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Director: Bai An Tran, Ph.D.

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President Lyndon Johnson announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam

In the wake of the Tet offensive, on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, initiated peace talks with Hanoi, and declared he would not run for a second term. In that election year, Richard Nixon called for “peace with honor” and defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who could not attack Johnson for waging what had become a hugely unpopular war. Many Americans assumed that peace would come in short order. But, though the peace talks had begun, fighting in Vietnam continued for another seven years. In those years, Nixon gradually withdrew American troops from Vietnam but expanded the war to Cambodia and Laos, and with extensive bombing campaigns wreaked more destruction on the Indochinese than had been visited upon them in all the preceding years of war. More than twenty thousand American troops died, and upheavals in the United States tore the country apart, creating divisions that remain with us today.

The reason for this was simple: Nixon, as he said, had no intention of becoming “the first president of the United States to lose a war.” To him, that meant that he had to sustain the anticommunist government in Saigon at least through his own term in office. On the other hand, the Vietnamese communists, north and south, who had fought a nationalist and a revolutionary struggle against the Japanese, the French, and the Americans since the Second World War, would not abandon their cause.

During the 1968 campaign, Nixon ruled out a U.S. “military victory.” The only strategy the military planners had figured out was the attrition of enemy forces, and the Tet offensive had convinced the American public that attrition wasn’t working and that the only prospect was for more American casualties with no end in sight. A withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam had thus become a political necessity.

But how to withdraw and maintain the Saigon government? Created by the United States after the French withdrew in 1954, that government, the Republic of Vietnam, never gained political legitimacy. Since the fall of Ngo Dinh Diem to a military junta in 1963, it had been merely an administration and an army held together by American aid, with no politics except anticommunism. Johnson had sent U.S. troops to Vietnam in 1965 because it was disintegrating under political and military pressure from the southern revolutionaries, the National Liberation Front. Later, regular North Vietnamese troops had joined the battle. However, the three years of the American war had taken a toll on the NLF’s guerrilla forces and driven much of the rural population that supported them into the garrisoned cities and towns. In the Tet offensive, the NLF suffered crippling casualties; the North Vietnamese army was less affected, but it could not undertake a major new offensive soon. Nixon determined to press the military advantage while slowly withdrawing the American troops.

Under the rubric of “Vietnamization,” Nixon launched a program of military aid to Saigon that permitted the junta, led by General Nguyen Van Thieu, to draft a million men into its military forces and to acquire the fourth-largest air force in the world. In addition, he initiated the Phoenix program in an effort to eliminate the NLF’s civilian political cadre through enlarging and centralizing the government’s secret police forces. Then, in 1969–1970, the American forces went on the offensive; they conducted major sweep-and-destroy operations in central Vietnam, entered the densely populated Mekong Delta for the first time, pursued local NLF units, and bombed the villages with B-52s. In support of these operations, Nixon authorized a secret bombing campaign against NLF and North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. The raids, which went on for fourteen months, encouraged the Cambodian prime minister, Lon Nol, to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the monarch who had long tried to keep Cambodia out of the war. On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced he had ordered U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops into Cambodia to find and destroy the enemy’s central command base. The base, as it turned out, had been evacuated weeks before, but the U.S. campaign succeeded in disrupting North Vietnamese supply lines.

By 1971, these military operations and the Vietnamization program had achieved one important U.S. objective: they had destroyed the NLF as an effective military force and given the Saigon government control of most of the population. But the cost was extremely high. U.S. combat units took devastating casualties, and morale among the GIs collapsed: drug use become common, racial tensions erupted, individual units refused combat, and officers were murdered by their troops. At home, the antiwar movement grew, and huge demonstrations erupted in cities and on campuses across the country. Not all of them were peaceful, and, sensing a reaction, Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, called upon “the silent majority” for support against the media and academic “elite” that they blamed for the demonstrations. Passions flared on both sides. After the invasion of Cambodia, over a third of U.S. colleges and universities shut down, and an Ohio National Guard unit, ordered onto the campus of Kent State University, fired on a group of protesting students, killing four of them. Cambodia fell into anarchy, from which the murderous Khmer Rouge emerged.

For Nixon, there remained the problem of the North Vietnamese Army. Foreseeing a major offensive in 1972, U.S. commanders in Saigon determined to thwart it by cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail, a network of roads and paths through the mountains of the Laotian panhandle that the North Vietnamese used as their logistical corridor to the south. A congressional amendment passed after the Cambodian incursion barred American forces from entering Cambodia and Laos, but the ARVN were not so constrained, and on February 8, 1971, some thirty thousand ARVN troops attacked across the border with American air support. The operation was foolishly conceived (the Ho Chi Minh trail could be “cut” only for as long as the ARVN remained as a blocking force) and badly executed. The ARVN units, finding themselves attacked by North Vietnamese artillery and ground troops, began a retreat that soon turned into a disastrous rout—calling the whole Vietnamization program into question.

