THE BOMBING HALT: Johnson's Gamble for Peace

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The major stumbling blocks at times indeed seemed insuperable. Aside from the prickly problem of reciprocity, there was the question of representation. At first, Hanoi demanded that the N.L.F. be seated as an independent entity and that Saigon's "puppet" government be barred altogether. Saigon, in turn, insisted on separate representation for the South Vietnamese delegation, and insisted that the N.L.F. "traitors" be kept away. Washington was campaigning hard for a "two-sided" arrangement under which the guerrilla leaders were lumped in with North Viet Nam's negotiators and the South's officials sat together with the Americans.

A Real Fadeaway? Beyond such diplomatic considerations, there was the question of what would happen militarily if the U.S. did call off its bombers. For weeks, the Communists had been scaling down the fighting, withdrawing some 40,000 front-line troops, mostly to sanctuaries on or near the borders of Cambodia and Laos. U.S. casualties dipped to 100 killed three weeks ago, the lowest level in 14 months; two weeks ago, the dead totaled 109, the second lowest.

Was this a genuine lull, or had the Communists been hurt so badly by Abrams' successful tactics that they were merely pulling back to regroup, as they have done so often in the past? Many in the Johnson Administration seemed willing to interpret the lull as a deliberate signal from Hanoi that the North Vietnamese wanted to move on to a new phase in the Paris peace negotiations. A minority, centered in the Pentagon but also including Rostow and Rusk, held out in the absence of firm and far-reaching North Vietnamese concessions. Said one U.S. diplomat: "I have always thought that one of our biggest problems would be to get our own military to admit the fact of a fadeaway."

The military had a number of compelling arguments to justify its hesitancy. Communist rockets landed on Saigon last week for the first time in more than a month. Senior U.S. officials an nounced that, far from pulling back, the Communists were massing for a drive on Saigon. Seventy combat battalions, including eight artillery battalions, were reported within 50 miles of the capital. To the north, 25 to 30 Communist battalions were on the prowl in the DMZ and the two northernmost provinces of South Viet Nam.

No Breakdown. The Communist concentration led a U.S. officer to comment: "There are still no signs that the lull in enemy activity has been directed by Hanoi as a sign of good faith. We still believe that the enemy is refitting for another offensive." Supporting his view was the fact that prisoner interrogations and captured documents continued to indicate that a November as sault was planned. The U.S., for its part, maintained its bombing raids against North Viet Nam's panhandle—roughly from the 17th to the 19th parallels. Early last week, bomber pilots flew 139 missions, the most in nearly a month. The next day, regardless of worsening weather, they flew 134.

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