Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
As the war in Viet Nam grows in bitterness and destructiveness, the call for negotiation grows more insistent. The issue we confront, however, is not simply whether a settlement of the war should be negotiated. The question rather is a threefold one. How should we go about it? What can we expect from it? Can we arrange a settlement that has a fair chance of success? During the next several months, the American people, already emotionally tortured and intellectually frustrated by the war, are destined to be treated to large doses of oratory which will do nothing to lift the veil of confusion surrounding the question of negotiations. It may be worthwhile, then, to explore some of the issues and implications that we (and our allies and our adversaries) will have to deal with if, in fact, negotiations get under way.
At the outset we need to examine several critical preliminary factors which seem obvious when discussed in the abstract, but which become increasingly befogged as we get down to actual cases. There is, first of all, the assumption, made explicitly by some and implicitly by others, that negotiations - settlement. This assumption is not without some validity; once the negotiating process starts, the pressure of domestic opinion in the countries actively involved, and of international opinion generally, may force both sides to move toward an agreement. However, we should recognize that public pressure, whether domestic or external, will operate with more intensity and with more effectiveness on our side of the table than on theirs-and this will not necessarily result in a "better," or a more lasting, final settlement. Moreover, those counting on domestic pressures to force the United States to water down its terms in order to reach an early agreement would do well to look at the recent swing of American public opinion in the direction of a "hard" rather than a "soft" line; the pressure of the present mood of public opinion on American negotiators might result in a walkout rather than major concessions. North Viet Nam is relatively free from the pressures of domestic opinion on government policy-making; more often than not it ignores international public opinion, except to the extent that it can be manipulated for propaganda purposes. On the other hand, the leaders of North Viet Nam can vividly remember the pressures exerted on them by Moscow and Peking at Geneva in 1954. Indeed, that experience almost certainly is one reason why Hanoi is reluctant to participate in another Geneva-type conference.
When all is said and done, the force of domestic and international public opinion will play a definitive role only if the actual negotiations are conducted under the glare of klieg lights in, for example, the Palais des Nations at Geneva. It is more likely, however, that the hard bargaining will take place in secrecy and that a public "International Conference" will follow only if and when basic agreement has been reached on the tough issues.
In short, to argue that the process of negotiations is a desirable end in itself, on the assumption that it will automatically lead to a settlement, may be dangerously irresponsible to the cause of peace. The difficulties involved in inducing preliminary talks among the various belligerents are by now too obvious to mention. When "talks," to say nothing of "negotiations," actually take place, the belligerents will have had to reach a prior decision to make a serious effort to conclude a settlement; a premature or insincere approach to the process carries great risks of failure and consequent dangers of intensified warfare. If negotiations are begun and then broken off, there could be great difficulty in resuming them, and the hawks on all sides (including the opponents of negotiations in Peking) would carry the day.
Another matter we should note at the outset is that the process of negotiating is very different from arranging the surrender of the enemy. Obvious? Yes, in the real world; but when one goes through the looking glass with some latter-day Alices, there is a tendency to think of a "half- dozen impossible things before breakfast." It must be recognized that neither we, nor the Government of South Viet Nam, nor the Government in Hanoi and its cohorts in the National Liberation Front will enter into negotiations with the prospect of being on the wrong end of a surrender ceremony. When we are able to observe the bedrock of realism through the flow of rhetoric, it is apparent that virtually every advocate on each side of the argument is aware that negotiations on Viet Nam will produce agreement only if all participants feel they can emerge with dignity and the preservation of their minimum objectives. But an inflated sense of our own military and political leverage has produced a number of euphoric propositions for a final settlement-propositions replete with hopes but barren of prospects. On the other hand, proposals advanced by the more zealous American advocates of U.S. withdrawal are less realistic and less acceptable to the South Vietnamese and the United States than some of the proposals put forward by the National Liberation Front or Hanoi. If we are serious about negotiations, we must think in terms of a satisfactory (vs. ideal) and a realistic (vs. theoretical) settlement.