NIXON HAD always understood that U.S. gains against the NLF were only tactical and temporary. His hope was that he could convince Hanoi to back down by threatening to bomb North Vietnam into extinction—and the bombing of Cambodia was meant to signal his resolve. He also hoped to persuade the major communist powers to bring the North Vietnamese to heel.

Since 1965, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China had furnished Hanoi with significant quantities of military aid and with rice to feed its population. Disputes between the two powers had complicated these aid programs. Nixon judged that at some point both countries would develop priorities more important to them than the support of the Vietnamese revolution. To the Soviets, he held out the promise of a strategic nuclear arms agreement and to the Chinese the promise of a rapprochement with the United States. These initiatives had their own rewards—and they produced the astonishing spectacle of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong smiling for the television cameras in Beijing—but they did not persuade either power to abandon Hanoi.

In March 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a major three-pronged offensive, using tanks and heavy artillery for the first time in the war. In all three sectors, the ARVN, though similarly equipped, fled before them. The North Vietnamese advanced so rapidly they outstripped their planning; they hesitated, and B-52 raids pulverized their positions. Their advance was stopped, they took huge casualties, but their offensive permitted the southern revolutionaries to establish new bases and to lay the groundwork for a renewed political struggle. An intense U.S. bombing campaign against the North failed to halt their support for that struggle.

By June 1972, there were only 47,000 American troops left in Vietnam, and the time had come for a peace agreement. In secret talks with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Paris over the years, the North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho, had consistently called for a complete withdrawal of American troops in exchange for a ceasefire and the return of prisoners of war. He had rejected Kissinger’s proposal for a “mutual withdrawal,” that is, a simultaneous withdrawal of North Vietnamese from the South, and he had insisted on a condition that Nixon found unacceptable: the replacement of the current Saigon regime with a coalition government. But with the new balance of forces in South Vietnam, both sides saw the outlines of an agreement. In a speech on May 8, Nixon promised to pull out all American troops following a ceasefire and the release of prisoners of war; afterward, he said, an internal political settlement could be worked out “by the Vietnamese themselves.” Conspicuously, he made no mention of a “mutual withdrawal,” thereby removing a major obstacle for the North Vietnamese. After further talks between Kissinger and Tho in Paris, the North Vietnamese, on October 8, issued a nine-point draft agreement that removed a major obstacle for the United States. The draft did not insist that Thieu step down in advance of an armistice; rather, it proposed that the Republic of Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (the governmental structure of the NLF) be recognized as “administrative entities” and that they should appoint a council of national reconciliation that would hold democratic elections for a new government. Reunification would take place at an indefinite date in the future through “peaceful means.” Meanwhile, military assistance to both sides would be limited to replacements.

Kissinger was elated. With minor modifications, he accepted the draft and made plans to fly to Hanoi in late October to initial the agreement. The formal signing was to take place the following week, just before the U.S. presidential election. In Saigon, however, he found Nguyen Van Thieu adamantly opposed. This was hardly surprising, as Thieu’s position had always included “Four Nos”: no recognition of the enemy in the South, no neutralization of the South, no coalition government, and no surrender of territory. Kissinger promised Thieu that if the other side violated the agreement, U.S. retaliation would be swift and severe, and went so far as to threaten him with a cutoff of U.S. aid, but Thieu would not budge. Nixon was furious, but, deciding that he couldn’t afford to scuttle the Saigon regime or to sign a separate peace, he backed down. Dutifully, Kissinger cabled Hanoi and once again raised the issue of North Vietnamese troops in the South. Hanoi responded by publishing the text of the agreement and a history of the secret talks.

IN A press conference on October 26, Kissinger acknowledged that the text was essentially correct and said that while certain technical issues remained, the problems were not very great. Peace, he declared, was “at hand.” It was not. Returning to Paris on November 19, Kissinger demanded that Tho reopen a number of the major issues and threatened “savage” bombing of the North if he wouldn’t. Tho refused and returned to Hanoi. On December 17, Nixon authorized a renewed bombing of the North, and for eleven days B-52s and other American aircraft flew three thousand sorties, mainly over the heavily populated corridor between Hanoi and Haiphong, attacking power plants, shipyards, and other installations that had been off the target list until then. The “Christmas bombing” was the most concentrated air offensive of the war; some thirty American planes were lost, and the public reaction was negative. On January 8, Kissinger and Tho resumed their meetings, and on January 27 the Paris Peace Agreement was signed. Nixon and Kissinger claimed that Hanoi had been bombed back to the negotiating table, but the text of the agreement was essentially the same as the draft Hanoi had published in October. This time, however, Nixon told Thieu he would sign the agreement without him, and Thieu, reassured that Nixon would bomb the North again if necessary, cooperated.

