From his many years of fighting the French colonialists in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh (Ho the Bringer of Light, or "Uncle Ho" as he was called affectionately by his people) from the first adopted a strategy of attrition to win what North Vietnam termed "The American War."
Allegedly, he once remarked, "You can kill 10 of our people for every one I kill of yours, but eventually you will grow tired and go home and I will win." In the fullness of time during America's longest-and first lost-war, that is exactly what did happen, moreover.
For his part, American President Lyndon Johnson simply could not believe that a deal could not be brokered with North Vietnam in the same vein as he had been used to cutting in the United States Senate for many decades and as Chief Executive of the United States during 1963-69.
This was, indeed, the very note he sounded in his landmark speech on The Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus at Baltimore on Apr. 7, 1965 when he said, "The first step is for the countries of Southeast Asia to associate themselves in a greatly expanded cooperative effort for development. We would hope that North Vietnam would take its place in the common effort just as soon as peaceful cooperation is possible... For our part, I will ask the Congress to join in a billion-dollar American investment in this effort as soon as it is underway... The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own Tennessee Valley Authority... "
Indeed, not only was LBJ entirely correct, but, as I write these words, there is still no such hydroelectric power in the unified Vietnam's mighty Mekong Delta. His speech had absolutely no effect whatsoever on Hanoi's attitude on the war and Ho's goals for unification for North and South into the single state that was forged by victory in war in 1975, and thus the fighting continued for yet another decade.
It was in this atmosphere that LBJ wrote directly to Ho after several US Air Force bombing halts in a personal letter dated Feb. 8, 1967:
"Dear Mr. President: I am writing to you in the hope that the conflict in Vietnam can be brought to an end. That conflict has already taken a heavy toll-in the lives lost, in wounds inflicted, in property destroyed, and in simple human misery. If we fail to find a just and peaceful solution, history will judge us harshly.
"Therefore, I believe that we both have a heavy obligation to seek earnestly the path to peace. It is in response to that obligation that I am writing directly to you.
"We have tried, over the past several years, in a variety of ways and through a number of channels, to convey to you and your colleagues our desire to achieve a peaceful settlement. For whatever reasons, these efforts have not achieved any results.
"It may be that our thoughts and yours, our attitudes and yours, have been distorted or misinterpreted as they passed through these various channels. Certainly that is always a danger in indirect communication.
"There is one good way to overcome this problem and to move forward in the search for a peaceful settlement. That is for us to arrange for direct talks between trusted representatives in a secure setting and away from the glare of publicity. Such talks should not be used as a propaganda exercise, but should be a serious effort to find a workable and mutually acceptable solution.
"In the past two weeks, I have noted statements by representatives of your government suggesting that you would be prepared to enter into bilateral talks with representatives of the US Government, provided that we ceased 'unconditionally' and permanently our bombing operations against your country and all military operations against it. In the last day, serious and responsible parties have assured us indirectly that this is, in fact, your proposal.
"Let me frankly state that I see two great difficulties with this proposal. In view of your public position, such action on our part would inevitably produce worldwide speculation that discussions were underway and would impair the privacy and secrecy of those discussions. Secondly, there would inevitably be grave concern on our part whether your Government would make use of such action by us to improve its military position.
"With these problems in mind, I am prepared to move even further towards an ending of hostilities than your Government has proposed in either public statements or through private diplomatic channels. I am prepared to order a cessation of bombing against your country and the stopping of further augmentation of US forces in South Vietnam as soon as I am assured that infiltration into South Vietnam by land and by sea has stopped. These acts of restraint on both sides would, I believe, make it possible for us to conduct serious and private discussions leading toward an early peace.
"I make this proposal to you now with a specific sense of urgency arising from the imminent New Year holidays in Vietnam. If you are able to accept this proposal, I see no reason it could not take effect at the end of the New Year, or Tet, holidays. The proposal I have made would be greatly strengthened if your military authorities and those of the Government of South Vietnam could promptly negotiate an extension of the Tet truce.
"As to the site of the bilateral discussions I propose, there are several possibilities. We could, for example, have our representatives meet in Moscow where contacts have already occurred. They could meet in some other country such as Burma. You may have other arrangements or sites in mind, and I would try to meet your suggestions.
"The important thing is to end a conflict that has brought burdens to both peoples, and above all to the people of South Vietnam. If you have any thoughts about the actions I propose, it would be most important that I receive them as soon as possible. Sincerely, Lyndon B. Johnson."
This writer, for one, remembers the Viet Cong's response to his letter as I lay on my cot at Long Binh, South Vietnam where I was serving as a Military Policeman with the US Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade: they blew up a nearby ammunition dump on the evening of Tet, 1967. Ironically, it was the Tet Offensive of the following year-1968-that heralded the beginning of the end of the Lyndon Johnson Presidency.