Thus, under the circumstances likely to prevail in the foreseeable future, talks will not necessarily lead to negotiations; negotiations, if they occur, will mean tough bargaining and will not necessarily lead to an agreement. If an agreement is reached, it must be one that each side can tolerate.
There are other preliminary considerations: for example, if we hope to achieve a "satisfactory" and "realistic" settlement, we must first define our fundamental objectives in Viet Nam. Our stated goals are very limited. One of the most frequently cited goals is to provide the circumstances "to permit the Vietnamese in South Viet Nam freely to choose their own future." Another goal, which recently has been given greater emphasis, has a somewhat broader character. Secretary Rusk formulated this in a press conference last October when he defined our central objective as "an organized and reliable peace."
No matter how we have stated our objectives, it is clear that we are not bent upon the elimination of the régime in Hanoi or the death or surrender of every member of the National Liberation Front (indeed, we have taken care to make this point time and time again). Yet in formulating our negotiating position and, perhaps more importantly, in looking ahead to the negotiating process itself, we must recognize that these objectives are likely to be buffeted by domestic pressures-that large sectors of American public and Congressional opinion may well feel that the costs in lives, money and forsaken or postponed domestic programs warrant setting our goals in Viet Nam higher than they are.
A hint of this gap between public expectations and realistic goals was made evident in a recent Harris Poll. In answer to the question, "Which . . . do you think is our objective today in Viet Nam?" 45 percent of those polled thought that our goal is "to stop communist aggression once and for all in Southeast Asia." Another 24 percent felt that we are in Viet Nam "to force North Viet Nam to withdraw from South Viet Nam completely and eliminate all communist influence." It should be noted that the question asked was not what should be the U.S. objective, but what "is our objective today." This is not a matter of semantics. Short of an unconditional surrender by both North Viet Nam and the National Liberation Front, it is highly unlikely that the United States could achieve either of the objectives postulated by Mr. Harris. Even the most optimistic military analyst would heavily discount the possibility of an unconditional surrender by the communist forces. And if this cannot be achieved by the military defeat of the enemy, it certainly cannot be achieved through negotiations. In short, if Mr. Harris has selected a representative sample of our population, and if almost three-quarters of our people really feel that the American objective in South Viet Nam is to "stop communist aggression once and for all" or that we are attempting to "eliminate all communist influence" in Viet Nam, the Administration is confronted with a difficult problem. It must either forsake a policy of negotiations in the foreseeable future and settle down for a long war or make a major effort to achieve more complete public understanding of its limited objectives.
Moving beyond the questions of expectations and objectives, we must recognize the lack of trust and even basic communication between Hanoi and Washington. The American Government and, to a greater extent, the Government of South Viet Nam have been reluctant to accept North Vietnamese or Viet Cong assurances at face value-and with good reason. Hanoi's complete disregard of the Laos Agreement from the moment of signature is a case in point. The Viet Cong's cynical and dramatic behavior during this year's Tet "truce" is yet another. For their part, the North Vietnamese and their friends quite clearly neither understand nor trust us. It is in this hostile environment of distrust that both sides have been conducting their probes. It is in this static-laden atmosphere that we and the South Vietnamese Government have been listening for a clear signal that the North Vietnamese are ready to move from fighting to serious negotiating. We can assume that Hanoi, too, is straining to identify our genuine intentions from the welter of "informed" commentary, public oratory and private communications that are emitted daily from Washington and Saigon.
To the decision-makers in Hanoi, subtle signals, nuances of language and such concepts as "freedom of choice," "free elections," "genuine neutrality" may very well be unintelligible, perhaps even untranslatable. The American position, as outlined in the "Fourteen Points for Peace" (January 7, 1966) and in such documents as the Manila Communique (October 25, 1966), is probably viewed by them as unadulterated propaganda. This gap in basic communication and mutual trust compounds the normal, formidable problems involved in moving any war to a conference table. As we have learned from the Marshall Mission to China, the negotiations at Panmunjom, the Geneva Conference of 1954 and the Laos Conference of 1961-62, the problem of communicating with communists and, in particular, with Asian communists, makes actual negotiations a frustrating experience.
