Sullivan's discovery of the secret negotiations
Vietnam / Martin Smith T880. SND 2811. Side 1.
Pic Roll 1
Sound Roll 2 Ambassador Sullivan.
Ambassador, you’ve had a long history of diplomatic service but I’d
like to move right on down to 1970s
and I wonder if you could tell me first of all, when did you first hear
about the secret talks that
Le Duc Tho were engaged
in and what were your thoughts, what did you think about it?
first inkling of the secret
talks came from conversations that I had quite regularly on a
secure telephones circuit with Phil Habib who was the head of our, or the acting head of
our delegation in Paris that was
meeting ah with the Vietnamese. He and I comparing notes on various
things that were occurring came to the conclusion that there must be
secret talks taking place elsewhere of which we were not aware.
our general attitude was one of relief because our own talks had
frustrated so badly and had reached a dead end. We were getting nowhere.
So we didn’t really have all that much concern for turf. We were more
concerned with the substance in the hopes that these talks wherever they
might lead would indicate some progress. Our conclusion just from the
way in which things were evolving at that time was that they were being
carried on by Henry
Kissinger. I didn’t really get brought into the fact of the
talks, however, until some time in the late summer of 1972.
The negotiations allowing Northern troops to remain in the
believe you stated on one occasion that you think the major breakthrough
was the agreement to allow the troops of the North to stay in the South.
Now I wonder if you could tell me what Thieu thought about this as far as you are
concerned. I believe you had some talks with him about the whole
business of troops.
there were several formulae that were proposed for the military
consequences of a cease-fire and a uh an agreement. One of the favorite
ones that was discussed many times was the so-called Leopard Spot
formula in which there would be forces that were not under the control
of the government, that is to say Communist forces that were allowed to
stay in certain enclaves and certain delimited territories of South
Vietnam. This is something that had been discussed on and off several
had discussed it with Thieu on several occasions during my visits to Saigon. He was
fascinated by what went on in Italy, where for example Bologna was a communist town but existed almost
autonomously in a countryside that was obviously under the control of a
Christian democratic national government. And he kept asking me since
I’d been in Italy how this
functioned and tried to prove into the possibility of achieving the same
sort of thing in Vietnam.
didn’t get a feeling from him that he was totally opposed under all
circumstances to having troops from the North in the South?
think that uh he found it hard to accept a premise of Northern troops in
the South in quite such bold and bald terms, but to talk in terms of a
cease fire in place with the obvious tacit acknowledgement that some of
these forces were, and the bulk of them were Northern, was something
that he was able intellectually at least to stride.
Conflicting reports about Thieu's role after peace
believe the, things really started moving uh late September and early October, especially
with the suggestion of the two armies and the two administrations and
the three principle groups, the maneuvers which would enable Vietnam to
drop the suggestion that Thieu would have to go. I wondered if you had any comments
about this period and especially about the pressure being placed on you
by the North for settlement by October
it was clear that the North Vietnamese considered the American elections
to be a very important date and a date that they could exploit. They
felt that by pressing for an agreement prior to those elections that
they could bring something of value to the administration in a way that
the administration would find tempting and therefore they assumed that
they could probably improve the quality of what they would achieve from
the negotiations if they made the effort to have them concluded prior to
the end of October.
believe you met with Thieu on October 19 after a
substantial draft had been prepared. I wonder if you could tell me about
that meeting, and what was Thieu’s reactions to the proposals at this phase of the
game, and how he thought about it.
we came to Saigon with
the outline of an agreement already in hand, the famous “Peace is at
hand” outline, and presented it for the first time to Thieu and to his
associates in a series of meetings which took place very largely at the
Presidential Palace. The um first reaction of Thieu to the plan that
we proposed to him was rather calm.
seemed to uh grasp the essence of it, particularly the fact that his
government could remain intact, that the so-called administrative
structure that was going to be established would be a structure that
would not supersede his authority and that we would in effect be
reverting to something of the Leopard Skin, Leopard Spot arrangement
that had been talked about. The second day, however, after having read
these in more detail, and presumably after having consulted with his
colleagues, he came back quite rigidly opposed. Meetings got quite
Then in the middle of all this, Pham Van Dong, the prime minister of North
Vietnam, gave an interview to Arnaud de Borchgrave, a correspondent for Newsweek, which confirmed Thieu’s worst fears and
suspicions, because Pham Van Dong insisted that the administrative
structure was going to be a superstructure that would indeed subordinate
government and his regime to a tripartite organization.
