Quest for peace
My secret mission to end the Vietnam War
March 12, 2002
On October 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of
North Vietnam, which, he said, could lead to a peaceful settlement of the unpopular
war. This unexpected declaration, which came only five days before the presidential
election, surprised almost everybody. It was generally construed as a
last-minute effort to help Hubert Humphrey's faltering campaign. Had the president
made his move earlier that year, political analysts said at the time, Johnson would
have assured his own reelection.
Most commentators and historians affirm that until October 1968, he had fiercely
sided with top military officials and resisted all steps toward peace. Thus
to mention only one recent example, in the 1998 book Flawed Giant: Lyndon
Johnson and His Time, 1961-1973, Professor Robert Dallek contended that by late
1967, when he could have used antiwar sentiment at home and political developments
in Vietnam to cut his losses and end the bloodshed, President Johnson instead "stayed
the course," having become blinded by his own rhetoric and wishful thinking
about the progress of the war. Actually, that judgement is not correct.
I would feel remiss if I continued to withhold the facts I know.
In 1967 I undertook a highly secret mission at the behest of President Johnson in
order to sound out the North Vietnamese government about the possibility of an honorable
settlement of the conflict. Thirty-four years after this assignment, I believe
that I am naturally relieved of my oath of secrecy.
I have therefore decided to recount here my 1967 delicate and adventurous foray into
In 1965, after having spent 7 years as attaché
at the Iranian Embassy in Paris and 13 years as an international civil servant at
UNESCO's headquarters in the French capital, I returned to the Foreign Ministry in
Tehran to head the Division of International Organizations. As such, every
fall I attended the session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
In 1967, I served as one of the Iranian delegates mostly in the Third Committee (Humanitarian
and Social Affairs). The Group of 77 (developing countries) asked me to act
as their chief negotiator with the Western powers for the completion of the two Covenants
on Human Rights.
One October afternoon, as I was addressing the committee, my deputy entered the conference
room and hurriedly sat down behind me. He placed a piece of paper on the table
before me. It read, "The foreign minister wants you to join him immediately
in his hotel suite for a very important and urgent matter." This interruption
up-set me, but I managed to wind up my remarks and turned toward my deputy with some
anger: "What the heck? I have urgent things to do here. ...What
is it about?"
He replied, "I am just repeating what the minister said. I really don't
know what he wants to discuss, I asked his aides... They are ignorant about the matter...
The only clue is that the cypher officer brought him a personal communication from
his imperial majesty just before the minister gave me the message for you."
I was flabbergasted because the minister (Ardeshir Zahedi) rather disliked me.
He rarely invited me to his large suite in the Waldorf Towers. Every year he
came to New York for two or three weeks to attend the General Assembly of the United
Nations, where he delivered the usual political speech and met his colleagues from
He was accompanied by his own staff and entourage of sycophants. He seldom
entrusted me with any particular task. That suited me fine, freeing me to use evenings
to indulge in extracurricular activities and see my American friends who were involved
in literature and the cinema, theater, and the arts. I used to meet him only
at official functions, and even then we barely spoke to each other.
His unusual summons intrigued me. I obviously could not disregard it: As minister;
he was my boss. I gave the necessary instructions to my deputy about the matter
at hand and wended my way to the Waldorf Towers.
Twenty minutes later I entered the luxury suite. The minister was in the midst
of a discussion with his personal staff and some visitors. As soon as he saw
me, he literally jumped from his armchair and embraced me effusively, as if I was
one of his closest friends. He then directed me to his bedroom, saying, "We
cannot speak in front of all these people." He offered me a cup of tea
and showed me the decoded cable: "Top Secret. To Fereydoun: Board immediately
Iran Air's direct flight to Tehran. Necessary orders have been issued to the
captain and to Mehrabad Airport. Signed MRP (the shah's initials)."
I was dumbfounded: The shah's orders were usually transmitted and signed by his private
secretary. The minister was looking quizzically at me. He probably thought
I knew what it was about. Actually, I felt terribly worried. I thought
that something might have happened to my mother or to my brother. It was a
deep-seated Iranian custom to hide bad news as long as possible from close relatives.