In order not only to begin negotiations, but also to engage in fruitful negotiations, we must break through this communications barrier. We must try to reach the stage where, if the communists ignore our signals or reject our proposals, they do so from policy considerations rather than from misunderstanding or suspicion. Thus, our problem is to ensure that what we propose is clearly understood by the other side. Some of our difficulties in communicating with the Hanoi régime may stem from its inability to understand our proposals. On the other hand, some of the propositions we have advanced over the past eighteen months may have been ignored or rejected simply because Hanoi did not believe that we meant what we said, or because Hanoi did not believe we would follow through on what we offered.
In an effort to fathom the thoughts of the leaders of North Viet Nam and the National Liberation Front, we examine with great care every one of their statements for new or possibly even hidden meaning. Hanoi's use of the words "unconditional" or "definitive" or "permanent" in their latest reference to a halt in our bombing is noted with great interest by both government and lay analysts. A change from "could" to "will" in a speech by the North Vietnamese Foreign Minister was the occasion for memoranda, editorials, orations and intense diplomatic activity. We must assume that the communist analysts, policy-makers and publicists examine with equal care any apparent or real changes in our own formulations. Thus, it is safe to assume that the fact that the President used different formulations in his San Antonio speech last September and in his State of the Union address in January, with respect to Hanoi's "not taking advantage" of a bombing cessation, must have caused the kerosene lamps in Hanoi to burn late into the night. Hanoi claims that the change in its formulation was significant, and Washington stated that the change in its formulation was not significant. (The issue was publicly resolved only by Clark Clifford's explanation in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Department of State's subsequent endorsement of the formulation.) But the trust-gap between the two capitals is so wide that the affirmation and denial were received with great suspicion. The lesson for us, of course, is to repeat with absolute, even if boring, precision the formulation of our proposals, unless we consciously want to convey a new signal.
How do the various protagonists in the drama of Viet Nam approach the question and regard the prospects of early negotiations?
Hanoi's motivation and rationale deserve a close look, for it is with the leadership of North Viet Nam that we and the South Vietnamese will have to deal. We know very little about the decision-making process in Hanoi. We know even less, if that is possible, about the way decisions are made in the National Liberation Front's jungle redoubt, although we do know that the NLF is not an independent entity. It is safe to assume that very few people are involved at the top levels of either group; staff work must almost certainly be minimal; information about the outside world is inadequate and distorted; there are pulls and tugs from Peking and Moscow in the case of North Viet Nam (and from Hanoi and Peking in the case of the NLF); the leaders are harassed, suspicious and doctrinaire. The experience of both the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong with the West must be highly colored by three major factors: their military victory over the French, their political defeat at the Geneva Conference in 1954 and their exposure to pacifist or leftist Western visitors. Hanoi's demeanor toward the West reflects an amalgam of old-style Marxist contempt for "degenerate capitalists," Asian xenophobia, Buddhist obscurantism, the emotional scars of Western colonialism, an innate sense of oriental superiority and an almost pathological feeling of inferiority and insecurity.
In short, what we face is an abrasive, insulting and uncompromising style of communication and conduct. This was evident in the Viet Minh's behavior at Geneva in 1954 and in Hanoi's conduct during the Laos Conference of 1961- 62. It was equally so in Ho's response to President Johnson's letter in the spring of 1967. It is clear that if we are successfully to engage the men of Hanoi or the NLF in negotiations, we must ignore the tone and concentrate on the content of any written or direct communication with them.
