Negotiating With the Enemy
New Book Reveals Secrecy and Betrayal in Vietnam
In his new book, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam, former Wilson Center fellow Larry Berman reveals some surprising truths about Nixon and Kissinger's secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Below are excerpts from a recent interview with the author:
Crowley: What led you to write the book?
Berman: I had written two previous books on Vietnam. Most of my professional scholarship has been on the war and my first book, Planning a Tragedy, focused on the 1965 decision to Americanize the war. And then I followed that up with a book titled Lyndon Johnson's War, so intellectually I had progressed to this point where I had to stop my writing in 1968. I very much wanted to write on the Nixon presidency but I did not think there was a lot of information available—I was right—certainly 10 years ago I was right. And I was very interested in understanding what was behind the term "peace with honor" since this was the dominant phrase of the period, yet the Paris peace accords brought neither peace, nor honor. And I was curious to know if there was historical documentation that would show anything different than the Nixon and Kissinger memoir accounts.
The archival documents revealed that there was no honor and so that is how I ended up [with the book title], but it is not how I started. I was much more interested in the politics of the disengagement process and what happened during that and the available documents. As I pieced together the story, it became evident to me that what we really had here was a process behind a wall of secrecy and deception and manipulation. The South Vietnamese were maneuvered into accepting an agreement that left 150,000 North Vietnamese troops in their country and that was their death knell.
Were you surprised by this process that you discovered--the secret negotiations?
I'll tell you what surprised me and what didn't surprise me. We all knew going in that there was a veil of secrecy and that there was a tremendous emphasis on controlling information. What was astounding to me when I read the documentation was the level to which the ally of the United States was kept in the dark, and not only the ally of the U.S., South Vietnam, but all the other bureaucratic entities of the U.S. government—State Dept., Defense Dept., CIA, the Joint Chiefs—now what that meant was that you had a private agreement being negotiated between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Thou (North Vietnam's leader) that would settle the future of South Vietnam and that ally never once sat down, never once, with Kissinger to work out a united position.... They were viewed as a body that would leak information, that could not be trusted and that worst of all, had nothing to contribute to the conversation, to a better outcome and that really is striking—that Henry Kissinger in particular could believe that he could benefit not at all from the input of any other actors or entities in the government or his own ally.
Kissinger basically told each side—the enemy, the North Vietnamese, and the ally, the South Vietnamese—whatever would serve his interests, his goals during the negotiations. This level of deception manifested itself in many different ways. For example, the U.S. POWs---the number one goal was to return the POWs. But for Le Duc Tho and the North, they wanted the return of their political prisoners. Kissinger refused to link the return of the American POWs with the political prisoners of the North that were languishing in jail in the South. I think he was correct in not linking them, but he did give his private assurance and his promise to Le Duc Tho that as soon as the last American POW was returned, and there is plenty of evidence on this and this is new in my book, he would use his personal influence with President Thieu to gain the release immediately of those political prisoners and those political detainees. Not less than 8 hours after he told that to Le Duc Tho, he flew to South Vietnam, and in Saigon, told President Thieu that he should never release those political prisoners, and he should not release them because he should use them as leverage to get those 150,000 North Vietnamese troops out of South Vietnam.
He knew full well that the North would never, ever remove those troops from the South so that led me to my theory, which is that Kissinger and Nixon knew that this treaty was going to fail because you can't tell President Thieu to hold the political detainees as hostages to get the North Vietnamese out when you know the North Vietnamese are not going to go out. You know there are going to be violations, you know that Thieu is going to violate the treaty, you know that the North is going to violate the treaty, you know that you can't have a free election while the Northern troops are in the South, so what do you have? You have a situation that as soon as the last POWs are returned, you are going to have violations and you are going to have the return of American fire power and the return of American B52s which would continue right through 1976. I think Kissinger and Nixon expected this, they anticipated it and that is what they told President Thieu.
Do you think Nixon and Kissinger expected to be able to get budget authorization to be able to re-engage our troops?
