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Tom Hayden And Unofficial Peace Diplomacy During The Vietnam War

Private Citizens and Conflict Resolution Efforts

To the memory of Tom Hayden

On December 28, 1965, in light of the escalating war in Vietnam, three American private citizens landed in Hanoi, North Vietnam. They were Staughton Lynd, a Yale professor of American history and civil rights activist; Herbert Aptheker, an historian and communist activist; and Tom Hayden, a young 25-year-old student and one of the leaders of the leftist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Hayden’s colleagues in SDS opposed his trip to Hanoi, but he decided to go anyway, representing only himself and not SDS.

During their visit Lynd, Aptheker, and Hayden met with North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (NLF) officials, religious clerics, intellectuals, youth groups, women’s groups, and trade unions. Their most important meeting was with the prime minister of North Vietnam, Pham Van Dong. The premier presented Hanoi’s positions and conditions for opening negotiations with the US government, and the three Americans asked him to respond to various questions and arguments that had been posed by US officials and in public discourse. They also requested to meet with US prisoners of war (POWs) and convey messages from them to their families. This request was granted, and they visited a captured American pilot.

Lynd, Aptheker, and Hayden probably did not realize it, but they were conducting what would later be termed “citizen diplomacy” or “unofficial diplomacy” in International Relations literature. In the midst of a bloody war that lacked direct official communication channels between the disputing sides, these private citizens tried to fill the diplomatic vacuum and challenge the assumption that officials have a monopoly over diplomatic processes. The scholarship today recognizes the important role that private citizens and civil society can play in conflict resolution processes through “Track-Two Diplomacy,” especially when the official track (“Track One”) is blocked.

This private peace initiative during the Vietnam War has historical roots. Lynd, a professor of American history and a Quaker, was familiar with and inspired by the actions of one of the first pioneers of American private peace diplomacy: George Logan was a Quaker from Pennsylvania who traveled to France as part of a private peace mission in 1798. Engaging in private negotiations with the French Republic, Logan had hoped to prevent a war between the two countries. As a result of his mission, a new federal law — the Logan Act — was passed in 1799, prohibiting private citizens from corresponding or negotiating with foreign governments regarding any disputes with the United States. The private peace initiatives of Lynd, Hayden, and Aptheker would likewise not escape official censure.

After returning to the United States, the three self-appointed diplomats continued to spread their message and convey information to the American public. As a result, their visit to Vietnam received strong media coverage. Detailed reports of their trip and transcripts of their discussions with officials were published in various news media outlets. They all also wrote books describing their experiences in Vietnam: Mission to Hanoi (International Publishers, 1966) by Aptheker and The Other Side (New American Library, 1967) by Lynd and Hayden.

Yet, among the official US establishment, their trip to Hanoi sparked anger and concern. The State Department decided to temporarily confiscate the three travelers’ passports, explaining that they had acted in a manner “prejudicial to the orderly conduct of foreign relations.” Because American citizens were not permitted to travel with a US passport to North Vietnam, the US administration sought to frame the story in the media and public discourse as a violation of passport regulations and travel restrictions, not as new information about the war and the possibility of a peace settlement. There were also reports that the three might face charges for violating the Logan Act. Former President Harry Truman supported this step, saying “They have no business over there; what’s the Logan Act for?”

The administration was especially troubled by the attempt of the three travelers to call its bluff regarding its “peace offensive” policy, which the White House had recently initiated. Shortly before the three Americans traveled to Hanoi, the Johnson administration had declared a “bombing pause” with the aim of demonstrating its willingness to enter into peace negotiations. Lynd led a public campaign, based on insights from his trip to Hanoi, claiming that the US government had not made direct contact with North Vietnam during its peace offensive and that despite its bombing pause, the United States continued to conduct escalation measures on the ground. Lynd declared that he was in constant contact with NLF representatives and stressed that they could easily be reached by “simply picking up the phone.” This placed the US government in a defensive position, leading Vice President Hubert Humphrey to write to the National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, saying that he was concerned with Lynd’s comments and their potential to affect public opinion regarding the peace offensive.