But if the message involved news of that kind, the minister would also have known
about it. He probably had already called his friends in Iran. Obviously, he
was as bewildered as I.
I told him that I could not decipher the meaning of the message. He did not
believe me but retained his extraordinarily amicable attitude. Later on I learned
from one of his secretaries that he had been impressed by the fact that the shah
had addressed me by my first name; actually, that was normal: Our family name was
reserved for my brother, who was the prime minister.
I glanced at my wristwatch: already 5:00 p.m. I had just enough time to go
to my hotel, pick up what I needed, and proceed to Kennedy Airport. The minister
reassured me: "Don't worry. I have given instructions to Iranair; they
won't fly without you. Take your time." A knock sounded at the door
of the bedroom. One of the minister's aides brought a sealed en velope that
the minister gave to me: "This is a highly confidential report. You'll
give it to his imperial majesty in person. It is very important."
He hugged me and accompanied me to the door of his suite.
I hurried to my modest hotel room and packed a small suitcase. My telephone
rang: The concierge informed me that our ambassador to the United Nations was waiting
in the lobby. He too embraced me and said, "My limousine is here.
I'll accompany you to the airport." I tried to dissuade him. I wanted
to be alone and think about possible reasons for my sudden recall to Tehran.
But he insisted and forced his invitation on me.
The ambassador; a close friend and my former brother-in-law, Dr. Mehdi Vakil, tried
hard to worm out the "secret" of the shah's message. He wouldn't
believe me when I told him that I hadn't the slightest idea. I told him about
my worries concerning my brother and my mother. He had telephoned to his own
brother in Tehran: "Thank God nothing untoward has happened. Your mother
is in good health, and your brother is still in office and aware of your sudden trip."
Although they relieved my worry, his words deepened the mystery.
In the VIP lounge most of my colleagues had assembled
to wish me a happy trip. While in my inmost thoughts I anticipated the worst,
they seemed rather optimistic. They generally surmised that I was to be promoted:
a cabinet position or an important posting to an embassy. Their expressions of friendliness
were carefully calculated: They probably expected that I would give them a boost
once I was secure in my new position.
I finally boarded the 747. The captain greeted me on the gangway, and the stewardess
took me to the first-class bar, which had been transformed into a bedroom.
This reception was a good omen. Nevertheless, I reviewed all the possibilities,
starting with the worst scenario. If some adverse event had happened, the minister
and the ambassador would have been primed, for Tehran, like all societies without
free information, functioned as a never-ending rumor mill. Then what? A promotion?
My brother was opposed to my inclusion in the cabinet: He was wary about possible
accusations of nepotism. As for an embassy, there was no opening at that time.
True, the shah could at any moment recall whomever he wanted to replace. But
all the important embassies were headed by trusted friends of his.
Had I provoked the ire of the authoritarian ruler because of the way in which I negotiated
the two human rights pacts? I knew his extreme sensitivity to the subject.
Amnesty International's constant criticism incensed him. Did he intend to berate
me? Or had some of my "personal enemies" convinced him to relieve
me of my present position in the Foreign Ministry? But if so, why all this secrecy?
Could it reflect a desire not to embarrass my brother, his prime minister?
In fact, as in all undemocratic regimes, anything was possible, and ruminating about
the shah's message was useless. I swallowed a sleeping pill after dinner and
went to bed. I barely slept. Worries continued to whirl in my mind and
in my dreams.
At breakfast time, the captain informed me that during the usual 90-minute stop at
London's Heathrow Airport, I would stay in the VIP lounge. But our ambassador
to England was waiting on the tarmac and whisked me away in his limousine.
I thought he might have new information, but he seemed as puzzled as I. He
had just heard from Zahedi about the shah's cryptic message.
I tried to catch up on my sleep during the three-hour flight from London to Tehran,
but to no avail. As the trip approached its end, contradictory ideas revolved
more and more rapidly in
my mind, and my apprehensions increased. Finally, the Boeing landed, and as
soon as it came to a stop and its door opened, two officers of the Imperial Guard
entered the first-class section. They came directly to me and escorted me toward
a police car on the tarmac. My worries reached a peak: Was I being arrested?