Once American troops had been withdrawn and prisoners of war exchanged, Thieu launched operations against the zones of enemy control in the Delta and along the Cambodian border. The PRG kept calling for a ceasefire and a political settlement as specified in the agreement. Thieu, however, could not have survived in a political struggle, and the war continued, as Nixon and Kissinger assumed it would. The U.S. Congress rebelled against Nixon’s promise to re-intervene if the communists violated the truce and passed bills blocking funds for any U.S. military activities in Indochina. But U.S. military aid to Thieu continued as before.

At the end of 1973, the Thieu government held a strong military position. With a million men under arms, its army controlled most of the country and most of the population. Its difficulties were internal. The American troop presence had pumped billions of dollars into the civilian economy, and U.S. troops had, directly and indirectly, employed hundreds of thousands of people. With the Americans gone, unemployment soared and inflation rates climbed so high that ordinary soldiers could not afford to buy rice for their families. Corruption had always been pervasive, but in the declining economy it gave rise to protests against Thieu and his circle of generals, who were seen as the major war profiteers. ARVN morale plummeted. Two hundred thousand soldiers deserted in 1974. Faced with this crisis, all the American embassy and the White House could think of was to pressure the Congress for more aid to Thieu.

In later years, Kissinger maintained that the Watergate scandal spelled the end for the Saigon government. True, as the scandals were progressively revealed, Congress gradually reasserted its powers over foreign policy, and in August 1974, when Nixon resigned, rather than face impeachment, Congress reduced military aid to Saigon from the billion dollars that had been requested to $700 million. But the decrease might have come anyway, given the unpopularity of the war. In any case, the argument raises the question of whether Nixon’s aid program would have been enough to save the Thieu regime.

The North Vietnamese spent much of 1973 and 1974 building an all-weather highway network from the demilitarized zone to a base camp north of Saigon. Meanwhile, the leaders in Hanoi debated strategy and timing. In late 1974, it was decided that the commanders in the South could launch attacks in 1975, but should not expect a final victory until 1976 or 1977. A successful attack on a provincial capital in January accelerated the schedule. In early March, North Vietnamese regular divisions attacked across the demilitarized zone and through the central highlands, scattering the ARVN troops as they went. Thieu called for a retreat and ordered the highland divisions back to defend Saigon, but their commander fled, and a rout ensued. In the northern sector, Hue fell almost without a fight, and Danang, full of panicked troops and civilians, fell five days later. Once again, the North Vietnamese forces could not keep up with the collapse of the ARVN, but this time they did not hesitate; they moved swiftly on Saigon. On April 29, their lead units entered the city, and the last American helicopter lifted off the roof of the American embassy.

THE WAR was over, but not the suffering. Since 1969, over a hundred thousand ARVN soldiers and half a million North Vietnamese and NLF troops had died in combat—along with uncounted numbers of civilians. The economy of the country was shattered, the southern cities filled with refugees and former soldiers. Distrustful of the southerners, even those who had worked for the revolution, the North Vietnamese appointed their own officials and moved swiftly to reorganize the society and economy on the model of the North, paying no heed to local conditions and customs. Hundreds of thousands of former government officials, military officers, and members of the intelligentsia were sent to re-education camps, while millions of the metropolitan jobless were sent to “new economic zones” in the border areas to reclaim poor land with rudimentary tools. A million South Vietnamese fled the country on whatever vessels they could find, and many of them spent years in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

As president, Nixon never promised to win the war. By 1969 there was no reason to believe that it could be won. Certainly, as the record shows, both he and Kissinger understood that without American troops and B-52s, a communist victory was at some point inevitable. Had they decided to end the war in 1969 or in any subsequent year, they could surely have prevailed upon the North Vietnamese to give them the “decent interval” between the withdrawal of American troops and a communist victory that Kissinger thought necessary to preserve American credibility in the world and to uphold American honor. The North Vietnamese leaders might have seemed indifferent to the loss of lives and the destruction of their economy, but they were not. They desperately wanted American troops out of Vietnam. Under the threat of a renewed bombing of the North, they would have been willing to wait at least two years with a neutralist coalition government in the South. Such a solution would have been more than acceptable to the southern revolutionaries, who had been almost wiped out, and it would have given the noncommunist South Vietnamese alternate possibilities. Those who wanted to leave the country could have done so in an orderly fashion. Those who stayed could have organized politically—Buddhist and Catholic parties might have emerged—and made an accommodation with the communists, as many had in 1964-1965. Reunification would have come eventually, but the South Vietnamese would have had a voice in determining the future of their country—and all this with far fewer casualties.

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