President Donald J. Trump, for all his crude misadventure to date, still stands for an enticing possibility – to break America’s inept global habit of starting fights it doesn’t know how to finish. Even Trump’s creepy connection to the Kremlin might come in handy. If that sounds like a tall order, consider what happened in “Operation Sunflower,” a top-secret operation that almost ended the Vietnam War in 1967, thereby saving 50,000 American lives and over a million others. Strange as it might seem, Russia, our archenemy, was offering to become our archangel.
Washington, with some 400,000 U.S. servicemen and women already in Vietnam, refused to buy the story until the British confirmed it via a tapped telephone line. The would-be peacemaker, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, told Soviet party boss Leonid Brezhnev that he would fly to Hanoi with an American peace offer in hand and present it to the North Vietnamese: The U.S. would stop bombing; North Vietnam would stop sending troops to South Vietnam; and the two countries would work out a formula for permanent disengagement. While the White House debated why the Russians would rescue the U.S., their Cold War rival, from the Vietnam quagmire, the Johnson administration dispatched a top U.S. diplomat, Chester Cooper, to London to confer with Kosygin and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The Americans named the secret initiative “Operation Sunflower.”
The preparation went so smoothly that Cooper decided to take a night off to go see a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Midway through the first act, however, an usherette advised him that he had an urgent telephone call from Washington. On the line was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt W. Rostow, who told Cooper that it was not enough for the North Vietnamese to indicate that they “will stop” infiltration, but rather that they “had (already) stopped” it. Prime Minister Wilson was so furious with the change in tenses that he cabled Johnson, accusing him of “putting me in a hell of a situation.” Stanley Karnow later attributed LBJ’s case of cold feet to “a rare combination of ineptitude and intransigence,” but there was more to it than that.
By coincidence, the week before Kosygin went to London, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, traveling through Paris, had conferred with Etienne Manac’h, the Quai d’Orsay’s chief of Far Eastern affairs, about Hanoi’s willingness to drop all pre-conditions to talks with the United States provided American bombing stopped. If Kennedy, whose French was at best basic, didn’t comprehend the opportunity at hand, his companion from the U.S. embassy in Paris did and cabled the news to the State Department whence it was promptly leaked to Newsweek and then to the New York Times: “a significant peace deal … unveiled for the benefit of Robert F. Kennedy for reasons best known to the enemy.” Feeling undercut by his hated rival, Bobby Kennedy, President Johnson furiously summoned the senator to the White House that same day and let him have it, accusing Kennedy of responsibility for deaths of American soldiers. “You have blood on your hands,” he said. At that point, RFK got up and stormed out of the Oval Office with Rostow and Nicholas Katzenbach of the State Department trailing after him, hoping to calm Kennedy down before he met the press gathered in the lobby of the West Wing.
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After they managed to get the senator into a side office, Katzenbach put in a panicked call to George Ball, a Kennedy friend who had resigned his State Department position as undersecretary four months before. “From the sound of Nick’s voice, I gathered what had happened,” Ball related to me in November 1976 in a conversation at his elegant home in Princeton, N.J. “Nick, sotto voce, gave me the goods about Sunflower and then put Bobby on the phone. I said, ‘Bobby, Alexei Kosygin’s got his bags packed in London and is ready to go to Hanoi with a peace deal.’ There was a long pause. Then RFK said, ‘OK, George’ and hung up.”
Kennedy walked into the lobby of the West Wing, where a good two dozen press had gathered, and played the good soldier saying that, “From my conversations (with the President), I think he is dedicated to finding a peaceful solution in Vietnam.”
Back in London, Prime Minister Wilson, Chet Cooper and Premier Kosygin were meanwhile cobbling together a new formula: The U.S. would continue its Tet bombing pause beyond the end of the holiday if North Vietnamese forces would remain in place. But just as Kosygin was ready to go forward, LBJ suddenly sabotaged the proposal by requiring that Hanoi do the impossible – accept the offer within 12 hours or else.
Embarrassed and angry, the Soviet leader headed home to Moscow while Johnson ordered the resumption of full-scale bombing before the North Vietnamese had even received the new offer. Kennedy now broke openly with the administration on the war in no uncertain terms. “The horror of Vietnam is our responsibility,” he told the Senate in front of a packed gallery. “It is we who live in abundance and send our young men to die. It is our chemicals that scorch the children and our bombs that level the villages.”
Thirty-one years later, at an historic conference bringing together Vietnamese and American leaders to reflect on the Vietnam War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called Sunflower “a missed opportunity,” pointing out that the deal made six years later, “after hundreds of thousands more people were killed – yours and ours – was essentially the same deal.”
George Ball was not so sure. At the end of a long day prepping his voluminous files for their use in his memoir of service in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, I asked the former undersecretary of state how close we had come in Sunflower. “Not that close,” he replied. “Our fascination with military force in any administration borders on the pathological. And then there’s our innocence in the art of extrication.”
As we think back to Operation Sunflower, where hundreds of thousands of lives could have been spared by the inspired initiative of our archenemy, we might want to give peaceful collusion a chance today before marching off – stupidly and spitefully as before – onto a new front in our permanent state of war.
Richard D. Mahoney, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University, is the former John F. Kennedy Scholar at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of two critically-acclaimed books on the Kennedy experience.