This is what they thought would happen. They believed that if there was a signed agreement and the signed agreement was violated, the American people would rally around the Presdient, because the President had signed the agreement and he kept invoking this terrible, terrible parallel of the Korean armistice, saying, 'No one knows what is in the Korean Armistice, but everyone knows that if North Korea violates it, that we can punish North Korea and do whatever we want to North Korea.' Same is true with Vietnam. No one knows what is in this agreement, no one cares. If the North violate it, we will have the right to punish the North. And then the silent majority and the rest of the American public, maybe 60 percent or so, will rally to us and we will use that to force Congress to support us financially. I think they had very little faith in the Congress supporting this without the American people supporting it and they thought they could manipulate the American people just the same way that I say in my book when the Johnson administration manipulated the American people with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Very few people had any idea what that Gulf of Tonkin resolution was intended to do, but it became a blank sheet for American involvement and this was a blank sheet for American re-involvement in Vietnam.
Could you determine around what point Nixon and Kissinger came to the conclusion that the North Vietnamese were never going to withdraw their troops, that our only recourse was to come up with this bogus agreement?
1970. [In 1969] the U.S. entered the negotiations seeking mutual withdrawal—we would withdraw our troops, the North Vietnamese would withdraw their troops from South Vietnam. This is Nixon's negotiating position from the very beginning.
In 1970, that was replaced with what is known as a "cease-fire in place," that is the U.S. would withdraw its troops, but Northern troops that were in South Vietnam would be frozen in place. So, beginning in 1970, we knew there would be an in-place ceasefire, known as a 'leopard spot.' However, Hanoi was very cagey. They recognized that--Okay, Nixon is going to disengage and we are going to be able to keep our troops in, but we are not ready for an in-place ceasefire yet. We don't have enough troops there yet, we have to infiltrate. They had 50,000 troops down in the south, they used the next two years to infiltrate down the Ho Chi Minh trail 75 to 100,000 additional troops during the Easter offensive and Nixon later admitted that his fundamental mistake was never trying to force those troops that had come down during the offensive back after the agreement was signed. So once Hanoi realized that the United States had accepted unilateral withdrawal, they (the U.S.) would leave, but the North would not be required to leave, they basically had a little chess match in which they said we can wait, we'll stall, we'll play to American public opinion, we're not going to hurry and we'll wait until the balance of forces are in our favor, and then we'll settle.
Why didn't the North Vietnamese ever move their troops?
Because the North Vietnamese did not think their troops were foreign troops. Vietnam was one country. And they had to prove a point. In 1969, everyone knew that eventually the war would be settled by some negotiated settlement. And when that negotiated settlement was passed, the invading army would leave. Well the North Vietnamese believed there was only one invading army in Vietnam---it was the United States. So the mutual withdrawal was unacceptable. When Kissinger conceded that point in the negotiations in 1970, by all intents and purposes, the death knell of South Vietnam was signed because as long as there were North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam, certainly as many as 150,000, you could hardly have a free political election.
On pg. 78 you wrote that Kissinger was already hinting betrayal in the secret meetings....
Kissinger and Nixon had both promised President Thieu that in their private negotiations with Le Duc Tho they would not discuss at all the political structure of South Vietnam and of course they did ---they went to great lengths in discussing it. And President Nixon and Kissinger discussed the costs if President Thieu found out. And Thieu did find out about it. Internal South Vietnam politics were discussed between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho and when you are trying to come up with a political solution for South Vietnam and not including the South Vietnamese in that discussion, that is a first hint at betrayal.
Why do you think Le Duc Tho did not accept his Nobel Peace Prize?
He said that he did not think it was appropriate because not a moment of peace had come to Vietnam. There was no peace. The accord had failed. There was no enforcement of the treaty. The U.S. wasn't taking it seriously. Of course I said later Kissinger should have the decency to return it. I would like it to be on the record that I made extensive attempts to interview Kissinger for this. We would send overnight mail letters to him they would be received. His assistant called me once and said he may be interested in talking to me, I had to be more specific. I sent him a very detailed letter with examples of what I wanted to ask him about. And he didn't want to be interviewed.
How long did President Thieu expect to have an American commitment---was this going to be forever? At what point did President Thieu think it fair to say "enough is enough"?
Nha said that the answer is what Nixon promised Thieu at Midway Island in 1969 which is 4 years of military aid and 4 years of economic aid. Nixon's first term--military aid, second term--economic assistance, military equipment, etc. and then at that point it was President Thieu's assumption that at that time, the South Vietnamese would be able to stand on their own. There are many people who believe that that would have been sufficient, but I don't know.
About the Author
Larry Berman, professor and director of the University of California Washington Center, has written two previous books on Vietnam, Planning a Tragedy and Lyndon Johnson's War, and has appeared in several documentaries on the war. He lives in Davis, California and Washington, D.C.