The Vietnam War 1968-75

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In November 1967 General Westmoreland returned from Vietnam to reassure the American public, in the run up to the Presidential election the following year that the war in Vietnam was being won and was worth continuing. He outlined ‘indicators’ of progress and stated that a limited withdrawal of combat forces might be undertaken at the beginning of 1968. To further emphasise the necessity of the US commitment to South Vietnam, President Johnson, in his State of the Union address, indicated that the ‘Pacification’ programme was also progressing well and that 67% of the population of the South now lived in relatively secure areas, a figure that he expected to rise. However a week later the Tet offensive took place in South Vietnam, which succeeded in completely undermining this contrived structure of official optimism.

Despite public perception militarily the Tet offensive was a victory for the Americans; but in guerrilla warfare psychological and political factors are equally significant in determining victory. In this respect, Tet was a failure for President Johnson, as the media and his political opponents manipulated the situation to show the substantial financial and human resources required for the war effort could not be justified. The current unsuccessful strategy of attrition was therefore seen as unacceptable by the American public.  In this atmosphere of domestic political division and pessimism President Johnson rejected General Westmoreland’s call for victory through an expanded war effort, and instead felt that commitment to a political solution was required.In an address on 31st March 1968, President Johnson stated that the US was ready to discuss peace with the North Vietnamese, thus marking an inglorious end to a policy of gradual escalation and a watershed for America’s effort in Vietnam.  Those seeking peace saw this as signalling the beginning of the end of the war. However Johnson was in reality forced to make this decision due to the collapse of support on the home front and he knew this was exactly what the communists had been hoping for.

Johnson chose not to seek re-election in 1968, and his deputy Humphery became the Democrat’s Presidential candidate. Humphery was hampered by his direct connection to the war and faced tough competition from Republican Richard Nixon and the Peace candidate Bobby Kennedy. In the autumn of 1968 Richard Nixon became the President of the United States; one of his first tasks would be to deal with the Vietnam crisis. The steps Nixon took to resolve the Vietnam crisis can be seen in three distinct phases; the first sought peace through negotiation or Vietnamisation and also saw incursions into Cambodia. Secondly Nixon publicly pursued the policy of accelerated repatriation of American servicemen, while actually increasing military pressure on North Vietnam by other means. The third phase involved the effective combination of Superpower détente, renewed peace talks and the use of what has been called Nixon’s “Jugular diplomacy”.

Nixon’s initial objective on election in 1969 was to seek a negotiated peace without abandoning the US commitment to South Vietnam. However there was a strong consensus among those groups seeking peace, that Nixon should withdraw all American support immediately. Their rationale was that the US had exhausted its efforts in South Vietnam to the extent that the war was no longer in their interest.  Only the Vietnamese themselves could now resolve the tangled political problems of their country, as these had grown out of long colonial repression and the consequent struggle to define a national identity. They further felt that since Vietnam was of no actual strategic importance for the US and since the North Vietnamese and VC were in retreat after the Tet offensive that Nixon had nothing to lose by continuing the negotiations that President Johnson had already started.  It is certainly true that Nixon would incur no political risk to do so, indeed there would have been political benefits in crating national unity and support for the Republican party, however Nixon failed to seize what many saw as a golden opportunity to create a lasting peace.

Although Nixon agreed that the US had to remove itself from Vietnam but he was not about to withdraw simply because a way out seemed possible, as he was not prepared to refute the principle on which American involvement had begun, namely that the South Vietnamese government’s independence should be preserved, and not absorbed by Communism. Nixon was aiming for an “honourable settlement” to ensure South Vietnam’s independence and also continued global stability. Furthermore he reasoned that ARVN, crippled by losses in the Tet offensive, was not capable of protecting South Vietnam without American help.  In order to avoid the international political embarrassment of a withdrawal, Nixon was able to use public support for negotiations to justify his personal decisions. He was determined to resort to measures that would compel Hanoi to accept conditions they had previously rejected.

