Modern history


Nixon, Détente, and the Debacle in Vietnam

Give us six months, and if we haven’t ended the war by then, you can come back and tear down the White House fence.

MARCH 1969

Let me speak to you honestly, frankly, openheartedly.
You are a liar.


I’m not going to be the first President to lose a war.


IN THE SUMMER OF 1968 THE REPUBLICANS NOMINATED RICHARD NIXON for the presidency. The Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President, and adopted a platform that pledged to continue Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. As one of the original and most ferocious of the Cold Warriors, Nixon hardly offered an alternative to the doves. There was, therefore, no opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” on the Vietnam War in the 1968 election, a fact that contributed heavily to the extreme bitterness of that presidential campaign. The third-party ticket in that year, the one that did offer an alternative to the two old parties, was headed by Governor George Wallace of Alabama and adopted as its foreign policy a program designed to “bomb North Vietnam back into the stone age.” Thus the doves, representing nearly half the population, were left without a candidate for President in 1968.

Precisely because their numbers were so great, however, the doves did have an influence, because both Nixon and Humphrey had to go after their votes. Nixon did so when he announced that he had a “secret plan to end the war,” without explaining what it was. Humphrey, meanwhile, hinted that he was secretly a dove, but could not reveal his true position until safely elected, for fear of offending Johnson.

Earlier, in May of 1968, preliminary peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam had gotten under way in Paris. Between that time and the campaign, the two sides argued about the shape of the table around which the final peace conference would meet. The real issue was whether the VC and Siagon would be represented. Both Johnson and Ho Chi Minh were more interested in making propaganda than progress toward peace, at least until the results of the election were known. Throughout the campaign there was no progress in Paris.

As the campaign neared its climax, Johnson needed to reach out to the doves, for Humphrey’s sake. He did so on October 31, five days before the election, when he announced that serious peace talks would start shortly in Paris, with all four parties represented, and that he was halting “all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam.”

Humphrey, who had been closing steadily on Nixon, went ahead of him in the polls. A desperate Nixon then played his trump. He had Mrs. Claire Chennault, widow of the famous commander of the World War II Flying Tigers, tell President Nguyen Van Thieu16that South Vietnam would “get better treatment from me than under the Democrats.” Responding to this promise, two days before the election Thieu undercut Humphrey and Johnson by announcing that he would not participate in the peace talks, which made Johnson’s bombing; halt appear to be a last-minute political ploy rather than a real move toward peace. On Election Day, Nixon won with 43.4 percent of the vote to Humphrey’s 42.7 (Wallace got 13.5 percent).

With his narrow victory, Richard Nixon earned the right to decide American policy in the Vietnam War. He had numerous options. He surely recalled how Eisenhower had added to his popularity by ending the Korean War six months after taking office. He could do the same in Vietnam by simply bringing the boys home. Or he could continue Johnson’s policy of all-out war in the south, hands off the north. Or he might decide to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, making them do the fighting with American equipment. Or he could extend the bombing campaign to the north, devastate Hanoi, mine Haiphong harbor, and invade with ground troops. Or, the final option, he could use nuclear weapons. Given the nature of the campaign, Nixon might have adopted any one of the above options or a variation thereof, saying that it was his “secret plan to end the war.” And, except for the last option, he could have worked up significant, even majority, support for any one of them.

The trouble with the first option, to simply end the war, was that Hanoi would not cooperate. In Korea in 1953, Eisenhower had gotten the Chinese to accept a truce after threatening to use atomic weapons if they did not. But in 1969, Nixon was not dealing with the Chinese; he had to deal with Ho Chi Minh, who was more stubborn than Johnson and who would not agree to a compromise peace, as the Chinese had done in Korea.17 Ho wanted all of Vietnam. For him (as for Johnson and Nixon) the issue was: Who will rule in Saigon? ARVN officers wedded to the United States, or Ho Chi Minh and the Communists? On that question, there could be no compromise. That did not prevent Nixon from pulling out, but it did mean that a complete American withdrawal would be followed by a Communist victory.

The second option, continuing Johnson’s policies, had nothing to recommend it. All the Kennedy-Johnson assumptions about Vietnam and the nature of the war there had been proven wrong and expensive. Something new had to be tried.

The third possibility, turning the war over to the Vietnamese, had the most appeal. It avoided defeat. It kept alive some hope of an ultimate victory. It would relieve the pressure from the peace groups in the United States and mollify many of the doves. And it left open the fourth option, to step up military action against Hanoi and otherwise escalate the war.

The final option, to use nuclear weapons, although discussed seriously from time to time among high civil and military officials, was never very tempting. Aside from the moral opprobrium it would bring on the United States, and the intense internal opposition it would arouse, the use of the big bomb made little military sense. If the United States dropped one on Hanoi, it was possible that the Chinese or the Russians, or both, would retaliate by dropping one on Saigon. What would happen next was anyone’s guess, but no one, including Nixon, wanted to find out.

So it came down to the program Nixon called Vietnamization. Six months after taking office, he announced that his secret plan to end the war was in fact a plan to keep it going, but with lower American casualties. He proposed to withdraw American combat troops, unit by unit, while continuing to give air and naval support to ARVN and rearming ARVN with the best military hardware America had to offer.

American policy had come full circle. Three decades earlier, when Franklin Roosevelt began his third term as President, he had declared that the United States would serve as the great arsenal of democracy. American boys ought not be fighting in Europe, he said, doing what European boys ought to be doing for themselves (Johnson had said the same thing about American and Asian boys). Instead, the Americans would supply the tools of war so that others could contain the Axis aggressors. In 1969 Nixon proposed to contain the Communist aggressors by extending lend-lease to South Vietnam.

