On that day, May 3, 1968, I was a Marine Corps reconnaissance scout in South Vietnam, and the Paris Peace Accords ending the war, at least for us, would not come about until early 1973.
It is not surprising that it took so long to broker an end to the war, when one looks at the obstacles that had to be hurdled just to get started. For example, it took 34 days of talks to decide that Paris should be the site of the talks. And some infamous table talks had to occur before they decided on the shape of the conference table.
Meanwhile, back in South Vietnam in 1968, my recon team and I were running four- and five-day patrols in the Annamite Mountains, trying to locate enemy troop movements and encampments. For supposedly being so beaten down during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese Army sure did have plenty of troops in the hills and mountains we patrolled. While we tried to gather intelligence on enemy strength, weapons and equipment, we often ran face-to-face into NVA soldiers and had to fight our way out of some crazy close calls.
It was an exciting year, followed closely by another year in South Vietnam, mostly as a communicator at the American Embassy in Saigon. And then the Corps gave me dream orders out of the Vietnam war zone – to Paris, France.
My assignment as a Marine security guard at the American Embassy in Paris came a couple of years into the Paris peace talks. David K.E. Bruce was the chief United States delegate to the talks. To us Marines – and everyone at the embassy and, I guess, in the State Department – he was Ambassador Bruce, our ambassador to the peace talks.
I arrived in Paris in the early spring of 1970 and found that we had a lot more Marines there than were at most of our other embassies, except for Saigon, because we provided security for additional U.S. agencies, such as the Office of Economic and Cultural Development, the United States Information Service, and more. However, our biggest additional commitment was security for the U.S. delegation to the peace talks. We called it the U.S. Mission to the Paris Peace Talks, as I remember it, which was housed in an attached building, connected to the main chancery. As embassy Marines, our number one priority was the security of classified information, followed by the protection of American lives and property. For the peace talks delegation, that meant we were responsible for the security of classified materiel in all the delegation offices and at the site of the peace talks at the old Majestic Hotel in Paris.
I got the impression that the talks were not going well when I got there. Nevertheless, the delegations sat down together at the table in the Majestic every Thursday.
Outside the peace talks chamber were four desks – two for the Marines and two for the other guys, one North Vietnamese and one representing the National Liberation Front (or the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam). The peace talks might have gone quicker if it had been left to the U.S. Marines and our counterparts outside those chamber doors. Then again, maybe not. An air of peace, love and harmony certainly did not exist between the gyrenes and those other fellas.
I remember Ambassador Bruce as a distinguished gentleman. I waltzed into his office one evening to make sure no classified materials were left unsecured and was surprised to see him there, working after hours. While I apologized for intruding, he said he was just finishing up work so that he could get of my way. He was diplomatic even to Sgt. Griggs.
Unfortunately, Ambassador Bruce faced health challenges and turned the reins over to his deputy chief of delegation, Philip C. Habib. So, Ambassador Habib took charge, and I think I interrupted him a time or two also.
Ambassador Habib remained at the helm as the acting chief delegate until the summer of 1971. On July 28, President Richard Nixon appointed William J. Porter as chief delegate to the Paris peace talks.
Before the end of the year, I departed beautiful Paris with orders to Camp Lejeune, N.C. Could it be I interrupted Ambassador Porter one too many times? Let me think. Nah!
I was still at Camp Lejeune when the Paris Peace Accords were finally negotiated and signed on Jan. 27, 1973. I recall that I was most happy that our prisoners of war in North Vietnam were finally coming home. I had no visions of the coming collapse of South Vietnam two years later.
A better peace treaty could have been had, one without the stipulation that North Vietnamese troops could remain in the south. Yet, the fall of Saigon still would have played out in the end.
Debating the Paris Peace Accords would be almost as painful as debating America's Vietnam War.