• U.S.

THE WAR: Another Pause on the Road to Peace

6 minute read
TIME

“My dear Henry, when our talks are completed, can you arrange a position for me as a visiting professor of Marxism at Harvard?”

“With pleasure. But of course, I must be permitted to teach a course in political science in Hanoi.”

WITH that jocular exchange about postwar professorships, Presidential Adviser Henry Kissinger and North Viet Nam’s Le Duc Tho greeted each other last week in a quietly elegant villa outside Paris. It was the first meeting of the two wily, indefatigable negotiators since they hammered out their nine-point plan early last October. It was to begin what Washington hoped would be the final round of talks to nail down a firm agreement on ending the war in Viet Nam. But the round, it soon became clear, would take much more than the “three or four days” that Nixon’s negotiator had forecast before the U.S. election. After six days of secret sessions and rumors of difficulties, the two sides declared an eight-day recess in the talks, which were to resume on Dec. 4. Amid assurances by U.S. officials that the peace cavalcade was still “on track,” Kissinger returned home.

With expectations so high, the talks had begun in a kind of unreal, Hellzapoppin’ atmosphere. Journalists camped outside the ornate U.S. embassy residence (a former Rothschild mansion), waiting for the American team to emerge. Inside, an uncomfortable-looking Marine—improbably disguised in a Cardin suit—stood guard at the door to Kissinger’s bedroom. Early in the week, motorcycle-borne photographers had tracked the negotiators’ limousines in a wild cross-country pursuit to their secret meeting place in the Paris exurb of Gif-sur-Yvette: a two-story, tile-roofed villa. A gallery of photographers and TV cameramen gathered on ladders, fence posts and nearby rooftops in hopes of finding out what was being said inside the villa.

Periodically, Kissinger and Tho would play to the gallery, strolling through the rose garden to chat with what seemed like rather studied conviviality—as if trying to counter stories of deepening difficulties. Kissinger, assuming his secret-swinger posture, emerged from a Paris restaurant with good-looking Jan Gushing, 26, the Briarcliff-grad blonde wife of an American working in a Paris investment firm, whom Kissinger has known for a couple of years.

But what had happened to the negotiations? The recess was announced amid reports, mainly from Saigon and North Vietnamese sources in Paris, that the talks had become snagged. U.S. officials acknowledged that Kissinger was returning to Washington with some tough North Vietnamese responses to issues raised by the U.S. in Paris. Those responses would require decisions this week by President Nixon, after consultation with Nguyen Phu Duc, a special South Vietnamese emissary dispatched to Washington by President Nguyen Van Thieu.

Despite the recess, Administration officials maintained that their peace scenario would not have to be substantially rewritten. As U.S. officials outlined the steps, the negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris would be followed by a visit by Kissinger or his deputy, General Alexander M. Haig, to Saigon, where the nine-point plan would be presented to President Thieu. At some point, possibly after a meeting between Nixon and Thieu, the U.S. and the North Vietnamese would meet again in Paris to initial the agreement and set a date for its formal signing at the ministerial level. U.S. negotiators are still aiming for a signing in mid-December, or at least by the end of the year, regardless of whether the Thieu regime agrees to go along. “They have the right to make reasonable demands,” said one Administration official last week. “But as the President has said, we’ll sign not a day later than we think is right.”

Down-and-Dirty. Washington remains confident that Thieu will eventually agree to sign. But the view from Saigon is quite different. Thieu is known to be convinced that the nine-point plan would lead to his regime’s political demise. From the South Vietnamese capital, TIME Bureau Chief Stanley Cloud cabled last week that “there is an increasing feeling here that a collision of major proportions is likely between Saigon and Washington.” Rather than yield, Cloud continued, “Thieu seems to be determined to play out his hand, gambling that Nixon will not have the stomach for the kind of down-and-dirty tactics that would be necessary to sweep him, and his objections, out of the way.” What if Thieu really refused to accept the settlement? Washington’s remaining, difficult option would be a bilateral settlement with Hanoi.

In general, the Administration is in a tough position: having already committed itself in principle to the draft agreement, it must now deal with pressures from Saigon to tighten up various provisions and from Hanoi, which wants to keep the nine-point plan vague in areas where vagueness could work to the Communists’ advantage. The tug of war focuses on two main areas.

The first involves troop withdrawals. The U.S. and Hanoi have agreed in private that some of the estimated 100,000 to 145,000 North Vietnamese troops in the South will be withdrawn. But Thieu wants a total withdrawal, with public guarantees. Hanoi refuses to acknowledge the presence of its troops in the South, because to do so could weaken its position that Viet Nam is all one country, temporarily divided.

The second is making cease-fire arrangements. Thieu wants detailed cease-fire arrangements, covering all of Indochina. Though negotiations are in progress in Laos, the Cambodian situation is more complex because Prince Norodom Sihanouk, head of the government in exile in Peking, refuses to negotiate directly with Premier Lon Nol’s U.S.-backed regime in Phnom-Penh. Meanwhile, Washington must satisfy the four prospective members of the international supervisory commission (Canada, Indonesia, Poland and Hungary) that its intricate cease-fire arrangements are workable.

One sidelight to last week’s talks in Paris was a rumor in the State Department that Kissinger erred last October when he hurried home to Washington with a draft agreement that turned out to be less than airtight. There is no evidence that this is so, and the whispers of a Kissinger goof could be put down to State jealousy, but they would surely increase if the President’s negotiator were to fail to nail down a settlement on the second go-round. In short, some furious bargaining remained to be done before either Kissinger or Le Duc Tho could look ahead to those professorships at Harvard and Hanoi.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com