It proved to be a disastrous choice, one of the worst decisions ever made by a Cold War President. Some of the direct results were: a prolongation of the war by four years, at immense cost in lives and treasure; double-digit inflation, previously unknown in the United States; more bitterness, division, and dissension among the American people; the flouting of the Constitution by the President as he secretly extended the war to Laos and Cambodia, with tragic results for the people of both countries; and the eventual loss of the war. The best that could be said of Vietnamization was that it bought Nixon some time and helped him avoid having to answer, in his 1972 reelection campaign, the question, “Who lost Vietnam?”

Of course, Nixon had high hopes for his policy when he started out. His brilliant National Security Adviser, and later Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger of Harvard University, had convinced him that there was a path to peace with honor in Vietnam and that it led through Moscow and Peking. If the two Communist superpowers would only refrain from supplying arms to the North Vietnamese, Kissinger argued, Hanoi would have to agree to a compromise peace, a policy ploy that he called “linkage.” The United States would withhold favors and agreements from the Russians until they cut off the arms flow to Hanoi. Peace would follow.

There were all sorts of problems with linkage, the first being that it was hardly new, that it was in fact exactly the policy every administration since Roosevelt’s had followed (when Truman withheld a loan from Stalin in 1945, it was with the hope that this would make the Russians behave in East Europe) without success. Dean Rusk had already tried it with regard to Vietnam. Linkage ignored the obvious fact that if the United States stopped supplying Saigon, there would also be an immediate peace, and that in any event the Russians and Chinese were sending into North Vietnam considerably less military hardware than the United States was shipping into the south.

Linkage assumed that world politics revolved around the constant struggle for supremacy between the great powers. Like Dulles and Acheson and Rusk, Kissinger regarded North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as pawns to be moved around the board by the great powers. He insisted on viewing the war as a highly complex game in which the moves were made from Washington, Moscow, and Peking (Beijing). He could not believe that Hanoi had its own aims and objectives, more or less unconnected to Russia’s or China’s.

Linkage fed Kissinger’s megalomania. His self-confidence knew no bounds. Kissinger wanted to make peace, not just for his generation, nor just for his children’s generation, but for his children’s children. This impossible dream drove Kissinger to seek the broadest possible agreement with Russia. Everything was linked—the industrial nations’ oil shortage, the Vietnam War, American wheat sales to Russia, China’s military capacity, and so on. Kissinger sought nothing less than an all-ecompassing agreement that would bring worldwide, permanent peace. Through linkage, Kissinger would out-Metternich Metternich.

The first step would be an arms-control agreement with the U.S.S.R. From it would flow a more general détente, trade with Russia, lowered tensions in the Middle East, and peace in Vietnam with President Nguyen Van Thieu still in power. For these reasons and because the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were inherently the single most important issue facing the United States and the U.S.S.R., who between them were spending large sums of money on unbelievably destructive weapons, Kissinger put a mighty effort into arms control. The Johnson administration had started the talks but had given them such a low priority that Nixon and Kissinger were, in effect, starting anew.

They came to SALT with some sobering realizations, chief of which was that the days of American unchallenged superiority were finished. The United States had 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 656 submarine-launched missiles, and 540 long-range bombers, a force sufficient to kill each Russian fifty times over. The Russians, however, had built, in a crash program, 1,200 ICBMs, 200 submarine-launched missiles, and 200 big bombers. As Morton Halperin, one of Kissinger’s assistants, noted in a staff study, “It was impossible to escape the conclusion that no conceivable American strategic program would give you the kind of superiority that you had in the 1950s.”

Halperin’s conclusion was hard to take and hardly taken. Nixon announced that sufficiency, rather than superiority, would be the new American strategic goal, Kissinger acknowledged that “aft attempt to gain a unilateral advantage in the strategic field must be self-defeating,” and the Americans placed a high priority on SALT. Nevertheless, Nixon still hoped to keep the American lead in strategic weapons, and he succeeded.

One of Nixon’s first acts as President was to send the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (which prevented the “have-nots” from getting nuclear weapons), negotiated by the Johnson administration, to the Senate for approval. The day after that approval came—supposedly clearing the way for meaningful SALT talks—Nixon announced a new antiballistic-missile (ABM) program. His purpose was to create “bargaining chips” for SALT. In other words, like bombing in Vietnam to insure peace, Nixon was building new weapons so that the United States would not have to build new weapons. The President also endorsed the Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicle (MIRV), which could give each ICBM three to ten separately targeted nuclear warheads. Most military experts considered MIRV to be a quantum leap comparable to the switch from conventional to nuclear weaponry. Despite his talk about “sufficiency,” Nixon still pushed on, determined to keep the United States in first place. He would not allow the American negotiators at SALT to bring up the subject of MIRVs; he wanted the United States to develop, perfect, and deploy the MIRVs before he would consider a freeze on them.

The SALT I agreement that was finally signed in 1972 froze ICBM deployment but not MIRV, which was about as meaningful as freezing the cavalry of the European nations in 1938 but not the tanks. Throughout the period of the Nixon administration, the Pentagon added three new warheads per day to the MIRV arsenal, a policy the Gerald Ford administration continued. By 1973, according to the State Department, the United States had six thousand warheads to the Russians’ twenty-five hundred. By 1977 the United States had ten thousand warheads, the Russians four thousand. It was a strange way to control the arms race. As Laurence Martin, Director of War Studies at the University of London, noted, “So far the SALT exercise has done more to accelerate than to restrain strategic arms procurement on both sides.”

