Richard Nixon, Vietnamization and The Search for Peace

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • Nixon’s policies of Vietnamization and bombing escalation;
  • The failure of peace talks;
  • The extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos;
  • Relations with China and the roles of Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in the Paris peace talks (1972)
  • The withdrawal by 1973 and the renewed North Vietnamese offensive, the final offensive (March–April 1975) and the fall of Saigon.

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Richard Nixon, POTUS 1969-74
  • Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State (1969-1975)
  • Bob Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, 1969-73
  • Nguyen Van Thieu, President of South Vietnam, 1965-1975
  • Nixon Doctrine
  • ‘Peace with honour’
  • Vietnamization;
  • ‘Fragging’
  • Drug use
  • Madman Theory
  • ‘Christmas Bombing’ or ‘Linebacker II’
  • Phoenix programme
  • Death Squads
  • Bombing in Cambodia
  • Lam Son – Nixon’s first offensive in Laos
  • Christmas Bombing
  • Watergate
  • Gerald Ford, POTUS, 1974-1977
  • Graham Martin, American Ambassador in Saigon
  • Operation Frequent Wind.

Key developments

  • November 1968, Nixon won the presidential election in which Vietnam was a central issue, on the basis that he would seek ‘peace with honour.’ He did not support complete and immediate withdrawal, and it is unlikely that the majority of Americans would have supported that either – whatever the protesters might suggest. Nixon presented a new doctrine of foreign policy that was based not on containment but on a policy of sending US troops only when US was directly threatened. He was also interested in seeking closer relationships with Russia and China.
  • January 1969 Peace talks began in Paris.
  • Soon after taking office, Nixon announced the policy of Vietnamization, which was a plan to encourage the ARVN to take more responsibility for fighting the war. Despite the fact that this had not worked previously, Nixon needed to find a way to get American troops out of Vietnam. In June 1969, Nixon announced the first troop withdrawals – 25,000. Another 60,000 were to be brought home by Christmas.
  • Nixon continued and developed the Phoenix Programme – in which Vietnamese were trained by the CIA to infiltrate peasant communities to identify NLF sympathisers, at which point Death Squads would be sent in to execute them. Between 1968 and 1971 an estimated 40,974 members of the NLF were killed. However, once again, the NLF were able to replace their losses by recruiting from the local population or having replacements sent from the North.
  • Nixon also gave permission to the army to bomb NLF bases in Cambodia – but this was kept secret from the American public. When this failed, Nixon decided to send in ground troops to finish the job, and this sparked renewed protests in America.


Vietnamization failed because:

  • ARVN were unable to recruit enough soldiers – even though half of South Vietnam’s male population aged 15 to 49 were enlisted – in part because desertion was prolific; in 1971 24,000 deserters returned to the army after the rice harvest;
  • The army was corrupt and supplies intended for military use were often stolen and sold on the black market. Military manuals were in English and ARVN troops were often unable to understand how American-supplied equipment operated.
  • 75% of ARVN officers had less than a year’s training;
  • Ultimately, the regime in Saigon was incapable of standing by itself because it did not have enough support among its own people; amongst large sections of the population it was seen as a colonialist puppet and its senior members spent more time fighting over position within the government than in governing the country.

The process of demoralisation began under Johnson, when troops realized a) they were not going to win quickly and b) they were not doing a ‘good thing’ by being in Vietanm. The process accelerated under Nixon because:

  • Once US troops knew they going home they were less willing to risk their lives for military gains whose point was lost on them;
  • Officers who put their soldiers’ lives at risk were liable to be killed by their own platoon – a practice known as ‘fragging’; between 1969 ad 1971 730 fraggings took place, killing 83 officers.
  • Drug use became widespread and by 1971 the army said it had 35,000 heroin addicts in its ranks; in that year 5000 needed treatment for combat wounds, 20,529 for serious drug abuse.


The Paris Peace Talks

A good page on this topic can be found on Alpha history.

