There’s Still Time to Talk

Image of Ukraine war protest in the streets.

Image by Karollyne Videira Hubert.

After this piece is published, I am almost certain I will receive emails calling me a Putin-lover or something similar. I just ignore those, because they’re just dead wrong. I have no fondness for any current government or their leaders. Other emails will claim that there can be no peace talks because Kyiv and Moscow are the only entities that can initiate them. According to this argument, neither side wants them. This is nonsense. In fact, both governments have proposed negotiations, but with conditions. This is how negotiations often begin. It is a negotiating tactic, not an edict carved in stone. Makers of this argument insist that Washington and NATO have no right to demand negotiations since it is a war between Kyiv and Moscow. That is absurd. This war only continues because Washington is paying for it in every manner except with US troops’ bodies. Therefore, Washington has a right to insist on negotiations. It is Washington’s war as much as it is Kyiv’s and Moscow’s. At the very least, Washington should set an end date to sending more aid unless Kyiv agrees to unconditional peace talks and the process is begun.

If one wants a historical precedent, the story of the US war in Vietnam provides an almost perfect one. In 1967, a few exchanges regarding negotiations had begun in Washington and Hanoi. These talks were initiated via third parties who offered their services as go-betweens to the Johnson administration. The offer was originally made to Henry Kissinger, who was working with the State Department at the time. Robert McNamara, who seemed quite interested, took the offer to President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson initially rejected any possibility of negotiations with Hanoi government. Eventually, he relented and over a couple months the White House had put together an agreement whereby Washington would halt the bombing of northern Vietnam if the northern government agreed to stop sending its troops into southern Vietnam. If Hanoi agreed and halted its troops’ southern movements, then peace talks could begin. Hanoi agreed to this as long as the bombing pause was in place. LBJ did not want to make a public announcement of the pause, in large part because he risked offending Congress and the US-sponsored regime in Saigon; neither of whom he had consulted. Hanoi agreed that the halt did not have to be announced, but once it began, peace talks could be arranged. Washington, however, could not resist one final military move.

The bombing halt was scheduled to begin August 27, 1967, when the French intermediaries arrive in Hanoi. On August 20th, the US flew two hundred bombing sorties over northern Vietnam, more than any previous day in the war. Hanoi reacted angrily, claiming Washington had used the talk of a bombing halt as a way to take Hanoi off guard. The peace talks were shuttled and, on January 31, 1968, the Hanoi military together with the Vietnamese National Liberation Forces launched what became known as the TET offensive across southern Vietnam. Hard-liners in Hanoi had a convincing case that Washington was not really interested in negotiations. The war escalated well beyond any previous fighting, with casualties on all sides mounting at higher rates than ever before.

Nine months later, new peace negotiations began in Paris. These talks would last (with several interruptions) until an agreement was announced in January 1973. The Saigon government, being in a similar position to that of the current government in Kyiv especially in terms of whose money and arms (and troops) were sustaining the war and the regime, was never truly onboard with the negotiations. They knew their position of war until victory would most likely not prevail. They also correctly figured that Washington was going to remove its forces from the country, if only because of the political, social and economic costs of their continued presence. The protests were making a difference. By 1969, negotiations were underway, still with less-than-enthusiastic participation from Saigon. That resistance continued. When the peace agreement was signed in January 1973, Saigon very begrudgingly attached its approval. It knew it had no other choice given that it existed solely because of Washington’s support. By the time the agreement was signed, all remaining US combat troops knew their last day in Vietnam would be no more than sixty days hence. However, the US military presence was still great. The air force, CIA and various special forces continued their rampage of destruction and killing, only with Southern Vietnamese Army forces supposedly in the lead. Between the time the agreement was signed and the final liberation of Saigon in May 1975, US aid to Saigon would ebb and flow. Together with the Saigon regime, certain sections of the US warmaking establishment argued for a renewed US involvement on the ground to no avail.

Although the current government in Kyiv may enjoy more popular support than the Saigon government did, the fact is it exists in large part because of the billions of dollars it receives from Washington and other NATO states. Among other things, Kyiv uses this money to buy weapons, pay troops and mercenaries, civil servants and police, and provide food aid to its poorer residents. As for its support from the populations of the US and other NATO nations, it seems safe to assume that it will not last as long as any military victory will take. The costs are already disproportionate to the cause in the minds of a growing number of citizens. If and when protests against the conflict and Washington’s commanding role in it break through the media blackout on such viewpoints, I hope the number of those citizens against the war and its escalation increases dramatically. It’s way past time for peace talks.

I don’t assume anything about what might happen at such talks. I do know that if the parties involved—Kyiv, Moscow, and Washington—don’t start talking then a lot more people are going to die. And the war could escalate into something we don’t want to even imagine. Then, people on both sides who say they can’t negotiate with the other side (and those who repeat those claims) are going to wish they had given talks a chance.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.