This presumably represented some parallax that existed in Hanoi as well, because I think
Le Duc Tho had a quite
clear idea what he was accepting and Pham Van Dong was still on the wicket of the
previous proposals that had been put forward from Hanoi. So the combination of Thieu’s emotional
resistance to the draft that we put forward plus the uh gaffe, and I
think it was a gaffe rather than a deliberate sabotage by Pham Van Dong, threw the
whole thing off the tracks.
we just cut a minute? How much should we…?
Events surrounding Kissinger's "Peace is at hand" speech
wonder if you could tell me about the Kissinger speech, or the release of the
so-called “Peace is at hand” statement. Now this came after you had met
Thieu, and had
seen that Thieu was
not happy with the state of affairs, and after the statements by Pham Van Dong. Um, could
you explain perhaps the need for the statement. Was it designed to
pacify Hanoi, to pacify Thieu, or was it part
of the electoral buildup of the time? What do you think was the
substance of the need for the speech?
the original plan of course had been for our mission to Saigon to gain
acceptance of the proposal and the draft that we had worked out with the
Vietnamese, with the North Vietnamese. We were then to go from Saigon up to Hanoi and put some finishing
touches on this, and presumably have an agreed understanding uh prior to
the October 26 moment when the North
Vietnamese made all this public. When the North Vietnamese made it
public in a statement from Hanoi,
it arrived in Washington
in the middle of the night.
fact I recall that I had a son who was studying on the West Coast
calling me up at what was about 2 a.m. Washington time and telling
me what had been said and expressing great joy and congratulations on
what had been achieved. Thereafter we then went into telephone
consultations in Washington, Kissinger and others of us who were involved, to try to find out
what our reaction should be. We obviously couldn’t just pass it by in
silence, and so there had to be something in the nature of a press
conference the next day.
met that morning, whatever that morning was, and talked in terms of what
would be said. It was obviously necessary to confirm that we had been
having these negotiations, that they had arrived at a certain element of
understanding, and that uh we were close to an agreement. We still at
that stage felt that we could clear up the anomalies that had resulted
from Pham Van Dong’s
statement and that we could satisfy Thieu’s problems and bring the whole thing into
fruition. So rather than pouring cold water over the statement from
Hanoi, it was necessary to
confirm the essence of it without getting into detail and that’s what
produced the press conference, the most uh renowned statement of which
was Henry Kissinger’s
statement that peace is at hand.
let’s cut there…put another magazine on. It’s going very well indeed.
Ambassador, you were just telling us how close things appeared to be on
October 26-27 on the
“Peace is at hand” statement. What went wrong with that immediate
period, that couple of weeks? What were the cause of the problems? How
come we were so very close, and things just disappeared?
I think those two trends that I suggested began to manifest themselves
in far more concrete terms. First of all Thieu became very much concerned about the
impact of all these provisions upon his ability to continue to govern in
South Vietnam and to have a legitimate government, which would
nevertheless accept a Leopard Spot formula throughout the country. And
in the North Le Duc Tho
seemed to be having some trouble with his hard-nosed people who wanted
the administrative structure formula to be somewhat more meaningful in
terms of its political implications.
that the two extreme groups dug themselves in, and those of us who were
trying to plod up the middle found that uh we just weren’t able to bring
them back together again. I think also after the elections, the North
Vietnamese came to the conclusion that a Congressional alignment had been produced which
would through acts of the Congress uh bring the executive branch to heel, and therefore
they felt that once the election had taken place, they had only to wait
until January when this Congress would come in and the
actions of the Congress would
tie the hands of the executive branch.
I believe the North Vietnamese, once the election deadline had passed,
uh recognized that they had an opportunity that they wished to exploit
to bring pressure on the executive branch of the United States.