Nixon reassured by his misplaced confidence in the strength of  his bargaining position proposed in a speech on 3rd November 1969 to seek “a peace settlement through negotiations or, if that fails, ending the war through Vietnamisation” This then was the first phase of Nixon’s strategy to disentangle the US from the Vietnam conflict. At this stage Nixon took personal control of American foreign policy, using but never relying on the rest of the government. The negotiations held in Paris from 1969 were intermittent and consisted of formal and secret discussions. However the US principle demand, for the mutual withdrawal from South Vietnam of their own forces and those of North Vietnam, was rejected as Hanoi denied having any troops in the South and therefore could not withdraw forces they said weren’t there. In May 1969 Nixon courted public approval by issuing a comprehensive peace plan outlining a phased withdrawal of American troops, including an immediate repatriation of 25,000 soldiers.
    While the US government had to continually court public approval the North Vietnamese had no such consideration. They were in fact in a stronger moral position than the US, as by this stage world opinion was largely sympathetic as a result of perceived American interference and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre that had been catalogued by the world’s media. Furthermore the North Vietnamese were wary of negotiating with the US, since they had been left with an unfavourable settlement in the Geneva accords of 1954. They also had a tremendous psychological advantage of continuing what was already a 25 year old struggle, on their own territory, with (and for ) their own people, and with the practical advantage of a greater capacity for efficient reinforcement despite US air operations. With these factors in their favour, the North Vietnamese were intransigent in their calls for the US to withdraw unconditionally, and to abandon their commitment to Thieu and establish a coalition government without him.

Given Hanoi’s determinations and the fact the US’s political aims outweighed their bargaining power; it is hardly surprising that the talks ended without an agreement. When a further round of secret talks in Paris failed, Nixon’s reaction was to embark on a “go for broke” strategy in an all out attempt to win the war militarily. He was dissuaded by Kissinger, Laird and Roberts, who again feared an upsurge in public opposition. Nixon then had no choice but to continue in his stated aim of Vietnamisation.

Although in many ways this policy had been inherited from Johnson it suited Nixon’s 1969 ‘Guam’ doctrine which stated that the US would not fight other nations wars and would only provide a back up force in case of conflict. Consequently, Nixon intended to bring about the Vietnamisation of the war and gradually de-Americanise it. Nixon tried to follow the British lessons from Malaya and the work of Sir Robert Thompson to some extent and decided that South Vietnam would be given financial and technical assistance to build up its armed forces to such a level that they would be capable of countering the communist threat without external military help within two years. This policy seemed to satisfy both sectors of public opinion as the US would be gradually withdrawing its combat units and thereby reducing direct involvement and casualties, without entirely abandoning South Vietnam. Nixon’s reasoning was that the threat of a fortified South Vietnam would be enough to force the North Vietnamese into making concessions. This was to prove a dangerously naive analysis.

By early 1970 the strategy of reform and modernisation was well under way; the South Vietnamese Army was strengthened by a 20% increase in troops and updated training and weaponry. The Pacification programme was expanded and many old development projects were rejuvenated, land reform was carried out and elections were held which largely restored the pre Diem era autonomy of villages. While the military was modernised it was hoped that the reforms would bring about social and economic stability. What the real progress of Vietnamisation was is difficult to judge as many of the gains were superficial. Thieu did not command popular support and the American troops were withdrawing which prevented any sustained development and stability in South Vietnam. Although similar to the post World War 2 Marshal plan in Europe as a strategy of economic aid to strengthen the capitalist sphere of influence against the encroachment of communism, Vietnamisation was a misguide policy, as it failed to address the essential problem, which was Thieu’s regime itself. The South Vietnam leader did not increase his support through Vietnamisation, but the strengthening of the military and socio-economic improvements as with many South Vietnamese leaders just increased his resistance to compromise.

By spring of 1970 this fundamental error was evident even in the US and also it was now clear that the US was in a weakened position militarily. So although Vietnamisation had improved the ARVN’s capability and gained American public approval, the policy had failed in its aim of creating a united, motivated, popular front in South Vietnam capable of countering the communist threat.

American misconception was again evident in Cambodia when after the sympathetic Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk’s pro-china regime, the Americans felt it safe to attack the North Vietnamese sanctuaries over the border and also saw this as another opportunity to win support on the home front, claiming to be safe guarding a friendly power. Secondary and less publicised, reasons were that the shift in military action into Cambodia should have bought time for Vietnamisation. What ever the reasons for support, Lon Nol’s government was preferable to a pro-Chinese or Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia. The US intervention in Cambodia is an example of Nixon’s “Big Play” philosophy that is his willingness to run risks for uncertain gain.

Nixon’s aim was by directly reducing North Vietnams military strength, to sap their political will and determination in negotiations. The reality however was far from this, the US effectively extended the scope of the battlefield at a time when the US military capacity was being reduced, weakening their own position ; the North Vietnamese retaliated by supporting the Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol, who in turn became another fragile government in the region that the US was obliged to underpin. Also Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia led to criticism at home and questioning of his commitment to the stated aim of scaling down the war.

