Le Duc Tho

views updated May 21 2018

Le Duc Tho

Born October 14, 1911
Dich Le, Vietnam
Died in 1990
Hanoi, Vietnam

North Vietnamese political leader

Le Duc Tho was the main negotiator for the Communist government of North Vietnam. He squared off against Henry Kissinger (see entry), the U.S. secretary of defense, in a series of peace talks between 1968 and 1973. The two men finally reached an agreement in January 1973 that ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. They even shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. But as it turned out, the Paris Peace Agreement did not end the Vietnam War. North Vietnam and South Vietnam both violated the treaty, and the fighting continued for two more years.

A young revolutionary

Le Duc Tho was born October 14, 1911, in the village of Dich Le in Nam Ha province in northern Vietnam. His name at birth was Phan Dinh Khai. He adopted the name Le Duc Tho years later in order to hide his true identity from his political enemies. At the time of his birth, Vietnam was a colony of France known as French Indochina. Tho's father was a civil servant in the French colonial government.

By the time he reached his late teens, Tho had begun organizing demonstrations against French rule and actively promoting Vietnamese independence. In 1930 he helped form the Indochinese Communist Party with other young revolutionaries, including the future leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh (see entry). Later that year, Tho was arrested for his opposition to the French colonial government. He spent the next six years doing hard labor in Con Son prison.

Upon his release from prison in 1936, Tho resumed his political activities. He was arrested again in 1939 and spent some time in Son La prison camp. While there, he wrote a poem expressing his feelings about a foreign power controlling his country: "Rage grips me against those barbaric imperialists [cruel people who seek to extend their power over others], / So many years their heels have crushed our country. / A thousand thousand oppressions." Some sources say that Tho escaped to China in 1941 and helped Ho Chi Minh form the Viet Minh, a Communist-led Vietnamese nationalist group. But other sources say that Tho was released in 1944.

Fights for Vietnamese independence

During World War II (1939–45), France was forced to give up some of its control over Vietnam. When the war ended in 1945, the Viet Minh launched a successful revolution to regain control of their country. That September, Ho Chi Minh formally declared Vietnam's independence. But it soon became clear that France was not willing to give up its former colony. War erupted between the French and the Viet Minh in late 1946. During this conflict, which became known as the Indochina War, Tho became a leader of the Communist Party. In 1948 he took charge of Viet Minh resistance to the French government in the southern part of Vietnam.

After nine years of war, the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954. The Geneva Accords, which ended the Indochina War, divided Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam but was usually called North Vietnam. The southern section, which was led by a U.S.-supported government under Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry), was known as the Republic of South Vietnam.

The peace agreement also provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956, with a goal of reuniting the two sections of Vietnam under one government. But U.S. government officials worried that holding free elections in Vietnam would bring power to the Communists who had led the nation's war for independence from France. They felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, the U.S. government and South Vietnamese President Diem refused to hold the elections.

North Vietnamese leaders grew angry when the South Vietnamese government failed to hold the required elections. The Communists were determined to overthrow Diem and reunite the country, by force if necessary. Within a short time, a new war began between the two sections of Vietnam. One of North Vietnam's main weapons in the Vietnam War was a group of guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong that operated in the South Vietnamese countryside. The Viet Cong mingled with the villagers and tried to convince them to support the Communist efforts to overthrow Diem's government. The U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Tho's exact role in the early years of the Vietnam War is not known. It is clear that he strongly supported North Vietnam's efforts to reunite the country under a Communist government. Some sources say that he returned to South Vietnam in the late 1950s or early 1960s and supervised Viet Cong operations from a secret base in the jungle. American involvement in the conflict increased steadily during this time. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) authorized U.S. bombing missions over North Vietnam and sent American combat troops to South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. involvement failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war turned into a bloody stalemate.

Negotiations proceed at a slow pace

In 1968 the United States and North Vietnam agreed to open peace negotiations in Paris, France. At first, Xuan Thuy was the chief negotiator for the North Vietnamese side. Tho showed up several weeks later. His official title was "special advisor," but it soon became clear that he held the real power to negotiate for the Communists. The Americans, led by Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger, viewed Tho as a tough, serious adversary in the peace talks. He was always polite, but he was also strongly dedicated to his cause and unwilling to compromise on certain demands. Tho "was in no hurry," Michael Maclear wrote in The Ten Thousand DayWar. "He would smile at Kissinger, never saying yes, never quite saying no."

Kissinger's initial position in the negotiations was that both American and Communist forces should be withdrawn from South Vietnam. Once this occurred, then the two sides could discuss various plans for the country's political future. But Tho refused to go along with this plan. Instead, he insisted that North Vietnam would continue fighting until the U.S. troops were withdrawn. He also demanded that the South Vietnamese government, which by this time was led by Nguyen Van Thieu (see entry), be replaced by a coalition government that included Communist representatives. With such a wide gap between the two sides, the negotiators made little progress and eventually broke off their talks.