SALT was the only arms-control agreement signed by any President in the first four decades of the Cold War. It was therefore of some symbolic importance, but it was badly flawed. It did not institute a freeze at 1972 levels. The Americans refused to swap MIRV for ABA,18 to even consider a ban on antisatellite weapons (later called Strategic Defense Initiative). In the words of Raymond Garthoff, a scholar and participant in the arms-control talks, the President and the Secretary “were very skeptical of arms control as a means of establishing greater stability and relied much more on political strategies.”

Détente was supposed to lead to mutual trust, and SALT contained a declaration of principles in which both sides pledged not to attempt to take a unilateral advantage, but the day they left Moscow, after signing the treaty, Nixon and Kissinger went to Iran, where they offered the Shah unlimited access to American arms. Along with the opening to China, discussed below, and the strengthening of the American arsenal and of the NATO allies, and the encouragement Nixon, via the Shah, gave to rebels in Afghanistan, the Russians saw themselves being hemmed in militarily and politically, which was exactly what Nixon intended to do. The irony was that Nixon’s critics charged he was letting the Russians lull him into a false sense of security, when that was exactly what he was doing to the Russians.

SALT did place limits on the ABMs, two per side, signifying Nixon’s acceptance of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. He explained in his memoirs that a “major effect of the ABM treaty was to make permanent the concept of deterrence through mutual terror: By giving up missile defense, each side was leaving its population hostage to a strategic missile attack. Each side therefore had an ultimate interest in preventing a war that could only be mutually destructive.” The statement is a good example of how short a time “permanent” is in politics.

Nixon’s policies, unlike his rhetoric, were designed to keep America ahead, which he managed to do with SALT. Still, Kissinger had to fight for the ratification of the interim agreement that SALT I produced. Senators charged that he was allowing the Russians superiority, an absurd position to take. Kissinger finally got the interim agreement through the Senate, thereby completing the first step in linkage. The next move was to bring Peking in on the game.

Since 1949 the United States had had no relations with the People’s Republic of China, pretending all the while that the Nationalist Chinese in Taiwan, not the Communists in Peking, represented the “real” China. As a policy, nonrecognition had little to recommend it (aside from its value on the domestic political scene); certainly it had not made China any less Communist. When Nixon and Kissinger took office, China was not an issue they had to face. Democrats were afraid to raise the subject for fear of being labeled soft on Communism, and Republicans—led by Nixon himself—claimed to feel an intense loyalty to the Nationalist Chinese. Neither the public, the press, nor Congress had the slightest hint that the new President might reexamine the old policy, with which he had been intimately associated throughout his career.

Suddenly, in July 1971, Nixon announced that he was going to visit China at the invitation of China’s leaders. Kissinger had arranged the trip during a series of secret meetings with Chou En-lai, China’s second in command. The trip would take place in February 1972. There had been no public pressure to change the China policy, and no public debate had taken place on the subject for years. Why had it been done? Who stood to gain what from it? Commentators speculated that perhaps Nixon and Kissinger wanted to use the opening to China as a way to squeeze both Moscow and Hanoi.

It appeared that Nixon saw vast possibilities for the United States in a Sino-Soviet split. He specifically believed that he could so manage the split as to force both Communist powers to abandon North Vietnam, which in turn would let the United States safely exit from Vietnam. The way to get China and Russia to cooperate, Nixon reasoned, was to keep them guessing about actual United States intentions. Nixon’s active pursuit of détente could not help but make China worry about a possible U.S.-U. S.S.R. alliance against China. Nixon’s opening to China, meanwhile, made Russia’s leaders fearful of a U.S.-China alliance directed against them. There were many nuances to Nixon’s policy, but always a consistent aim: to get Moscow and Peking to force Hanoi to allow the United States to extract itself from South Vietnam and to refrain from toppling Thieu until a “decent interval” had gone by (presumably until Nixon left the White House in 1977).

But whatever their fears and worries about Nixon’s moves, neither Moscow nor Peking changed their Vietnam policy. They continued to send supplies to their beleaguered fellow Communists, especially antiaircraft artillery. Neither Communist nation helped Nixon in any way with his Vietnam problem.

Nixon wanted to make history, and recognition of China, especially by Nixon himself, would most assuredly be historic. It was the right thing to do, he believed, and he was the right man to do it, his anti-Communist credentials being what they were. In 1978 Nixon said he believed no other American politician could have gotten away with it. The move was good politics. The right wing might (and to some extend did) complain, but it had no one but Nixon to cling to. The left wing could only applaud. The boldness and drama of the new policy, the basic common sense in recognizing China, and the magnificent television coverage of the trip itself, with Nixon always at the center, helped him win millions of votes. Just the sight of Nixon shaking hands with Chou or chatting with Mao Tse-tung gave him stature.

Nixon had taken a historic and sensational step. In a joint communiqué, issued from Shanghai, the governments of China and the United States agreed to take further steps toward normalization of relations between themselves, and further agreed that Formosa was a part of China. The next move came six years later, when in December 1978 President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States was establishing full diplomatic relations with China while simultaneously ending its mutual defense treaty with the Nationalist Chinese on Formosa. In the eighties the two countries began to establish trade relations.

The Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente and linkage had some successes in other parts of the world. An essential part of détente was wrapping up some of the old problems left over from World War II. One such was divided Berlin, the city where so much of the Cold War drama had taken place. In September 1971 the winners in World War II—Britain, the United States, the U.S.S.R., and France—signed the Berlin Accord, which was also endorsed by both Germanies. It provided for improved communications between sectors of the divided city. It became part of a comprehensive Berlin Agreement signed in June 1972 in Berlin, which also provided for an American recognition of East Germany. Formal diplomatic relations between the United States and East Germany were established in 1974.

