We can have honest debate about whether we should have entered the war. We can have honest debate about the past conduct of the war. But the urgent question today is what to do now that we are there, not whether we should have entered on this course, but what is required of us today.
Against that background, let me discuss, first, what we have rejected, and second, what we are prepared to accept.
We have ruled out attempting to impose a purely military solution on the battlefield.
We have also ruled out either a one-sided withdrawal from South Vietnam or the acceptance in Paris of terms that would amount to a disguised defeat.
When we assumed the burden of helping South Vietnam, millions of South Vietnamese men, women, and children placed their trust in us. To abandon them now would risk a massacre that would shock and dismay everyone in the world who values human life.
Abandoning the South Vietnam people, however, would jeopardize more than lives in South Vietnam. It would threaten our longer term hopes for peace in the world. A great nation cannot renege on its pledges, A great nation must be worthy of trust.
When it comes to maintaining peace, "prestige" is not an empty word. I am not speaking of false pride or bravado - they should have no place in our policies. I speak rather of the respect that one nation has for another's integrity in defending its principles and meeting its obligations.
If we simply abandoned our efforts in South Vietnam, the cause of peace might not survive the damage that would be done to other nations' confidence in our reliability.
Another reason stems from debates within the communist world between those who argue for a policy of confrontation with the United States and those who argue against it. If Hanoi were to succeed in taking over South Vietnam by force- even after the power of the United States had been engaged - it would greatly strengthen those leaders who scorn negotiation, who advocate aggression, who minimize the risks of confrontation. It would bring peace now, but it would enormously increase the danger of a bigger war later.
If we are to move successfully from an era of confrontation to an era of negotiation, then we have to demonstrate - at the point ar which confrontation is being tested - that confrontation with the United States is costly and unrewarding.
Almost without exception, the leaders of non-communist Asia have told me that they would consider a one-sided American withdrawal from South Vietnam to be a threat to the security of their own nations.
In determining what choices would be acceptable, we have to understand our essential objective: We seek the opportunity for the South Vietnam people to determine their own political future without outside interference.
Let me put is plainly: What the United States wants for South Vietnam is not the important thing. What North Vietnam wants for South Vietnam is not the important thing. What is important is what the people of South Vietnam want for themselves.
The United States has suffered over one million casualties in four wars in this century. Whatever faults we may have as a nation, we have asked nothing for ourselves in return for these sacrifices. We have been generous toward those who we have fought, helping former foes as well as friends in the task of reconstruction. We are proud of this record, and we bring the same attitude to our search for a settlement in South Vietnam.
In this spirit, let me be explicit about several points:
We seek not bases in South Vietnam. We insist on no military ties. We are willing to agree to neutrality if that is what the South Vietnam people freely choose. We believe there should be an opportunity for full participation in the political life of South Vietnam by all political elements that are prepared to do so without the use of force or intimidation. We are prepared to accept any government in South Vietnam that results from the free choice of the South Vietnam people themselves. We have no intention of imposing any form of govt upon the people of South Vietnam, nor will we be a party to such coercion. We have no objection to reunification, if that turns out to be what the people of South Vietnam and the people of North Vietnamese want; we ask only that the decision reflect the free choice of the people concerned.
In pursuing our limited objective, we insist on no rigid diplomatic formula. Peace could be achieved by a formal negotiated settlement. Peace could be achieved by an informal understanding, provided that the understanding is clear and that there were adequate assurance that it would be observed. Peace on paper is not as important as peace in fact.
This brings us, then, to the matter of negotiations.
We must recognize that peace in South Vietnam cannot be achieved overnight. A war which has raged for so many years will require detailed negotiations and cannot be settled at a single stroke.
What kind of settlement will permit the South Vietnam people to determine freely their own political future? Such a settlement will require the withdrawal of all non-South Vietnam forces from South Vietnam and procedures for political choice that give each significant group in South Vietnam a real opportunity to participate in the political life of the nation.
To implement these principles, I reaffirm now our willingness to withdraw our forces on a specified timetable. We ask only that North Vietnamese withdraw its forces from South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos into North Vietnam, also in accordance with a timetable.
We include Cambodia and Laos to ensure that these countries would not be used as bases for a renewed war. The Cambodian border is only 35 miles from Saigon; the Laotian border is only 25 miles from Hue.
Our offer provides for a simultaneous start on withdrawal by both sides; agreement on a mutually acceptable timetable; and for the withdrawal to be accomplished quickly.
If North Vietnamese wants to insist that it has no forces in South Vietnam, we will no longer debate the point - provided that its forces cease to be there and that we have reliable assurances that they will not return.
