When Richard Nixon was elected as President of the United States in November 1968, Lyndon Johnson’s administration had started talks with representatives of the Communist government of North Vietnam six months before, but when they attempted to get the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to join the discussions, the talks broke down. The Tét offensive, carried out by the Communists in the spring of 1968, was a military failure, but a psychological success, especially in the United States; where opposition to the was was growing, particularly after the TV networks were covering the war on newscasts beamed into American households around dinner time each day. President Johnson was also a causality of the Tét offensive, when he announced at the end of March he would not seek re-election.
The leading Republican candidate Richard Nixon had a long political career on the national scene: he represented the 12th California district in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1947-1950; he also served California in the U. S. Senate before he was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President from 1953-1961. Nixon ran unsuccessfully for president in 1960 and 1964 against Kennedy and Johnson, before being elected president in 1968, defeating Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace.
When Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, the peace talks had broken down in Paris and half a million American troops were in country. Communists were active again in South Vietnam after a lull and the new president was anxious to prove to them the United States was under new management. In advance of his first National Security Council meeting, President Nixon received a memo from his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, laying out “three options….: A. Escalation, B. Current Military Posture, C. Substantial Reduction in U.S. Presence with RVNAF [South Vietnam Armed Forces] Assuming Increased Responsibility'”. (Kissinger to Nixon, 1/26/1969, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970 Document 8) While Nixon and his administration, primarily Kissinger, were determining their long range strategy for ending the war and reducing American boots on the grounds, the protests against the war were becoming more numerous and violent. Young men of draft age were tearing up their draft cards as well, fleeing across the border to Canada; students on university campuses were holding striking and sit-ins, especially with regard to institutions of higher learning holding government research contracts.
While demonstrations were continuing outside the White House and across the nation, inside the West Wing Nixon and Kissinger concentrated on foreign policy which not only dealt with the war in Vietnam, but improving relations with the Soviet Union and China; and settling down the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. When Nixon took office, the Soviet Union had control of Eastern Europe and had walled off the Russian section of Berlin. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only six years in the past when Nixon was elected.
During President Nixon’s first term his administration took two paths to settle the situation in Vietnam. First was the military, which involved a resumption of the bombing in the North, while expanding it to Cambodia and Laos and targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and, at the same time, cutting back the number of American troops in country, by turning the majority of the fighting over to the South Vietnamese: the Vietnamization of the war. By the end of 1970 American troop strength was just over a quarter of million, down from 540,000 at the of 1968.
The anit-war demonstrations mentioned above increased when the news of the massacre in My Lai broke in 1969, and again when it was announced the United States was expanding its bombing into Laos and Cambodia and American troops were crossing the border into both those nations. The deadliest of those protests took place May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, where National Guardsmen responded to the demonstrators by firing into the crowd, killing four. The following weekend a large protest was held in Washington, D.C.; a circle of buses guarded the White House from the demonstrators. This led Nixon to create a secret domestic group to spy on protestors, one of the things he was accused of during the Watergate Hearings.
At the same time Nixon and Kissinger explored the diplomatic route to peace. In February 1970, Henry Kissinger begins secret talks with Le Duc Tho, while at the same time American and RVN forces are attacking Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. The next year Nixon and Kissinger broadened their Asian policy as Kissinger went to China to meet the Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai, in preparation for the president’s trip in 1972. After visiting China in February, Nixon traveled to Moscow for a summit with Brezhnev in May. Before taking the latter trip the president announced the mining of Hanoi harbor and the intensification of bombing in North Vietnam.
As the war in Vietnam continued, American forces in country declined, and Kissinger and Nixon tried to get the talks with the North Vietnamese to bear some fruit, Daniel Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers. The classified documents harkened back to the Kennedy and Johnson administration’s adventures in Vietnam and Nixon’s cronies sent ‘plumbers’ into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in the Watergate building to see what dirt they could find on the man they considered a traitor. The burglars, for that’s what they were, got caught and eventually were traced back to the Oval Office.
While the Watergate scandal was developing, Kissinger was continuing to negotiate with the North Vietnamese and American troops were coming home to not always cordial welcomes. In January 1973 the talks between the United States and North Vietnam began to bear fruit. The one problem was the government of South Vietnam would not participate. Finally, Kissinger recommended to President Nixon that the United States go it alone and make a bi-lateral agreement with the Communists and get American POWs released. (Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War, p. 419) The treaty was signed on January 27, 1973. But that was not the last chapter.
Approximately eighteen months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, Richard Milhous Nixon resigned the office of President of the United States of America. Gerald Ford , who succeeded him, faced a Congress not willing to give enough money to South Vietnam to keep the Communists, both north and south, at bay. Finally, in the spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the south. By the end of April, it was clear that the 6000 Americans left there would have to be evacuated. And they were, from the roof of the American embassy by helicopter on April 29. (Ibid 549-50)
For further reading:
Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, 1975. 2 volumes
James C. Bradford, Editor, Atlas of American Military History, 2003.
Dallek, Robert. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, 2007.
Robert J. Hanyok, Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, 2002.
George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 1979.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: a History, 1983.
Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy, 1994, pp.643-702.
Kissinger, Henry. Ending the Vietnam War. 2003.
Langguth, A. J., Our Vietnam: the War 1954-1975, 2000.
Richard Nixon. RN, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, 1978
Note: In addition to the books listed above and in the other episodes in this series, I ‘ve used documents available on the internet: Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) (https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments); President’s Daily Briefs (https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/presidents-daily-brief); American Presidency Project (APP) (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/index.php)