The only man to refuse Peace Nobel

A forgotten story of a Vietnamese communist general from Vietnam who outmanoeuvred the most eminent American diplomat and ignored the laurels (and vast sums) of the West.

The Norwegians have often surprised, but the verdict of October 16, 1973 literally stunned the world. The historian Asle Sveen calls it “the worst prize in the entire history of the Nobel Peace Prize” and “a total fiasco”, which – also for the first time in history – led to the resignation of two committee members in protest. Astonished were also the prizewinners: Lê Đức Thọ – a general in the army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s and a long-time member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and Henry Kissinger – an American diplomat, military strategist and presidential adviser on national security. In Paris, halfway between Asia and America, they had spent 4 years, 8 months and 10 days negotiating the terms of an end to the Vietnam War in 45 secret meetings.

Although it was foreign minister Xuân Thuỷ who led the official delegation from communist Vietnam, Thọ controlled the course of the talks. On his way from Hanoi to Paris he would stop off in Moscow to meet Soviet prime minister Alexei Kosygin and listen to advice from Leonid Brezhnev. Kissinger was advised by two American presidents – Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon although the Vietnam War ended during the term of the next president, Gerald Ford. Characteristically, both negotiators were responsible for peace talks and waging war at the same time – their dual roles were criticised because in fact the Peace Nobel went to those who had sown the seeds of unrest.

The parties to the agreement were Americans, Vietnamese from the North as well as representatives of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG). From now on there was to be only one Vietnam – a communist one. America has lost, Goliath has been defeated. In communist Poland the radio announced triumphantly: “After 12 years of an armed struggle by the Vietnamese nation for freedom and independence, peace, unity and Vietnam’s territorial integrity; the roar of cannons and the whistle of deadly bullets will cease. Appearing before television cameras and radio microphones, President Richard Nixon announced: ‘At 12:30 Paris time today, January 23, 1973, the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was initialed by Dr. Henry Kissinger on behalf of the United States, and Special Adviser Lê Đức Thọ on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’”.

The relevant document was signed four days later at the International Conference Center on Avenue Kléber in Paris. According to it, the Americans began to withdraw troops from Vietnam, although the truce was soon broken and the war lasted until 1975. Peace laurels “for jointly having negotiated a cease fire” seemed a bit premature, hence the numerous protests. Apparently the Nobel Committee wanted the war to end more strongly than Kissinger and Thọ. According to Olav Njølstad, current head of Det Norske Nobelinstitutt (Norwegian Nobel Institute), which only in January this year declassified archived notes from 50-year-old proceedings, the committee hoped that the prize would be an impetus for a lasting peace. What’s more: it was intended to warm up the Cold War atmosphere between the East and the West. Njølstad admits that the decision turned out to be a bad one: – It is not a good idea to give awards to people who wage war.

Declassified documents show that Kissinger and Thọ were proposed for the award by John Sanness, a member of the committee, on January 29, 1973, two days after the signing of the Paris documents. “I am aware that it is only in the time ahead that it will become clear (what kind of) significance the accords will have in practice”, he wrote pre-emptively in his nomination letter. Old reports show the committee’s awareness that the agreements were “unlikely to hold”. Sanness, as a historian, probably knew what he was talking about. He was a member of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in 1970-81, and it is interesting that the criticism of 1973 did not prevent him from later becoming its chairman (1979-81). The then winners were Mother Teresa of Calcutta from the Missionaries of Charity, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel - an Argentine human rights activist, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They didn’t arouse such controversies as Thọ and Kissinger.

The Vietnamese surprised the world even more when he refused to accept the award as the only winner in history. He said that bourgeois sentiments were not for him, and Vietnam was still not free because Kissinger, as a “destroyer”, had repeatedly violated the signed treaty. He needled the Nobel Committee, saying that he had received the nomination only because it was impossible to honour Kissinger alone. In a telegram preserved in the archives, he confessed that in the future he would “consider” accepting the honours when there was real peace in his country, which in October 1973 was still not in sight. It’s not known whether he was compensated for the financial losses resulting from not accepting the prize in Vietnamese dongs, but Thọ apparently did not care about the money at all.