The North Vietnamese delegates have been saying in Paris that political issues should be discussed along with military issues and that there must be a political settlement in the south. We do not dispute this, but the military withdrawal involves outside forces and can therefore be properly negotiated by North Vietnamese and the United States, with the concurrence of its allies. The political settlement is an internal matter which ought to be decided among the South Vietnam people themselves and not imposed by outside powers. However, if our presence at these political negotiations would be helpful, and if the South Vietnam people concerned agreed, we would be willing to participate, along with the representatives of Hanoi if that were also desired.
Recent statement by President Thieu have gone far forward opening the way to a political settlement. He has publicly declared his govts willingness to discuss a political solution with the NLF and has offered free elections. This was dramatic step forward, a reasonable offer that could lead to a settlement. The South Vietnam govt has offered to talk without preconditions. I believe that the other side should also be willing to talk without preconditions.
The South Vietnam govt recognizes, as we do, that a settlement must permit all persons and groups that are prepared to renounce the use of force to participate freely in the political life of South Vietnam. To be effective, such a settlement would require two things: first, a process that would allow the South Vietnam people to express their choice; and second, a guarantee that this process would be a fair one.
We do not insist on a particular form of guarantee. The important thing is that the guarantees should have the confidence of the South Vietnam people and that they should be broad enough and strong enough to protect the interests of all major South Vietnam groups.
This, then, is the outline of the settlement that we seek to negotiate in Paris. Its basic terms are very simple: mutual withdrawal of non-South Vietnam forces from South Vietnam and free choice for the people of South Vietnam. I believe that the long-term interests of peace required that we insist on no less and that the realities of the situation require that we seek no more.
To make very concrete what I have said, I propose the following measures, which seem to me consistent with the principles of all parties. These proposals are made on the basis of full consultation with President Thieu.
As soon as agreement can be reached, all non-South Vietnam fores would begin withdrawals from South Vietnam. Over a period of twelve months, by agreed-upon stages, the major portions of all United States Allied, and other non-South Vietnam forces would be withdrawn. At the end of this 12-month period, the remaining US, Allied, and other non-South Vietnam forces would move into designated base area and would not engage in combat operations. The remaining United States and Allied forces would move to complete their withdrawals as the remaining North Vietnamese forces were withdrawn and returned to North Vietnam. An international supervisory body, acceptable to both sides, would be created for the purpose agreed upon between the two sides. This international body would begin operating in accordance with an agreed timetable and would participate in arranging supervised cease-fires. As soon as possible after the international body was functioning, elections would be held under agreed procedures and under the supervision of the international body. Arrangements would be made for the earliest possible release of prisoners of war on both sides. All parties would agree to observe the GA of '54 regarding Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Laos accords of '62.
I believe this proposal for peace is realistic and takes account of the legitimate interests of all concerned. It is consistent with President Thieu's six points. It can accommodate the various programs put forth by the other side. We and the govt of South Vietnam are prepared to discuss its details with the other side. Secretary Rogers is now in Saigon and will be discussing with President Thieu how, together, we may put forward these proposed measures most usefully in Paris. He will, as well, be consulting with our other Asian allies on these measures while on his Asian trip. However, I would stress that these proposals are not offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. We are quite willing to consider other approaches consistent with our principles.
We are willing to talk about anybody's program - Hanoi's four points, the NLF's ten points - provided it can be made consistent with the few basic principles I have set forth here. Despite our disagreement with several of its points, we welcome the fact that the NLF has put forward its first comprehensive program. We are continuing to study it carefully. However, we cannot ignore the fact that immediately after the offer, the scale of enemy attacks stepped up and American casualties increased.
Let me make one point very clear. If the enemy wants peace with the United States, that is not the way to get it.
I have set forth a peace program tonight which is generous in its terms. I have indicated our willingness to consider other proposals. No greater mistake could be made than to confuse flexibility with weakness or being reasonable with lack of resolution. I must make clear, in all candor, that if the needless suffering continues, this will affect other decisions. Nobody has anything to gain by delay.
Reports from Hanoi indicate that the enemy has given up hope for a military victory in South Vietnam but is counting on a collapse of American will in the United States. They could make no greater error in judgment.
Let me be quite blunt. Our fighting men are not going to be worn down; our negotiators are not going to be talked down; our allies are not going to be let down.
In my campaign for the Presidency, I pledged to end this war in a way that would increase our chances to win true and lasting peace in South Vietnam, in the Pacific, and in the world. I am determined to keep that pledge. If I fail to do so, I expect the American people to hold me accountable for that failure.