The Paris Peace Accords Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The signing of the Paris Accords in 1973 marked the end of almost a century of foreign intervention in Vietnam, going back to the beginning of French colonialism in the 1880s. It also marked an end to more than twenty-five years of intermittent warfare, both civil/sectarian and international, which began with the French re-entry into Vietnam in 1946 after losing the region to the Japanese in World War II. The growing antiwar segment of the American population was pleased that America's longest war to date was finally ending, and President Richard Nixon believed he was fulfilling his promises of exiting Indochina, while maintaining US global credibility.

Summary Overview

The signing of the Paris Accords in 1973 marked the end of almost a century of foreign intervention in Vietnam, going back to the beginning of French colonialism in the 1880s. It also marked an end to more than twenty-five years of intermittent warfare, both civil/sectarian and international, which began with the French re-entry into Vietnam in 1946 after losing the region to the Japanese in World War II. The growing antiwar segment of the American population was pleased that America's longest war to date was finally ending, and President Richard Nixon believed he was fulfilling his promises of exiting Indochina, while maintaining US global credibility.

The agreement itself deals with many of the usual issues involving the cessation of conflict between two belligerents, such as the end to bombing and the promise not to reintroduce troops. However, certain aspects of the document are unique to the American conflict in Vietnam. The latter includes issues pertaining to the continued presence of US military advisors, which had helped lead the United States into the conflict in the first place, and the very contentious issue of soldiers who had been captured or were missing in action. The document also relates, more generally, to the period's political debates over and later academic reflections on whether or not South Vietnam could have survived for long after the US exit in early 1973.

Defining Moment

Most centrally, and an issue that is somewhat debated by historians, the Paris Accords of 1973 represented the failure of the United States to solve the main dilemma faced by American presidents across three decades, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Richard M. Nixon: how to create a viable, non-communist South Vietnam that could stand on its own. Technically, South Vietnam would survive for two more years, but the exit of the United States via the Paris Accords of 1973 signified the beginning of the end for a nation that had only officially existed for less than twenty years, since the Geneva Accords of 1954. For North Vietnam and communists in South Vietnam, the 1973 agreement was an enormous step toward final fulfillment of the 1954 Geneva Accords. The latter had provided for elections in 1956, but these never occurred because President Eisenhower and the South Vietnamese leader at that time, Ngo Dinh Diem, knew that the communists would triumph electorally and unite the country under a communist government. In fact, the first article of the Accords harkens back to the idea of a unified Vietnam as envisioned in the 1954 agreement.

For many in the United States, the final agreement to end American military involvement in Vietnam came as welcome news. The conflict was (and remains) one of the most contentious issues among Americans that occurred during the 1960s. It led to massive protests, especially during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; the 1969 antiwar demonstration in Washington, DC; and the protests in reaction to President Nixon's invasion of Cambodia in 1970, which led to the shootings of students at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi. As for President Nixon himself, he was finally delivering on promises to get the United States out of Vietnam, which he had made during the 1968 presidential campaign. Still, exiting the conflict took him four years to accomplish, in part because he wanted to achieve, as he put it, “peace with honor,” by which he generally meant preserving America's international credibility throughout the exit process by leaving in place what appeared to be a functioning South Vietnam. In reality, most observers, and most historians since, did not believe that South Vietnam would last long after American forces left.

Author Biography

The main American negotiator was Nixon's national security advisor Henry Kissinger, who would also be the US secretary of state starting later in 1973. Kissinger's diplomatic activities were wide-ranging, including “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East and in southern Africa during the early and mid-1970s. President Nixon often worked closely with Kissinger, even bypassing the State Department, to conduct American foreign policy. Kissinger would continue as secretary of state during the administration of President Gerald Ford.

Le Duc Tho was the primary negotiator on the Vietnamese side. He was a member of the highest ruling group in the communist structure of the North Vietnamese government, the Politburo. It took years of negotiations to reach an agreement that was satisfactory, even on a temporary basis, to all the parties involved—the United States, North Vietnam, the communists in South Vietnam, and the non-communist South Vietnamese government.

