the controversial end of the vietnam war -- 9/10/18

Today's selection -- from The Presidency of Richard Nixon by Melvin Small. The controversial ending of the Vietnam War:

"Nixon entitled one chapter in his No More Vietnams 'How We Won the War.' Throughout all his writings and discussions of the way the war ended, Nixon insisted that the 27 January [1973] agreement was a solid peace that could have preserved an independent South Vietnam indefinitely. When the North Vietnamese violated the agreement, he would have retaliated against them. But his presidency soon became enmeshed in the Watergate scandal, and as a result, it was impossible for him to exercise his authority as commander in chief. He claimed that he was prepared to renew bomb­ing of North Vietnam just when White House counsel John Dean began talking to prosecutors about Watergate in the spring of 1973. Further, be­cause of Watergate, he and his successor were not able to deliver adequate supplies and economic aid to South Vietnam in 1974 and 1975. In the chap­ter of No More Vietnams titled 'How We Lost the Peace,' Nixon complained that 'Congress proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.'

"Nixon's defense of his peace agreement overlooks the likelihood that by 1973, even a strong president would not have been able to convince a Democratic Congress and the public to accept a reescalation in Southeast Asia. Moreover, when Nixon agreed [to] the [crucial term that] 140,000 North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam did not have to withdraw after the war ended, he effectively sealed the fate of the Saigon regime. And, of course, Vietnami­zation was never a complete success; [South Vietnam president Nguyen Van] Thieu's regime, though backed by a massive, well-armed military, had not developed the mature political and economic infrastructure needed to withstand the internal and external pressures it soon confronted.

"Could the peace Nixon achieved in 1973 have been obtained in 1969?

"During the four years that his administration prosecuted the war in Viet­nam, the United States lost over 18,000 troops, the South Vietnamese at least 107,000, and the communists perhaps as many as half a million. Had Nixon surrendered the principle of mutual withdrawal in 1969 instead of in 1972, the North Vietnamese might have compromised on political issues, and the war could have been brought to a much speedier end, with the con­comitant saving of hundreds of thousands of Asian and American lives.

"A final issue involves the POWs. The North Vietnamese returned 587 POWs to the United States in March 1973, but the families of POWs and MIAs and their millions of supporters suspected that many hundreds of others had been held back in North Vietnam, perhaps out of sheer cruelty, perhaps for use as bargaining chips later. In their haste to withdraw from the war, Kissinger and Nixon had not pushed the North Vietnamese ag­gressively for an accounting of MIAs. Although no convincing evidence has emerged that suggests that the North Vietnamese held back POWs, Kissinger did little to obtain perhaps as many as sixty prisoners held in Laos. Many of them had been involved in embarrassing activities in the covert war in that country. At the time, however, most Americans were happy when Nixon celebrated the bravery of the returned POWs at a White House gala on 24 May.

Recently released American POWs from North Vietnamese prison camps, 1973.

"The last legacy of this controversial war for Nixon revolved around the question of whether to pardon or grant amnesty to draft resisters at home and abroad. He wrote on a memo that outlined Truman's generous policy after World War II, 'Never.' In March 1973, Americans agreed with him by a three-to-one margin in their opposition to amnesty.

"During the first three weeks after the signing of the peace, observers recorded 3,000 truce violations committed by both sides. In the months that followed, South Vietnam went on the offensive, capturing more territory, while Thieu refused to take seriously the parts of the treaty dealing with new elections in the South. Most of the military glory belonged to Thieu in 1973, as a rebuilding North Vietnam had been forced on the defensive. The United States contributed to the violations by sending an additional $800 million in military aid and maintaining 8,000 'civilian' advisers in the South who were really military personnel.

"From March through May, the United States dropped 95,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, three times the amount in all of 1972, in an attempt to aid [Cambodian Prime Minister] Lon Nol in his civil war against the Khmer Rouge. Demonstrating its opposition to continuing military activities in Southeast Asia, Congress, over Nixon's veto, prohibited the bombing of Cambodia after 15 August 1973.

"The withdrawal of the United States from South Vietnam spelled eco­nomic disaster for the Thieu regime. An already difficult situation wors­ened when, as in most Third World countries, rapid oil price increases in the fall of 1973 rocked Saigon's shaky economy. By the end of 1973, unem­ployment reached 30 percent, and inflation was running at 65 percent. Congress continued to supply South Vietnam with economic aid, but never at the level Nixon called for. Compounding South Vietnam's problems, Thieu's 1973 offensive used up a good deal of weapons and ammunition that were not replaced in 1974 and 1975. During 1974 and the first five months of 1975, the South Vietnamese became increasingly weaker and the North Vietnamese increasingly stronger, until the latter launched a major offensive in the spring of 1975 that resulted in the fall of South Vietnam to North Vietnam and its NLF ally.

"Nixon took pride in obtaining the peace with honor he had promised Americans in 1969. But at what cost and with what ultimate outcome? Could he have achieved a comparable settlement in 1969, and if so, what would that settlement have meant for the thousands of Americans and millions of citizens of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos who died while he was slowly withdrawing from Southeast Asia? Nixon contended that an early U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam on unfavorable terms would have made it impossible for him to create the opening to China and achieve detente with the Soviet Union. An examination of his diplomacy with those two communist powers does not support that contention."



Melvin Small


The Presidency of Richard Nixon


University Press of Kansas


Copyright 1999 by the University Press of Kansas


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