In August 1969 Tho and Kissinger began meeting secretly in hopes of negotiating a settlement. Their talks continued off and on for more than two years. As the war dragged on, the American people became bitterly divided over U.S. involvement, and antiwar demonstrations took place across the country. In the meantime, the Communist countries of China and the Soviet Union began to reduce their support for North Vietnam. These factors made both sides more willing to reach a compromise.

In January 1972 President Richard Nixon (see entry) told the American people about the secret negotiations. Feeling that an agreement was near, North Vietnam launched the Spring Offensive in March. The Communists used this attack to move additional troops into South Vietnam and improve their bargaining position. But Nixon responded by ordering large-scale bombing raids over North Vietnam. In October 1972 Tho and Kissinger returned to Paris and reached a preliminary agreement. But the deal fell apart when South Vietnamese President Thieu objected to it. Determined to force the Communists' hand, Nixon then ordered the heaviest bombing raids of the war over North Vietnamese cities. These attacks, which took place in late December, became known as the "Christmas bombings."

The Paris Peace Agreements

On January 25, 1973, Tho and Kissinger announced that they had reached a final agreement to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It was signed by the governments of the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam two days later.

Under the terms of the agreement, the United States agreed to withdraw its troops from Vietnam within sixty days. Kissinger also agreed to allow some Communist forces to remain in the South. In exchange, North Vietnam agreed to let President Thieu remain in power. But the agreement also established a National Council of Reconciliation—which would include representatives from both North and South Vietnam—to organize elections and form a new government. Finally, the peace agreement provided for the return of all American soldiers held by North Vietnam as prisoners of war.

When the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, both sides claimed that they had come out on top. Tho called the agreement "a very great victory for the Vietnamese people . . . and all the peace-loving peoples of the world, including the American people who displayed their solidarity and gave devoted support to the just struggle of our people." But some observers pointed out that very little had changed between this agreement and the agreements that had been considered years earlier. In addition, some people criticized the agreement because it left the political future of South Vietnam uncertain. After all, that had been the main issue the two sides had been fighting to decide.

Refuses to accept the Nobel Peace Prize

As many people expected, the peace in Vietnam did not last long. The last American troops withdrew from the country in early 1973. Almost immediately, the South Vietnamese forces under President Thieu began clashing with the Communist forces that remained in the countryside. Each side blamed the other for breaking the treaty. In June 1973 Tho and Kissinger met again and issued a joint statement urging both sides to comply with the terms of the peace agreement. Still, the fighting continued.

On October 16, 1973, Tho and Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in ending the Vietnam War. The decision to give the award to the two negotiators created a great deal of controversy, especially since the agreement had not actually led to peace in Vietnam. In fact, some observers sarcastically called it the "Nobel War Prize." In recognition of the crisis that still gripped his country, Tho refused to accept the honor. "Once the Paris accord on Vietnam is respected, the arms are silenced, and a real peace is established in South Vietnam, I will be able to consider accepting this award," he said in a statement to the award committee.

In 1975 Tho secretly traveled to South Vietnam with North Vietnamese General Van Tien Dung. The two men helped plan a major Communist offensive designed to overthrow Thieu's government. When the attack took place, North Vietnamese forces rolled across the South, capturing city after city. In April 1975 the Communists took control of Saigon to win the Vietnam War. Over the next year, they established a single Communist government over all of Vietnam. Tho remained active in the Communist Party until 1986, when he resigned during a power struggle over economic reforms. He died in Hanoi in 1990.


Dillard, Walter Scott. Sixty Days to Peace. 1982.

Goodman, Allan E. The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War. 1978.

Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam, 1945–1975. New York: Avon, 1981.

Porter, Gareth. A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.

Nguyen Thi Binh (1927–)

Nguyen Thi Binh, often referred to as Madame Binh, was the second-ranking negotiator for the North Vietnamese side in the Paris peace talks. While Le Duc Tho represented the Communist government of North Vietnam, Madame Binh represented the National Liberation Front (NLF), an organization of revolutionaries in South Vietnam. The NLF—which included a military arm, the guerrilla fighters known as the People's Revolutionary Army or Viet Cong—fought with North Vietnam to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two parts of the country.

Nguyen Thi Binh was born near Saigon in 1927. She was the granddaughter of Phan Chau Trinh, a famous early leader in the struggle to gain Vietnam's independence from France. Although she was educated in French schools, Madame Binh joined the fight against the French colonial government as a teenager. By the time she reached her twenties, she was the leader of a student resistance movement. She was arrested in 1950 for participating in demonstrations and spent the next three years in prison.

Released from prison after the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954, Madame Binh continued her political activities. She became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in the struggle for political control over Vietnam. In 1960 she joined the NLF and was elected to the organization's leadership committee. She also served as vice president of the South Vietnam Women's Union for Liberation, another group dedicated to ending American involvement and reuniting Vietnam under one government.