"Where are we going?" I asked.
One of the officers said, "We are not at liberty to tell."
"What about my luggage?"
"It is being taken care of by our people on the ground."
A minute later I found myself wedged between the two officers on the back seat of
the car. Four policemen on motorcycles preceded the car, whose siren wailed
regularly. It moved at neckbreaking speed while motorists slowed down and drove
on the sides of the road. Was I being given the full VIP treatment, or being
whisked away toward a secret place of detention? The car took the highway leading
to the northern suburbs. When I saw a sign indicating the village of Evin,
the location of an infamous Secret Police prison, my heart pounded until the car
raced past the sign.
A few minutes later it stopped at the entrance of the shah's Niavaran palace.
The iron gate opened, and the car proceeded slowly toward the main palace.
I was ushered into a kind of library. It was past 10:00 p.m., and the hubbub
of conversation coming from the living room indicated that a dinner reception was
going on. Almost immediately, the Shah appeared and invited me to sit on a
couch beside him. His voice was solemn: "What I am about to tell you is
an absolute secret between me and the president of the United States. It should
remain so because the slightest leak might provoke an international crisis. You have
to swear that you'll remain discreet... even tight-lipped, no matter what happens."
He shouted: "Come," the way high-society people used to summon servants.
Immediately, as an Arabian Nights genie might have morphed into being, suddenly and
mysteriously, a butler appeared and bowed. The shah ordered him to bring a
Koran, on which I took an oath of secrecy. Although very secular in his daily
life, the shah was deeply religious and believed that one of the twelve Shiite imams
He lit a cigarette, inhaled a few puffs, and then resumed talking: "The Americans
are tired of the war in Vietnam. We (he always used the first person plural
to refer to himself) have often told them that this war is a mistake... Now President
Johnson is terribly upset by the in creasing number of casualties. Contrary
to the assessments of his military advisers, he is con vinced that no side can win
the war. But at the same time, because the United States is a super power both
economically and militarily, it can, in the long term, bleed Vietnam to death. President
Johnson does not want to bear the brunt of widening the operations and increasing
the number of dead both among the combatants and the civilians. He now favors
peace, but an honorable and an acceptable one.
"Officially he cannot announce such a reversal of policy before necessary and
significant steps have been taken. With the American 'open system' and the
media's attention riveted on the White House, secret or even quiet diplomacy on the
part of the president and his aides is impos sible. That is why he has asked
me to undertake on his behalf an exploratory initiative with the Vietnamese.
"To that end we must first and foremost establish a very discreet contact with
North Viet nam. Now that our relations with the Soviets have dramatically improved,
we can obviously use the North Vietnam Embassy in Moscow. But the Kremlin is
in competition with Washington all over the world... Moscow might leak the whole
affair in order to enhance its position in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere,
and so the Soviet capital is out of the question. We cannot go to Hanoi either.
Even if they accepted to receive an Iranian envoy, the press would become curious.
The only place outside the Communist world where they have a representative is Paris.
Because de Gaulle is our personal friend, the French would not try to spy on us or
leak our moves. Therefore, I want you to go immediately to Paris in order to
establish contact with the North Vietnamese representative."
I was about to say that the man would certainly not agree to see me, but the shah
frowned, and I kept silent. He lit another cigarette and, as was his wont,
continued his monologue.
"At this stage we should not enter into the details of our proposal. We
should only make it clear that the Americans are ready to pursue the war and intensify
their bombings for as long as it is necessary. But we Iranians, as fellow Asians,
are weary of the continuous sufferings of our Vietnamese brothers ... and what not.
Therefore, we thought that if they would accept the idea of an honorable armistice
in which neither side would be considered victor or loser, we Iranians would be ready
to play the role of honest brokers and bring the parties together in negotiations.
Do you understand what I am saying?"
I was beginning to feel the effects of jet lag and the
fatigue of the long voyage. I nevertheless fought back my exhaustion and tried
to show a sense of alertness. I said, "Yes, your majesty. But if
you would allow me to make a remark. I doubt that the Vietnamese representative
in Paris would accept to receive me."