As a result of the 1973 Paris Accords, both men received a Nobel Peace Prize, although Le Duc Tho refused to accept his, and critics have said that Kissinger did not deserve his based on his involvement in the war and other military actions.

Historical Document

Article I

…. The United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Viet-Nam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam…

Article 2

A cease fire shall be observed throughout South Viet-Nam as of 2400 hours G.M.T., on January 27, 1973. At the same hour, the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam by ground, air and naval forces, wherever they may be based, and end the mining of the territorial waters, ports, harbors, and waterways of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam. The United States will remove, permanently deactivate or destroy all the mines in the territorial waters, ports, harbors, and waterways of North Viet-Nam as soon as this Agreement goes into effect. The complete cessation of hostilities mentioned in this Article shall be durable and without limit of time….

Article 4

The United States will not continue its military involvement or intervene in the internal affairs of South Viet-Nam.

Article 5

Within sixty days of the signing of this Agreement, there will be a total withdrawal from South Viet-Nam of troops, military advisers, and military personnel including technical military personnel and military personnel associated with the pacification program, armaments, munitions, and war material of the United States and those of the other foreign countries mentioned in Article 3(a). Advisers from the above-mentioned countries to all paramilitary organizations and the police force will also be withdrawn within the same period of time.

Article 6

The dismantlement of all military bases in South Viet-Nam of the United States and of the other foreign countries mentioned in Article 3(a) shall be completed within sixty days of the signing of this Agreement.

Article 7

From the enforcement of the cease-fire to the formation of the government provided for in Article 9(b) and 14 of this Agreement, the two South Vietnamese parties shall not accept the introduction of troops, military advisers, and military personnel including technical military personnel, armaments, munitions, and war material into South Viet-Nam….

Article 8

The return of captured military personnel and foreign civilians of the parties shall be carried out simultaneously with and completed not later than the same day as the troop withdrawal mentioned in Article 5. The parties shall exchange complete lists of the above-mentioned captured military personnel and foreign civilians on the day of the signing of this Agreement.

The Parties shall help each other to get information about those military personnel and foreign civilians of the parties missing in action, to determine the location and take care of the graves of the dead so as to facilitate the exhumation and repatriation of the remains, and to take any such other measures as may be required to get information about those still considered missing in action.

The question of the return of Vietnamese civilian personnel captured and detained in South Viet-Nam will be resolved by the two South Vietnamese parties on the basis of the principles of Article 21(b) of the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet-Nam of July 20, 1954. The two South Vietnamese parties will do so in a spirit of national reconciliation and concord, with a view to ending hatred and enmity, in order to ease suffering and to reunite families. The two South Vietnamese parties will do their utmost to resolve this question within ninety days after the cease-fire comes into effect….

Article 11

Immediately after the cease-fire, the two South Vietnamese parties will: achieve national reconciliation and concord, end hatred and enmity, prohibit all acts of reprisal and discrimination against individuals or organizations that have collaborated with one side or the other; ensure the democratic liberties of the people: personal freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of meeting, freedom of organization, freedom of political activities, freedom of belief, freedom of movement, freedom of residence, freedom of work, right to property ownership, and right to free enterprise….

Chapter V The Reunification of Viet-Nam and The Relationship Between North and South Viet-Nam

Article 15

The reunification of Viet-Nam shall be carried out step by step through peaceful means on the basis of discussions and agreements between North and South Viet-Nam, without coercion or annexation by either party, and without foreign interference. The time for reunification will be agreed upon by North and South Viet-Nam. Pending reunification:

The military demarcation line between the two zones at the 17th parallel is only provisional and not a political or territorial boundary, as provided for in paragraph 6 of the Final Declaration of the 1954 Geneva Conference.

North and South Viet-Nam shall respect the Demilitarized Zone on either side of the Provisional Military Demarcation Line.