Over the next several years, Madame Binh served as a diplomat for the NLF. She traveled all over the world to attend meetings and conferences, including Moscow and Beijing. During her travels, she gave numerous interviews about her cause. She was eventually recognized as the main spokesperson for the NLF. In 1969 the NLF formed a political arm known as the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG). The PRG was intended to be an alternative government of South Vietnam. It opposed the U.S.-supported government led by President Nguyen Van Thieu (see entry).

When representatives of the United States and North Vietnam began meeting in Paris to discuss a peaceful settlement of the conflict, Madame Binh represented the NLF/PRG. Henry Kissinger (see entry), the American negotiator, resented her presence at the peace talks. He believed that the Viet Cong was not a legitimate political group and should not be allowed to participate. Kissinger also disliked Madame Binh personally and felt that she complicated the bargaining process by making ridiculous proposals. "Their demands are absurd," he complained. "They want us to withdraw and on the way out to overthrow the Saigon government." For her part, Madame Binh considered Kissinger to be self-centered and "vain."

During the negotiations, Madame Binh worked to reduce President Thieu's hold on political power in South Vietnam. She also tried to secure the release of political prisoners in the South. When the two sides reached a final agreement in 1973, she criticized the deal for its handling of the issue of prisoners but eventually signed it. After North Vietnam won the war in 1975 and established a Communist government over all of Vietnam, Madame Binh became the minister of education. It was the highest position held by a woman and one of the highest held by a member of the PRG in the new government. She also continued to travel and represent her country at events around the world. In 1993 she was elected vice president of Vietnam.

Le Duc Tho

views updated May 18 2018

Le Duc Tho 1911-1990


Phan Dinh Khai was born the son of a midlevel Vietnamese civil servant in Nam Ha Province of French Indochina on October 14, 1911. He changed his name to Le Duc Tho when he became a committed revolutionary during his teenage years. In 1929 Tho joined with Ho Chi Minh (18901969) and other Vietnamese radicals in founding the Indochinese (later Vietnamese) Communist Party. For agitating against French rule, Tho and his comrades spent much of the 1930s in French colonial prisons. During World War II (19391945), Tho helped to organize the Viet Minh, the Communist-led resistance movement against the Japanese occupiers of Indochina. By the end of the war, Tho was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and a leader of the Viet Minh. When France tried to retake Indochina in 1945, Tho led southern Viet Minh resistance during the Indochina War (19461954). With the defeat of the French, North Vietnam gained independence. Tho became a member of the Politburo in 1955 and secretary of the Central Committee in 1960.

During the Vietnam War (19561975), Tho returned south to organize Viet Cong guerrilla resistance against U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese government. In 1968, when peace talks began in Paris between the United States and North Vietnam, Tho participated as a lead negotiator for the Communist side. For years, Tho stonewalled the talks with nonnegotiable demands for U.S. withdrawal and the dismantling of South Vietnams government. In 1970 Tho agreed to meet in private with U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Over the next two years, these secret back-channel discussions gradually resolved the many difficult issues involved in disengaging the United States from the Vietnam War. Finally, in October of 1972, Kissinger revealed to the world that peace is at hand, just in time to help President Richard Nixon (19131994) obtain reelection by a landslide. After one last round of U.S. bombing killed thousands of Vietnamese civilians, Tho and Kissinger signed the Paris Peace Accords on January 25, 1973.

For their role in ending the American phase of the Vietnam War, Tho and Kissinger were jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Tho was the first Asian ever to win this honorbut he declined the award, saying that peace had not yet come to his country. Instead, Tho returned to South Vietnam to supervise the North Vietnamese offensive that delivered a Communist victory in 1975. A decade later, Tho told U.S. television viewers: We hope American wives and mothers will never again allow their husbands and sons to go to die in another Vietnam War anywhere in the world (quoted in Dowd 1985, p. A4). Tho remained active in party leadership after the war and oversaw the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, but he opposed economic reforms introduced by his government in the 1980s. Out of step with changes in Vietnamese Communism, Tho resigned his official posts in 1986 and retired. He died of cancer on October 13, 1990.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Communism; Guerrilla Warfare; Kissinger, Henry; Liberation Movements; Nixon, Richard M.; Nobel Peace Prize; Vietnam War


Current Biography 1975. 1975. Le Duc Tho. 235238. New York: Wilson.

Dowd, Maureen. 1985. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho Meet Again. New York Times May 1: A4.

Lewis, Flora. 1973. Le Duc Tho. New York Times. January 24: 18.

Pace, Eric. 1990. Le Duc Tho, Top Hanoi Aide, Dies at 79. New York Times. October 14: 32.

Pearson, Richard. 1990. Le Duc Tho Dies at 78. Washington Post. October 14: B1.

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