Frustrated by the setbacks of his initial strategy and hampered by public disapproval Nixon unveiled a ‘major new policy statement’ in October 1970, which constituted the second phase of his efforts to extricate the US from the Vietnam conflict. However this was less of a definite long term strategy than an ambiguous short term reaction to events in the war, as he proposed the apparent paradox of accelerating the withdrawal of American troops, while increasing military pressure on the North Vietnamese.  The gap left by departing American soldiers was filled by ARVN troops on ground offensives, such as the major operation into Laos in February 1971, which was justified as ‘protective action’ . Having seemingly mollified American public opinion with this new policy, Nixon continued to deceive both the senate and the electorate with clandestine bombings of supply lines and staging areas in Laos and Cambodia. In these underhand tactics, Nixon counted on the professionalism of the USAF personnel to keep their silence.  By now, disillusionment amongst the American public was at its highest level yet (71% according to some polls), as the reasons for involvement seemed increasingly irrelevant. Congress was also poised ready to take decisive action in lieu of the President, when the time arrived. Face with this situation Nixon knew he must break the Paris stalemate, especially if he was to improve his chances in the forthcoming Presidential election.

Therefore in a move not wholly consistent with this new policy, Kissinger took the most comprehensive peace offer yet to the North Vietnamese. In effect this was the concession of implicitly abandoning the principle of mutuality from the US’s demands, and accepting that there were no North Vietnamese troops in the South. Although this was virtually a breach of Nixon’s “honourable settlement” stance, and was caused, as with Johnson in 1968, by the collapse of the home front. This played into the hands of the communists; the intensive peace discussion which ensued failed to reach a solution. The sticking points were the other demands; The US refused to relinquish support for Thieu, and the North Vietnamese refused to release American prisoners of war on Nixon’s terms, since they rightly considered this to be one of their strongest bargaining counters. In spite of this failure, Kissinger admitted he was impressed by Le Duc Tho’s “serious and conciliatory demeanour” and that he could sense the shape of a deal.

Possibly encouraged by this report of North Vietnam’s attitude, but more likely because overall his Vietnamisation policy was failing, Nixon decided, in the run up to the Presidential election in 1972, to concentrate on his promise of a “generation of peace” by aiming to achieve a dramatic improvement of relations with the Soviet Union and China. His reasons were twofold; primarily to gain electoral support for his foreign policies, but also to leave the communist Hanoi regime isolated from its two principle sponsors.

This period of Superpower relations was Nixon’s wider-reaching third phase towards the resolution of the US situation in Vietnam. This strategy was furthered when North Vietnam under took as massive invasion of the south. US response was rapid and vigorous, with B-52 bombing strikes on Hanoi, and the mining of Haiphong harbour. This retaliation lent substance to Kissinger’s ultimatum in his meeting with the Soviet premier Brezhnev during which Nixon made it clear that the US held the Soviet Union entirely responsible for the invasion, the US realisation and any deterioration in US-soviet relations. Similar pressure was exerted on China in a 1971 summit, who were also unwilling to let Vietnam jeopardise their improving relations with the US.  This latest “Big Play” of Nixon’s , playing the communist powers mutual distrust and their need to maintain favourable economic links with the US,  in order to force them to reduce their support for North Vietnam paid off. Both the Soviet Union and China put pressure on the Hanoi government to reach a settlement with the US. This new period of Superpower co-operation may have helped towards peace but more obviously, it was soon to be a major factor in President Nixon’s re-election while enabling him to intensify military action without the previous fear of direct Chinese or Soviet intervention.

Military action was stepped up by a furious bombing campaign in the summer of 1972 (the Linebacker Raids), this was Nixon’s way of reiterating to Hanoi his commitment to war and to Thieu’s government. By autumn that year both sides were totally frustrated and ready to go back to diplomacy. For Nixon this frustration arose from the fear that his election campaign and “generation of peace” would be harmed, and from the realisation that the economic cost of the war could not be sustained indefinitely. The North Vietnamese were suffering from prolonged bombing and the fact that playing Russia and China off against each other for support was starting to have diminishing returns. However the major reason for their desire to renew talks was the expectation that they could command more favourable terms from Nixon before the election, as it was increasingly evident that he would be returned to office with a huge majority and would therefore have the justification for a strengthened legal mandate for his foreign policy. Both sides were now consciously looking for peace, but still unwilling to sacrifice their long term goals and so the progress was very slow.

