The Viet Nam Negotiations

The peace negotiations in Paris have been marked by the classic Vietnamese syndrome: optimism alternating with bewilderment; euphoria giving way to frustration. The halt to the bombing produced another wave of high hope. Yet it was followed almost immediately by the dispute with Saigon over its participation in the talks. The merits of this issue aside, we must realize that a civil war which has torn a society for twenty years and which has involved the great powers is unlikely to be settled in a single dramatic stroke. Even if there were mutual trust-a commodity not in excessive supply- the complexity of the issues and the difficulty of grasping their interrelationship would make for complicated negotiations. Throughout the war, criteria by which to measure progress have been hard to come by; this problem has continued during the negotiations. The dilemma is that almost any statement about Viet Nam is likely to be true; unfortunately, truth does not guarantee relevance.

The sequence of events that led to negotiations probably started with General Westmorland's visit to Washington in November 1967. On that occasion, General Westmoreland told a Joint Session of Congress that the war was being won militarily. He outlined "indicators" of progress and stated that a limited withdrawal of American combat forces might be undertaken beginning late in 1968. On January 17, 1968, President Johnson, in his State of the Union address, emphasized that the pacification program- the extension of the control of Saigon into the countryside-was progressing satisfactorily. Sixty-seven percent of the population of South Viet Nam lived in relatively secure areas; the figure was expected to rise. A week later, the Tet offensive overthrew the assumptions of American strategy.

What had gone wrong? The basic problem has been conceptual: the tendency to apply traditional maxims of both strategy and "nation-building" to a situation which they did not fit.

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