President Nixon combined his launching of Operation Linebacker with a new diplomatic initiative. In a nationally televised speech on May 8, the President announced a change in the US negotiating position. For years the US had wanted a two track approach to the negotiations—settling the political and military issues separately—while North Vietnam wanted both issues settled together. The US demanded a complete withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam. Furthermore, the US wanted a political solution that kept the Thieu regime in place in Saigon. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese, demanded an unconditional withdrawal of all US forces from Vietnam and a provisional government that excluded Thieu.
In his diplomatic initiative of May 8, President Nixon announced that the US would accept a cease-fire in place as a precondition for its military withdrawal. In other words, the US would withdraw its forces from South Vietnam without North Vietnam doing the same. The conditions for a settlement were reduced to three:
- All American Prisoners of War [POWs] returned.
- An internationally supervised cease-fire throughout Indochina.
- Once those terms have been met the US will cease bombing and complete a withdrawal from Vietnam within 6 months.
Furthermore, Thieu offered to resign a month before the elections.
The May 8 initiative restarted the Paris Peace talks. Over the subsequent meetings the US further refined its position. The US tied the return of American POWs to a withdrawal, instead of withdrawing only after they had been returned. To further complicate matters Congress was close to passing a bill that would withdraw US forces in exchange for POWs—leaving South Vietnam on its own. Throughout the next few months the Nixon administration was constantly trying to stay ahead of any congressional action that might end the war prematurely. For the next four months, the North Vietnamese appeared to ignore this change in the US negotiating position. On October 8, however, Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam's chief negotiator, surprised Henry Kissinger with a new North Vietnamese position. Kissinger later wrote that October 8 was one of the greatest moments of his diplomatic career. The new North Vietnamese position was, he recalled, an enormous breakthrough. Not only did North Vietnam agree to all three of the conditions spelled out by President Nixon in his May 8 speech, but Hanoi conceded that it would accept the continuation of the South Vietnamese government after a cease-fire. For four years, since the start of formal US-North Vietnamese peace talks in 1968, Hanoi had insisted that a precondition for any cease-fire was the replacement of the Thieu government with a coalition government that included representatives of the Viet Cong. Now this obstacle to an agreement had been removed. Two other concessions were equally dramatic: Hanoi agreed to allow the US to continue to provide military support to South Vietnam on a piece-by-piece basis and dropped their earlier insistence that US POWs would only be released in return for the release of communist political prisoners in South Vietnamese jails. Hanoi's final surprise was that its new position included a request for future American economic assistance, the first indication that North Vietnamese would accept a postwar US role in the region. By 2:00 am, Paris time, on October 12, after days of intense negotiations, the two sides thought they had reached a draft agreement.
- US withdrawal of forces within two months.
- Cease-fire in South Vietnam and an end to US bombing twenty-four hours after signing the agreement.
- US respect to Vietnam in agreement with the Geneva Accords of 1954.
- US replacement of South Vietnam military equipment on a piece-by-piece basis.
- US aid to North Vietnam.
- Self-determination of South Vietnam.
- No coalition government instead a National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord [NCRC] to act as an intermediary between the parties.
- Cease-fires and troop withdrawals from Laos and Cambodia.
- Formation of the International Commission of Control and Supervision [ICCS] to monitor the implementation of the agreement.
With this agreement in hand, Henry Kissinger rushed back to Washington to meet with President Nixon. Due to the fact he was crossing six time zones, Kissinger was able to meet with the President on the same day that he concluded discussions with the North Vietnamese in Paris. Captured on tape, this conversation, which included Deputy National Security Adviser Colonel Alexander M. Haig, Jr., reveals much about the President and Kissinger's hopes and expectations about the final stages of the Vietnam conflict. President Nixon, Kissinger, and Haig seemed ebullient about this dramatic turn of events in Paris. Kissinger told President Nixon he had gone, "three for three,"2 in his negotiations that year (meaning successful negotiations with the USSR, PRC, and Vietnam). For his part, President Nixon said he would approve the peace settlement so long as South Vietnamese President Thieu was also willing to sign. Kissinger reassured the President that the South Vietnamese would go along with the new deal. Confident that the Vietnam War was all but over, Kissinger told Nixon that if all went according to plan the White House could announce the agreement on October 26 and the cease-fire would begin on October 30.
The euphoria and optimism was short lived. Kissinger, who flew to Saigon on October 18, encountered unexpected resistance from the South Vietnamese government. President Thieu, who received a hand-delivered letter from President Nixon stating that the agreement "is the best we will be able to get and that it meets my absolute condition that the GVN [Government of Vietnam] must survive as a free country," acted as if he were determined to reject it.3 On October 22, Thieu formally informed Kissinger that he would never sign it. Saigon refused to accept an agreement that left North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. Furthermore, Thieu wanted the language on the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ] to be stronger. He wanted it to be an actual boundary between the two nations instead of a de facto border. Two days later, Thieu made his disputes with the United States public in a speech to the South Vietnamese National Assembly. Meanwhile, in an effort to buy time to persuade Saigon without losing Hanoi, Kissinger requested a delay from the North Vietnamese who were working with American negotiators on the final details of an agreement. Hanoi reacted badly to this request. On October 25, the North Vietnamese government broadcast the details of the negotiations and the major points of the agreement over Radio Hanoi, accusing the US government of bad faith by now attempting to delay it.
With the talks on the verge of collapse and with both Hanoi and Saigon accusing the Nixon administration of duplicity, the White House asked Henry Kissinger, for the first time, to speak publicly about the negotiations. In an October 26 news conference, Kissinger not only explained the US position but asserted that, despite what Hanoi and Saigon were saying, "peace was at hand."
Kissinger's optimistic comments about ending the war were consistent with the President's wishes. White House conversations in the wake of the press conference are full of praise for Kissinger. Charles W. Colson reportedly told Kissinger that thanks to his performance the administration had "wiped [Democratic nominee Senator George] McGovern out."4 In a phone conversation President Nixon told Colson that the press conference had another good effect. The prospects of peace in Vietnam had "knocked Watergate out" of the news.5
President Nixon went on to defeat Democratic Presidential Nominee George McGovern in an historic landslide on November 7. With the next round of talks not scheduled until November 20, Vietnam took a backseat to President Nixon's planning for his second-term. While the election results were positive for President Nixon, they were decidedly less so for Republicans. The Congressional elections swept in a new class of anti-war candidates who would attempt to end the war at the next session. The administration, which had barely been able to keep Congress from ending the war before the election, was concerned that it would not be able to persuade the new Congress to continue funding the war if the talks were not ultimately successful.
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