Deterioriation of the peace negotiations
you tell me, were you present when Mr. Kissinger read into the record the 69
suggestions to change made by President Thieu. I wonder whether you can tell me what
the response was. Were you at that meeting? And what happened?
I recall being at that meeting. The changes were, a great many of them,
purely picayune. They didn’t really have much in substance that was
required to change. But the very fact that they were so petty and did
introduce an element of uh nitpicking into the discussions annoyed the
North Vietnamese. The substantive changes that were suggested were not
all that many, but two or three of them were quite real and quite
significant. The uh North Vietnamese delegation was inclined to be a
little surly anyway, and I think this just accelerated the process of
deterioration in the talks.
we move on now to the December period. I believe it was in December that
Hanoi again tried to link the
release of POW’s to that of civilians in the South, and it was at this
point that things really went very badly and even led up to the Christmas Bombing. I
wonder if you can tell us the climate in the middle of November, and what your own comments were, and
what you had to say to Kissinger?
in that period of late November, the North
Vietnamese engaged in a number of dilatory tactics. One of them was, as
you suggest, the question of tying the release of prisoners of war to
release of civilians in the South, but there were others all of which
generally reneged on arrangements which they had previously made, and
which were significant to the text and to the integrity of the document
we had negotiated. It was clear that they were doing two things.
One, that they were retaliating for the changes that the South
Vietnamese had asked be put in the text, but more particularly that they
were deliberately attempting to stall and avoid reaching any conclusions
until that new Congress could
come into session and could enact the sorts of inhibitions that they
anticipated. So we went through the period of late November, and into
early December in total frustration on our side of the table. On their
side of the table almost a light-hearted um attitude which indicated
that they were toying with us.
told them several times, both across the table and then in private uh
conversations where Kissinger would take Le
Duc Tho aside and I would take Nguyen Co Thach aside, that the understandings
on which bombing of the North had been suspended were premised on a
continuation of serious constructive negotiations. And that we detected
in their attitude a withdrawal from that premise, and indeed the
introduction of tactics which we could only regard as being dilatory.
warned them that if that indeed were the case, that our President would resume
bombing of the North. They seemed not to believe the nature of this
threat. They seemed to believe that the President would be inhibited from the bombing
because the electoral trend in the United States had brought in a Congress that was going to
oppose bombing and because the general attitude, as demonstrated in
public opinion poles in the United States was opposed to resumption of
they had almost a cavalier attitude to this, and felt that they could
get away with a sabotage of the talks with impunity. In due course uh
Kissinger and I
finally talked on many occasions about this, and finally he reported to
the President our
conclusion that there were not serious talks going on, that the talks
had ceased to be progressive, constructive, and serious, and this of
course led immediately toward the decision to resume bombing.
Effect of the Christmas Bombings on the negotiations
you tell me what the meeting – your first meeting – was like after the
Christmas bombing? What was the atmosphere, and what was said?
the first meeting after the Christmas bombing was, I believe, on January
2. I remember coming back on New Year’s Day. The senior members of the
Vietnamese delegation had been back in Hanoi during the bombing. In fact, I was informed by Nguyen Co Thach that one
string of bombs had fallen very close to Le Duc Tho’s house. So they had absorbed the
full impact of this bombing, and they were aware that it was a serious
were also aware, and I’m sure they were, that they had run out of
anti-aircraft missiles, that the Chinese were not permitting additional ones through, that
they would soon be quite naked to bombing, and though the bombing was
never truly carpet bombing as it has often been depicted, because it was
very accurate bombing against specific installations, they uh
nevertheless feared the wrath of this, and knew that they were in a
position where a continuing or a resumption of the bombing would cause
serious problems for them. So they were very much on edge.
