The Vietnam War’s history is a long one, rife with casualties and misunderstanding. One particular aspect of the war is emblematic of just how poorly leadership – from all countries – treated the war. This is the so-called “battle of the tables” which I first encountered in George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War. This skirmish of desks took place in the waning weeks of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, as he scrambled to end the war.
By 1968, Johnson was pretty beat up about the Vietnam War. While he may have passed huge legislative changes with the Great Society, he’s arguably better known for his role in escalating the Vietnam War and then being virtually destroyed by it. 1968 was a pretty rough year for the guy – after the Tet Offensive crippled public support for the war and George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy did the same to the Democratic Party’s solidarity, Johnson had already announced that he would not seek a second term in order to seek peace in Vietnam when this battle began.
Against this backdrop, Johnson was eager to end the war that he had overseen for five years. To reach peace, though, he would first have to reach out to his allies in the Republic of Vietnam, who were not quite as willing to have the Americans leaving their corner of the world. After being rebuffed by South Vietnam, Johnson unilaterally ordered a bombing halt on October 31 as an olive branch to the North. He delayed the opening of the peace talks by a couple of weeks in order to try one last time to get South Vietnam on board. With the opening of the peace talks in mid-November, the battle of the tables began.
At the outset of the negotiations, the U.S. proposed two long tables with the two sides facing each other. North Vietnam refused to recognize South Vietnam’s legitimacy since the Geneva Accord elections had been indefinitely delayed, therefore the country’s existence was in violation. North Vietnam also demanded that America acknowledge that the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army were separate and proposed a square table to represent the four-sided nature of the Vietnam War.
This is how I imagine Nixon whenever he gets what he wants.
U.S. Ambassador at Large W. Averell Harriman proposed a round table for everyone. The North acquiesced – but the South did not. South Vietnam did not want to be seen with equal power as the NLF, which it refused to recognize as anything but saboteurs sent from the North. But what is probably more important is the South’s uneasy relationship with Johnson, who had been pressing for peace. Secretly, President-elect Richard Nixon’s staff had reached out to South Vietnam, hinting that a better peace might be possible with Nixon if they could only delay negotiations. After all, Nixon had campaigned on having a secret plan to end the war, and he desperately wanted to be remembered for what would become a list of foreign policy achievements (and secret expansions of war). Nonetheless, with conventional ideas like round tables and square tables being shot down, Herring referred to the debacle thus:
Instead of drafting cables at night, the U.S. delegation sketched table designs, the two sides proposing at various times such inventive geometric creations as a broken parallelogram, four arcs of a circle, a flattened ellipse, and two semi-circles that touched but did not form a circle.
And so, after weeks of duking it out over seating arrangements, the verdict – brokered by the Soviet Union – was a round table for the two Vietnamese governments and nearby square tables for the other actors involved. The negotiations could finally begin. The problem was, they began in the last days of Johnson’s administration, and so they never really began. Nixon’s plan had won out, and the South had been able to cling to war instead of peace in hopes of a better go-around with Nixon. Ultimately, of course, this would not work. Apparently, Nixon’s secret plan for ending the war in Vietnam was to continue it while simultaneously taking it to Cambodia as well. The Vietnam War would hobble forwards for several more years.
The peace talks under Johnson probably would not have made many gains regardless of the game of musical chairs, but it’s worth noting that the war raged on while diplomats played with seating arrangements and South Vietnam played chicken with US Presidents. With this in mind, I decided to look further into how many casualties America suffered while negotiators sketched random shapes in Parisian hotel rooms. I cracked open the search feature at The Wall-USA and used their database to see how many servicemen lost their lives between the ending of the bombing in North Vietnam. While diplomats sketched out tables, 1598 soldiers and marines were lost to the Vietnam War. While the peace talks never had the best shot at ending the war right then, these weeks of potential were lost to the seating chart while 1598 lost their lives.