On the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which helped end the longest war of the 20th century, Major General Nguyen Hong Quan, former deputy head of the Vietnam Institute for Defense Strategy, spoke to VnExpress about the historic event.
The negotiation of the Paris Peace Accords (signed January 27, 1973) was one of the longest running negotiations in the history of international diplomacy. Why did it take 5 years for the Accords to be signed?
An international negotiation would normally only take several days, or several months. But negotiations for the Paris Accords lasted almost 5 years for many reasons, including politics, complex historical contexts and unpredictability on the battlefield.
First, the stances taken by U.S. officials and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at the beginning of negotiations were vastly different, almost opposites of each other. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam asked the U.S. to pull its troops out of the South and end its military intervention, while the U.S. wanted the opposite, arguing that their role was necessary to maintain stability in the South. There were many times when negotiations had to stop as both sides could not reach an agreement on this key point.
Second, negotiations were at first only between the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but later expanded to include 4 parties, with the addition of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam. But the fact that still no one was willing to change their stances meant that negotiations could only be decided by what happened on the battlefield. This made negotiations last 5 years.
Third, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at the time was still a very small country and was facing a major power with both economic and military strength, and also diplomatic savvy. Reaching a final victory at the Paris Accords required time and careful preparation, in order to secure victory on both the military and diplomatic fronts.
Fourth, the U.S. itself wanted to make Vietnam surrender using its military might, thereby forcing Vietnam to abide by terms that were in U.S. favor only. They thought using bombs and bullets and B-52 planes would be enough to easily force a surrender. However, not until the end of 1972, when they realized that the plan to use B-52 had failed, did the U.S. agree to concede [on some points].
Negotiations lasted nearly 5 years, but they only truly made progress beginning in late 1971 and early 1972. Following campaigns in the 1971-1972 period, the U.S.’s “Vietnamization” strategy failed, which created a huge advantage for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at the negotiating table.
Vietnam only truly became a negotiating party following the victory of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Having suffered heavy losses, the U.S. decided to consider an escape path to save face. And only then did the U.S. consider the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a party for direct, equal dialogue in order to resolve issues of the war.
Major General Nguyen Hong Quan, former deputy head of the Vietnam Institute for Defense Strategy. Photo by VnExpress/Son Ha
What was the turning point for the signing of the Paris Peace Accords?
No matter how skillful we were at diplomacy or negotiations, the key to secure terms in our favor and be proactive on the negotiating table was our achievements on the battlefield. When negotiations began, the Vietnamese army only had the Tet Offensive victory on our side, which was not enough for the U.S. to agree to a solution.
The state of the negotiating table only began to turn following consecutive victories of the Vietnamese people in 1971, and especially in 1972. They included campaigns at Road 9-Southern Laos, victories in Northeast and Southeast Cambodia as well as Tri-Thien, success in the north Central Highlands, southeastern Vietnam, north of Binh Dinh and Area 8 of southern Vietnam.
But other turning points that have to be mentioned are the Second Battle of Quang Tri and the Christmas Bombings. The Vietnamese army had showcased their might, wit and tenacity, demolishing the U.S.’s scheme of Vietnamization and causing it to lose on the battlefield, followed by its loss on the negotiating table.
Starting April 1966, President Ho Chi Minh issued a mission for the air and anti-air military branch to figure out a way to combat B-52 planes. He predicted that “sooner or later, the U.S. would bring out the B-52 to strike Hanoi… The U.S. would absolutely lose in Vietnam, but only after it loses in the skies over Hanoi.”
Afterwards, the air and anti-air military branch took 6 years to research and finally produce the “Cach danh B-52” (How to Fight B-52) guidebook in October 1972. The document was only 29 pages, but was the culmination of the efforts and sacrifices of our troops. By December 1972, two months after the pamphlet had been published, we had a decisive battle against the B-52 “flying fortresses” over the skies of Hanoi.
Then U.S. losses on the southern Vietnam battlefield, coupled with their loss of its strategic air force in Hanoi, pushed them into a losing state from which there was no recovery. Accepting its defeat, the U.S. had no choice but to resume negotiations in Paris and signed a draft of the Accords, which was agreed on by both sides.
How did the Paris Accords impacted the political situation in both northern and southern Vietnam at the time?
The Paris Accords was the result of the tenacious struggle by our people in both northern and southern Vietnam, creating a new turning point in the Vietnam War. The U.S. and other countries pledged to respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam. The U.S. and its allies had to withdraw all their troops, demolish their military bases and pledge not to create any more military interference or any interference into the internal affairs of southern Vietnam.
All parties would let the people of southern Vietnam determine their political future through free general actions. Parties also had to acknowledge the reality that southern Vietnam has two regimes, two armies, two zones of control and three political forces.
And most importantly, the Paris Accords was a decisive condition for us to decide to quickly liberate the south and unify the country. The deed was expected to be done within the 1975-1976 period, but once the opportunity arose, the Politburo decided that it must be done within May 1975.
Looking back, if we never entered Saigon in April-May 1975, the situation would become complex and not as advantageous as it was. So far, Vietnam is the only country that has made the U.S. sign so complete and comprehensive an accords.
During nearly 5 years of negotiations, Vietnam had multiple times fallen into tough spots and was forced to compromise. How did Vietnam retain its independence and autonomy through such moments?
Throughout our revolutionary career, ever since the Communist Party was formed, we have always highlighted the role of independence in both internal and external affairs. Before we sat at the negotiating table for the Paris Accords, the Vietnamese delegation had accrued valuable experience regarding diplomacy.
During negotiations for the Geneva Accords in 1954, Vietnam did not have the upper hand and could neither issue its own terms nor decide the time for negotiations. As such, Vietnam faced much outside pressure at the time. The experience resembled what we went through during the process of negotiating the Paris Accords.
First, Vietnam would actively negotiate with the U.S. and only the U.S., not allowing any other major power to interfere into the process. Second, negotiation steps would be decided by Vietnam alone, without any interference from other countries, and would be done in accordance with a sole principle of serving the nation and its people’s interests first and foremost.
Third, there were times when we were supported by international allies with weapons and equipment. But the use of these weapons was always carefully considered, and were adapted to the Vietnamese ways of fighting and the Vietnamese military arts. For example, during the planning stage to combat the B-52, no other country’s army had managed to vanquish the B-52 before. It took the Vietnamese army 6 years to formulate a way to combat these aircrafts.
It has shown the independent way of Vietnam’s fighting, its willingness to fight the U.S. and knowing how to win… Similarly, when it comes to negotiations, we also created an art of “fighting and negotiating at the same time,” knowing how to win against our opponent in steps before achieving complete victory.
Through our experience of negotiating the Paris Accords, which lessons did Vietnam learn from and apply to our external policies?
In an era of strategic competition between major powers such as today, the wisest external policy is to keep things balanced. Vietnam does not reject anyone, nor are we dependent on anyone.
We don’t choose sides and don’t lean on one side to oppose the other. Vietnam can participate in bilateral and multilateral cooperative partnerships, as long as they are appropriate and serve the nation and its people’s interests first and foremost. However, this does not mean that we are selfish or follow nationalism. We protect our nation and our people’s interests in accordance with the U.N. Charter and international law.
Doing diplomacy this way helps us utilize support from other countries. Major powers won’t be able to criticize Vietnam. The most important thing is that we must always utilize our comprehensive power in the form of economic, political, military, scientific and technological and external power, as well as other types of soft power.
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