The American received an award for leading the US out of Vietnam, which, after all, did not happen at the time. He hesitated, but accepted the choice. However, citing the NATO meeting, he did not attend the medal and diploma ceremony in December. The US ambassador to Oslo spoke on his behalf and, after leaving the building in protest, was pelted with snowballs by onlookers. Kissinger honourably donated the money he had received to charity. Two years later, after the actual end of the Vietnam War, he offered to return the medal. In a dispatch, he wrote that “the peace we sought through negotiations has been overturned by force”. The Nobel Committee rejected the proposal. I wonder if this still bothers Kissinger, who celebrated his 100th birthday on May 29 this year.

Birth name: Phan Đình Khải. In documents: Lê Đức Thọ. European transcription: Le Duc Tho. Nickname: “The Hammer”, due to his strict personality and tough nature. He was born – says Vietnamese Wikipedia, depending on the sources – on October 10, November 14 or December 30, 1911. He came from a provincially wealthy family from the village of Dich Le in the northern part of the country. After graduating from school run by the French colonial authorities, he worked as a postal clerk.
Lê Đức Thọ during a press conference in 1973. Photo Bridgeman Images – RDA / Forum
At the age of 16, he became involved in the liberation struggle, which Kissinger would later consider to be evidence of fanaticism and assess Thọ as an uncompromising man. And at the same time well-mannered, cultured and polite. Kissinger was irritated by his sense of superiority when he maintained from the beginning of the negotiations that North Vietnam was the only true Vietnam and that the Americans were barbarians trying to delay the inevitable, that is, the unification of the country under a red banner with a five-pointed star.

Thọ was born at the right time to fight. Already in the 1930s, the communists gained the upper hand in the Vietnamese liberation movement fighting the French and became one of them. In 1930, he co-founded the Indochinese Communist Party. He organized strikes and led students. He was arrested and spent six years (1930-1936) in the harshest prison in French Indochina on the island of Poulo Condore (Côn Sơn) in the South China Sea. This hardened him and after his release, he continued to engage in subversive activities, for which he was again imprisoned for five years (1939-1944). The French kept him in a “tiger cage”, where there was dirt, stench and hunger. On the other hand, legend says that Thọ and the other Vietnamese political prisoners studied literature, science and foreign languages in prison. Surprisingly, the object of their admiration was France, which they considered a country of high culture worth imitating. They even performed comedy plays by Molière as a tribute!

After his release – or, as legend has it, his escape – Thọ again led the fight against the occupiers, this time the Japanese. He founded the guerrilla Vietnamese Independence League, the Viet Minh, which became the Vietnamese People’s Army – in time he would become its general. In August 1945, an anti-Japanese uprising broke out, and in September, Hồ Chí Minh, the leader of the northern communists, proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Japan gave up its claims to the territory, but France had no intention of losing its colonial empire. Several years (1946-1954) and bloody clashes began, known as the First Indochina War – Thọ was one of the commanders – after which the French signed a peace treaty and also withdrew from Vietnam. As a hardliner, Thọ was among the leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam: he sat on its Politburo from 1955 (until 1986).

The Geneva Accords of 1954, ending the First Indochina War, temporarily divided Vietnam along a demarcation line drawn along the 17th parallel. In the north there was the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam, supported by the Soviets and the Chinese, and in the south – the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam, led by President Ngô Đình Diệm, who was associated with the Americans. According to the decisions of Geneva, the future fate of both countries was to be decided by elections held by July 20, 1956, but Diệm cancelled them, justifying the decision by the lack of possibility of fair voting in the north for political reasons (although he was rather afraid of defeat in the clash with Hồ Chí Minh). The USSR and the PRC suggested that both countries be admitted to the UN. The United States proposed to leave matters to the Vietnamese people.

But the North Vietnamese decided to play for the whole pot. In 1958, at the 15th plenum of the party – in defiance of Hồ Chí Minh, who dissuaded his comrades from provoking Diệm, because it was too early for a revolution – they supported the communist uprising against the government in Saigon. The operation was led by General Thọ. First, local guerrillas organized attacks on representatives of the administration. In 1959, the transfer of North Vietnamese soldiers began. The construction of the so-called Hồ Chí Minh Trail, which was used to transport troops and supplies from the North – through the communist-controlled areas of Laos and Cambodia – to the South. Thọ was then hiding in South Vietnam, from where he supervised all activities. He also created the Viet Cong, communist guerrilla units that became famous for putting up active resistance. In the 1960s, their number increased from 10,000 to even 130,000 fighters, often pretending to be peasants during the day and fighting at night to camouflage themselves. Fighters were recruited to support the Viet Cong from socialist countries, including the Polish People’s Republic, where several dozen volunteers volunteered, but there is no evidence that they were eventually sent into battle.