We should acknowledge, moreover, that the leaders of North Viet Nam and the Viet Cong distrust the very process of negotiation; they are wary of international forums which will surface Sino-Soviet quarrels; they are concerned that, once negotiations start, they will be forced, as in 1954, to make damaging concessions, We should also recognize their abiding faith in the righteousness of their cause and in ultimate victory. They defeated the French and they have withstood three years of pounding by powerful U.S. ground, air and naval forces. Finally, we must reckon with their tremendous confidence in their military forces, in their political apparatus and in their staying power. To deny them these attributes would be to delude ourselves.
We know enough about relations between Hanoi and the National Liberation Front to assume they would adopt parallel approaches to the whole process of negotiations-from preliminary talks to a final settlement. This can be expected not only because of the tight control exercised by Hanoi over the NLF and its fighting arm, the Viet Cong, but also because there is a considerable community of interests and motives. There may, however, be certain basic differences between some members of the NLF political apparatus and the Viet Cong, and between both of these and Hanoi. These differences could come to the surface as negotiations and a political settlement become a more realistic and imminent possibility. A great deal will depend on our initial approaches, on the course of the actual negotiations and on the attitude we and the South Vietnamese take toward any dissident elements that may become evident within the NLF.
Assuming that the communists decide to enter into talks, what are the broad categories of problems likely to be of interest or concern both to Hanoi and, perhaps with some modifications, to the National Liberation Front? Most important, Hanoi must be worried about threats to its security. The presence of American forces and the maintenance of American military bases in South Viet Nam are matters of prime concern to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong leadership. Since a formal settlement would incorporate the terms and timing for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the communists would probably prefer to end the war through negotiations rather than through a Viet Cong-North Vietnamese "fadeaway." It is doubtful that Hanoi has given serious consideration to the proposition advanced at Manilla in October 1966 that allied forces would be withdrawn from Viet Nam "as soon as possible and not later than six months after" North Viet Nam "withdraws its forces to the north, ceases infiltration, and the level of violence thus subsides." But there is no question that we will be reminded of this formula when negotiations begin.
Hanoi and the National Liberation Front have already announced their demands to secure an overt and influential role for the Front in the political life of South Viet Nam. In addition to a role in the Government, the communists will almost certainly insist on the postwar "neutrality" or "nonalignrnent" of South Viet Nam. Yet another matter that we will confront is the question of reunification, one which Hanoi is advancing with more vigor than the National Liberation Front. Over and above these, there probably are a host of other military, political and economic items on Hanoi's shopping list.
These demands present formidable, but not necessarily insurmountable, problems for our negotiators. One of our first tasks will be to determine with more precision what Hanoi and the Front mean by "participation in the government," "neutrality" and "reunification." We may not be able to do this until we are well into negotiations. But if we contemplate negotiating a political settlement rather than undertaking the cost and risks of attempting to achieve the military surrender of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, we must be ready to come to grips with Hanoi's interests just as the North Vietnamese must realistically confront ours.
Peking's position with respect to negotiations appears to be harder than that of any of the other communist capitals. Unless the Chinese Communists foresee disastrous defeat for Hanoi and the Viet Cong, or some important political gains that seem certain to emerge from negotiations, they want the war to continue. Peking would like to settle for nothing short of the military defeat of the South Vietnamese and, more importantly, the United States. The Chinese communist leaders have urged the North Vietnamese to press forward with "armed struggle," and have almost certainly fortified Hanoi's natural inclination to view U.S. proposals with skepticism and suspicion. The extent to which serious negotiations with Hanoi are likely to occur, and to be expeditious when they do, will depend on Hanoi's ability to withstand Chinese pressures. This may require both substantial economic assistance from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and perhaps even security guarantees.
As for the Soviet Union, it is questionable whether Moscow would be prepared to drag an unwilling Hanoi to the negotiating table, even if it thought it could do so. What does seem clear is that Moscow would encourage any North Vietnamese manifestations of a willingness to negotiate, and would act as an intermediary for or channel to Hanoi if the North Vietnamese requested such services.