The shah smiled and interrupted me: "If you knock at his door and present your
card as deputy foreign minister in charge of international organizations, the chances
are that he won't open the door. But you were a leftist in your youth and lived
more than 20 years in Paris. As a writer and film critic in the French capital,
you have had many liberal and even Communist friends. No, don't protest.
I have received regular reports about your activities."
Although I was aware of the authoritarian nature of "oriental" regimes
and of the secret surveillance of citizens, I felt shocked: Even as an obscure international
civil servant interested in film and literature and writing reviews in Cahiers du
Cinema, I had been spied on by the regime. The shah understood my reaction
and continued in the same friendly spirit.
"You know a lot of people who enjoy cordial relations with North Vietnam and
its Paris representative. You stand, therefore, in good stead to find a reliable
person who has maintained close ties with the Vietnamese representative there.
In fact, that's the reason I chose you for this mission... I know that you
have always been a patriot and an idealist. I have confidence in your commitment
to your country and to our present independent policies. Moreover; keep in
mind the many thousands, if not millions, of lives that can be saved. I am
sure that you'll succeed and will maintain the necessary secrecy. You'll also
have to ascertain the reliability of the French friend you choose. He must
keep the whole thing under his hat."
My eyelids drooped; it was past midnight. The shah added, "You must be
tired. Go home and have a good rest. Do you want me to give you some
Valium?" (He was taking high doses of Valium at that time.) "Think
about your Parisian friends, and come to my office tomorrow morning at 9:30 sharp
for further instructions. And be ready to leave for Paris on the first afternoon
* * * *
After making a thorough review of my many French friends, I decided that the Bourdets
would be the best people to carry out the secret mission. They belonged to
the non-Communist liberal layer of Parisian high society (what the French dub the
Tout Paris). Claude Bourdet, an outspoken intellectual, had led the Resistance
movement Combat during World War II. The Ge stapo arrested him in 1944 and
sent him to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. Son of a prominent dramatist,
Edouard Bourdet, and the former Catherine Pozzi, a poet, Claude had married Ida Adamov,
a Russian emigre and a tennis champion.
The Bourdets had contacts with all sorts of third-world liberation movements.
During my years in Paris, I met in the Bourdet home officials of the Algerian FLN,
the Palestinian PLO, the Peruvian Shining Path, and a host of other more or less
important groups as well as indi vidual exiled intellectuals.
Both Claude and Ida were liberal leftists without being identified with the Communist
line. During the occupation of France, Claude had founded the underground paper
Combat, for which Abert Camus became an editorialist. After World War II, Claude
launched the leftist, non-Communist weekly L'Observateur. He and Ida were rich
and generous. Their duplex apart ment near the Etoile and Champs Elysees was
the meeting place of liberal politicians and intel lectuals from all over the world.
Morally strong and stringent, Claude opposed compromises with Communists as well
as rightist reactionaries. The American government had refused him a visa at
the height of McCarthyism because he was critical of American foreign policy.
He also had served for some time as an elected member of the Paris City Assembly.
Over the years we had become very close friends.
As soon as my plane landed at Orly, I called him on a pay telephone and, before checking
into a hotel, I paid him a visit. The idea of my mission enthralled him: He
was against the Vietnam War and all the human sacrifices it entailed. He immediately
telephoned the Vietnamese representative, whom he knew quite well. Mai Van
Bo, Hanoi's man in Paris, agreed to see him after lunch at his Montparnasse town
house. Claude and I lunched at the nearby celebrated café-restaurant
La Closerie des Lilas (where, in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway, among other American
expatriates, spent a lot of time).
After the meal, I waited with Ida while Claude went
to his nearby rendezvous. He returned after almost one hour. As I had
expected, Mai Van Bo was afraid to receive the envoy of the pro-American shah of
Iran. But on Claude's insistence, he promised to send a message to Hanoi and
ask for permission to see me. I went from the café to a hotel near the
Bourdets and called Tehran. The shah instructed me to return to Tehran. I arrived
on the eve of his "coronation" ceremony.
