March, 1973: U.S. Withdrawal from Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Throughout the history of the United States, only the Civil War aroused as many conflicting emotions among citizens, officials, and soldiers as did the Vietnam War. Debate in the United States began in the early 1960’s over what means should be used to protect the Republic of South Vietnam. Division spread with time to questions of ends: What sort of peace was being sought in Asia? Were the Viet Cong really worse than the South Vietnamese government? Could the United States achieve an honorable withdrawal? The war posed such dilemmas that the government was soon caught up in a charade of truth, obscuring issues and purposes even further.

Throughout the history of the United States, only the Civil War aroused as many conflicting emotions among citizens, officials, and soldiers as did the Vietnam War. Debate in the United States began in the early 1960’s over what means should be used to protect the Republic of South Vietnam. Division spread with time to questions of ends: What sort of peace was being sought in Asia? Were the Viet Cong really worse than the South Vietnamese government? Could the United States achieve an honorable withdrawal? The war posed such dilemmas that the government was soon caught up in a charade of truth, obscuring issues and purposes even further.

Nixon’s Peace Plan

From the time Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, he was chiefly dependent upon the negotiating table for bringing the peace he had promised. His bargaining position was weak. With half a million U.S. troops in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces could not win a direct offensive, but their guerrilla techniques ensured that they could not lose, either. The war was essentially a waiting game, and the stakes were so much higher for the communists that they could afford to wait longer. Nor did the communists need a negotiated peace as much as Nixon did. The massive opposition at home to continued war required Nixon to deescalate, but strong popular support of U.S. intervention made total withdrawal an equally unacceptable policy.

Nevertheless, communist initiatives brought the first real breakthroughs in discussions over peace. From May, 1968, formal negotiations had been carried on in Paris, but these talks produced little more than rhetoric and repeatedly broke down in frustration. In June, 1971, Hanoi backed away from two earlier demands and agreed to discuss an in-place ceasefire and the conduct of internationally supervised elections without prior abolition of the Saigon government. Shortly afterward, the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese communists) made similar concessions, showing a conciliatory attitude toward the West. With these concessions, a second round of negotiations began, held between Le Duc Tho, a prominent North Vietnamese official, and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser.

Although a subordinate of Nixon, Kissinger viewed his role in a different light. For Kissinger, the peace settlement would have to reflect the actual power situation, in which the North remained strong, the United States was to leave, and the government of the South lacked popular support and would probably collapse. Domestic political considerations did not matter to him. Nixon, on the other hand, wanted to end the war without alienating his domestic political support and by reassuring allies that the United States would come to their aid if needed in the future.

The United States made several minor concessions in the ensuing discussions, but little real progress was made. President Nixon was feeling the pressure of an election year, and U.S. troop levels in Vietnam dropped rapidly, weakening his leverage at the talks. Although U.S. forces numbered ninety-five thousand, only six thousand were combat-ready. Despite the historic détentes Nixon achieved with China and the Soviet Union during 1972, neither of these two allies of North Vietnam pressured Hanoi to accept a compromise with the United States. Instead, the North launched a major offensive in the spring, overrunning Quang Tri province.

In May, 1972, Nixon retaliated by ordering the bombing of North Vietnam to be stepped up, and the ports of the country mined and blockaded (bringing economic crisis to the communists); but at the same time, Kissinger offered major modifications of the United States bargaining position. For the first time, the United States was willing to permit North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam after a cease-fire, and to modify the Saigon government before elections. Intensive talks between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho resumed, with special incentives for both sides. The Nixon administration had to prove that its gamble in escalating the war was effective, and the North Vietnamese, watching the increasing likelihood of Nixon’s reelection, wanted to reach an agreement before a safer Nixon became tougher.

Negotiated Settlement

In early October, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho agreed to a peace settlement along the lines of a proposal made by Hanoi in 1969, except that the confident North would allow the precarious government in the South to remain in place. The first step in the settlement was a cease-fire that would go into effect on October 24, 1972. When the text was revealed to Nixon, who was confident of reelection, the president insisted that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu must also support the peace. Kissinger went to Saigon but was unable to apply pressure on Thieu, who was intransigent. The North expressed its anger by releasing the text of the draft agreement and the history of the hitherto secret negotiations. Kissinger then flew back to Washington, D.C. Hoping to apply pressure on Saigon, he informed the U.S. press upon his arrival that “Peace is at hand,” although not “in hand,” but South Vietnam soon announced sixty-nine objections to the proposed text of the peace agreement.

In early November, Nixon won reelection in a landslide. In Paris, the North, believing that it had been duped by Kissinger, refused to make any concessions to the South. The talks became bitter and broke down in mid-December. When the talks collapsed, Nixon tried one more bold stroke and ordered the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam. Dozens of B-52 bombers were set upon the largest cities of the country, widely destroying industry. The communist antiaircraft defense was so vigorous, and U.S. anger at the attack so powerful, as to make the success of the bombing questionable. It was stopped in less than two weeks, and war-weary negotiators returned to Paris.

The Peace Accords

On January 31, 1973, peace accords were signed by North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, the United States, and a reluctant South Vietnam. The provisions of the treaty were substantially the same as those of the October agreement. By March 27, the United States was to withdraw its troops from Vietnam; exchanges of prisoners would go on during those two months. All Vietnamese forces would remain in place, and a cease-fire would be supervised by an International Commission of Control and Supervision, comprising representatives from Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland. All parties concurred on Vietnam’s sovereignty and right of self-determination, and a council was established with responsibility for developing and executing plans for an open election. In 1973, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

There is room for doubt concerning how seriously the treaty was taken by any of the concerned nations. Cease-fire lines never were clearly established, many of the provisions were vague and invited violation, and both sides broke the treaty almost as soon as it was signed. Kissinger’s creative ambiguity in the wording of the peace treaty meant that all sides could interpret the text the way they wished, without being aware of alternative interpretations by others. The United States quickly withdrew, regained its captured prisoners, and could claim “peace with honor.” Both President Thieu of South Vietnam and the scattered communist forces seemed to believe that their best prospects lay in renewed fighting. Congress had no intention of providing humanitarian aid to the North, as provided in the treaty, and Hanoi ignored the pledge to stop sending supplies to the Viet Cong. After U.S. troops withdrew on March 29, 1973, the United States sent the South some $2.6 billion in aid, resumed reconnaissance flights over Vietnam, and continued to bomb Cambodia. Upon learning that Kissinger had given secret assurances to Thieu to reenter the war if the South faltered, Congress required all military operations in and over Indochina to cease by August 15, 1973.

By the end of 1973, open war had returned to the nation. U.S. aid continued to flow to South Vietnam, and Thieu controlled a well-trained army of one million men. However, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese seemed to have gained some critical psychological edge on their enemy, and their successes were self-reinforcing. During 1974, with Nixon distracted by investigations of his effort to cover up the burglary of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate apartments, Congress reduced military aid to the South to $907 million and then to $700 million in 1975. Accordingly, the communist positions were generally strengthened, and at the outset of 1975 they launched a last major offensive. After a major direct victory at Hue, communist forces drove rapidly over South Vietnam, pursuing an utterly demoralized army. By the end of April, Saigon was captured; the last U.S. advisers abandoned the country; and the Vietnam era of U.S. history was truly at an end.

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