Initially, the US was not interested in the region. In 1961, however, the threatened Diệm turned to the newly elected president, Democrat John F. Kennedy, for help, and soon a ship with 1,500 marines and combat helicopters arrived at the port of Saigon. The fear began to prevail among American politicians that the communists taking over all of Vietnam would be a step towards their taking over the territory of Asia. It was decided to increase political, financial and military support. In 1964, the new Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, sent thousands more uniformed officers to Vietnam. He agreed to massive bombing of the North and communist strongholds in the South, particularly along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail. As part of Operation Rolling Thunder, during carpet bombing, the Americans destroyed the jungle that supported the Viet Cong with napalm, killing civilians in the process. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The Viet Cong successfully avoided attacks because the partisans knew in advance the targets of the bombings and the directions of the American attacks. The information was provided to them by Soviet military intelligence thanks to reports from its agent John Anthony Walker, who provided encryption codes for the cryptographic device, thanks to which over a million American ciphertexts were read. Walker worked for the KGB and GRU until 1985, when he was exposed by the FBI and arrested for espionage. Ironically, isn’t he another unsung hero of the Vietnam War who contributed to peace and perhaps also deserved a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Kissinger and Thọ?

It became clear that the American landing in Vietnam wouldn’t achieve much. Support for Johnson’s policies waned, and in the spring of 1968 he announced that he would not stand for election again. In November, Republican Richard Nixon won, largely because of his promises to end American involvement in the conflict. In fact, as an opponent of communism, he believed that the sudden withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and the resulting inevitable communist victory would be too much damage to American prestige. He sought an honorable exit so that it would not look like failure – he began to gradually reduce the American presence in Vietnam and continued the peace talks started by Johnson. And at the same time it bombed Hanoi to increase the pressure in the negotiations.

Kissinger and Thọ’s secret conversations had some heated moments. In April 1970, the Vietnamese interrupted a meeting with the American because “there was nothing to talk about”. An attempt to schedule another one in May was rejected. “Your assurances of peace are just empty words,” Thọ said. He came to the table a year later to insist on the removal of the next president of South Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. Kissinger refused and replied that Nixon would soon warn Chinese leader Mao Zedong that the days of supplying weapons to North Vietnam were coming to an end. Thọ replied, “What you say will have no influence on our attitude. Our task is to continue the fight that will decide the outcome of the war in my country’s favour”. Point for Vietnam.

The thirteenth meeting took place on May 2, 1972 in a hostile atmosphere, because the communists had occupied a piece of South Vietnamese territory and seemed to be pushing hard against the enemy. Nixon had previously advised Kissinger: “No nonsense, no niceness”. The American kept his cool, but when during the conversation Thọ mentioned that Senator William Fulbright was criticising the American president’s administration in connection with the war in Vietnam, Kissinger sharply commented on his words: " Our domestic discussions are no concerns of yours”. Thọ replied dispassionately: “"I'm giving an example to prove that Americans share our views”. Point for Vietnam.

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On September 15, 1972, Kissinger proposed ending the war within a month, which was to be a strategic move before the US presidential elections scheduled for November. On October 7, both negotiators agreed to establish a government of national reconciliation in Saigon, which was to include the National Front for the Liberation of the South, which had unilaterally proclaimed the Republic of South Vietnam in 1969 and set up its Provisional Revolutionary Government. The document was to be signed in Paris on October 25 or 26, but Thiệu refused to sign it at the last minute. Nixon won the US elections again. Point for America.

At the beginning of 1973, Kissinger reported that an agreement was close. However, on January 10, negotiations broke down when he demanded the release of all prisoners of war held in North Vietnam, without guaranteeing the release of Viet Cong guerrillas imprisoned in South Vietnam, which he considered an “unreasonable request”. Thọ rejected the offer and, referring to his own experiences, shouted: “You have never been a prisoner! You don’t understand suffering! Kissinger offered a concession, promising that America would use “maximum influence in this matter to put pressure” on the South Vietnamese government. Point for Vietnam.