At Helsinki, Finland, meanwhile, accords were signed in 1972 that recognized the boundaries of the various Russian satellites in East Europe and committed all signatories (including the Russians) to the defense of human rights (there was no enforcement machinery).

In the Pacific, too, Nixon was able to eliminate a problem left over from the war, the status of Okinawa. America had been in command on the island since 1945; under the terms of an agreement made in November 1969 between Nixon and Japanese Premier Eisaku Sato, Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. The United States retained its extensive military facilities but agreed to remove its nuclear weapons from the island.

The various settlements gave the Japanese what they wanted in the Pacific, the Communists what they wanted in East Berlin, East Germany, and East Europe. America had backed down from demands for democracy and free enterprise in the areas overrun by the Red Army. This retreat reflected, in turn, the coming of a new era in the world’s history. The enormous American preponderance of power of 1945 was gone. This was on a relative scale, of course, as America’s destructive power in 1975 was far greater than it had been in 1945, but in comparison with the rest of the world it was much less. So too with the American economy, which in the seventies was booming as never before, but which was also dependent on foreign sources as never before. In 1972, for the first time in the twentieth century, the United States had a deficit in its international trade accounts. Once a major exporter of raw materials, America had become an importer of copper, lead, zinc, and, most of all, oil. Meanwhile, the United States was also importing manufactured goods at record rates (in 1970, 71 percent of American imports were manufactured goods, only 31 percent raw materials—including oil—and foodstuffs). Fortunately, American agriculture remained the most productive in the world, and in 1972 and again in 1979 the United States was able to make a major dent in its balance of payments situation by selling massive quantities of wheat to the Russians. The exports were subsidized by the U.S. government. The wheat deal was perhaps the most direct payoff Nixon got from détente.

A way still had to be found out of Vietnam. The basic difference between the Johnson and Nixon administrations was that Johnson believed in military victory, whereas Nixon knew that the United States could not win the war, at least not at a price the nation would accept. Nixon realized that for economic reasons (the war was simply costing too much) and for the sake of domestic peace and tranquillity he had to cut back on the American commitment to Vietnam, which meant in turn accepting an outcome short of victory. The best Nixon could hope for, and this was his aim, was a gradual United States withdrawal, complemented by an improvement in ARVN’s fighting qualities. Then, at best, South Vietnam could maintain its own independence, rather like South Korea; at worst, there would be a decent interval between American withdrawal and Communist victory.

To buy the time needed to build up ARVN, Nixon had to moderate the domestic dissatisfaction with the war. Less than two months after he took office, the North Vietnamese added to that dissatisfaction by launching (February 23, 1969) a general offensive in which the 541,500 American troops in Vietnam (the peak level in the war) took heavy casualties. Television newscasters announced that the American combat death toll in the Vietnam War had passed that of the Korean War, with more than 40,000 dead.

Nixon responded to the offensive by moving in two directions simultaneously. On the tough side, to let the North Vietnamese know he could not be pushed around, Nixon launched his secret war against the North Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia. The “secret,” obviously, was well known to the Cambodians and Vietnamese, but Nixon managed to keep it from the American public (and Congress) through four years of intensive bombing. It was a bold, risky policy, with much at stake. Unfortunately, the return on investment was low. At their best, America’s B-52S caused a 10 percent falloff in movement of men and supplies from North to South Vietnam via Cambodia. As in Korea, interdiction could not work against an enemy who moved his goods on human backs, along foot or bike trails.

In addition to the bombing of Cambodia, Nixon sharply increased the level of bombing in South Vietnam. But he offered not only an iron fist to Hanoi—there was a velvet glove also. On June 8, 1969, after meeting with President Thieu of South Vietnam on Midway Island, Nixon announced the first United States troop withdrawals from Vietnam. By August 1, he said, twenty-five thousand American soldiers would be returned to the United States. Further reductions would follow, as ARVN’s fighting quality improved.

It was a historic turning point. Johnson’s policy of escalation in Vietnam had been reversed. It was the first important American strategic retreat in Asia since MacArthur fell back from the Yalu in 1950. That it was an act forced on Nixon by public opinion made it no less significant. And it was a great help in appeasing the doves. So, too, was Nixon’s promise to end the draft and institute an all-volunteer army. The first step came in November 1969 with the creation of a lottery system to determine who would get drafted, which made the selective-service process fairer to all classes and groups, and let a young man know where he stood with the draft.

The all-volunteer army was excellent politics, because the antiwar movement, as a political event, was essentially a student movement, and an all-volunteer army seriously weakened the political impact of the doves by robbing them of their major support, male college students. So, while constantly proclaiming that he would not allow policy to be dictated in the streets, Nixon allowed just that to happen, giving the protesting students exactly what they had been demanding: no more conscription. Nixon believed that there was not enough idealism in the antiwar movement to sustain it once college students were no longer threatened with the draft, and he was right. Except for a brief period following the Cambodian invasion of May 1970, Nixon had less trouble with street demonstrations than had his predecessor.19

Meanwhile, Nixon was supplying ARVN on a wholly unprecedented scale, to such an extent that when the final surrender came in 1975, ARVN was the fourth-ranking military power in the world.20 Nixon warned Hanoi that the speed of American withdrawal from Vietnam would depend on progress in the Paris peace negotiations, and upon the levels of enemy activity, which meant that he was taking the position that while he was sending more weapons into South Vietnam, Hanoi should send less.