But we must also recognize that we face a major task of diplomacy over the next year, not only in Hanoi and Moscow, but in Saigon as well. If we have to drag the South Vietnamese kicking and screaming to the conference table, negotiations are not likely to go well. Gnawing away at the South Vietnamese leaders is their fear that the Viet Cong will achieve by political means what they had failed to achieve by force. They are also concerned that the necessary degree of cohesion and organization among the non-communists in South Viet Nam has not yet been achieved. They view the war as an important instrument, not only in grinding down the enemy, but in building up the strength of the non-communist elements in South Viet Nam.
As a result of the troop contributions of third countries (Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Philippines, Thailand) there has emerged yet an additional set of interests and influences that must be taken into account in our approach to negotiations and a settlement. This is a price we must be ready to pay for their support. Some of the governments involved have made contributions in the face of significant domestic opposition. All of them have a genuine stake in the shape of an eventual peace settlement. We might be able to persuade them to remain flexible on the question of their actual participation in every stage of the negotiations, but we must take seriously their demands for full consultation.
Up to this point we have been addressing some of the key, albeit general, considerations that those advocating or planning for negotiations should bear in mind. It may now be instructive to highlight some of the specific issues that may arise when the problems of communication and mutual distrust are sufficiently disposed of and when both sides decide to sit down for serious, substantive talks.
The 1954 Geneva Conference Syndrome. Both the United States and North Viet Nam have publicly stated their willingness to return to the "principles," or the "essentials," or the "spirit" of the Geneva Accords of 1954, but thus far neither side has spelled out with any precision just what this means. Surely a reversion to the 1954 Accords, in toto, is not the remedy for the present situation. There are certain provisions, such as those dealing with amnesty, the sanctity of the DMZ, the integrity of the two national entities, and elections leading toward eventual unification, which are still applicable. However, it is quite clear that the international supervisory and policing mechanism (the International Control Commission), while still valid in principle, would need careful review and considerable strengthening if we are to have any confidence in communist compliance with the terms of an eventual agreement.
Perhaps the best argument against reconvening the Geneva Conference, as such, is that under present circumstances some of the participating countries would be redundant or would be considerable impediments to the achievement of a final settlement. On the other hand, there are other countries which now have a direct stake in a settlement and were not among the original conferees. In any case, "reconvening Geneva" may turn out to be an academic issue, for both Moscow and Hanoi seem reluctant to try to reach a settlement in the format of the Geneva Conference of 1954 because of difficulties implicit in a public confrontation with China.
A Ceasefire. We have learned from Korea that negotiating a ceasefire can be a long, costly and literally bloody experience. A ceasefire with built-in safeguards will be much more difficult to work out for Viet Nam because the disposition of forces there is infinitely less clear-cut than it was in Korea. Moreover, our experience in the Laos Conference of 1961-62, where continued negotiations were at the mercy of the integrity of an informal ceasefire, has taught us that such an arrangement can be very fragile and tenuous; any trigger-happy or ill-intentioned junior officer can throw the negotiations into jeopardy.
The problem of arranging a ceasefire in Viet Nam is, in fact, painfully complicated because it involves the disengagement of opposing forces operating at two different levels: the conventional, publicly acknowledged and exposed forces of both sides, and the clandestine guerrilla forces and political infrastructure of the insurgents. It is evident that a ceasefire arranged in haste and without adequate safeguards and supervision could involve serious risks for the United States and South Viet Nam.
The complex issue of a ceasefire has become dangerously oversimplified in various proposals advanced by U Thant and others. To the extent that the concept has actually been spelled out in these proposals, it is reduced to a situation wherein each side voluntarily refrains from offensive operations and undertakes military action only in self-defense. By and large, this was the understanding on which the Christmas and Tet truces of the past few years were based-with unhappy consequences. Such a frail and delicate arrangement tends to have a predictably short life expectancy. If we do agree to a de facto ceasefire as a step toward negotiations, it should be viewed as a means to achieve a more propitious atmosphere in which arrangements for a more robust, de jure ceasefire would be worked out. In short, the timing and terms of a ceasefire could have a fundamental effect on shaping the outcome of an eventual settlement, and we must, therefore, have a well-prepared position.
