To the Editor:
In his review [March] of a book on the Christmas bombing of Vietnam [The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972 by Martin F. Herz], Charles Horner makes the following statement about the peace negotiations in the fall of 1972: “On October 26, 1972, Kissinger stated, ‘We believe peace is at hand,’ but he pointed out that a final agreement had not been reached. When negotiations resumed after President Nixon’s overwhelming defeat of George McGovern in the November election, Kissinger discovered that the North Vietnamese now sought major revisions of the earlier agreement.”
That account omits a crucial fact. It was the South Vietnamese who first sought major revisions in the peace agreement.
Kissinger’s book lays out the unhappy procession of events in painstaking detail. His reiterated theme is that President Thieu and his government, not the North Vietnamese, objected to the agreement. “With negotiations about to resume, our overriding problem was in Saigon” (p. 1411 of White House Years). General Haig was sent to Saigon. On November 11, 1972, Thieu met him and “demanded the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces, which . . . had not been part of any of our joint proposals since 1970. He toughened even this unattainable demand by spelling out how the withdrawal should take place and what weapons had to be taken along. He gave Haig a letter to Nixon restating these demands . . .” (p. 1412).
On November 18 Thieu had a memorandum given to Ambassador Bunker. “Saigon now proposed sixty-nine modifications, leaving almost no paragraph of the draft document untouched” (p. 1413).
On November 20 Kissinger met Le Duc Tho in Paris—their first session since October 12. Kissinger said it was time to look to the future and conclude the agreement. “It was a stirring speech whose impact was immediately vitiated by my putting forward all the sixty-nine changes requested by Saigon. This proved to be a major tactical mistake. The list was so preposterous, it went so far beyond what we had indicated both publicly and privately, that it must have strengthened Hanoi’s already strong temptation to dig in its heels . . .” (p. 1417).
At the next meeting, on November 21, “Le Duc Tho emphasized the obvious: The changes I was demanding were not just ‘technical’ but substantive, not few but many. He rejected the overwhelming majority; he accepted a few technical ones. More worrying, he began demanding changes of his own” (p. 1418).
That was the order of events. Hanoi had earlier made publicly clear its willingness, indeed eagerness, to sign the draft agreement as it stood. Le Duc Tho sought changes only after Kissinger had tabled those demanded by President Thieu.
The chronology is basic to felt doubts about the Christmas bombing. For the bombing punished the North for delays in the peace agreement occasioned by the South.
There are ample grounds for disagreement about the nature and effect of the Christmas bombing. I think there are no grounds for doubt about which side accepted the peace agreement as drafted and which first demanded major revisions.
Charles Horner writes:
Anthony Lewis’s letter underscores a point I made in my review of Ambassador Herz’s book, namely, the moral immunity that North Vietnam has come to enjoy in most discussions of the Indochina war. According to Mr. Lewis, the Christmas bombing “punished the North for delays in the peace agreement occasioned by the South.” Surely, this is a bizarre way to put the proposition, given the fact that it was the North which had invaded the South, and not vice versa. The implied condemnation of South Vietnam and the United States is, of course, part of the customary paradigm—South Vietnam had no rights in the matter and North Vietnam should, under no circumstances, be punished, then or now. Thus, implies Mr. Lewis, our sympathies ought to rest with the North Vietnamese, forced to endure bombing because the obstinate South Vietnamese managed to coerce the United States into conducting the air raids.
One would have thought that the time had long since passed for efforts to portray North Vietnam as victim. Any punishment meted out to the North Vietnamese during Christmas 1972 is scarcely comparable to the cruelty of the Vietnamese Communists either during the war or in the aftermath of their victory. Accordingly, in the light of what everyone should now know, continuing efforts to place some presumed moral burden upon the United States are feeble and pathetic. But given the vested interests that some still retain in this “debate,” the efforts will no doubt continue.