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THE WAR: The Peace Momentum Resumes

6 minute read

FOR several uneasy weeks, the peace cavalcade had been marking time. With an eye to a nervous ally, unpredictable voters and future historians, Richard Nixon had stayed the negotiations, waiting for the election to pass. But now the momentum has resumed. Ending North Viet Nam’s holdout against a reopening of the talks on its nine-point plan, Hanoi’s negotiator Le Duc Tho arrived in Paris (via Peking and Moscow) aboard an Aeroflot jet, expressing hopes to “rapidly settle” the remaining issues. In Washington, Henry Kissinger gathered his notes and his aides and flew off to join Le Duc Tho in the “one more” bargaining go-round that would—barring any sudden reversal—at last bring peace in Viet Nam.

But when? For the first time it was possible to sketch out a fairly firm timetable. In all likelihood, this week’s talks between the President’s National Security Adviser and the North Vietnamese on the 58-page draft agreement would continue for at least three or four days and perhaps even more. Following the Paris sessions, either Kissinger or his deputy, General Alexander M. Haig, would go to Saigon to review the terms with South Viet Nam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu, who is preparing for a cease-fire while continuing to maintain a public posture of bristling opposition to a settlement.

Then Kissinger would return to Paris, where he and Le Duc Tho would initial the draft. The papers could be ready for a formal signing in Paris by U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers and North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh as early as the end of the month, but in any case the signing would take place no later than mid-December. Under the 60-day withdrawal plan, the remaining U.S. troops in South Viet Nam and the more than 500 P.O.W.s known to be held by the Communists throughout Indochina could begin coming home before Christmas.

Inevitable. Though Hanoi’s anger and suspicion were thoroughly aroused by Richard Nixon’s decision to stall the headlong negotiations beyond North Viet Nam’s Oct. 31 “deadline” and the U.S. election, there never was much doubt that the North Vietnamese were still eager for a settlement. The Administration revealed last week that Hanoi had agreed in principle before the U.S. election to talk over the “six or seven issues” Kissinger had mentioned in his dramatic Oct. 26 TV press conference. After the Nov. 7 landslide, the North Vietnamese proposed to begin the talks on Nov. 20, and Washington quickly consented.

In conversations in Paris last week, TIME Correspondent Jerrold Schecter found a pervasive feeling among sources close to the North Vietnamese that the Communists were ready to settle and “have reached the point of the inevitable.” Schecter was repeatedly assured that Hanoi wants a solution and a new era of relations with the U.S. Le Duc Tho was evidently saying much the same thing when he stopped in Peking and Moscow on his way to Paris. Having earlier pressed the North Vietnamese to complete the peace talks, Soviet Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev now publicly chided Washington for putting “obstacles” in the path of a settlement.

The new round of secret talks figured to be difficult. Nevertheless, during the long hiatus in the negotiations, some of the issues that Kissinger will raise have somewhat diminished. When he returned to Washington last week after a two-day visit in Saigon, General Haig was able to report that Thieu had begun to yield—though reluctantly—on some of his objections to the nine-point plan.

Discouraged. Reportedly, Thieu became deeply discouraged about his chances of holding off a settlement when Haig told him how plans to supervise a cease-fire had progressed. Canada, Indonesia, Poland and Hungary have agreed, at least tentatively, to supply a 5,200-man international supervisory force. Spotted in South Viet Nam’s 200 districts, its four major ports and along the Demilitarized Zone, the teams will oversee not only the ceasefire but also the elections called for in the nine-point plan. One team, located in Hanoi, will supervise the release of the American P.O.W.s, who are to be freed in two batches during the 60-day period of troop withdrawal following the ceasefire.

Where Thieu has refused to budge, at least so far, is on the issue of the North Vietnamese troops in the South. The U.S. and Hanoi have already agreed in principle on a partial withdrawal. But Saigon continues to insist on a public assurance by Hanoi that it will withdraw all of its troops—reckoned at 100,000 to 145,000 by U.S. intelligence and at 300,000 by Thieu. The North Vietnamese are not going to agree to such a condition.

There are other, less troublesome items on the Paris agenda. The negotiators must agree on the coordination of a truce in South Viet Nam with parallel cease-fires in Laos and Cambodia. They must also settle on a site for the multi-nation “guarantee conference” that is supposed to convene within 30 days to deal with the larger problems of peace in Viet Nam and presumably the rest of Indochina as well. Paris is questionable as a site because Saigon feels that France is partial to the North Vietnamese; Geneva is out, since Hanoi has bitter memories of the city that stem from the 1954 and 1962 conferences. Among the other possibilities: Copenhagen, Vienna, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or a Swiss city other than Geneva. The North Vietnamese are also eager to discuss the U.S. plan to bankroll a $7.5 billion Viet Nam reconstruction program; it is possible that the program will involve a Kissinger visit to Hanoi.

Saigon, meanwhile, continued its frantic preparations to deal with the uncertain dynamics of peace. By week’s end the massive, eleventh-hour infusion of new U.S. military hardware—59 tanks, 100 personnel carriers, 32 heavy-transport planes, 210 fighter-bombers and 280 helicopters—was virtually complete. On the political front, the Thieu regime has added tens of thousands of known or suspected Communists and Communist sympathizers to South Viet Nam’s prison population in the past few weeks. Thieu has also mounted a belated effort to broaden his narrow (largely military) base of support with a renewed drive to win a truly national following for the so-called Democracy Party that he has been fitfully trying to form for the past two years. At the same time, there were signs that even Thieu’s small constituency was beginning to feel that a settlement might not only be inevitable but perhaps even workable. One indication was the fact that the savings that middle-class Vietnamese were withdrawing in panic only last month were now beginning to flow back into Saigon’s banks.

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