Withdrawal of Forces. Agreement in principle with respect to the withdrawal of outside forces from South Viet Nam might be relatively easy to achieve, but the implementation of any agreement is likely to prove very complicated, partly because of Hanoi's adamant refusal to admit to having any troops in South Viet Nam. Basic to the problem of implementation, of course, would be the organization and operation of a control body to supervise the withdrawals. The International Control Commission, as presently constituted, would be unable to handle this task. Major changes in its terms of reference and its mode of operation must be worked out, together with provisions for increasing its strength and improving its mobility on both sides of the De-Militarized Zone and within the DMZ itself.
Over and above the question of troop withdrawals per se, there are certain technical questions of particular interest to the United States and its allies which must be taken into consideration when the modalities of a phased withdrawal are being worked out: the rotation of men who have already served their time in Viet Nam; the replacement of sick and wounded; the problem of moving troops in and out of Viet Nam for rest and recuperation. The Control Group will have to ensure that these normal replacement measures will not be seized on by the North Vietnamese as an excuse to make a net augmentation of their strength.
The Southern Regroupees. Perhaps as many as 35,000 Regroupees, South Vietnamese who went North in 1954, were returned to the South by Hanoi between 1957 and 1964. We do not know how many of them are alive, though it is safe to assume that battle casualties, disease, desertions and defections have probably reduced their ranks substantially (especially of the military cadres). Since the Regroupees would play a vital role in any continuing effort by Hanoi to subvert the South after a settlement, we should attempt to assure their return to North Viet Nam. However, the problem of obtaining a reliable estimate of numbers, let alone the identities of individual Regroupees, will pose a formidable task.
Surrender of Arms by the Viet Cong. Negotiating the disarmament of the Viet Cong may prove to be the most difficult and complex issue of all. The basic problem is one of mutual confidence-confidence by the Government of South Viet Nam that the Viet Cong will not cache more arms than it surrenders, confidence by the Viet Cong that it will not be attacked once it disarms and that, in exchange for disarming, it will be permitted to play a legitimate political role in the nation. The experiences of the Greek Government and the British in Malaya in the 1940s have taught us that neither cash inducements nor the threat of punishment is likely to result in the wholesale surrender of arms by the guerrillas. Somehow the communists must be convinced that they, too, have a stake in law and order.
The GVN Constitution. Any meaningful discussion of a political role for the National Liberation Front will also have to address the question of the constitution of South Viet Nam. This document, less than a year old, was developed after a lengthy and democratic process of discussion and negotiation. The constitution could, of course, be modified or amended to provide for changes in the political structure of Vietnamese society or perhaps even the structure of the Government itself. What we and the South Vietnamese must avoid is casual and capricious rewriting of the constitution, lest we set an undesirable precedent that would militate against the establishment of a stable and democratic country. Either the constitution should be regarded as a serious document or it should be discarded. It should not be tampered with lightly.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to leave the impression that those in our Government who have been working on a negotiated solution have turned up nothing but complexities, problems and questions. Much hard thought has been put into developing approaches, alternatives, contingencies and fail- safes in connection with many of the problems alluded to above and to many more which have not been mentioned. Nor should the impression be left that the process of negotiation would be so difficult and so fraught with risks and disadvantages that we should consciously try to sidestep or ignore opportunities to work out a political rather than a military settlement. On the contrary, the United States and its allies have the skills, the leverage and the experience to work out a satisfactory political settlement provided that we are, in fact, talking about a negotiation and not a surrender ceremony, and provided, too, that Hanoi is willing to engage in serious discussion. Thus far, at least, the prospects for negotiations evoke the White Queen's lecture to Alice: "The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today."