And finally, on January 23, 1973, Kissinger and Thọ agreed to a peace agreement that included a ceasefire between the parties monitored by the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), the withdrawal of the US army from Vietnam, the release of all prisoners of war within 80 days, and, finally, free elections in South Vietnam. It was also agreed that troops from the North could be stationed there after the Americans left. Paper can take a lot and soon the truce was broken, so the talks were forced to continue and the two negotiators continued to meet in Paris. On June 13, they signed a communiqué committing both sides to “strict implementation of the agreement and its protocols”. Point for Vietnam.

In January 1974, General Thọ ordered the conversion of 1,200 kilometers of the makeshift Hồ Chí Minh Trail into a highway to make it easier to send troops and supplies to the South. This is another point for Vietnam, especially since the communists were already preparing for their final offensive. 140,000 soldiers from the North, 400 tanks and tons of ammunition supplied by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China were transferred to enemy territory. In December, the military assault began and progressed rapidly. In March 1975, General Thọ reported to headquarters in Hanoi that the South Vietnamese army was suffering from low morale and fighting very poorly. He estimated the time to take over all of Vietnam by the end of the year. It happened much earlier. Again, a point for Vietnam.

The name of the final attack was the Hồ Chí Minh Campaign. In April 1975, the army from the North approached Saigon. General Văn Tiến Dũng showed the plan to take the city to Thọ, who approved “the death sentence for the regime of reactionary traitors”. It was after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Ford became president and the Americans planned not to support the South with their air force. Therefore, despite its superiority in weapons and equipment, the result could not have been other than the triumph of David from the North.

Photos of the chaotic and humiliating evacuation by helicopter from the roof of the embassy circulated around the world. Saigon was captured, which is still celebrated today as Victory Day (alongside the Day of the Fallen for the Freedom of Vietnam on July 27). On May 1, there was a parade there to celebrate Labour Day and the great triumph, and soon the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh. Thọ, on behalf of the Politburo, told General Dũng that the party was “very satisfied”. The unification of both countries became a fact. Ten points for Vietnam. And the same for the USSR.

Peace returned to Vietnam, but Thọ did not return to the issue of possibly accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. However, he turned out to be a man of many talents who published several volumes of poetry, including: “On the Roads” (1956), “Road of a Thousand Miles” (1977), “Poetry of Lê Đức Thọ” (1983). In 1975, he played a further important military role during the Cambodian invasion, when he became chief adviser to the Cambodian United National Front to safeguard Vietnamese interests after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He retired from active service in 1978. He never left the party – he held numerous positions in it and advised the Central Committee until his death.

He died on October 13, 1990 in a military hospital in Hanoi, reportedly of throat cancer. He was buried in Mai Dịch Cemetery, where you can visit the black granite grave with a sepia photo and flower trees on both sides. Many streets in Vietnam are also honoured with Thọ’s name. His greatest victory, however, is the fact that all of Vietnam is still ruled by communists. Their party has over 5 million members (out of 100 million citizens) and holds 97% of the seats in parliament. In 1995, the country re-established diplomatic relations with the US and is still at peace, so maybe the Nobel was deserved after all?

A centenarian, Kissinger is still an active commentator of events: he gives interviews, gives lectures, shares his opinions. He speaks slowly with a senile hoarseness, but still accurately. He praises Volodymyr Zelenskyy as an “extraordinary leader” and advises that Ukraine should be admitted to NATO. At the same time, he says that its boundaries need to be changed a bit, which not everyone likes. And he suggests that Russia should be treated as part of Europe, not Asia, because this distances us from each other and pushes it into the arms of China. His thoughts are the result of his commitment to ending the war in Ukraine. If the old man succeeds in this endeavour, will he deserve another Nobel Peace Prize, something that has never happened before? Maybe next year.

– Jakub Kowalski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: From the left: Henry Kissinger, Lê Đức Thọ and a Vietnamese translator during negotiations in Paris in 1973. Photo by: Robert L. Knudsen / White House via CNP / PAP / DPA. Lê Đức Thọ at a press conference in 1973. Photo Bridgeman Images – RDA / Forum
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