That was the administration’s public posture. Privately, Kissinger had started, in August 1969, a series of secret negotiating sessions in Paris with Le Duc Tho, a member of Hanoi’s Politburo. In these sessions Kissinger sought to bring about an armistice that would lead to the return of the American POWs, President Thieu’s remaining in power in Saigon (at least for a decent interval), and a cease-fire. In return, the United States would withdraw all its troops from Vietnam and would recognize Communist possession of large sections of the South Vietnamese countryside. From Hanoi’s point of view, the offer was an attempt to buy the Communists off with half a loaf just when they had the whole loaf in their grasp. From Thieu’s point of view, it was a sellout, handing over parts of his country to the enemy just so the Americans could extract themselves without too much loss of face. From Kissinger’s point of view, it was a reasonable compromise, and he put his tremendous energies and unbounded enthusiasm into the task of bringing it off. It took him almost four years, but he finally made it. In the process his patience was sorely tested. Le Due Tho would return time and again to the tiniest point, which had been settled over and over in previous sessions. Kissinger would sigh deeply, then take it up once again.

While Kissinger prepared to divide South Vietnam between the contending parties, the war went on. Nixon had to justify it to an increasingly restive Congress and public. He used a series of different justifications. He said he had inherited the war and was fighting on only to extract American troops safely, or he argued that an American defeat in Vietnam would seriously affect American interests elsewhere. At times he referred to America’s treaty commitments and the overwhelming need to prove to friend and foe alike that America stood by her word.

Nixon also warned the American people that if they quit and the Viet Cong won, there would be a terrible bloodbath in Saigon and the blame would rest with the United States. In his foreign-policy message to Congress in January 1970, Nixon declared, “When we assumed the burden of helping South Vietnam, millions of South Vietnamese men and women placed their trust in us. To abandon them would risk a massacre that would shock and dismay everyone in the world who values human life.” Most of all, Nixon justified the continuation of the war by raising the issue of the POWs held by Hanoi. We will fight on until we get them back, he declared, and it was a rallying cry with enough emotional content to convince most Americans that the war must go on.

The POW issue could not, however, win the war for Thieu. Vietnamization meant, first of all, vastly increased military aid for the Government of South Vietnam (GVN). Backed by the sudden, massive inflow of money and arms, Thieu ordered a general mobilization. By inducting all men between eighteen and thirty-eight into the service, Thieu expanded the GVN armed forces from 700,000 to 1,100,000, which meant that over half the able-bodied male population of South Vietnam was in uniform. As Frances FitzGerald points out in her award-winning Fire in the Lake,counting the militia, the civil service, and the 110,000-man police force, “the United States was arming and, in one way or another, supporting most of the male population of Vietnam—and for the duration of the war.”

The sudden expansion of ARVN produced a temporary but real military advantage for the U.S.-GVN side. FitzGerald describes the results: “Now all, or most, of the Vietnamese were swept up into the American war machine. ‘Vietnamization’ preempted the manpower base of the country and brought it into a state of dependency on the American economy. And the results were spectacular. The major roads were open to traffic; the cities flourished on American money and goods; those peasant families that remained in the fertile areas of the Delta grew rich on bumper crops of ‘miracle’ rice. The country was more ‘pacified’ than it had ever been before.”

From the American (and Thieu’s) point of view, Vietnamization seemed to be working. By 1972, 50 percent of the population lived in cities (Saigon’s population alone had jumped from 300,000 to 3,000,000 in ten years), where the refugees from the countryside became dependent upon the Americans. South Vietnam had the population distribution of an industrialized state, but it had no industry, except for the war and the Americans. Vietnamese refugees made their living either in the ARVN (where they were paid by the Americans) or by working directly for the Americans. In the cities the refugees were safe, certainly better off than they had been when living in the “free-fire zones,” and they were fed by the American government—but they had no real economy.

From 1961 onward, American presidents never tired of proclaiming that the United States was making sacrifices in Southeast Asia only for the good of the people of the region. The United States had no territorial objectives, nor did it wish to replace the French as the colonial masters of the Vietnamese. It was true that the United States took no wealth out of Vietnam; in fact, it poured money in. “And yet,” FitzGerald points out, “it has produced much the same effects as the most exploitative of colonial regimes. The reason is that the overwhelming proportion of American funds has gone not into agricultural or industrial development but into the creation of services for the Americans—the greatest service being the Saigon government’s army. As a whole, American wealth has gone into creating and supporting a group of people—refugees, soldiers, prostitutes, secretaries, translators, maids, and shoeshine boys—who do not engage in any form of production.”

The GVN was a government without a country. The people were dependent on it—or rather on the Americans—but they felt no loyalty to it. South Vietnam, once a major world exporter of rice, now produced almost nothing. The GVN had guns and money. The other side had a cause and brutal discipline. North Vietnamese morale went up and down over the decade of active American involvement, as would be true in any army in such a long war, but even at its lowest point Communist morale was so much higher than that of ARVN that no comparison was possible. The Americans talked incessantly about “pacification” and “winning the hearts and minds of the people,” while Nixon dropped new record tonnages of bombs on their heads. Those who escaped the bombing offensive went to the cities to become unwilling conscripts in ARVN or resentful servants to the Americans. In the army they would not fight, for the good reason that they had nothing to fight for. Meanwhile, the VC and the North Vietnamese held on against the world’s most powerful air force, thereby providing—in FitzGerald’s words—“an example of courage and endurance that measures with any in modern history.”

Throughout 1969 and into 1970, the Americans regularly released figures to prove that Vietnamization was working. ARVN, according to the Pentagon, could “hack it.” Body counts were higher than ever; ARVN had more troops, more and better leaders and equipment. Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon made a surprise announcement that a large force of U.S. troops, supported by major air strikes and backed by a major ARVN force, had invaded Cambodia. Nixon said the purpose was to gain time for the American withdrawal. The invasion of Cambodia resulted in the deaths of some Communist troops but otherwise had only negative results. It hardly even slowed the flow of supplies to the VC and North Vietnamese in the south. It turned Cambodia into a battleground and eventually prompted a successful Communist insurgency there, thereby making the domino theory come true.

