The conflict in Vietnam produced several attempts to negotiate a peace settlement. There were several rounds of Vietnam War peace talks involving representatives of the United States, North Vietnam and by other nations acting as mediators. Some negotiation was conducted publicly and some in secret, through diplomatic communications or ‘back channels’.
Different aims and objectives
The period 1964 to 1972 saw at least five different peace proposals of any significance, along with numerous third-party offers that were either disregarded or rebuffed.
The significant number of peace proposals and their eventual – and some may say inevitable failure – reveals much about the nature of the Vietnam conflict and its chief combatants.
One significant problem was that the United States and North Vietnam approached peace talks with different objectives. 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 ultimate goal was national reunification, peace talks were a military tactic, a device to stall and frustrate the enemy and prolong the war, while obtaining breathing space.
Both Hanoi and Washington claimed to be receptive to peace talks and a negotiated peace deal. There was method in this too, because if and when peace negotiations failed or broke down, it could be blamed on the belligerence or pigheadedness of the other side.
In late 1966 Ho Chi Minh declared that North Vietnam was willing to “make war for 20 years” – but Ho added that 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 expressed a willingness to negotiate with Hanoi. On two occasions Johnson even issued peace proposals to “old Ho” through the press.
The 1965 proposal
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 into 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.”
US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, responding to Pham’s proposals, declared that he could live with points one, two and four – but he interpreted point three as a demand for Viet Cong control of South Vietnam, a condition the United States could not accept.
Rusk claimed that he could find no member of the North Vietnamese government willing to “give up their aggressive ambitions or to come to a conference table”, so he would place his trust in “our own men in uniform”.
Other peace proposals and planned ceasefires were floated during 1966 and 1967, though none were taken seriously.
The Paris peace talks
The first significant attempt at peace talks came in May 1968, with an informal meeting between US and North Vietnamese envoys in Paris. Each made demands of the other before any serious peace negotiations commenced. Hanoi wanted a halt to all US bombing runs 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 sorties 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, negotiators from Washington flew to Paris for peace meetings with representatives of North and South Vietnam and the NLF.
The Paris peace talks would last more than four years. They were plagued with setbacks and breakdowns from the outset. The first meetings were marred by disputes over legitimacy. The delegates from Hanoi and the Viet Cong, for example, refused to recognise the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government. There were also debates over the structure and procedure of the peace talks, even over the types of furniture to be used.
When the talks got underway, 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.
These 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 restated their position but refused to concede ground.
The lack of progress in Paris saw the White House seek other avenues for peace. Nixon instructed National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to begin separate talks with the North Vietnamese – without involving or informing either South Vietnam or America’s 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.
Not all were happy. 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; 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 (January 27th 1973) by representatives of the United States, North and South Vietnam and the NLF.
A controversial prize
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were both hailed as heroes for securing a peace agreement – though not in all quarters. In September 1973, Nixon elevated Kissinger into his cabinet, appointing him Secretary of State.
Three months later, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This created a storm of controversy, given the role both men had played in perpetuating and escalating the war. The New York Times dubbed it the “Nobel War Award”, while American anti-war figure George Ball quipped that “the Norwegians must have a sense of humour”.
Le Duc Tho subsequently declined his Nobel Prize; he described it as a “bourgeois sentimentality” and refused to accept it while his country was still divided and at war. Kissinger accepted his award but fearing a massive protest by anti-war demonstrators, chose not to attend the presentation ceremony. Kissinger later donated the award’s cash component ($US1.3 million) to charity and returned his gold medal to the Nobel Prize committee.
A historian’s view:
“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
1. There were several attempts at peace talks and peace agreements during the Vietnam War, initiated by the major combatants as well as third parties.
2. The different objectives and attitudes of the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and Viet Cong made reaching compromises very difficult.
3. The most significant peace talks were held in Paris and commenced in 1968. These stalled almost immediately, due to disputes over legitimacy and procedure.
4. In August 1969 Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began secret peace talks with Hanoi’s Le Duc Tho. These also achieved little until Hanoi’s failed Easter Offensive.
5. The Paris Peace Accords were eventually signed in January 1973. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were controversially awarded the Noble Peace Prize for their role in facilitating peace.