Edward Brown Commentary Paris 1/27/73
The Viet Nam cease-fire agreement has been signed. It took nineteen minutes by my watch for the Foreign Ministers of North and South Viet Nam, the Provisional Revolutionary Government and the United States to sign all the documents. The signing ceremony, one of two scheduled for the day, occurred here at the Hotel Majestic where the cease fire negotiations began four years and tens of thousands of deaths ago.
The rain this morning made this 19th century hotel look even older. It was possible to imagine the touring cars that decades ago brought the wealthy here for a stop-over on the way south. Squint your eyes and see the driveway filled with the staff cars of the Nazi officers who headquartered at the hotel during World War II and after them, the olive green jeeps and sedans of the Allied Forces officers roaring in when the war ended. This time, motorcycles were followed by black Citroens, sweeping into the driveway at what seemed like excessive speed and with security men out of them on their feet while the cars were still rolling.
A few hundred people were on the sidewalk opposite the hotel when the cars arrived bringing Hanoi’s Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trin and the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s Mrs. Tri Binh. Many in the crowd suddenly produced North Vietnamese and Viet Cong flags from under their coats. Flags with gold stars against fields of red or red and blue. Everything had seemed neutral up to that moment. There was some cheering but no disorder. There was no commotion for the arrival of Saigon’s Foreign Minister Tran Van Lam and for Secretary of State William Rogers.
By 10:45 am, everyone was inside the hotel’s gold, main salon under three gleaming chandeliers and seated around the same 20-foot diameter table that has served the Viet Nam negotiations since 1969. The documents to be signed were bound handsomely in blue and red leather folders, each about the size of a large magazine. Diplomatic aides carefully managed the movement of the folders from signer to signer.
The procedure for the ceremony had been arranged so that South Viet Nam’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Lam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s Foreign Minister, Mrs. Binh, would not have to sign the same pieces of paper. At one point, as an aide pointed out to Mr. Lam where his signature should go, he hesitated, held his pen aside and leafed through the book’s pages, apparently checking to see who else had signed it.
Mr. Lam was stony-faced throughout the ceremony. Mrs. Binh was, as usual, solemn. Mr. Trin of Hanoi has a face permanently frozen it seems in an expression of irritation. Secretary of State Rogers was the only person at the table who smiled. He smiled often. Small, amiable smiles even when one of his pens didn’t work.
Everything was diplomatically cool, clean and correct. The hotel staff in formal dress. The red and blue-bound leather books, with their crisp, white pages against the bright green table cover. A small, well-dressed gallery of onlookers seated before walls of antique tapestries and heavy gold drapery. Everything so civil to resolve—maybe to resolve—the issues of war.
It would have been a more truthful reflection of the war that is now supposed to end, had the walls been lined with photos of a flattened Quang Tri, and color photos of the field morgues where they laid out the bodies of Marines who had died on hill tops scalped by bombs and automatic weapons fire or on jungle trails charred and withered by flames and Agent Orange. The seats behind the diplomats should have been occupied not by the politically connected but by children with napalm burns and lost limbs, by the orphaned and unwanted children. The American P.O.W’s who had been paraded on the streets of Hanoi should have been there in uniforms sweat-soaked and tattered.
Spaces should have been reserved for the old Vietnamese men and woman, huddled on their haunches, trembling and mumbling with nobody listening to them weep as they have had to weep for generations as different armies took their farms, their sons, their daughters, their lives. It seems like we have been looking into the faces of these poor, tortured people, forever. But we did not see them in that room today because such people are not invited to the pleasant pastures and palaces where wars are plotted or called off.
When the ceremony was over and the aides gathered up the documents and the piles of pens used to sign them, everyone stood up and for a moment seemed unsure about what to do. Protocol, when it includes people who don’t acknowledge the presence of certain other people in the room, is a bit awkward. Finally, a little smile and a nod by Mr. Rogers began a simultaneous move for the exits. A second signing ceremony was on the schedule, involving only North Viet Nam and the United States, to tie together all the attached protocols, including one which concerns the removal of American mines from North Viet Nam’s waters.
It had been raining lightly as the day’s first signing ceremony began and then the sun came out. Suggestion of an omen, however, is not only hackneyed but uncalled for given the reality of things. There is considerable opinion here and elsewhere that the cease-fire agreement is a diplomatic masterpiece of bewildering puzzles and contradictions that can be interpreted any number of ways and probably will be. It does seem unreasonable to expect or even to hope that adversaries who refuse to sign the same copy of an agreement will honor the provisions of that agreement.
This is Edward Brown in Paris.