The private peace mission of Lynd, Aptheker, and Hayden was an important cornerstone. It was also part of a larger phenomenon of American peace activists visiting Vietnam during the war — a controversial phenomenon that drew much governmental and public criticism. Although these visits had different goals and focuses, the main aims included establishing direct contact with the Vietnamese; protesting against the war; learning directly about the situation in Vietnam rather than through governmental sources; bringing this information to the US public; and, sometimes, providing humanitarian assistance.

Women played an important role in this process. Mary Clarke and Lorraine Gordon from Women Strike for Peace, for example, met with Pham Van Dong in May 1965 — the first meeting between American private citizens and an official leader of North Vietnam — and again in September 1967. Besides meeting with official leaders, they also maintained strong and continuous contact with Vietnamese women’s organizations: the Vietnamese Women’s Union and the South Vietnamese women from the NLF’s Women’s Union of Liberation. In 1972, actress Jane Fonda also took her very famous trip to North Vietnam (Fonda and Hayden married in 1973).

A review of this phenomenon shows that in some cases, such as the trip of Lynd, Aptheker, and Hayden, activists saw the diplomatic aspect as a significant part of their mission, and they met with North Vietnamese and NLF officials specifically to promote peace negotiations. Targeting the media and public opinion, some of these unofficial American diplomats (like Lynd) hoped to act publicly; trying to help establish a confidential channel between Washington and Hanoi, others (like the journalist Norman Cousins) acted secretly. In a peace mission to Hanoi in 1967, journalists Harry Ashmore and Bill Baggs even succeeded in their efforts to serve as mediators. Before their trip, they met with State Department officials and were asked to deliver an official letter to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

The unofficial peace diplomacy with Hanoi also addressed issues relating to American POWs, including visits with the POWs, delivery of letters, and efforts to promote their release. Some of these efforts were successful, with North Vietnam or the NLF agreeing to release American soldiers into the hands of American peace activists. In late 1967, for example, Hayden was asked during another visit to Hanoi to go to Cambodia and meet with three American POWs, who were then released by the NLF as a “gesture of solidarity with the American peace movement.” These three soldiers returned to the United States with Hayden.

Since the Vietnam War, this phenomenon of unofficial American diplomacy with an “enemy state” has recurred during various conflicts. Examples include the visits of Reverend Jesse Jackson to Syria (1983) and Iraq (1991) and the visits of former President Jimmy Carter to North Korea (1994) and Cuba (2002). The importance of this historical phenomenon has also extended beyond America and influenced other conflict areas, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Uri Avnery, an Israeli journalist and unofficial peace diplomat who established contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), drew inspiration from the unofficial diplomatic efforts in North Vietnam and hoped to duplicate their achievements in his meetings with the PLO. In his correspondence with PLO leaders during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Avnery referred frequently to the model of unofficial American peace diplomacy with Hanoi. He urged the PLO to release captured Israeli soldiers into the hands of Israeli peace activists, as occurred in North Vietnam, to reinforce the power of peace forces in Israel. Avnery’s meeting with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Beirut in July 1982, during the First Lebanon War, bore strong similarities to the meetings of Hayden and other American peace activists with North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi.

Looking back now shows the American private peace missions to Hanoi produced mixed results. In the short term, they were a failure: the administration refused to listen and tried to thwart these efforts, and the terrible and bloody war in Vietnam continued for eight years before the peace settlement for which Lynd, Hayden, and Aptheker strove was achieved. In the long term, however, the voices of Hayden and his partners in the political struggle during the Vietnam War may have eventually prevailed and realigned the center of American politics.

In 1982, Hayden was elected to the California State Assembly and then to the State Senate in 1992. In 2000, Bill Clinton, who had participated in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War, became the first US president to visit Vietnam since the end of that war. In 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry, the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans against the War, visited Hanoi to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Today, the world is witnessing bloody wars, escalating conflicts, and humanitarian crises in various arenas around the globe. With the orthodox diplomatic mechanisms hard pressed to handle these situations and official diplomats often ineffective and incompetent, the need for citizen or Track-Two diplomacy as well as unofficial alternative channels and networks is particularly imperative and even vital. Following the path paved by Hayden and his colleagues, private citizens can and should play a role in promoting conflict resolution efforts.

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