The Cambodian invasion extended the list of nations the United States was pledged to defend, despite Nixon’s solemn promise that he was not making any pledges to the Lon Nol military regime, which had recently (March 18, 1970) overthrown the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, a neutralist who had tried to keep the war away from Cambodia. The invasion temporarily revived the antiwar movement at home, especially after four students were shot dead on May 4 by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University.

The American people, however, were not willing to see their boys fighting in yet another country. It was not just the students at Kent State and elsewhere who protested; Congress passed a bill forcing Nixon to remove American ground and air forces from Cambodia by July 1970. Nixon continued to bomb Cambodia while continuing to deceive the public and Congress about it. He did have to pull the troops out, announcing as he did so that the operation had been a great success. In fact, he had put himself in the position of having another government to defend that could not possibly defend itself, and he had left ARVN with a new responsibility that it could not meet.

In announcing the invasion, Nixon had said, “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation ... acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.” The almost totally negative results of the great risk he had taken in expanding the war showed in fact that the United States, in a guerrilla war in Asia without popular support, was nearly helpless.

A new force in the making of American foreign policy, meanwhile, was beginning to exert itself. Throughout the Cold War and the Vietnam War, the Congress had been a cipher. It had ignored its constitutional duties on the grounds that in the modern age the President had to be free to act immediately against aggressors. From the mid-forties onward Congress legislated for the domestic front while the President acted on the foreign front. The system was mutually satisfactory as long as America was winning. But the absence of victory in Vietnam, the drawn-out nature of the struggle there, caused a change. Congress began to assert its authority. Democracies, as Lincoln and Wilson and Roosevelt knew, cannot fight long wars, because long wars inevitably become unpopular wars. That unpopularity will first show up in Congress, the branch of government closest to the people.

Like the people, Congress was frustrated by the war, and like them, it hardly knew what to do about it. The instinct to trust the President when the nation is at war is very strong; Nixon always counted on the prestige of his office in carrying through his policy. Some argued that there was nothing Congress could do, because the President is Commander in Chief of the armed forces and thus held all the power.

Under the American Constitution, however, the ultimate power resides not in the White House, but in Congress. At the starkest level, Congress can impeach and remove from office the President, but the President cannot remove Congress or individual Congressmen. On questions of foreign policy, only Congress can declare war or appropriate the money necessary to fight it. Here the trouble was more a practical one than one of constitutional theory. The United States was already at war with North Vietnam. On December 31, 1970, Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but Nixon simply ignored this action, saying the resolution was not necessary to justify the continuation of the war. As to money, few Congressmen were willing to risk their careers by voting against the Defense Department budget under ordinary circumstances, much less when American boys were engaged in combat and had to have arms, ammunition, and other equipment to protect themselves.

Congress did find an ingenious way to use the appropriation power to exert its will, without stripping the fighting men of their means of defense. It declared that none of the money it was appropriating for military purposes could be used to widen the war, and specifically forbade the use of American ground troops in Cambodia or Laos. The restriction prevented Nixon from sending American troops into Laos on February 8, 1971, when ARVN launched a major invasion of Laos. Because Congress had failed to restrict his use of the Air Force, however, Nixon did have American bombers and helicopters fly missions to protect the ARVN invaders. Despite the air cover, Hanoi’s forces sent ARVN reeling. It suffered 50 percent losses in the forty-five-day operation. It was a major embarrassment. As FitzGerald noted, it convinced the South Vietnamese that Vietnamization “meant increased Vietnamese deaths in pursuit of the American policy objective to extract the American troops from Vietnam without peace negotiations.”

On March 30, 1972, Hanoi launched its own major offensive across the demilitarized zone. Two weeks later Nixon responded by resuming the intensive bombing of the north, hitting Haiphong and Hanoi on April 16, for the first time since 1968. He also mined Haiphong harbor. He had taken great risks—he was jeopardizing détente with the Russians and the opening to China, a clear indication that Vietnam was always his first priority. Despite the loss of a ship in Haiphong harbor, the Russians acted as if nothing had happened, and a month later Nixon visited Moscow for a summit meeting. Kissinger credited linkage and détente for this success; others attributed it to Russia’s need for America’s wheat and corn. Peking’s reaction was limited to verbal denunciations.

Nixon had gotten away with a major escalation of the war, but by no means did that solve his problems. To win reelection in 1972 he had to have some semblance of peace in Vietnam, but he also had to have Thieu still in power in Saigon, or he would become “the first President to lose a war.” Nixon decided to force Le Duc Tho to accept a compromise peace that would leave the Communists in control of much of South Vietnam’s countryside (but not the cities, especially Saigon), by further escalating the war. While Kissinger took a hard line in his continuing secret talks with Le Duc Tho, Nixon stepped up the military offensive against North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

It was primarily an air offensive, because by the spring of 1972 Nixon had reduced the American ground-troop level in Vietnam to 70,000, far below the 540,000 that had been there when he took office four years earlier. American combat deaths were down from three hundred per week to one per day. Vietnamization was working, from Nixon’s point of view, if only Hanoi would sign a peace agreement.

