INTERVIEW WITH JOHN NEGROPONTE - 31.3.1997
INTERVIEWER: It's Monday the thirty first of March, we're in Washington, DC. This is an interview with Ambassador John Negroponte, for which we are grateful, and the tape number is 10548. So that we got it on record, can you just sketch in for us what you're position was between '69 and '73 with regard to the administration.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Yes, indeed. I was on the National Security Council staff from September of 1970 until February of 1973 and during most of that time, I was in charge of the Vietnam office of the National Security Council staff, supporting Dr. Kissinger in his peace talks with the North Vietnamese.
INT: You were also a delegate in the '68...
JN: [Interrupts] I was... in 1968 and '69... from May of '68 until August of 1969, I was a member of our delegation to the Paris peace talks in Vietnam and my specific responsibility was that of being the Liaison Officer between our delegation and the delegation of North Vietnam.
INT: Can you explain for us how Kissinger handled the Paris peace talks and how progress was made, the relation between the public sessions and the secret talks?
JN: Right, well the Paris peace talks were organized in such a way that there were always plenary sessions and those took place once a week, right from their inception in May of 1968, so that when Governor Harriman and Ambassador Syrus Vance would have pleneraries once a week, but then when we got down to discussing issues in detail and when real progress was made was in the so-called secret talks, so that tradition started with the administration of Lyndon Johnson. what changed with the advent of President Nixon was that the delegates in Paris, who were conducting the plenaries, were no longer the same individuals to conduct the secret sessions with North Vietnam. Dr. Kissinger, who became President Nixon's National Security adviser, took over those talks himself, so he had a completely separate team working on the secret talks with North Vietnam and basically, the delegation in Paris, then headed by Henry Cabot Lodge, was pretty much left to conducting the plenary sessions on a once a week basis, without much more of substance to do than that.
INT: Where was the real progress made?
JN: Well, the real progress was made to the extent that any progress was made at all, and that took several years to achieve, but that was all conducted in the secret talks between Dr. Kissinger and the North Vietnamese delegates, and those were usually conducted in different secret meeting places around Paris, but again, as I say, there was no involvement whatsoever on the part of the Paris delegation that was conducting the plenary sessions.
INT: Kissinger's keenness to get out of Vietnam before Nixon's second term, can you reflect a little bit on the aims of that policy, the importance that Vietnam had to be resolved?
JN: Well, I think that Vietnam, by the early 1970s, had become a real drain on the United States, both psychologically, politically, morally and in terms of our loss of blood and treasure. I think that there was a great desire on a part of a great number of people to disengage from that situation as quickly as possible. progress in the Paris peace talks from 1969 onwards, was not as rapid as we would have liked and that was principally because North Vietnam insisted repeatedly that as a condition of a cease-fire and a withdrawal of United States' troops, that we also had to unseat the Saigon government and assist in the establishment of a coalition government, that would have included the Communists and this was an unacceptable condition as far as we were concerned. So that progress in the Paris peace talks had been very slow and very painful. But by the middle and end of 1972, when we started to get the real first glimmerings of a change in the North Vietnamese position, that is to say that for the first time they were willing to separate the political from the military issues, then and at that point Dr. Kissinger and President Nixon himself were very, very eager to move the process as quickly as possible. they said repeatedly - and I heard Dr. Kissinger say this many, many times - that they simply did not want to begin President Nixon's second term of office still having to read battle field reports every morning after breakfast. That was the way he put it quite frequently. In fact, I heard Dr. Kissinger once tell Cho En Lai that in a meeting that we had in June of 1972 in Beijing. He told Prime Minister Cho En Lai we don't want to be reading battlefield reports from Vietnam after breakfast every morning, in the second term of President Nixon.
INT: Right, well just to stay with Vietnam and we'll come back to the Moscow Summit and we wanted to ask you about the re-election campaign, whether the peace talks in Vietnam, if there was a hurry to get out of Vietnam to do with forthcoming elections?
JN: Well, I found that both in 1968 and in 1972, there seemed to be a pattern and the pattern was as our presidential elections approached, there was intensified pressure to make progress in the talks. In 1968, that manifested itself in terms of achieving a bombing halt over North Vietnam and in fact the bombing halt was instituted after intense secret negotiations on the first of November 1968. In 1972, there was somewhat of a similar coincidence if you will, with the Vietnamese negotiator, the North Vietnamese negotiator, Lai Duc Toh, presenting to us on October eighth of 1968, a draft agreement...
INT: You said 1968...
JN: Excuse me...
INT: Tell me about Lai Duc Toh presenting you with the draft agreement, when that was.
JN: In October of 1968, the North Vietnamese representative...
JN: October of 1972 the North Vietnamese negotiator, Lai Duc Toh, presented to Dr. Kissinger a draft agreement on restoring peace and ending the war in Vietnam and the first thing he said when he presented that document to Dr. Kissinger was, you are in a hurry, are you not? And I recall Dr. Kissinger nodding affirmatively when Lai Duc Toh made that statement and to my way of thinking it was the North Vietnamese... it must have been their assessment that this month prior to our election was an optimal period for getting the most favorable possible agreement. So certainly in their minds, I think the electoral situation played an important part and to some extent it did in ours as well.
INT: Then the pace rather quickens...
JN: Well, the pace of the negotiations in October of '68 accelerated to an absolutely... October of 1972...
INT: Let me ask you that again. In '72...
JN: I get my years mixed up. You know, and I'm going to tell you why, because the situations were so similar, and I lived through them both.
INT: How, in 1972 October, did the pace accelerate?
JN: Well, the pace in October of '72 accelerated dramatically. Lai Duc Toh presented us a draft agreement on the eighth of October. Instead of taking that agreement back to Washington, that draft, and consulting with all the different governmental agencies concerned and with the President and the Secretary of State, Dr. Kissinger chose to respond to Lai Duc Toh immediately and we told him, well, thank you for this draft, we will prepare a counter proposal and present it to you tomorrow morning, the ninth of October and so we labored all night to prepare a counter draft and presented it to him, eventually, on the next day. And by the eleventh of October, we had literally ironed out the agreement to end the war and restore peace in Vietnam and that draft that we then took back to Washington with us for review in Washington, was within give or take maybe a dozen words or so, the identical document to that which was ultimately signed on... in January of the following year. So after more than five years of negotiating at a snail's pace and making virtually no progress whatsoever, the real negotiation of the Paris peace agreement took place over a four or five day period.