Interview with William H. (William Healy) Sullivan, 1981


Former Ambassador William H. Sullivan recounts the negotiations leading up to the Paris Peace Accords. He recalls discovering secret talks between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Th¿ and discusses the strategy and points of contention during the peace talks. Finally, he recalls the decision to notify President Nixon that the negotiations were stalling, and he compares the peace process in Vietnam with that of Laos.


Sullivan's discovery of the secret negotiations

Vietnam / Martin Smith T880. SND 2811. Side 1.
Pic Roll 1 Ambassador Sullivan.
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 Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were engaged in and what were your thoughts, what did you think about it?
My 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.
Um, 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 South

I 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.
Well 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 times.
I 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.
You didn’t get a feeling from him that he was totally opposed under all circumstances to having troops from the North in the South?
I 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

I 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 31.
Well 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.
I 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.
Well 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.
He 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 emotional.
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 Thieu’s 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.
Can we just cut a minute? How much should we…?

Events surrounding Kissinger's "Peace is at hand" speech

I 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?
Well 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.
In 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.
We 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.
Fine, let’s cut there…put another magazine on. It’s going very well indeed. You have…
Pics 2.
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?
Well 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.
So 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.
So 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

Could 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?
Yes, 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.
Can 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?
Well 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.
We 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.
We 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 the bombing.
So 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

Can you tell me what the meeting – your first meeting – was like after the Christmas bombing? What was the atmosphere, and what was said?
Well 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 effort.
We 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.
And 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 aside.
In 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 fall.
Can 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 otherwise?
No 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 ’72.

Logistics of holding secret meetings

We’ve 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...
I’ll 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.
SND 2812 [Side 2]
I will ask the question that…
Vietnam Project.
Ambassador Sullivan.
Sound 2.
Mr. Ambassador, what were some of the anecdotes of the arrangements for transportation and secrecy and everything during the negotiations in late ’72.
Well 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 negotiations.
In 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 stalled

You 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.
We 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 Vietnam

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.
The 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.
The 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.
Can 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?
Well 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.
Or 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 control.
It 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 for Laos.
Could you give us your assessment briefly of Souvanna Phouma as a prime minister and as an operator.
Well, Souvanna Phouma 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 Southeast Asian context. Um, as an…Have you lost something there?
We’ve lost we’ve lost picture. Carry on…
You’ve lost the picture.
Carry on [incomprehensible] and we’ll put your comments on pictures of the man concerned.
[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 world.
Okay. That’s good…
This’ll be Ambassador Sullivan, room tone with camera noise.
Okay, give us a yell.
Any time.
End of Ambassador Sullivan 2.