The Kissinger-Le Duc Tho talks were dragged out and terribly complex. Incredibly small points were haggled over while each side blamed the other for insincerity. There was some shifting of positions. What stood out, however, was a real consistency. Throughout, Hanoi was willing to allow the Americans to get out, and to turn over the POWs when they did. From that point on, Hanoi insisted that what happened in Vietnam was none of America’s business, which meant Le Duc Tho would sign no binding contract as to Hanoi’s behavior in the future. Washington consistently argued that Hanoi had to abandon the use of force in settling the problem of a divided Vietnam. Such an agreement, of course, would have insured Thieu’s position for some years to come, given that he controlled the army, the police, the civil service, and most importantly, the ballot boxes in South Vietnam.21

Eventually, Le Duc Tho indicated his willingness to sign an agreement. His motives remain unclear. Perhaps he realized that once the Americans were gone, Nixon and Kissinger would find it difficult to influence events. Perhaps he responded to a bribe; Nixon promised a massive program of reconstruction for North Vietnam once the shooting stopped. In any event, on October 26, 1972, just in time for the election, a triumphant Kissinger announced that “peace is at hand,” and Nixon claimed that his policies had brought “peace with honor.” The Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, who had rotten luck throughout his inept campaign, lost the only issue he still had going for him. Despite McGovern’s last-minute plea to the American people, “Don’t let this man fool you again,” more than 60 percent of the voters chose Nixon, who scored one of the greatest victories in modern American electoral history.

Immediately after the election, astonishingly, the talks broke down again. At Nixon’s insistence Kissinger had raised the price just when Le Duc Tho was ready to sign. Nixon demanded an ironclad guarantee that Thieu would remain in power. In part, this was a response to Thieu’s intransigence. Thieu knew that he was being sold out, that an American withdrawal would sooner or later lead to his downfall, no matter how many promises Le Duc Tho made, and so Thieu threatened to ignore any cease-fire agreement that Kissinger might sign. Kissinger made extravagant promises to Thieu and Le Duc Tho about American military support in the event of a Communist offensive and about American reconstruction funds that would be available to both sides after peace came. Nixon meanwhile began the Christmas bombing campaign against Hanoi. It quickly made Hanoi the most heavily bombed city in the history of warfare.

Nixon’s publicly stated reason for the air offensive was to force Hanoi to release the American POWs, but the campaign itself led to the loss of at least fifteen B-52s and eleven fighter-bombers (Hanoi claimed much higher American losses), increasing by ninety-three the number of POWs held by Hanoi. The losses, meanwhile, were more than the U.S. Air Force could afford. The generals had never liked the idea of sending costly B-52s over Hanoi, a city heavily defended against air attack by Soviet SAMs. As the losses mounted, the generals wanted out. Nixon must also have been aware of the worldwide opposition to the bombing, and Kissinger may have convinced him that the October agreement was the best the United States could get. Perhaps most important, despite Nixon’s personal triumph in the election, the Democrats still controlled Congress and were finally ready to assert themselves. Nixon knew that the new Congress, coming into office in January 1973, was going to cut off all funds for bombing. Nixon therefore called off the bombers and agreed to sign a ceasefire agreement. On January 23, 1973, all active American participation in Vietnam ended.

Nixon claimed that the Christmas bombing had done the trick, but two of his own officials gave that story the lie when they were interviewed by Marvin and Bernard Kalb. “Peanuts,” said one official when asked what difference the Christmas bombing had made. “That enormous bombing made little critical difference. What the B-52s did was to get the margin in January pretty much back to where it was in October.” Another official explained, “Look, we were in an embarrassing situation. Could we suddenly say we’ll sign in January what we wouldn’t in October? We had to do something. So the bombing began, to try to create the image of a defeated enemy crawling back to the peace table to accept terms demanded by the United States.”

For the next two years Kissinger claimed that he had managed to achieve the impossible. “It took me four years to negotiate peace in Vietnam,” he told the Arabs and the Israelis, indicating that although he was indeed a miracle man, even he could not bring an immediate peace to the Middle East. Nixon, meanwhile, spoke and acted as if the United States had won a decisive victory under his command.

The claims had a hollow ring, because fighting continued in South Vietnam while it increased in Cambodia. The huge American Air Force in Asia concentrated on Cambodia in a series of heavy assaults. Congress reacted by cutting off funds for such bombing. On June 27, 1973, Nixon vetoed the bill cutting the funds. Two days later he assured Congress that all United States military activity in Cambodia would cease by August 15, and on July 1 he signed a bill ending all American combat activities in Indochina by August 15. Most observers believed that he caved in only because of his weakened political position due to the Watergate scandal.

The cease-fire in Vietnam, meanwhile, broke down. Nixon rushed more arms to Thieu ($3.2 billion in 1973), who already had the fourth-largest military force in the world. Indeed, all four sides to the final cease-fire agreement (Saigon, Hanoi, the VC, and the United States), so painfully negotiated over such a long period of time, violated it in every imaginable way, as everyone had suspected beforehand they would. All that had really been agreed to was that the United States would pull its fighting men out of Vietnam, and that Hanoi would give back the American POWs.

Over the next two years the battle raged, with relatively little shifting in positions. Congress refused to appropriate additional funds for Thieu’s army, despite increasingly strident pleas from Kissinger, Nixon, and eventually President Gerald Ford. The final collapse of the Thieu regime began in January 1975, when Phuoc Binh, capital of Phuoc Long Province, fell to the Communists. Thieu decided to shorten his lines—until this time he had been trying to hold onto as much territory as possible—but the attempted retrenchment to more defensible lines proved to be a disastrous mistake. Once ARVN started retreating, it never stopped. Panic among the troops spread to the civilian refugees, who soon clogged the roads. Hue fell on March 26, Da Nang on March 31. On April 22 ARVN withdrew from Xuan Loc, forty miles east of Saigon. A week later the VC captured the huge air base at Bien Hoa, fifteen miles from Saigon.

