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Hanoi's answer, though it might not be the final one, was not long in coming. In a lengthy statement from Ho's foreign ministry, "the new 'peace proposals' " were denounced as a "trick, merely the repetition of old themes." Once again, the sticking point for the Communists was U.S. refusal to countenance negotiations with the Viet Cong in South Viet Nam directlyor give them a share in any postwar government of South Viet Nam. To do so, Washington adjudges with reason, would be to hand over at the conference table what the Communists are now trying to win on the battlefield. Such are the grim realities of the struggle in South Viet Nam that there is in fact very little to negotiate about, so far apart are the minimum positions of the two sides (see ESSAY).
Propaganda Circus. The U.S. had begun the daily bombing of North Viet Nam last February, prompted by enemy attacks on American compounds, in the hope of forcing Hanoi to realize the folly of continuing the war and to sit down to talk. That failed; so all through the summer of last year the President weighed the obvious alternative: a cessation of bombing to encourage Hanoi to discuss peace. Moscow, Peking, Hanoi, and even Western European capitals kept insisting that the sine qua non of opening communications with Hanoi was a stop to the bombing. Last May the U.S. tried a five-day pause. It produced not a single "signal" of a softening on the Communist side, but critics both at home and abroad replied that five days was far too short a time to allow Hanoi to signal a reaction. As the year wore on and the momentum of the U.S. buildup in force in Viet Nam increased, more and more foreign capitals seemed to doubt that the U.S. desired peace on any reasonable terms.
It was, aptly enough, on Veterans Day last fall that the idea of linking another, longer bombing pause with a peace offensive first blossomed. Gathered at the L.B.J. ranch for a working holiday with the President were Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Bill Moyers. The four enthusiastically recommended it to Johnson, but the President feared that so dramatic and massive a campaign might be mistaken for a public relations ploy or, worse, an indication of U.S. lack of resolve in the war. But Johnson was willing to consider it further. "All right," he said, "I want you to start looking at this from every angle, from all sides." But, he warned, it must be done in complete secrecy. "The worst thing that could happen would be for it to get out. Then it would become just a gimmick."
Three weeks later, on Pearl Harbor Day, Johnson and his top security advisers again assembled in Texas, outdoors under a warm sun.* The advice was unanimous: an announced pause in the bombing, then the quiet peace offensive. L.B.J. quickly vetoed the no-bombing public declaration. "For me to stand up and announce a bombing pause," he asserted, "would be to admit that this was a propaganda circus." With that, the President fell silent, and his advisers left the ranch convinced he was going to reject the whole idea.