Stuck in Endless Preliminaries: Vietnam and the Battle of the Paris Peace Table, November 1968-January 1969


In the anti-war film Go Tell the Spartans, set in Vietnam in 1964, the conflict is described as ‘going nowhere, just around and around in circles’. Perhaps a slightly more accurate representation can be found in the work of Franz Kafka, such as Der Prozeß, in which his protagonist seems to make progress but the process itself is endless with the goal sought remaining as futile and elusive as ever. For the United States, diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful conclusion to the Vietnam War reflected this – lots of discussions that merely led to more discussions, as well as discussions about having further discussions – whilst the war continued in the background, and was eventually lost.

With the American escalation of the war in 1965, numerous diplomatic efforts to achieve conflict resolution existed alongside the military campaign. However, despite the veneer of seeking peace, the dominant interest of the key parties was to postpone substantive peace talks until there was a major breakthrough in the military situation. In July 1965, President Lyndon Johnson told reporters ‘We are ready now, as we have always been, to move from the battlefield to the conference table’. He also noted, ‘Fifteen efforts have been made to start these discussions with the help of 40 nations throughout the world, but there has been no answer’. These efforts included peace feelers by intermediaries but they did not include conveying any substantive negotiating position other than to propose the prospect of talks. United Nations Secretary General U Thant also attempted to get Hanoi to negotiate. However, US officials rejected a North Vietnamese suggestion for negotiations in Rangoon. Johnson also tried to combine bombing halts with offering peace feelers, but the North Vietnamese were unwilling to negotiate under these conditions. In some cases the US offered to negotiate but had these overtures rejected. In other cases, the North Vietnamese offered to negotiate, but the Americans then rejected these proposals as well. Despite many such efforts which occurred over the course of 1964-1968, neither side was willing to come to the bargaining table.

The changing military situation was the most important factor that led to progress in starting the process of formal negotiations. After the Tet Offensive was launched in January 1968, the US and South Vietnam had been militarily successful in the weeks thereafter both at blunting a Communist uprising in the South as well as inflicting massive losses on the National Liberation Front (better known as the Viet Cong, and officially rebranded in 1969 as the Provisional Revolutionary Government or PRG). Nevertheless, the domestic political repercussions in the US were so grave that Johnson supported more active efforts at disengagement and negotiations to end the war. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese and NLF leadership recognized that no immediate military victory or popular uprising in the South was imminent. It was set against this backdrop that these adversaries came to Paris in 1968 to begin formal negotiations. Yet the decision to pursue a diplomatic track to end the war should not be confused with a sense of urgency to bring the conflict to an end.

The location for the proposed talks proved to be the first hurdle. From the end of March until early May 1968 there was a drawn-out exchange between the US and North Vietnamese on this topic. Unlike during the Korean War, where negotiations had originally started behind Communist lines at Kaesong (the North Koreans and Chinese had rejected the US proposed alternative of a Danish hospital ship) and later moved to nearby Panmunjom, there does not seem to have been much interest in holding the talks anywhere in Vietnam. Although Johnson had stated that US officials would meet with the North Vietnamese ‘anywhere, anytime’, this was not entirely a factual statement. At first, the Americans proposed Geneva, where the 1954 talks had been held that resulted in the division of Vietnam into North and South. Hanoi rejected this on the grounds that it had ‘unhappy memories’. It then suggested Phnom Penh. This was rejected by Washington. Instead, the US offered 5 other capitals in Southeast and South Asia, including New Delhi, which was favoured by Saigon. Hanoi rejected these options and proposed Warsaw, which the US also rejected. The US then countered by proposing 9 capitals all of which were again rejected. Ultimately, after weeks of bargaining, Paris was chosen as the site to hold preliminary talks (officially referred to as ‘official conversations’ to avoid being confused with ‘negotiations’). The French Government assisted by providing a location for talks, the Centre for International Conferences – formerly the Hotel Majestic, which also served as a German military headquarters during the Occupation.

Having cleared this hurdle, another emerged. The question of ‘who’ would be invited to the talks also proved problematic. One option was for a bilateral meeting between the representatives of the US and North Vietnam, thereby excluding both the South Vietnamese and the NLF. However, as the US purpose in Vietnam was to bolster the independence of South Vietnam, it could not be seen negotiating on its behalf (rather embarrassingly the US delegation at the Korean armistice talks outnumbered the South Koreans present, whereas the North Korean delegation outnumbered the Chinese). For the Americans, equal participation by the South Vietnamese was essential for the official talks, though they were content to deal bilaterally with the North Vietnamese at the ‘secret talks’ that were later held. Hanoi and the NLF denied recognizing the Saigon government, but they nevertheless agreed to their participation. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese insisted that the NLF participate – again at the official talks but not the secret talks — since they were being held up as an indigenous and independent Southern insurgency supported by the North, rather than being a mere pawn of Hanoi as the South Vietnamese and Americans claimed they were. This proved highly controversial. As Henry Kissinger later observed, ‘In every revolutionary conflict, the acceptance of the guerrillas as a negotiating partner has proved to be the single most important obstacle to negotiations, for it obliges the government to recognize the legal status of the enemy determined to overthrow it’. Had the conference been referred to as ‘four party talks’, then this would have legitimized the NLF as being equal to the South Vietnamese. Eventually it was decided to include all four parties and simply to label them as ‘our side’ and ‘your side’, thereby avoiding the contentious issue of legitimacy. Four parties would still be involved, thus the Communists would be satisfied. On the other hand, officially the talks were two-sided, as the US and South Vietnamese emphasized publicly.

