Fighting, Negotiating, Laughing: The Use of Humor in the Vietnam War
Menta, Harish C., The Historian
The scene: A conference room at a private villa in the outskirts of Paris, at Avenue du General Leclerc, Gif sur Yvette, 91 Essonne. Diplomatic delegations of North Vietnam and the United States are meeting to finalize a peace agreement aimed at ending the war in Vietnam.
Date and Time: October 10, 1972, 4.00 p.m. to 9.55 p.m.
Representing North Vietnam: Le Duc Tho, Special Advisor of the North Vietnamese Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks; Xuan Thuy, Chief North Vietnamese Delegate to the Paris Peace Talks; Phan Hien, Advisor to the North Vietnamese Delegation; an Interpreter, and two Note-takers.
Representing the United States: Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Major General Alexander M. Haig, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Winston Lord, National Security Staff; another National Security Staff; an Interpreter, and a Note-taker.
The two sides are hammering out the details of a draft peace agreement. In the middle of the session, Le Duc Tho requests Henry Kissinger to include a promise within the draft agreement that the United States would not continue its military involvement in Vietnam after the peace agreement was signed. Tho also asks Kissinger to delete a clause that would allow the United States to keep its troops in Vietnam for sixty days after the ceasefire came into effect. Kissinger replies: "You won't let us interfere for sixty days more?" The participants break into laughter. After the laughter subsides, Tho retorts: "So you want to continue to interfere for sixty days more?" Kissinger responds: "It is a habit that is so hard to break." There is more laughter, and Tho brings the proceedings back to seriousness with the comment: "once the war is ended this should not be so." (1)
In this encounter, both sides made light of the extremely serious issue of US troop withdrawal. Yet, Tho used the opportunity to resist Kissinger's desire to prolong the US intervention for sixty days. The encounter encapsulated the central issue underlying the entire war in Vietnam--that of US military interventions overseas, which, according to Kissinger, had become a "habit" that was difficult to break.
The negotiators used humor in order to achieve several objectives during the Paris peace talks, to break the ice and build rapport. But the North Vietnamese also used humor to demonstrate their resistance to US power and raise Vietnamese morale during the talks from 1970-1972. They employed humor in two significant ways--during negotiations with the United States, and in works of popular art such as cartoons and caricatures--at a time when bombs were falling over North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or the DRV). Although many humorous exchanges were initiated by Kissinger in Paris, the North Vietnamese often cracked jokes and always were quick with witty repartee. The fact that Kissinger delivered most of the laugh lines had a lot to do with Kissinger's gregarious personality and his Western education. Bur once DRV negotiators warmed to the US side they were much freer with their jokes. Kissinger's humor was crafted to serve various purposes: Sometimes his humor exhibited US diplomatic and military power, and at other times the jokes recognized the battlefield reality that the North Vietnamese could outlast US forces in Vietnam. The participants at peace talks tailored the content of their jokes to mirror diplomatic and military realities on the ground in Vietnam and the gathering maelstrorn in US domestic politics (where the war was hurting both the electability of politicians that supported the war as well as the US economy). The historical record shows that there were moments in the peace talks when both sides took friendly digs at each other and engaged in good-natured banter. They fed off the other's jokes, and attempted to have the last laugh.
This article constructs a new narrative showing the innovative and reflexive ways in which the North Vietnamese used humor as a tool to resist US power, as well as boost morale and break the ice at peace talks. …