THE BOMBING HALT: Johnson's Gamble for Peace

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Despite the fear among military men that Hanoi was not really serious, statesmen and diplomats the world over passed the word that a breakthrough was at hand. Thailand's Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, long a hard-liner about the war in nearby South Viet Nam, returned from a visit to Washington to announce that the U.S. and North Viet Nam had entered the "final stages" of bargaining for a bombing pause, predicted results in the "not too distant fu ture." In Paris, an official of an allied country with troops in the South said flatly: "Everything is settled." The White House was far more cautious. But when rumors began spreading that the talks between the U.S. and North Viet Nam were on the verge of collapse, word was passed that there had been no breakthrough, but no breakdown either.

The maneuvering really began in earnest last February, when General William C. Westmoreland, then the U.S. commander in Viet Nam and now Army Chief of Staff, appealed to the President for 206,000 more U.S. troops in the wake of the Communists' Tet offensive. Johnson rejected the request, though he did agree to a modest increase, and the ceiling on U.S. manpower now stands at 549,000. Then came Johnson's March 31 renunciation of a second term and his declaration of a partial bombing pause over the North. Six weeks after that, in mid-May, the Paris peace talks began.

When the President met with Thieu in Honolulu in July for private talks, some officials insist, he was trying to persuade Viet Nam's President to accept a bombing halt. After the meeting, Johnson spoke in harsh terms of the fighting ahead, and the assumption was that he and Thieu had agreed on a new step-up in military activity. That assumption may well have been incorrect. Not long after the Honolulu meeting, a group of South Vietnamese senators passed through Paris en route home after a visit to Washington and told newsmen and diplomats there that a bombing pause was in the offing.

Three Questions. Their comments were discounted at the time, but within a matter of weeks came Johnson's mes sage to Hanoi, transmitted through the Paris negotiators, that got the final phase under way. L.B.J. was swayed partly by the fighting lull, partly by word from Paris that Hanoi's men had given assurances that if Johnson grounded the bombers he would not have reason to regret it. In unusually gentle terms, he asked Hanoi to indicate what it would do, if the bombing ended, about:

1) Levels of infiltration and supply.

Could the U.S. assume that these would not increase once there was no risk of aer ial attack?

2) The Demilitarized Zone. Would Hanoi agree not to exploit the cratered, bloodied strip near the 17th parallel to mount attacks on allied forces just to the south?

3) Representation at the peace talks.

Could the allies expect that Hanoi would not veto the Saigon delegation, particularly in view of the fact that Washington was willing to accept some sort of N.L.F. presence at the talks?

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