Muhammad Reza Pahlavi became shah in August 1941, after the British and the Soviets
invaded Iran and forced his father; who admired Hitler and insisted on Iran's neutrality,
to abdi cate. They claimed they needed to control the Trans-Iranian Railway
in order to send military supplies to the Red Army. It was hardly a time for
celebrations, and the coronation ceremony had been postponed sine die. In fact,
the incumbent shah liked celebrations and feasts. In 1965, the parliament bestowed
on him the title of Aryamehr (literally, "The Light of the Aryans") on
the 25th anniversary of his reign. Almost immediately he staged the ceremony
(A few years later; in 1971, he organized the Persepolis extravaganza, attended by
approximately 80 monarchs and heads of states to mark the 2,500th anniversary of
the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great. In 1977, he presided
over festivities celebrating the 50th year of the Pahlavi dynasty. Such celebrations
were one of his most serious weaknesses.)
Circumstances forced me to don my ambassadorial uniform (which I loathed) in order
to attend the ceremony. The foreign minister; who had returned from New York,
was stunned to see me there. He was upset that I had gone back to Tehran without
informing him. I told him that the shah had summoned me directly. He
glared at me and suddenly asked, "Where are your deco rations (medals)?"
I replied bluntly, "Look, sir. This uniform cost me almost $1,000.
The medals are too heavy and would tear the fabric. I cannot afford to spend
another thousand dollars to replace it."
The minister dismissed my excuses: "These medals were bestowed on you by his
imperial majesty. It is an insult to him not to wear them."
I retorted, "The shah saw me like this a moment ago. He made no such remarks."
He did not insist on an answer but asked nevertheless, "Why didn't you report
to me on your arrival?"
I explained, "You remember a few days ago in New York? You yourself told
me that the shah had ordered my return. Well, he has entrusted me with a secret
mission concerning his private office and ordered me to report only to him personally."
The minister didn't like my defiant tone but at the same time couldn't berate me.
He tried to no avail to worm out of me some indications of the nature of my mission.
Finally, he asked, "How long are you going to stay?"
"I don't know for sure," I answered. "I am waiting for a message
from the people I contacted abroad for his majesty. But in the meantime, I
am doing my work as usual at the ministry."
I must add that I childishly relished the quandary of my "boss," who could
not question the shah's direct orders. But at the same time I felt uneasy about
the undemocratic nature of the regime I was serving. Even my brother was kept
in the dark, despite his high position and responsibilities. While watching
the coronation ceremony, I wondered what would happen if the shah died suddenly.
His was personal rule personified. Even a tyrant like Stalin shared at least
part of his authority with an inner circle, the Politburo. I often longed for
my days in Paris and cursed myself for having agreed to return to the Foreign Ministry.
To some extent this secret mission boosted my failing spirits: Trying to open the
way for possible peace in Vietnam was a positive undertaking. Also, I felt
satisfaction at the way I had conducted the negotiations on the human rights covenants
on behalf of the group of developing countries. Despite the shah's orders,
I engaged in very close relations with Amnesty International, whose then secretary
general, Martin Ennals, had been a colleague of mine at UNESCO in the 1950s.
Because an answer from Hanoi had not been transmitted, the shah authorized me to
return to my work at the United Nations. The discussions concerning the covenants
were at an almost total standstill. My colleagues from both the West and the
third world welcomed my return, and I resumed private negotiations in order to remove
the remaining stumbling blocks.
One morning, after a staff meeting at our embassy, I found the following message
from the Bourdets on the telex machine: "We miss you. What about joining us
for a celebration?"
In our agreed "code" these words meant that the Vietnamese representative
in Paris would receive me.
Our ambassador, who had seen the note, looked quizzically at me. I told him,
"The Bourdets, as you know, are very close friends of mine. This week
they are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. I have to ask the shah's
permission to go to Paris for a couple of days."
The ambassador frowned: "Instead, you should send a cable to the foreign minister,
who is your immediate superior."
I felt embarrassed and trumped up an excuse: "That would take too long.
The dinner party is for tomorrow. I shall call the shah's office if you allow
me to use your phone. You can listen on your extension if you wish."
As soon as my name was mentioned to the shah's secretary, to the amazement of the
am bassador, the secretary said, without asking any questions, "I'll connect
you immediately to his imperial majesty."
