29 SEPTEMBER 1967, Page 4

Ping-pong game


New York—Mr Harry Ashmore is the newest of those persons ranging in eminence downward from the Secretary-General of the United Nations who have attempted to move our State Department towards negotiations with Mr Ho Chi Minh. Last week Mr Ashmore's results be- came a subject of clangorous notoriety when he charged that an effort which had been promising was 'effectively and brutally can- celled' by President Johnson. Mr Ashmore is a journalist richly deserving of the respect and affection which are his by common consent; it is rather a pity that his racy choice of adverbs so obscured the lesson he drew from the ex- perience, which was that our government is not so much brutal and effective as hesitant and feckless.

Mr Ashmore was in Hanoi last January and spent two hours with Ho Chi Minh. His judg- ment was `that the tone of the conversation had been deliberately conciliatory and that Ho seemed prepared to consider a specific proposal based on a formula of mutual de-escalation.' That judgment is not, of course, certifiable, although, as Mr Ashmore says, there was no real risk in investigating the chance that it might be correct. He made his report to the State De- partment; during the subsequent silence, he chanced upon Senator Fulbright of Arkansas, who was surprised to hear that the President had not invited Mr Ashmore to tell him directly about his talk with Ho Chi Minh.

A few days later, Senator Fulbright was at the White House and told Mr Johnson that he should see Ashmore. The President answered that an invitation to Mr Ashmore might risk public speculation, but that he would `per- sonally see to it that (Ashmore) `had access to anybody in this administration.' As a conse- quence of this benevolence, Senator Fulbright and Mr Ashmore were favoured with an `extra- ordinary private confrontation of the depart- ment's upper hierarchy (minus Mr Rusk) . . . plus a silent White House observer as witness.'

There the decision was taken that Mr Ash- more should write to Mr Ho and `express the department's view that it might be possible to suspend the bombing and initiate negotiations, without specific concessions beyond an agree-

ment that neither side would use the occasion to improve its military position.'

A letter in these general terms was composed by the State Department and delivered to Mr Ashmore who mailed it to Hanoi. There is no way to judge its effect, since Mr Ho had already received a message from Mr Johnson himself stating that any negotiations were conditional upon an assurance from Hanoi 'that infiltration into South Vietnam by land and sea has stopped.'

We shall never know how hopeful the essay of Mr Ashmore and the State Department (minus Secretary Rusk) may have been, since Mr Ho resolved the contradiction between the two letters by accepting Mr Johnson's position as the weightier. Mr Ashmore is, however, a useful witness on the condition of our estab- lishment. He emerged from the experience un- certain whether the administration really wants a compromise or is committed to a military victory. Mr Ashmore settled for the view that misunderstandings with Washington arise less often because officials lie than because of 'per- vasive ignorance of ultimate policy that goes right to the top of the Cabinet.'

He does not believe that Mr Johnson is 'committed to some Texas-style version of Pax Americana . . .' or, for that matter, to any other long-range policy. The very ab- sence of policy seems to Mr Ashmore the chief cause of our Asian perplexities : . . the President has taken a ping-pong approach to the problems he inherited in Vietnam. The ex- tent of his personal ambition, so far as I can divine it, is to find a compromise that will per- mit him to get out of South-East Asia without appearing to have suffered a major political or military defeat. The technique is to throw his weight behind the advocates of negotiation until do-it-now pressure from the generals and admirals becomes unbearable. Then he cuts the military loose for another turn of the screw, only to clamp down again when the opinion polls remind him how unpopular the Vietnam war really is.'

Mr Ashmore's sense that we do not know what we are doing was fortified by Ambassador Arthur Goldberg's statement of the position of the United States on negotiations with Hanoi from the rostrum of the United Nations last week.

The most illuminating comment on this ex- position arose during its transmission to Paris by Agence France-Presse following the trans- lation of a question addressed to Hanoi by Ambassador Goldberg : `Does North Vietnam conceive that the cessation of bombing would or should lead to any other results than mean- ingful negotiations or discussions under cir- cumstances which would not disadvantage either side?'

Paris interrupted: 'Please give us a clearer translation of this passage.' 'The translation of this passage is anything but unclear,' Agence France-Presse's UN bureau replied with stiff dignity. `If the French is unclear, it is because

the English is unclear.' Ambassador Goldberg had been conscripted to ask Ho Chi Minh a question which, on the authority of the official French news agency, had to be described as untranslatable into French.

In general, Mr Goldberg's position sounded in most details of tone and substance measur- ably harder than it was a year ago. But the difference was not significant : the form beneath the drapery was probably granite then as it

seemed so clearly granite now; the change was only that there was a lot less drapery now. Our governing institutions are better equipped for suppressing domestic guerrillas than foreign ones. It has escaped the recollection if the Strategic Air Command has given much promise of winning a war except the one it continually wages against Secretary of Defence McNamara. And Secretary of State Rusk can remember few diplomatic triumphs as large as the one he scored on Ambassador Goldberg last week.

The Ambassador is not, by experience, or temperament, a man who brings any hope to negotiations begun from frozen positions. If there were hints of compromise in his speech to the uNo a year ago, we may assume that he sneaked them by Secretary Rusk. You do not fool Secretary Rusk twice. Ambassador Gold- berg's draft was returned to him, with strenuous revision, from Washington an hour and a half before its delivery time, too late for him either to negotiate a softer tone or to add more than a minimum of decoration by manners.

To be an ambassador, private or official, from the United States in those distractions is to be the ball in the ping-pong game.