Letter From President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev
Washington, November 16, 1961
DEAR MR. CHAIRMAN: I have now had a chance to study your most recent two letters on the German problem and on Laos and Vietnam./1/ I shall be writing you again about Germany and Berlin,/2/ but I do wish to give you my thoughts about Laos and Vietnam as soon as possible.
/1/Documents 23 and 24.
/2/See Document 26.
In writing to you, I am conscious of the difficulties you and I face in establishing full communication between our two minds. This is not a question of translation but a question of the context in which we hear and respond to what each other has to say. You and I have already recognized that neither of us will convince the other about our respective social systems and general philosophies of life. These differences create a great gulf in communication because language cannot mean the same thing on both sides unless it is related to some underlying common purpose. I cannot believe that there are not such common interests between the Soviet and the American people. Therefore, I am trying to penetrate our ideological differences in order to find some bridge across the gulf on which we could bring our minds together and find some way in which to protect the peace of the world.
Insofar as Laos is concerned, it has seemed to us that an agreement ought to be possible if you share our willingness to see that country genuinely neutral and independent, and are prepared to take, jointly, the necessary steps to that end. I have explained to you quite simply and sincerely that the United States has no national ambitions in Laos, no need for military bases or any military position, or an ally. You have stated your interest in a neutral and independent Laos which we assume means that you do not seek to impose a communist regime upon Laos.
Considerable progress has been made in Geneva, although there are still some points which ought to be clarified. Further progress there will depend upon the composition of the neutral government in Laos itself through negotiation among the Laotian leaders. It is true that the United States has agreed to the formation of a coalition government to be headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma, but it is not accurate as you write that the formula four-eight-four derives from any agreement between our governments. This formula was suggested by Prince Souvanna Phouma himself. I can assure you that the United States is not attempting to determine the composition of such a government, and that we have most certainly not been exerting pressure through the Royal Laotian Government in any respect. We have, in fact, been pressing the leadership of the Royal Laotian Government to negotiate these questions in good faith with Prince Souvanna Phouma. Our efforts in this direction, therefore, correspond to the request contained in your letter as to how we should use our influence.
I wish I could believe that Prince Souphanouvong is prepared to enter into such discussions in a spirit of negotiation with a view to the creation of a genuinely neutral government. Prince Souphanouvong has remained consistently at a distance from these discussions. We are hopeful that Prince Souvanna Phouma will show a willingness to take the initiative now incumbent upon him to search for a government which would be broadly representative of all elements in Laos and sincerely committed to a policy of nonalignment. We shall continue our efforts with the Royal Laotian Government for the achievement of this objective and I can only venture to hope that you, for your part, will likewise exert your influence in the same direction.
As to the situation in Vietnam, I must tell you frankly that your analysis of the situation there and the cause of the military action which has occurred in Southern Vietnam is not accurate. Precisely because of the visit of such Americans as Vice President Johnson and General Taylor we are, as you yourself recognize, well informed as to the situation in that country. I do not wish to argue with you concerning the government structure and policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem, but I would like to cite for your consideration the evidence of external interference or incitement which you dismiss in a phrase.
I would draw your attention to a letter sent by the Government of Vietnam to the International Control Commission concerning the North Vietnam subversion and aggression against Vietnam, dated October 24, 1961. I would urge that you should read this document very carefully since it contains evidence of a planned and consistent effort on the part of the DRV to overthrow by violence the legitimate government of South Vietnam. I would like to add that the evidence contained in this document is known to the United States to be accurate and sober. Many more incidents of the type outlined in this document could be deduced from our own experience and our own direct knowledge. I might point out here that in effect from 1954, the signature of the Geneva Accords, until 1959, the situation in Vietnam was relatively tranquil. The country was effecting a limited recovery from the ravages of the civil war from which it had just emerged. The Government enjoyed the support of the people and the prospects for the future appeared reasonably bright. However, in 1959, the DRV having failed in the elections which had been held in Vietnam and in the attempt to arouse the people against their legitimate government, turned to a calculated plan of open infiltration, subversion, and aggression. During the Third Party Congress of the Lao Dong Party the Secretary General Le Duan stated: "There does not exist any other way outside of that which consists in the overthrow of the dictatorial and Fascist regime of the American-Diemist clique in order to liberate totally South Vietnam, with a view to realizing national unity." As indicated in the document to which I have referred, you will find this statement in the Nhan Dan, Hanoi Daily Number 2362 of September 6, 1960.
It is the firm opinion of the United States Government that Southern Vietnam is now undergoing a determined attempt from without to overthrow the existing government using for this purpose infiltration, supply of arms, propaganda, terrorization, and all the customary instrumentalities of communist activities in such circumstances, all mounted and developed from North Vietnam.
It is hardly necessary for me to draw your attention to the Geneva Accords of July 20-31, 1954. The issue, therefore, is not that of some opinion or other in regard to the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, but rather that of a nation whose integrity and security is threatened by military actions, completely at variance with the obligations of the Geneva Accords.
Insofar as the United States is concerned, we view the situation in which the Republic of Vietnam finds itself with the utmost gravity and, in conformity with our pledge made at the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, as one seriously endangering international peace and security. Our support for the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem we regard as a serious obligation, and we will undertake such measures as the circumstances appear to warrant. Since there is no semblance of any threat to the DRV by the Government of Vietnam, it is clear that if the DRV were honorably to discharge the obligations it undertook in the Geneva Accords, the prospects for peace would be greatly improved. I would, therefore, venture to suggest that you, as the head of a government which was a signatory to the Geneva Accords, should use all the influence that you possess and endeavor to bring the DRV to the strict observance of these Accords. This would be a great act in the cause of peace which you refer to as the essence of the policies of the Twenty-second Party Congress. If the DRV were to abide by its obligations under the Geneva Accords, there would be no need for the United States to consider, as we must at the present, how best to support the Government of Vietnam in its struggle for independence and national integrity.
I have written you frankly about Laos and Vietnam for a very simple reason. Both these countries are at a distance from our own countries and can be considered areas in which we ought to be able to find agreement. I am suggesting to you that you use every means at your disposal to insure a genuinely neutral and independent Laos, as those words are commonly understood throughout the world, and to insure that those closely associated with you leave South Vietnam alone. On our part, we shall work toward a neutral and independent Laos and will insure that North Vietnam will not be the object of any direct or indirect aggression. This would be a step toward peace; I am reluctant to believe that there is any necessary alternative to be imposed upon my country by the actions of others.
I am leaving for a few days for a visit to the western part of our country and will be in touch with you on other matters when I return.