When the monarch's voice sounded in the receiver, the ambassador instinctively stood
up. I said, "Your majesty, the Bourdets have invited me to a celebration
The shah responded without hesitation: "Very well, go immediately to Paris and
proceed without delay to Tehran after the party. Good luck!"
The ambassador was stunned by the fact that the sovereign knew the Bourdets.
"But why does he want you to go to Tehran?"
I invented a more or less plausible lie: "Oh, you know, my involvement as a
former member of UNESCO's Secretariat in the literacy program, one of the priorities
of the shah. He wants to consult me on the subject."
I arrived in Orly the next morning and called Claude Bourdet on a pay telephone.
He told me that the Vietnamese representative would receive me at 2:00 p.m.
We lunched at the Closerie des Lilas, but this time Claude stayed there to wait for
Mai Van Bo, a short man in his 50s, had white streaks in his black hair. He
wore a gray suit and a black tie. The neatly kept town house and its cheap
carpets and furniture were reminiscent of lower-middle-class taste. A blown-up
portrait of Ho Chi Minh presided over the foyer from the wall facing the entrance
door. Nothing there bespoke revolution or war.
My host ushered me into a sitting room whose armchairs were covered with blankets.
To the right of the fireplace stood a rolling table containing a half-empty bottle
of scotch and glasses. A maid in black Chinese pants shuffled into the room
with a tray and offered us cups of perfumed tea. After a brief exchange of
greetings, I described to Mai Van Bo the shah's proposal, emphasizing, as I had been
instructed, the words honorable peace.
All the while the Vietnamese diplomat took notes. He thanked me and promised
to inform his government. He then extracted a folded paper from his pocket,
put on his eyeglasses, and started to read. His French was correct but heavily
accented. His remarks began with a rapid history of Vietnam's struggle for
"The Vietnamese people," he concluded, "prefer to die to the last
man and woman rather than live under foreign domination."
I tried to discuss with him the present and the future of Asia in general and his
country in particular. But he dodged my remarks and kept repeating parts of
the paper he had refolded and buried in his pocket. He promised to let me know
''in time'' Hanoi's reaction to the shah's proposal.
As I explained afterward to Claude on the terrace of the restaurant, the man seemed
to be a low-ranking member of the Vietnamese Communist party with no authority to
speak on behalf of his superiors. Like most diplomats who represented Communist
countries, he avoided expressing any personal opinion and did not ask for clarification
of the shah's message. He was a "pure and perfect" bureaucrat of
the Communist party, almost playing the role of a receptionist, receiving a letter
and transmitting it to his superiors.
* * * *
The next day I boarded the first available flight to Tehran, where I arrived around
4:00 p.m. local time. I was whisked away by a colonel of the Imperial Guard
to the shah's office in Niavaran. I reported on my meeting with Mai Van Bo.
There was no reason for me to stay in Tehran; consequently, I was authorized to go
back to New York and resume my work on the human rights covenants.
I paid a courtesy visit to the Foreign Affairs minister, who did his best to try
to hide his displeasure. Indeed, our ambassador to the United Nations had already
informed him about my excursion in Paris. The minister tried to tease out some
information from me. I told him that the shah knew the Bourdets from the time
he had been a student in Switzerland.
My whole trip to Paris and Tehran lasted less than four days. I resumed my
duties in the Third Committee. In Washington, there was no talk of ending the
Vietnam War. The Pentagon voiced confidence in victory, while antiwar demonstrations
continued in all 50 states, especially on university campuses.
Columnists accused Johnson of "blindness" to all geopolitical implications
because he was afraid of being labeled as a president who lost an Asian country to
the Communists. Not only the war but also his Great Society programs suffered
attacks even from members of his own party.
Like the Foreign Affairs minister, our ambassador often tried to make me blurt out
the secret behind my trips to Paris and Tehran. But I remained on the alert
and dodged his questions. A week or perhaps a little longer passed without
news from my Parisian friends. Finally, on November 10, the following message appeared
on the embassy's teletype: "Good news for further celebrations. Please
join us. Love, Ida and Claude."