Kissinger and Le Duc Tho reached agreement on all the main points on 11th October 1972, after both sides made concessions. The US took the major step away from absolute commitment to Thieu, and indicated they were willing to support a tripartite electoral committee made up of the Saigon government, the Peoples Revolutionary Government (PRG) and neutral parties such as the Buddhists; this committee would be responsible for a political settlement after the case fire. For their part the North Vietnamese dropped their insistence on the removal of Thieu. It was mutually agree that within 60 days of the case-fire American troops would leave and all prisoners of war would be exchanged. After the failures of the previous small steps taken by Nixon this agreement seemed a great leap towards resolving the conflict.

Unfortunately the negotiators had assumed that Theiu would willingly accept the deal and had underestimated Nixon’s support for him. Thieu confident of his support and strengthened by the policy of Vietnamisation now demanded that the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) become a boundary between the North and the South. For his own ends Thieu attempted to block the treaty and continue the war, which he succeeded in doing in the short term. Nixon by now certain of a popular mandate was content to wait until his position was actually strengthened. By December 1972 the US felt that North Vietnam had goaded them beyond endurance and patience. In spite of sending Thieu $1 billion worth of military hardware the US now put pressure on him to accept the peace offer, making it clear that otherwise the US would make peace without him. This threat was balanced by the promise of help against any further North Vietnamese hostility.

The US then embarked on the most intensive bombing campaign of the war, the ‘Christmas bombing” partly to assure Thieu of their support but also to show him that the North Vietnamese could be devastated beyond the capability of any immediate aggression, it was also to some extent a manifestation of four years of pent up anger and to force further compromise from the North Vietnamese. Over 36,000 tons of bombs were dropped provoking world wide outrage and unrestrained condemnation from the Russians and Chinese. The Paris peace talks resumed on 8th January 1973 and a peace settlement was finally concluded. Changes to the October accord were largely cosmetic but allowed both sides to claim that they had been the overall winner.

The agreement only barely met Nixon’s terms for  “peace with honour” as although it allowed for the withdrawal of US troops , it only created  a decent interval for the eventual resolution of South Vietnam’s political future, both gained at an enormous economic and human cost. In reality the countries political future was hardly resolved and the tripartite committee was so vague to be unworkable. In February 1973 all parties finally signed and America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Congress immediately began disengaging the US but Nixon promised Thieu that they would respond in force if the settlement was violated, but following the Watergate scandal Nixon was hardly in a position to keep this promise.

In early 1973 Thieu’s government suddenly started to look fragile, the economy plunged into recession as the US left and old problems surfaced together with a war weariness and corruption.  By the end of 1974 the North Vietnamese realised they could now start their campaign to unit their country. An initial plan were for the dry season in 1976 but due to the unpredictable response of the Americans the plans were improvised as each new step was determined by how well the previous one went. In January 1975 this softly softly approach got under way in the Central Highlands. A provincial capital fell with ease and no retaliation was forth coming, so the campaign progressed taking other towns such as Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot by March 1975.  ARVN troops more concerned about safe guarding their families put up little fight, while in Saigon the leadership couldn’t decide on an overall strategy, mean while Hanoi made more and more progress. On 19th March Quang Tri fell to the communists and quickly afterwards Hue and Danang. The ARVN was now retreating faster than the communists could advance.  After a short pause to prevent over extending themselves the communists finally attacked Cochin China and Saigon, this opened with the bloody battle of Xuan Loc but once this fell on 21st April, Saigon was doomed. Thieu resigned and fled to Taiwan and by 30th April 1975 it was all over, Saigon had fallen and Ho Chi Minh’s dream of a united Vietnam had at last been achieved. The war had proved a costly quagmire for the US and a wound politically and economically that it would take decades for US foreign policy to recover from.
Lost Crusade: America's Secret Cambodian Mercenaries, Peter Scott. This gripping book written by a US military advisor looks at the later stages of the Vietnam war from the view point of those working with the Cambodia soldiers fighting the communists. Written by someone who was actually there this is well worth a read for those interested in that aspect of the war cover cover cover
Viet-Nam Peace Negotiations, The: Saigon's Side of the Story, Nguyen, Phu Duc. An insight into the torturous Paris Peace talks written by a leading Vietnamese diplomat. A useful balance for the serious student. cover cover cover
How to cite this article:Dugdale-Pointon, T (30 November 2007), The Vietnam War 1968-75 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_vietnam_1968_1975.html

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