Nixon’s War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the time Richard Nixon came to office in January 1969, peace talks between North and South Vietnam (and the United States) had already opened in Paris. Both sides were weary after the battles of Tet—and at home, in the case of the US government—and North Vietnam was seeking relief from the bombing. Nixon had campaigned on the rhetoric of ending the war in an honorable way, and when the peace talks failed to advance he took the first step in that direction: a plan for phased withdrawals of US forces under a policy of “Vietnamization” of the war. At the same time, Nixon increased assistance to the government of Nguyen Van Thiêu and expanded military training programs in South Vietnam.

By the time Richard Nixon came to office in January 1969, peace talks between North and South Vietnam (and the United States) had already opened in Paris. Both sides were weary after the battles of Tet—and at home, in the case of the US government—and North Vietnam was seeking relief from the bombing. Nixon had campaigned on the rhetoric of ending the war in an honorable way, and when the peace talks failed to advance he took the first step in that direction: a plan for phased withdrawals of US forces under a policy of “Vietnamization” of the war. At the same time, Nixon increased assistance to the government of Nguyen Van Thiêu and expanded military training programs in South Vietnam.

All of this may or may not have proved fruitful on its own, but to hedge his bets Nixon also undertook an expansion of the war into Cambodia, where North Vietnamese supply lines fed opposition forces in the south. Worse, he hid this fact from the public—and even sections of his own administration—until the spring of 1970, when he announced that the Cambodia operation would be expanded further still. This news unleashed a storm of protest in the United States and led to violent confrontations on some college campuses, including Kent State and Jackson State universities, where National Guard and police units killed and injured a number of students. Congress reacted by pushing for a timetable for ending military operations in Cambodia and Vietnam and by repealing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which had authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to defend US interests in the region. Additional blows to the Pentagon and the administration came when news broke, in late 1969, about the 1968 killing of civilians by a US Army platoon operating in My Lai; and when The New York Times began publishing, in the summer of 1971, a secret government report on military matters in Southeast Asia that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. With these disclosures, the public began to lose any lingering conviction that precious American values were at stake in the war and started to believe instead that the United States had made a mistake in getting involved in Vietnam in the first place.

Capitalizing on the weak support for the war in the United States, in the spring of 1972 North Vietnam launched a massive attack on the South. Nixon, refusing to back down, reacted by returning to bombing campaigns in the North, mining a northern harbor (where Russian supplies arrived), and expanding air operations in the South. After several more months of war, peace negotiations were resumed in October 1972. Much diplomatic back and forth, including many close calls, ensued. Indeed, as late as December 1972 Nixon was re-launching bomb attacks on the North—only one month before a somewhat unconvincing peace settlement was finally reached in Paris.

Categories: History Content