Before I could ask him, the ambassador phoned the shah's office. The monarch
instructed me to fly immediately to Paris and from there to Tehran.
Claude told me that our ambassador in Paris had invited him to dinner and had tried
to make him speak about my mission. I understood that he had done so on the
instructions of the Foreign Affairs minister. Ida, Claude, and I laughed a
lot. I spoke briefly on the telephone with the ambassador and told him that
the Bourdets appreciated his hospitality very much.
My appointment with Mai Van Bo had been fixed for noon. Claude accompanied
me as far as the Closerie des Lilas, where he waited for me. In contrast to
our last meeting, the Vietnamese representative was less formal and even showed some
cordiality. He took a rather thick file from a small table, leafed through
it, extracted a paper, and translated the text into French: Hanoi warmly thanked
the shah for his initiative to end the sufferings of the Vietnam people.
The Vietnamese government had thoroughly studied the proposal and agreed to enter
into immediate discussion with the "other party" at any convenient place.
It proposed as a possible venue their embassy in Moscow, which was better equipped
than their representation in Paris. It also agreed with the shah about total
secrecy. Any premature leak, it was underlined, could have an undesired effect
on the "morale" of servicemen.
The meeting ended at 1:30 p.m., giving me just enough time to catch a 4:00 p.m. flight
to Tehran. I asked our ambassador to inform the shah's secretary of my imminent
arrival. I had a quick bite to eat with Claude Bourdet and took a taxi to Orly.
My plane landed in Mehrabad Airport after 10:00 p.m. A helicopter was waiting
for me and took me immediately to the shah's palace.
The monarch received me in his bedroom suite. He was wearing a kimono over
his light blue pajamas and was sipping herbal tea. I knew that he suffered
from insomnia. My report seemed to please him. He got up and paced the
room. He suddenly stopped and said, "I don't very much like the idea of
using their Moscow embassy as a channel of communication. But I understand
their problem. This is apparently one of the very few places where they have
full facilities... I hope that your French friends will continue to remain discreet
until the end of the whole affair."
I assured him on this matter: "He never revealed anything to the Gestapo interrogators
during the occupation of France." I recounted the story of our ambassador's
dinner and the way in which he had tried to extract information about my mission.
The shah laughed. Then he congratulated me: "You have done a very good
job. I would like to keep you on it. But now I have to involve our man
in Moscow until Johnson decides about the place for 'substance' negotiations.
That will probably be Geneva... Are you returning to New York?"
As I nodded, he smiled and said, "Very well... As a reward, take a few days'
vacation in Paris, where you must know more than one beautiful lady. Also,
thank the Bourdets on my behalf and give them the present I will send to your mother's
house in the morning." (This was a medium-sized Isfahan silk carpet.)
The next day I visited the foreign minister and informed him that my special assignment
for his majesty was over and that I had been instructed to return to New York.
The minister said, "I know. His imperial majesty has informed me about your
performance. He is satisfied and ordered me to add in your professional file
a word of appreciation on his behalf. I want to congratulate you. You
have honored the Foreign Ministry."
To my amazement, he got up and embraced me.
* * * *
I did not hear about the follow-up meeting in the Vietnam negotiations. I discovered
only that our ambassador in Moscow traveled three times in December to Tehran.
I never discovered the channel the shah used to communicate with President Johnson.
Our ambassador in Washington was left in the dark. I surmised that President
Johnson must have had a special man (or, for that matter, a woman) in Tehran.
At any rate, in 1968, President Johnson suddenly decided
not to run for another term. His October 31 announcement of a halt in the bombing
of North Vietnam was certainly linked to secret talks following the shah's initiative.
The next American administration (President Nixon's) did not pick up the thread of
those negotiations. I was terribly disappointed to see that the Nixon administration
decided to continue the war and even to expand it. The casualties on the American
side almost doubled before the administration put an end to the conflict. Even
now I cannot understand why new administrations do not pursue the efforts of their
predecessors in foreign policy matters.
In any case, after my stint in connection with Vietnam, I met the shah often on other
matters, but he never mentioned my secret mission.
I have decided to recount this episode of my diplomatic activities to set the record
straight about President Johnson's quest for peace.
Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to
1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web