The Nation: Chronology: How Peace Went off the Rails

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IN early October Henry Kissinger flew to Washington with a 58-page document in his briefcase. It was the draft of an agreement that he believed—and millions of others were soon led to believe—would lead to a rapid settlement of the Viet Nam War. What went wrong? TIME correspondents in Washington, Paris and Saigon have reconstructed the chronology of events, both public and hitherto secret, since peace first appeared a possibility in 1972:

SEPT. 11. For the first time since Kissinger began secret talks with Hanoi in August 1969, the North Vietnamese hinted that they would accept a cease-fire in South Viet Nam without the removal of President Nguyen Van Thieu. A genuine compromise at least seemed possible.

OCT. 12. At a villa near the Paris suburb of Gif-sur-Yvette, Kissinger and North Viet Nam's Le Duc Tho quickly arrived at the draft of a nine-point agreement. It was not yet a full accord; some vital details were yet to be filled in. But it constituted a major breakthrough. The plan separated the purely military issues from the political ones; it provided for an in-place cease-fire that would end the major fighting immediately, a U.S. withdrawal and the return of the American prisoners of war within 60 days, and for the establishment of a purposefully vague political process through which the Vietnamese would work out their future later on. In broad terms, the compromise awarded to the narrowly based Thieu regime a chance to survive and to the Communists legitimacy in South Viet Nam, plus an affirmation of Hanoi's position that Viet Nam is one country, temporarily divided.

The North Vietnamese, Kissinger said, fought for an Oct. 31 signing date "almost as maniacally as they fought the war." He promised to make a "major effort" to get the agreement signed by then, but he pointed out on six separate occasions that the draft would have to be accepted by all parties. The North Vietnamese may not have taken his meaning: they had always assumed that Kissinger was speaking for both President Nixon and the South Vietnamese.

Kissinger returned to Washington with the impression that the agreement could be completed in a matter of days a belief that he was to retain, through one setback after another, until the very end.

OCT. 13-16. Nixon studied the draft with Secretary of State William Rogers. Nixon's own lawyer's eye told him that some of the provisions might need some tightening up and that Kissinger would have to nail down the understandings and protocols for the cease-fire machinery. But he was pleased, approved the plan and ordered Kissinger to Saigon to sell it to Thieu. The only dark cloud was a prescient warning by the CIA to expect serious trouble from Thieu.

OCT. 18-20. Kissinger and his entourage were in high spirits when they arrived in Saigon for the first meeting with Thieu, a 3½-hour session in the presidential palace attended by most of the South Vietnamese National Security Council. But the mood changed abruptly. Thieu complained that he was not ready for a ceasefire. Kissinger bluntly replied that the peace plan offered many advantages for South Viet Nam and gave Thieu a "fighting chance" to survive—all that could be hoped for in any compromise deal.

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