Paris Peace Talks

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For more information, see: Vietnam War.

The Paris Peace Talks, which, in various forms, spanned three and a half years, were the attempt by President Richard M. Nixon to achieve his pledge of "Peace with Honor" made during the 1968 Presidential election to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Nixon wanted to achieve a peace agreement with North Vietnam before the 1972 Presidential election but intransigence at the negotiating table by both the North and South Vietnamese delegations led to many delays in reaching a final agreement. The final agreement was called the Paris Accords and was signed on January 28, 1973. The two leading negotiators, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1973, but Tho refused his award.[1] Subsequent historical events quickly rendered the Accords meaningless.


In his March 1968 speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his intention to stop bombing North Vietnam. However, reconnaissance overflights of the North and bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail and North Vietnamese targets in South Vietnam continued. During Nixon's administration, according to Kissinger, there also was an "understanding", never formally confirmed by the North but to which it did not object, that there would be:[2]

  • No attacks on major cities;
  • No artillery fire from or across the Demilitarized Zone; and
  • No threatening troop movements in or near the DMZ, which would suggest movement into the South.

Almost as soon as he came into office, President Nixon sent communications to Moscow, via Cyrus Vance in April 1969, to get the Soviets to open communications between the U.S. and North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese replied with a "Ten Point" program, a list of requirements for ending the war. [2]


On August 4, 1969, U.S. Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger had a first, secret meeting in Paris with Xuan Thuy, a North Vietnamese diplomat. They met in the apartment of Jean Sainteny, formerly the French Commissioner to Tonkin, who, nearly fifty years before, had tried to find a peaceful way to avoid the Indochinese revolution. In July, Sainteny had forwarded a letter from Nixon to Ho Chi Minh that suggested negotiations. Ho and Sainteny were old adversaries who respected one another.[3] The Nixon letter, however, did threaten "measures of great consequence and force" if there were no diplomatic progress by November 1. Ho was dying, and may not actually have written the reply, which Nixon called a "cold rebuff."

Le Duc Tho was the real head of the North Vietnamese delegation. His main assistant was Nguyen Co Thach. The main preconditions for peace discussions were total withdrawal of all U.S. troops, removal of the South Vietnamese government, and replacement by a NLF-based coalition with approval over other members. Specifically, Tho demanded the removal of the "Thieu-Ky-Huong" leadership group.[4] Once Khiem replaced Huong, the North Vietnamese demanded the removal of "Thiu-Ky-Khiem" group.[5]

The first meeting was on 10 May, with the delegations headed by Xuan Thuy, North Vietnamese foreign minister, and ambassador-at-large Averell Harriman. The main discussions were outside the conference room, where there continued to be symbolic arguments about status, and even of the shape of the table, by the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, Viet Cong).

Without the participation of the RVN, it was difficult to conceive of serious negotiations, unless one accepted the North Vietnamese claim that the RVN was a total puppet of the U.S. Given the constant friction between the RVN and U.S., this seemed less than plausible. The North's additional demand to include the NLF as an equal party was an additional attempt to delegitimize the RVN. In all cases, Thieu resisted and resented these maneuvers to slight the republic.

From the beginning, the Communist position was that substantive talks could begin only with the total and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces, coupled with an overthrow of the RVN. This stratagem led to continued four-way posturing that accomplished little except for allowing secret talks between the U.S. and DRV to continue.

By 1972, Kissinger and Tho had reached substantial agreement about allowing for a U.S. pullout, a ceasefire, respect for NVA positions, and exchange of prisoners of war. The next step for the U.S. was to persuade Thieu and the RVN to accept the agreement as well. Thieu did not like it and demanded changes. When the U.S. went back to the table with RVN proposals, the North Vietnamese walked out. Richard Nixon did not get his peace in Vietnam in time for the 1972 election.

In response to the North Vietnamese walkout, Nixon launched an all-out bombing campaign, Operation LINEBACKER II, during which massive raids into North Vietnam were made. It was an expensive campaign for the U.S. (at the end of the war, too), but it brought North Vietnam back to the table. Despite complaints by the RVN, few changes were made to the document and the Paris Accords were signed at the end of January.


  1. "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize," is a quotation frequently credited to the American satirist Tom Lehrer, but a well-documented citation for its first use is difficult to find.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Henry Kissinger (1973), Ending the Vietnam War: A history of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War, Simon & Schuster, p. 50 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Kissinger" defined multiple times with different content
  3. Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, p. 597
  4. Kissinger, p. 89.
  5. Kissinger, p. 115n.