In these cheerless times, we search with special diligence for any scrap of good news. So we study the President's latest plan for peace in Indochina, and the background briefing, hoping to find something that justifies the extravagant claims (new, sweeping, comprehensive) made for it. We're still searching. As a domestic political document, it is compelling. As a negotiating document it is not, being a collection of old ideas, retouched a bit, superadvertised and packaged for sale not in Paris France, but in Paris Maine, Paris Arkansas, and Paris Illinois.
Greatest attention has been given to the proposal for a standstill cease-fire. Except that Mr. Nixon would now extend it to all Indochina (since he himself took military action that widened the war), the idea is a rerun. In May last year, the President called for "an international supervisory body [to] participate in arranging supervised cease-fires." This past December, he again "proposed a ceasefire under international supervision." The "other side" was not interested then; it is likely to be even less interested now. The reason for that can be found in the White House statement that the ceasefire idea was put forward again, and with more fanfare, only after an extensive review of the military situation had convinced the President that stopping the shooting would be militarily safe for us. The spokesman stopped just short of admitting it would be to our advantage, but the clear implication that it would be to the disadvantage of Hanoi and the Vietcong diminishes any chance it may have of acceptance. A year ago in these pages, it was pointed out that a standstill ceasefire, in advance of a political agreement, "would lose for the Vietcong and their allies in the North everything for which they have fought during the past 25 years; namely, political control of Vietnam." Today, it would ratify the balance of terror in South Vietnam in our favor, for American and South Vietnamese government forces now command key population centers by weight of sheer numbers. As the White House knows, the North Vietnamese are returning to a tactic which may tip this balance—concentrated guerrilla warfare. The President would require them to abandon this strategy; a cease-fire should cause "all kinds of warfare to stop… including bombing and acts of terror." That is a one-sided call for surrender. Mr. Nixon said nothing last week about abandoning our pacification program; he did not suggest that US advisers, unharrassed, would stop training South Vietnamese forces; or that the large civilian police force in the South would cease ferreting out the Vietcong and its sympathizers.
A standstill cease-fire would, however, prevent Hanoi from overrunning Cambodia completely, thus confronting the Administration with a Communist fait accompli in future negotiations—which is another reason the proposal has more appeal in Washington than in Hanoi. Though Lon Nol hangs on, reports from Phnom Penh indicate that his government is almost totally isolated from the countryside. What Lon Nol needs most, and Hanoi least, is breathing time to organize and train an effective army.
Still, if the cease-fire proposal were coupled with some genuine political concessions to the Vietcong and Hanoi, it might have some chance of breaking the Paris "logjam." No such concessions can be found in the President's package. The offer of an expanded peace conference is a grandstand play, a bit of decoration. A White House spokesman as good as acknowledged that an international conference had not been discussed with possible participants, that the shape it might take is unclear to the Administration, and that its relationship, if any, to the surviving Geneva Conference structure (Britain, Soviet Union as co-chairmen) has not been thought out.
Nor can we discern anything new in the President's readiness to "withdraw all our forces as part of a settlement based on the principles I spelled out previously and the proposals I am making tonight." That is, in essence, a restatement of the basic Johnson-Nixon line: You get out and we'll get out. Mr. Nixon made the same point last November: "We have offered the complete withdrawal of all outside forces within one year." Noting that the word "mutual" was not used by the President this time, one correspondent pressed the White House briefing officer on whether this meant the US no longer would insist on mutual withdrawals. No, came the answer, the general principle still stands; we would expect that all outside forces would return to the borders of their countries. In brief, if North Vietnam accepts its momentarily inferior position on the battlefield, and agrees to give up the idea of marching anywhere, Mr. Nixon is willing to negotiate a complete withdrawal. Here again, the false equation is made between the presence in Vietnam of US and of North Vietnamese troops. Both are to be thought of as alien intruders.
Underneath all these proposals—a cease-fire, exchange of prisoners, troop withdrawals—lies the fundamental question of who shall govern in the South. The outlines of a "political solution" the President gave us last week corresponded in almost every detail with his previous formulations. He said in April "…a fair political solution should reflect the existing relationship of political forces within South Vietnam," and that Ke and President Thieu "have repeatedly stated our willingness to accept the free decision of the South Vietnamese people." But, he added, "we will not agree to the arrogant demand that the elected leaders of the government of Vietnam be overthrown before real negotiations begin." No change. Mr. Nixon remains committed to seeing it through with Thieu. Though he did not last week refer to "free elections," he repeated that "we seek a political solution that reflects the will of the South Vietnamese people," and that "a fair political solution should reflect the existing relationship of political forces." Then he went on to say something downright misleading: the North Vietnamese "want to dismantle the organized non-Communist forces and insure the takeover by one party, and they demand the right to exclude whomever they wish from government. This patently unreasonable demand is totally unacceptable." But that is not what the Vietcong, in its eight-point peace plan, demanded. It has made a quite explicit statement about whom they would negotiate with, specifically excluding only Thieu, Ky and Khiem. They said they would talk to those members of the present Saigon government who stood for "peace, independence and neutrality." This does not sound like to move to "dismantle the organized non-Communist parties." Moreover, the only organized non-Communist parties in Vietnam today are the Catholics, Buddhists, and a ragtag nationalist party controlled mainly by army officers, and the Buddhists are willing to negotiate with the Vietcong.
Finally, that the United States should justify its military intervention in Indochina on the grounds that we must defend the principle of self-determination for the South Vietnamese is beyond comprehension. "We stand firm," Mr. Nixon says, "for the right of all the South Vietnamese people to determine for themselves the kind of government they want." His selective application of Wilsonianism (making Vietnam safe for democracy) not only has no relevance to the traditional Vietnamese life, but it bears no relation to American behavior elsewhere. No such right, or lack of right, by the people to freely choose their governors inhibits the US from having cordial dealings with not-so-democratic nations. Self-determination is not, for example, a precondition for our resumption of military aid to the Greek junta, or our military arrangements with Franco, or for assistance given Latin American dictatorships.
So what has the President left for us to hold to? He leaves us with the knowledge that, in the absence of a negotiated settlement, US troop strength in Indochina in the spring of 1971, more than two years after Mr. Nixon took office, will be only around 280,000. We don't like to think that this "new" package has nothing more in it than campaign cookies for hungry Republican candidate, but that's how it looks.
This article originally ran in the October 17, 1970, issue of the magazine.