uh in that first meeting which we had, which was in a house which
belonged to the French
Communist Party out in one of the working class suburbs of of
Paris, to the South. It was a
very somber meeting. No jollity, no joking, as usually went on, and
whenever points were pressed, and we seemed to be at a point of
suggesting that our patience was running thin, they either made a
concession there or moved rapidly onto something else and set that
that first meeting, we got through in textual terms about twice as much
as we had achieved in two weeks of, the last two weeks of November ah
the previous year. So there was quite clear evidence in that meeting and
the subsequent one or two that the Vietnamese wished to resume a
negotiating track and wished to come back to achieving some sort of uh
semblance of the agreement that we had reached in the late summer, early
you tell me. The agreement is finally initialed on January the 23rd. But
substantively, what would you say are the differences between the
agreement that was on the table late October
and the one signed in January? Did they seem to be worth the loss of
life and the trouble that ensued, or were they simply unobtainable
major, significant changes in the thrust of the basic document of the
agreement. Of course we had fleshed it out with a whole series of
protocols that had to do with return of prisoners of war, sweeping of
mines, control commissions, arrangements for the introduction of
personnel and equipment through certain check points, et cetera, et
cetera. But as far as the substance of the agreement was concerned, not
that much difference from what we had in October of
Logistics of holding secret meetings
had to do mainly with the substantial areas of the talks I wonder if we
could take you right back… you had a couple of, since we need a bit of,
of lightness as well as somber… I wonder if you could tell me…about
where you….Tell me about the whole business of the subterfuge at the
airport, and the lost briefcases...
change places with my colleague, ‘cause he can fire a couple of
questions to you…and I’d just like you to tell me.
[Series of beeps]
Vietnam / Martin Smith T880.
will ask the question that…
Ambassador, what were some of the anecdotes of the arrangements for
transportation and secrecy and everything during the negotiations in
before the fact of the negotiations had become public, the
transportation entailed a trip in one of the special presidential
special mission aircraft to a landing field, military landing field in
the middle of France, a French
field, where the passengers in the place would debark at the end of a
runaway in the middle of the night, and then get aboard the French President’s little
Mystère jet, which I think a twelve-passenger plane, fly into a smaller
field close to Paris where we’d
be met by the people from the Embassy who were privy to the
the first instance it was Dick Walters, who was the military attaché,
then succeeded by the air attaché, who drove us into town in these small
rent-a-car unmarked vehicles, and came through a back entrance into the
residence of the American ambassador at the old Rothschild mansion near
the Champs Elysées. Ah,
there were some anecdotes. One night, one of our participants, taking
the baggage off the plane, setting it down in the middle of the runway,
and getting aboard the Mystère jet, left one of his bags behind, sitting
there in the middle of the runway, and I imagine when the French air force used that
runway in the morning, they must have been rather confused to find a
suitcase sitting in the middle of the runway.
The decision to notify Nixon that the negotiations had
asked also about this, the walk in the garden. The decision to inform
the President that our
assessment that the North Vietnamese had ceased to negotiate seriously
was one that we did not take lightly. I think we discussed it for a
matter of several days, but I think perhaps the most uh intense
discussion we had was one afternoon, I believe it was a Sunday
afternoon, rather a damp, foggy day, in which uh Henry Kissinger walked
around the circular track in the garden of the ambassador’s residence
for at least two hours discussing all the um implications of this, the
evidence that we had, and whether or not we ah really felt that we could
refrain any longer from informing the President our conclusion that the talks had
come to uh a dead end as far as any substance was concerned.
finally came to the conclusion that it was our obligation to inform the
President that those
talks had ceased to have substance and progress. We knew full well, both
of us from the President’s expressed attitude that this meant that he was going
to resume bombing. We knew the consequences of that and what would be
said not only domestically in the United States, but internationally. We
felt there was no alternative, however, but to be candid and forthright
with the President.
Differences between the situations in Laos and
Turning to Laos, why wasn’t the
Geneva Accord of ’62, why weren’t they a model for a settlement along
those lines in Vietnam itself?
Underlying the Geneva Accords of 1962 on Laos was a territorial premise. The…in fact we called it the
red, white, and blue plan. The reds, the Communists, basically the North
Vietnamese forces, abetted by a few Pathet Lao, controlled the northeastern sector of the
country. The blues, that is to say the ones who were more closely
associated with Thailand,
and who were royalist, or princely at least, controlled the southern
portion of the country up to and along the Thai frontier.
whites, the neutralists, controlled the Vientiane plain, and up to and including Louangphrabang, so that we
had a territorial division of the country that was underlying the nature
of the agreements to be worked out. Each one of these factions of course
was headed by a different prince, you will recall the three princes of
Laos, and there were
personalities that were involved. In Vietnam, it was quite the opposite.