On April 21 President Thieu delivered an emotional speech on Vietnamese radio and television. He accused the United States of breaking its promises of support and blamed the debacle on American cuts in military aid. He then resigned and got out of the country, most of his relatives and money and friends going with him. On April 28 President Ford ordered the emergency helicopter evacuation of all Americans remaining in South Vietnam. In a dreadful scene, U.S. Marines kept panic-striken Vietnamese (who had fought alongside the Americans and had much to fear from the Communists) away from the helicopters as the Americans and a select few Vietnamese were evacuated. On April 30, 1975, the remnants of the South Vietnamese government announced its unconditional surrender to the Communists. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam was again united into one country. That same month the Lon Nol regime in Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. America’s most disastrous foreign-policy adventure, the intervention into the Indochinese war, had come to an end.

Nixon’s dire predictions about all the dominoes that were going to fall to monolithic Communism proved to be wrong. Within a year Communist Vietnam was at war with Communist Cambodia; by 1978 it was at war with China. But any doves who believed that the Communists of Southeast Asia were agrarian reformers who only wanted to redistribute the land were in for a great shock, as the Khmer Rouge instituted in Cambodia one of the most repressive regimes in the world’s history; it was so bad, in fact, that Senator McGovern—one of the original doves—advocated military action by the United Nations in order to do something about what was going on in Cambodia. In Vietnam, meanwhile, tens of thousands tried desperately to get out, by any means possible. For all the faults of the Diem/Ky/Thieu regimes in Saigon, the city was a veritable paradise of free speech and assembly while they were in charge, as compared with what was happening under the Communists. As Nixon noted with some satisfaction in 1978, no one was trying to break into Communist Vietnam.

The Americans were finally out of Indochina. Except in Hong Kong and South Korea, in fact, the white troops were now out of mainland Asia, the Americans being the last to leave. The process begun by the Japanese one generation earlier, when they had proclaimed that Asia should be run by Asians, was nearly complete. America’s long relationship with Asia, begun with the acquisition of the Philippines three quarters of a century earlier, had reached a divide. America had been involved in war in Asia for twenty-two of the thirty-four years between 1941 and 1975. Over 120,000 American boys had died in combat there (41,000 in World War II, 33,000 in Korea, 46,000 in Vietnam), and 530,000 were wounded (130,000 in World War II, 100,000 in Korea, 300,000 in Vietnam).22

And what did America have to show for all the treasure spent, all the lives lost, all the bodies crippled for life? Democracy in the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, but Communism in China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. And for the immediate future, Americans did not want to hear about Vietnam. President Ford set the tone when he called for amnesia, not analysis. “The lessons of the past in Vietnam,” Ford declared in 1975, “have already been learned—learned by Presidents, learned by Congress, learned by the American people—and we should have our focus on the future.” He never said what the lessons were, but the American people responded gratefully to his invitation to forget the whole nightmare. Later, Vietnam came under intense scrutiny as a new generation of college students tried to understand how tiny, backward North Vietnam had defeated the mighty United States.

It seemed that one likely legacy was an increased congressional role in the making of foreign policy. One of the major themes in the American rise to globalism after 1938 had been the immense growth in the power of the presidency, especially in foreign affairs. To get the country out of Vietnam, Congress had been forced to assert itself. How long it would continue to do so remained to be seen; in the nature of the American political system, Congressmen are much more concerned with domestic than with foreign affairs, unless the United States is at war.

Another Vietnam legacy was the 1973 War Powers Act, which required the President to give an accounting of his actions within thirty days of committing troops to a foreign war. After that time, Congress had to approve the presidential action.

It was an awkward way for Congress to assert its constitutional right and duty to declare war. The last time the President consulted Congress over war powers was in 1964, when Johnson sent the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through the legislature virtually without opposition. Congress had played absolutely no role in the major decisions of the Nixon White House: Vietnamization, the air and later the ground offensives against Cambodia and Laos, the China trip, détente, linkage, the mining of Haiphong harbor, the Christmas bombing, or the cease-fire agreement. The War Powers Act, by starting with the assumption that the President had to be free to move quickly in a crisis, gave the game away. Once the President, acting in strict accord with the law, had troops committed, could anyone believe that Congress would force him to pull out?

By wrapping himself in the flag and appealing to the patriotism—and the jingoism—of the public, the President could keep his war going. That the public still yearned, even after Nixon, for strong leadership, that it would still respond enthusiastically to American saber rattling, became clear in May 1975, when President Ford sent the Marines into Cambodia to rescue a captured merchant vessel. The affair revealed that the quickest path to popularity for a President remained a successful military adventure. In such situations, hopes for a less active, more cautious and realistic, less expansive foreign policy were slim.

The agony of Vietnam has had innumerable repercussions. The Vietnam syndrome has caused Presidents, the Joint Chiefs, the Congress, and the people to be far more cautious about undertaking foreign adventures that involve a military commitment. There is a continuing debate over the wisdom and justice of the cause for which 50,000 American boys died (President Ronald Reagan proclaimed it a “noble cause”), and an even more intense debate over the way the war was fought. “What if” questions abound. Hawks argue that the war could have been won if Johnson had escalated sooner and more decisively and had expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia. Doves argue that such policies would not have worked and might have started World War III. Nixon supporters assert that had Congress not hamstrung the Commander in Chief, the United States would have used its Air Force to stop the 1975 North Vietnamese offensive and South Vietnam would still be free today. Since no one can know, the debate will go on. It should because it involves fundamental questions about the role of the United States and its military forces in the world.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!