Le Duan on "Fighting and Talking"

The names Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap are most commonly remembered in connection with the state of North Vietnam and its war with the United States, but from the mid-1960s until well after the fall of Saigon, the most powerful figure in Hanoi was Le Duan.

Born in 1907 in Quang Tri Province, the northernmost province in South Vietnam during its existence, Le Duan was a founding member of the Indochina Communist Party, the forerunner of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). He became General Secretary of the CPV Central Committee in 1960, accumulated power as Party Chairman Ho Chi Minh's health declined throughout the 1960s, and became the undisputed leader upon Ho's death in September 1969.

On December 1, 1965, a general assembly session of the CPV Central Committee was held, against a backdrop of growing United States troop deployments to South Vietnam. The U.S. had also begun to bomb targets in North Vietnam, hoping to compel authorities in Hanoi to begin to negotiate an end to its military campaign against the government in Saigon.

North Vietnam was critically dependent upon the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, its most important allies in the "socialist camp", for military and diplomatic support. The Soviet Union favored a policy of peaceful coexistence with the U.S., and its followers in the Communist Party of Vietnam were agreeable to negotiating while working to reunite Vietnam through political means. Maoist China called for armed struggle against the "imperialists" and its adherents in Hanoi opposed holding talks with the Americans. Ho Chi Minh favored a peaceful resolution while Le Duan was a leader of the militant faction, which called for the reunification of Vietnam by military means.

The Secret Policy Speech of Le Duan

Before the Central Committee, Le Duan acknowledged historical precedents for negotiating with the enemy while continuing to fight. He cited ancient Vietnamese struggles against China's Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Communist war against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, and even recalled North Korean negotiations with the United States during the Korean War.

He proceeded to clarify his vision of a time and situation in which discussions with the U.S. would be in order. He did not foresee fighting until his American and South Vietnamese enemies were completely destroyed. He advocated fighting until the South Vietnamese army had "essentially disintegrated" and until an "important portion" of the American military presence in Vietnam had been destroyed, such that the American will would have been shattered.

Le Duan then set forth his fundamental concept of the role of negotiations in wartime: The stronger party is the one who encourages discussions, as a means of solidifying their position. In December 1965, the United States was eager to work out a compromise settlement, while the North Vietnamese had yet to achieve their goal of crushing American will to maintain the South Vietnamese regime by means of force.

He addressed an important constraint on his militant policy: Hanoi was "using weakness to attack strength" and their most important asset was support from fraternal Communist nations and the good will of nonaligned countries which sympathized with the North Vietnamese cause. "Fighting and talking" was only a stratagem, a means of attaining a certain objective, while maintaining international good will was a strategy. Le Duan emphasized the need to present Hanoi's position "in a very skillful manner", to convince sympathizers that the Vietnamese Communists were motivated by "good will".

A critical benefit of this propaganda effort would be incitement of the American anti-war movement. At this early stage in the Vietnam War, before the first large anti-war protests, Le Duan had placed encouragement of the United States public to oppose military intervention in Vietnam at the strategic level of importance.

Aftermath

The U.S. domestic reaction to the shock of the Tet Offensive of early 1968 caused President Lyndon Johnson to curtail the bombing of North Vietnam, in the hope of inducing them to begin to negotiate. At the beginning of November 1968, Johnson finally ordered a complete halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, in response to announced North Vietnamese agreement to join preliminary negotiations.