There was really no true structure of the so-called Viet Cong.
true opposition in Vietnam was the Lao Dong
party, the politburo operating out of Hanoi. The people who acted as the nominal heads of the
Viet Cong were figments of
Hanoi. So there was no
fundamental premise that was similar to the one in in Laos. Consequently, the position...And there was
no geographical division that was similar. Consequently the division
that was worked out, not only of territory, but also of authority in
Laos, really didn’t have a
counterpart in South Vietnam.
you give the uh account an account of what caused you to agree with the
establishment of the irregular army, and what were the reasons behind
the establishment of the irregular army in Laos?
the Lao agreements had hardly been
signed, and hardly been put into effect in 1962 before the North
Vietnamese began to break them. In fact they never withdrew their forces
from Laos, as had been required by
those agreements. They enhanced and expanded the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and
they maintained an attitude of some provocation with respect to the
Vientiane government, as
well as the other forces in Laos.
Eventually they assassinated one of the young military officers who was
fairly senior in the neutralist command. This in turn resulted in the
execution or the assassination of the foreign minister, who had close
links with Peking, rather than with Hanoi, and in general the substance of the agreements began
to break down. Our choice as the United States at that stage was either
to declare that the agreements were no longer valid, and revert to a
confrontation which presumably would result in the re-introduction of
United States military forces into Thailand and all the other elements of the confrontation
that existed prior to the agreements.
else um attempting to maintain the façade of the agreements but to shore
up the neutralist government and to try to really resolve the basic
issue on the territory of Vietnam, rather than in Laos. Laos
after all was really ancillary to Vietnam. The main thrust of the North
Vietnamese, or the Lao Dong party was to take over Vietnam first, all
of Vietnam, and then only after that to expand over into Laos and Cambodia.
They were using Lao territory
primarily as a transit uh point to South Vietnam, and that was the
principal preoccupation of Hanoi.
So rather than re-establishing the confrontation overtly in Laos, a decision was made in 1963 and early 1964 to re-establish
some logistic support to the Miao tribes people up in the hills of the northeastern quadrant
of Laos, in order to slow down the
advance of the Vietnamese across Lao territory, and in order to bring that measure into some
was decided to do this clandestinely, rather than overtly, because by
doing it clandestinely we could still maintain the presumption that the
Lao agreements were intact,
and if and when a settlement was reached in Vietnam, then we could
revert back to the status quo of having an agreement that did not
require renegotiation, and which basically accepted a buffer arrangement
you give us your assessment briefly of Souvanna Phouma as a prime minister and as an
was an interesting, or is, is an interesting mixture of a man. He was
born, of course, to royalty in Laos, the cadet branch of the Lao royal family, but he was educated in France, and acquired a French culture to such a
degree that he was more or less a French country gentleman in the way in which he lived and in
the way in which he um enjoyed his own pleasures.
Souvanna also was
a fairly sophisticated man, a worldly man, and found himself quite out
of touch with a great many of the more earthy aspects of his Laotian
counterparts. He behaved as a European, and in many instances in that
context. Um, as an…Have you lost something there?
on [incomprehensible] and we’ll put your comments on pictures of the man
[Laughs]. Oh, I see. Well ah…he was also a curious mixture of royal impatience and uh
lengthy patience with some of the features of uh the Lao confusion. As an operator, I would say that
he was someone who
was able to deal uh from a princely point of view with his subordinates,
never really getting down into the details, trusting them to carry out
the details, therefore needing to have with him and around him some
people who were technically competent and who were able to generally
execute the sorts of things that he had in mind. He had a pretty shrewd
understanding of the balance which could be tolerated among the larger
powers, and was effective I think in maintaining his uh reputation, his
integrity and his acceptability in the major capitals of the