Ho's letter of reply was dated seven days later, on Feb. 15, 1967:
"Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States. Your Excellency: Vietnam is thousands of miles from the United States. The Vietnamese people have never done any harm to the United States, but contrary to the commitments made by its representatives at the Geneva Conference of 1954, the United States Government has constantly intervened in Vietnam, has launched and intensified its aggression against South Vietnam for the purpose of prolonging the division of Vietnam and transforming South Vietnam into an American colony and an American military base. For more than two years now, the American Government, using its military planes and its Navy has been waging war against the sovereign and independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
"The US Government has committed war crimes and crimes against peace and against humanity. In South Vietnam, a half million American soldiers and soldiers from satellite countries have used the most inhuman and barbaric methods of warfare such as napalm, chemicals and toxic gases to massacre our compatriots, destroy their crops and level their villages.
"In North Vietnam, thousands of American planes have rained down hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs destroying towns, villages, factories, roads, bridges, dikes, dams and even churches, pagodas, hospitals and schools. In your message you seem to deplore the suffering and destruction in Vietnam. Allow me to ask you: who is perpetrating these awful crimes? It is the American and satellite soldiers. The United States Government is entirely responsible for the critical situation in Vietnam.
"American aggression against the Vietnamese people is a challenge to the countries of the Socialist camp, menaces the world's independence movement and gravely endangers peace in Asia and the world.
"The Vietnamese people deeply love independence, liberty and peace, but, in the face of American aggression, they stand as one man, unafraid of sacrifices, until they have gained real independence, full liberty and true peace. Our just cause is approved and supported strongly by all people of the world, including large segments of the American people.
"The Government of the United States is aggressing against Vietnam. It must stop this aggression as the way leading toward the reestablishment of peace. The Government of the United States must stop the bombing, definitively and unconditionally, and all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, withdraw from South Vietnam all its troops and those of its satellites, recognize the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and allow the people of Vietnam to settle their problems by themselves.
"This is the essence of the Four Points of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as well as the expression of the principles and essential provisions of the Geneva Accords of 1954 on Vietnam. It is the basis for a just political solution of the Vietnamese problem. In your message, you suggested direct talks between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States. If the Government of the United States really wants such talks, it must first unconditionally halt the bombing as well as all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
"Only after the unconditional stopping of the bombing and all other American acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam can the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States enter into conversations and discuss the questions in which both parties are interested.
"The Vietnamese people will never yield to force nor agree to talks under the menace of bombs. Our cause is entirely just. It is our hope that the Government of the United States acts wit reason. Sincerely Yours, Ho Chi Minh."
Following the receipt of this missive, President Johnson ordered a bombing halt of six days, which Hanoi labeled "a trick." On Apr. 6, 1967, LBJ decided to try again the personal channel and thus sent his second and final letter to his opponent.
"Dear Mr. President: I was, of course, disappointed that you did not feel able to respond positively to my letter to you of Feb. 8th, but I would recall to you the words of Abraham Lincoln addressed to his fellow Americans in 1861:
"'Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old question as to terms of intercourse are again upon you.'
"In that spirit, I wish to reaffirm the offers I made in my earlier letter. We remain prepared to talk quietly with your representatives to establish the terms of a peaceful settlement and then bring the fighting to a stop; or we are prepared for steps of mutual de-escalation which might make it easier for discussions of a peaceful settlement to take place in Moscow, Rangoon or elsewhere.
"Despite public discussion of our previous exchange of views, our responsibilities to our own peoples and to the world remain; and those responsibilities include bringing the war in Southeast Asia to an end at the earliest possible date.
"It is surely clear that one day we must agree to reestablish and make effective the Geneva Accords of 1954 and 1962; let the people of South Vietnam determine in peace the kind of government they want; let the peoples of North and South Vietnam determine peacefully whether and how they should unite; and permit the peoples of Southeast Asia to turn all their energies to their economic and social development.
"You and I will be judged in history by whether we worked to bring about this result sooner rather than later. I venture to address you directly again in the hope that we can find the way to rise above all other considerations and fulfill that common duty. I would be glad to receive your views on these matters. Sincerely, Lyndon B. Johnson."
As LBJ noted in his 1971 memoirs The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963-69, "The message was delivered to Moscow and opened, but returned later in the day. It was never formally acknowledged."
In effect, whether he was sincere or not, Johnson had gone to Ho hat in hand, almost begging for a peace settlement, an approach that his successor in office, Richard M. Nixon, rejected right from the start Secondly-and as Ho well knew-President Johnson would be candidate Johnson once more in Presidential year 1968 and undoubtedly the Tet Offensive was timed to affect the outcome, as indeed it did.
Minnesota US Sen. Eugene McCarthy almost defeated LBJ in the crucial New Hampshire Democratic Primary election, leading New York US Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race in March and LBJ to withdraw as a candidate for reelection two weeks later.
Kennedy was assassinated in June and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey defeated McCarthy at the fractious Democratic National Convention in August at Chicago to win his party's nomination, only to lose narrowly to GOP nominee Nixon the following November.
Meanwhile, the war raged on, and eventually the bilateral negotiations that Johnson had sought would be conducted under the new Nixon Administration-but that was all in the future.
The two secret letter writers both died before the end of the war. Johnson saw his cause defeated, while Ho did not live long enough to see his win, an ironic twist to both their lives.
Ho Chi Minh died of a heart attack on Sept. 2, 1969, aged 79, while LBJ passed away-also from a heart attack-on Jan. 22, 1973, aged 65, linked in death as they had been in life with a faraway war that neither man wanted but that both felt forced to wage.
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