American officials, despite public pronouncements to the contrary, are still hoping for the deus ex machina that will scoop down and give them a "win." North Vietnam is hurting, as they say. The Tet offensive was costly to Hanoi. The Balance of Terror has shifted, at least temporarily, to the US side in South Vietnam. But there is nothing to justify their almost total reliance on Vietnamization, the latest US "solution" and the cause of the impasse strategy in Paris.

The best US analysts say all of North Vietnam's problems thrown together won't decisively weaken the Communists' position in Paris. Although North Vietnam is now losing about 59,000 men a year, another 125 thousand new men annually come of draft age. To demonstrate its strength, Hanoi is moving back into First Corps in force, preparing to turn the area into the bloody battlefield it was two years ago.

On the other hand, South Vietnam's economy has never been in more critical shape. The political weather is still extremely uncertain; Thieu has failed to expand his political base and deep divisions and suspicions remain. General Do Cao Tri, the tiger of Cambodia, not long ago told reporters Thieu's distrust of his generals was so ingrained that he would not even assign a helicopter to Tri on a permanent basis during the Cambodian invasion. And though South Vietnam's army got good press reviews in Cambodia, left unsaid was the fact it is years away from having decent logistics, air and artillery support systems—real indicators of a good army.

Fresh ideas on US policy are stifled at birth. Look at Washington, Paris and Saigon. With the exceptions of Kissinger, Laird and Rogers, Mr. Nixon uses the old Johnson staff of war bureaucrats—less than 30 men, who were the original architects and contractors for our high-rise in the quicksand. These men are all intelligent and wonderfully dedicated public servants; but is it not too much to ask that they perceive clearly the change in American interests when they have spent the best parts of their careers stoking a war we are now trying to extinguish?

There are signs that the war bureaucracy has taken on a certain life of its own. In Paris, for example, a member of the US delegation fondly points out that the annual cost of running the American side of the peace talks is less than the price of one HU-34 helicopter. Not too much, he is implying, for the American taxpayer should the talks stutter on for quite a few years.

A few months ago, when the talks were deeply stalemated, a Washington Post staffer told a key US delegation member that the Post wouldn't be covering the talks anymore on a regular Thursday basis. The American official expressed his pleasure at the news, and his hopes that other US media would follow suit. North Vietnam, he said, is only interested in using the talks as a propaganda platform.

The most significant news to come from the American side in Paris lately is that Philip Habib, former acting chief US negotiator, will stay on as Ambassador Bruce's deputy. Mr. Habib, a superb foreign service officer, is probably the most persuasive rationalizer in in government today of the kind of policies that have mired us in Vietnam. He had been scheduled to take an ambassadorship to another country.

In Saigon, the story is largely the same. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker has toiled more than three years to plane the edges of Nguyen Van Thieu and shape him into an American-style politician. But now even some of Mr. Bunker's admirers openly wonder if he has not finally begun to confuse Mr. Thieu's interests with US interests. The second most important civilian in Vietnam, Ambassador William Colby, highly capable but an implacable Jesuit on the subject of US involvement in South Vietnam, hangs on as pacification chief though he is known to be exhausted. He, too, was slated for a change of assignment this past summer.

The danger of the war bureaucracy lies in its size. But, it's too small, not too large. After nearly 10 years of a controversial war, it is composed of an extremely small group of men with almost homogeneous views. "Vietnamization" is the only answer ever likely to come from them.

Zalin B. Grant in recent weeks has observed the war from Saigon, Phnom Penh, Paris and Washington.

This article originally ran in the October 10, 1970, issue of the magazine.