As these preliminary discussions about who would meet came to a conclusion, they were then followed with additional talks about how a meeting might be held. These discussions, which began in November 1968, were centred on questions about the shape of the conference table, how many tables there should be, and how they would be placed. These discussions became known as the ‘battle of the tables’ and would last ten weeks until mid-January 1969 as fighting continued to rage and Richard Nixon won the presidential election. From the start, it was recognized that a triangular table (with the North Vietnamese/NLF combined but the US and South Vietnamese separate) would be a non-starter as it would imply that the Communist side was outnumbered two-to-one. North Vietnam wanted a square table in order to provide further legitimacy to the NLF, and also suggested four tables arranged in either a circular or a diamond pattern. The American preference was for a two-sided table or two rectangular tables. The North Vietnamese countered by suggesting a round table. Whereas the Americans supported the idea of a round table on the basis that people sitting at the table wouldn’t have any position, Saigon then protested that a round table meant that everyone was equal which would imply that the NLF delegation were equal to the South Vietnamese government. As a result, the US suggested six variants of a round table, including a round table bisected with a strip of baize to provide a symbolic dividing line. Later the benefits and drawbacks of an oval table were debated but the idea eventually was rejected, as were two semi-circular tables, one round table cut in half, a ‘flattened ellipse’, a ‘broken diamond’ and a parallelogram. The Danish mathematician and designer Piet Hein proposed a super-elliptical table with golden section proportions – neither square nor round but midway between the two that ‘would allot the two major parties 100 inches to every 6.18 for the two minor parties all the while suggesting sovereignty with alliance’ (technically speaking this table would have a perimeter that satisfied the formula: x2.5+[y/a]2.5=1 where a=[.5][√5-1]). Regrettably there is little evidence to suggest that this proposal from a concerned outsider was taken seriously by the diplomats, much less that it was understood by the diplomats. South Vietnam pushed for two separate rectangular tables and remained intransigent on this issue. Eventually Johnson grew tired of Saigon’s obstruction and wrote to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu expressing his frustration. The deadlock was finally broken by a Soviet diplomat. Anxious to get the negotiations moving ahead, the Soviets pressured the North Vietnamese to compromise and accept a round table (4.75 metres in diameter) with two rectangular tables (3 feet by 4.5 feet) alongside for secretaries (no more and no less than 4.5 centimetres away). The table would include no nameplates, flags or markings, but would only be covered in green baize. Interestingly, the furniture used for the first meeting on January 18, 1969 – later replaced – was the same unused conference table that had been built for the aborted Nikita Khrushchev-Dwight D. Eisenhower talks in 1960. A separate dispute about order of speakers was also resolved with the South Vietnamese speaking first followed by the US, North Vietnamese and NLF. At the following meeting the order would be reversed and would alternate accordingly thereafter.

By the time this ‘battle of the tables’ had been resolved, the inauguration of Nixon was only one week away. Thus, any opportunity to negotiate a peace in 1968 was undermined by the emphasis for more than 8 months on procedural matters – and this merely to get the four parties to the first meeting to begin official talks. Once the talks began, there was a return to procedure – agreeing an agenda, developing ground rules for further talks and naming the talks (South Vietnam referred to a ‘Meeting on Vietnam’, North Vietnam and the NLF a ‘Paris Conference on Vietnam’, and the US called them ‘Vietnam Peace Talks’ or the ‘Vietnam Conference’). For four more years, these talks went nowhere. By contrast, the less formal ‘secret talks’ between the US and North Vietnam that began in February 1970, also in Paris, would drag on for only 2.5 years without any progress. Only in the autumn 1972, following the failure of North Vietnam’s ‘Easter Offensive’ and the reluctant adoption of a new policy by the Hanoi Politburo to achieve a political victory in the South, was ‘progress’ finally made. Along with American pressure on Saigon to accept a deal, this led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 and the US military withdrawal two months later. However, despite all the time and effort expended on formalities over the years, resolution of the underlying political disputes driving the conflict was indefinitely postponed rather than seriously addressed.  As fighting continued despite the Accords, this led to further talks in the summer 1973 that resulted in a slightly revised ceasefire agreement but no real changes in the behaviour of the antagonists. Meantime, a separate series of talks between the South Vietnamese and PRG at La Celle-St. Cloud that were intended to settle the future political composition of South Vietnam remained deadlocked on procedural issues and rarely progressed beyond agreeing to an agenda. By the spring 1973, the Hanoi Politburo chose to abandon its short-lived policy of achieving a political victory in South Vietnam, choosing instead to revert back to a military solution as soon as its depleted forces could be reconstituted. Despite the years of diplomatic effort, ‘peace’ in Vietnam was finally ‘imposed’ with the Communist conquest of the South in April 1975.

Image: Paris peace talks Vietnam peace agreement signing, 27 January 1973, by Robert L. Knudsen, via wikimedia.

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