Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger shake after their 1972 peace agreement.
There were a myriad of Vietnam War peace talks and peace proposals, made not only by the United States and North Vietnam but also by other nations offering to act as mediators. Offers for peace negotiations and settlements for Vietnam flowed back and forth regularly, even when fighting was at its peak. Some were conducted publicly, others in secret through diplomatic back-channels. Between 1964 and 1972 there were at least five different peace proposals of any significance, along with numerous third-party offers that were either disregarded or rebuffed. The high number of peace proposals – as well as their eventual and perhaps inevitable failures – reveals much about the nature of the Vietnam conflict and its main combatants.
A significant problem was differing interpretations of the peace process and what could be gained from it. For the Americans, the peace process was a way of extricating themselves from Vietnam, while avoiding the humiliation of defeat. For the North Vietnamese, whose goal of national unification was non-negotiable, peace talks were simply another military tactic, to delay or frustrate the enemy. Both Hanoi and Washington cultivated the public impression that they were receptive to peace talks. There was method in this too: if peace negotiations failed to eventuate, or broke down, it could be attributed to the belligerence or pig-headedness of the other side. In late 1966, Ho Chi Minh declared that North Vietnam was willing to “make war for 20 years” – but if the Americans “want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea”. US president Lyndon Johnson’s public statements also regularly expressed willingness to negotiate with Hanoi; on two occasions Johnson even issued peace proposals to “old Ho” through the press.
The first offer
The first major proposal came from North Vietnamese premier, Pham Van Dong, in April 1965. Pham’s four-point plan called for a return to the provisions of the Geneva Accords of 1954, along with the withdrawal of US military personnel:
“1. Recognition of the basic national rights of the Vietnamese people – peace, independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity… The U.S. government must withdraw from South Vietnam U.S. troops, military personnel, and weapons of all kinds, dismantle all U.S. military bases there, and cancel its military alliance with South Vietnam. It must end its policy of intervention and aggression in South Vietnam…
2. Pending the peaceful reunification of Vietnam, while Vietnam is still temporarily divided in two zones, the military provisions of the 1954 Geneva agreements on Vietnam must be strictly respected…
3. The internal affairs of South Vietnam must be settled by the South Vietnamese people themselves, in accordance with the program of the NLF, without any foreign interference.
4. The peaceful reunification of Vietnam is to be settled by the Vietnamese people in both zones, without any foreign interference.”
In Washington, the then-Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, announced that he could live with points one, two and four. But Rusk interpreted point three as a demand for NLF (Viet Cong) control of South Vietnam, a condition he could not accept. Rusk claimed that since he could find no member of the North Vietnamese government willing to “give up their aggressive ambitions or to come to a conference table”, he would instead place his trust in “our own men in uniform”. Other peace proposals and ceasefire agreements were floated during 1966 and 1967, though none were taken seriously.
Stalemate in Paris
The first significant moves toward peace talks came in May 1968, with an informal meeting between US and North Vietnamese envoys in Paris. Each had demands of the other before any serious peace negotiations could commence: Hanoi wanted a halt to all American bombing missions over their country, while the Americans insisted on a de-escalation of Viet Cong activities in South Vietnam. Five months later, Lyndon Johnson agreed to suspend all bombing runs over North Vietnamese territory, paving the way for formal peace negotiations. In January 1969, five days after Richard Nixon was sworn in as US president, delegates from the US flew to Paris for peace negotiations with representatives of North and South Vietnam and the NLF.
The Paris peace talks would continue for more than four years and were plagued with setbacks and breakdowns. The first gatherings were beset by disputes over procedure, because the delegates from Hanoi and the NLF refused to recognise the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government, and vice versa. There was even bickering over the types of furniture to be used. Once the talks were underway, each party stated their position. The North Vietnamese demanded the withdrawal of US troops, the dissolution of the South Vietnamese government and a return to the principles of the Geneva Accords. The US insisted that Hanoi recognise the sovereignty of South Vietnam. The two sets of demands were so irreconcilable that compromise or agreement seemed impossible. By the autumn of 1969, the Paris talks had fallen into a monotonous and unproductive routine, where all sides simply repeated their position.
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho
Kissinger knew that the United States could not simply declare it a mistake and withdraw. Other US commitments in the world would then be brought into serious question. The US needed to get out of Vietnam with its credibility intact, something Nixon called ‘peace with honour’. The Paris peace talks, Kissinger was certain, would never achieve that goal. They were too public, too exposed to media scrutiny, and too politicised.
James S. Olson, historian
The lack of progress in Paris prompted the White House to seek other avenues for peace. Nixon instructed his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to begin secret talks with the North Vietnamese – without informing either Saigon or the US’ military allies in Vietnam. In August 1969, Kissinger began meetings with Le Duc Tho. For three years these secret negotiations also failed to produce any significant result. This changed in October 1972, in the wake of Hanoi’s failed Easter Offensive. A more compliant Le Duc Tho suggested to Kissinger that North Vietnam was willing to consider an agreement recognising the government of South Vietnam, so long as it included processes for free elections and political reform. The pair drafted a treaty, which was completed in late October 1972 and unveiled by Kissinger, with much fanfare, at a White House press conference.
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho’s treaty was enthusiastically received around the world. After almost five years of impasse, it appeared as if a workable peace for Vietnam was in sight. But the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, was outraged by the draft treaty, believing it placed his country at the mercy of the Viet Cong. Thieu’s refusal to accept the treaty almost caused the North Vietnamese to withdraw from it; only another massive US aerial bombardment of North Vietnam, ordered by Nixon, kept them at the negotiating table. Thieu eventually agreed to the treaty under pressure from Washington, which pledged to back him if Hanoi broke the terms of the agreement. In mid-January 1973 Nixon ordered a suspension of US bombing of North Vietnam, as final negotiations commenced. The Paris Peace Accords were formally signed 12 days later, on January 27th, by representatives of the US, North and South Vietnam and the NLF.
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were hailed as heroes for securing a peace agreement – at least in some quarters. In September 1973, Nixon elevated Kissinger into his cabinet, appointing him Secretary of State. Three months later, both Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Given the role both men had played in perpetuating and escalating the war, the award generated a storm of controversy. The New York Times dubbed it the ‘Nobel War Award’, while American anti-war figure George Ball mused that “the Norwegians must have a sense of humour”. Le Duc Tho subsequently declined to receive the award; he described it as a “bourgeois sentimentality” and said that he could not accept it while his country was still divided and at war. Kissinger accepted the prize but, fearing a massive protest by anti-war demonstrators, chose not to attend the award ceremony. He later donated the award’s cash component ($US1.3 million) to charity and returned the gold medal to the Nobel Prize committee.
1. Numerous peace proposals were floated during the Vietnam War, both by the combatants and by third parties.
2. The positions of the US-South Vietnamese and NLF-North Vietnamese made reaching a compromise difficult.
3. The Paris peace talks commenced in 1968 but soon stalled, while Kissinger began secret talks with Le Duc Tho.
4. The failure of the Easter Offensive saw Hanoi relax its position, leading to peace accords signed in Paris in 1973.
5. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were controversially awarded the Noble Peace Prize for their role in drafting this treaty.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Vietnam War peace talks”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/vietnam-warpeace-talks/.