The search for peace and the Christmas bombing

  • By 1972 Nixon had become convinced that victory was impossible. Henry Kissinger came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.
  • The main problem with this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south.
  • President Thieu completely castigated the agreement and proposed 129 textual changes to the document. He went further, demanding that the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Vietnams be recognized as a true international border and not as a “provisional military demarcation line” (as had been stipulated in the Geneva Accords) and that South Vietnam be recognized as a sovereign state. The supreme irony, in the words of Stanley Karnow, had now arrived: “having fought a war to defend South Vietnam’s independence, the United States was now denying its legitimacy.”
  • Kissinger, hoping to both reassure the Communists of America’s sincerity, and convince Thieu of the administration’s dedication to a compromise, held a televised press conference at the White House during which he announced “[w]e believe that peace is at hand.”
  • But once the North Vietnamese read the new demands, they began to retract their own concessions and wanted to bargain anew, leading Kissinger to proclaim that they were “stalling”. At a subsequent meeting of experts on 16 December, the North Vietnamese side “stone-walled from beginning to end”. The talks broke down that day, and the Hanoi negotiators refused to set a date for the resumption of negotiations.
  • Nixon was now under pressure not just because of Kissinger’s ‘peace at hand’ proclamation, but because the new Democrat-controlled Congress go into session on 3 January, and the President feared that congress would simply legislate an end to the war, thereby depriving him of his pledge for ‘peace with honour’.
  • Linebacker II was to be a “maximum effort” bombing campaign to “destroy major target complexes in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas, which could only be accomplished by B-52s”. For the first time, restrictions that had been placed upon American bomber command were lifted. It quickly became known as the ‘Christmas bombing’.
    • It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities. The destructive power was equivalent to five times that of the atom bomb used on Hiroshima. This bombing campaign was condemned throughout the world. Newspaper headlines included: “Genocide”, “Stone-Age Barbarism” and “Savage and Senseless”.


Final withdrawal and Communist victory

  • The North Vietnamese returned to negotiations but refused to change the terms of the agreement and so on 27th January 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the Paris Peace Accords that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with some of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been “bombed into submission.” With the signing of the Paris Peace Accord, the US had, in effect, agreed to withdraw. Just as the government had concealed the nature of its entry into Vietnam, it also attempted to conceal the real nature of its withdrawal.
  • The last US Combat troops left in March 1973; and an uneasy truce lasted until the beginning of 1974 when serious fighting broke out between the NLF and ARVN. President Nguyen Van Thieu appealed to the US for more aid. Nixon was sympathetic, but Congress was not. US aid had dropped from 30 billion a year, at its peak, to 1 billion. Without US money, President Thieu found it difficult to pay his huge army. Desertions followed.
  • In desperation President Thieu announced that he had a signed letter from Nixon promising him military support if it appeared the NLF was winning, but because of Watergate, Nixon was in no position to help. He resigned on August 9th in the face of certain impeachment, and was replaced by his Vice President, Gerald Ford.
  • March 1975, a series of NLF victories saw Hue and Danang fall. Senior officers in ARVN, fearing what would happen to them if the government fell, went into hiding.
  • Gerald Ford tried to raise support for the South Vietnamese government, but the Senate told him that as far as it was concerned, the war was over.
  • April 25th 1975 – President Thieu accused America of betrayal, resigned and left the country.
  • April 29th 1975 – America began Operation Frequent Wind – the evacuation of a 1000 American personnel and a further 6000 vulnerable Vietnamese supporters.
    America had already evacuated 45,000 people but fixed wing evacuations were no longer possible because of the bombing of the Saigon airfield. The American Embassy thousands of people had gathered seeking evacuation. But at 3.27 am President Ford gave the order to stop evacuations, leaving 400 inside the embassy when it fell to the communists. The American ships became so crowded that helicopters had to be ditched into the sea to make room for the evacuees.



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