North and South Viet-Nam shall promptly start negotiations with a view to reestablishing normal relations in various fields. Among the questions to be negotiated are the modalities of civilian movement across the Provisional Military Demarcation Line.

North and South Viet-Nam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops, military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam….

Article 21

The United States anticipates that this Agreement will usher in an era of reconciliation with the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam as with all the peoples of Indochina. In pursuance of its traditional policy, the United States will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam and throughout Indochina.

Article 22

The ending of the war, the restoration of peace in Viet-Nam, and the strict implementation of this Agreement will create conditions for establishing a new, equal and mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam on the basis of respect of each other's independence and sovereignty, and non-interference in each other's internal affairs. At the same time this will ensure stable peace in Viet-Nam and contribute to the preservation of lasting peace in Indochina and Southeast Asia….

The Return of Captured Military Personnel and Foreign Civilians

Article 1

The parties signatory to the Agreement shall return the captured military personnel of the parties mentioned in Article 8(a) of the Agreement as follows: all captured military personnel of the United States and those of the other foreign countries mentioned in Article 3(a) of the Agreement shall be returned to United States authorities; all captured Vietnamese military personnel, whether belonging to regular or irregular armed forces, shall be returned to the two South Vietnamese parties; they shall be returned to that South Vietnamese party under whose command they served.

Article 2

All captured civilians who are nationals of the United States or of any other foreign countries mentioned in Article 3(a) of the Agreement shall be returned to United States authorities. All other captured foreign civilians shall be returned to the authorities of their country of nationality by any one of the parties willing and able to do so.

Article 3

The parties shall today exchange complete lists of captured persons mentioned in Articles 1 and 2 of this Protocol.

Article 4

The return of all captured persons mentioned in Articles 1 and 2 of this Protocol shall be completed within sixty days of the signing of the Agreement at a rate no slower than the rate of withdrawal from South Viet-Nam of United States forces and those of the other foreign countries mentioned in Article 5 of the Agreement.

Persons who are seriously ill, wounded or maimed, old persons and women shall be returned first. The remainder shall be returned either by returning all from one detention place after another or in order of their dates of capture, beginning with those who have been held the longest….

With Regard to Dead and Missing Persons

Article 10

The Four-Party Joint Military Commission shall ensure joint action by the parties in implementing Article 8 (b) of the Agreement. When the Four-Party Joint Military Commission has ended its activities, a Four-Party Joint Military team shall be maintained to carry on this task.

With regard to Vietnamese civilian personnel dead or missing in South Viet-Nam, the two South Vietnamese parties shall help each other to obtain information about missing persons, determine the location and take care of the graves of the dead, in a spirit of national reconciliation and concord, in keeping with the people's aspirations….

Document Analysis

While every treaty to end a conflict contains agreements to end the fighting in various ways, the Paris Accords of 1973 included many items specific to the American war in Vietnam. Even though the United States never invaded North Vietnam and fought exclusively in South Vietnam (with a brief invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and occasional bombing of both Laos and Cambodia), US President Lyndon Johnson, and especially Nixon, had bombed North Vietnam—heavily at times—in attempts to limit the capacity of the North to aid the communist rebels in South Vietnam and sometimes, as Nixon did in December 1972, to try to jumpstart stalled negotiations. American forces had also mined one of the main harbors of North Vietnam (officially called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) earlier in 1972, and therefore Article 2 contained language that the United States would henceforth cease this activity in addition to ending military operations in South Vietnam itself.

In addition, both sides knew that it had been the presence of US military advisors in South Vietnam, first under Eisenhower in the late 1950s and then increasing in number under President John Kennedy in the early 1960s, that had helped to lead the United States toward higher levels of American involvement, up to and including Johnson's escalation in mid-1965. Therefore, Article 5 contained clear language that not only would regular American military personnel leave Vietnam, but so too would “military advisers, and military personnel including technical military personnel and military personnel associated with the pacification program, armaments, munitions, and war material of the United States and those of the other foreign countries.” Likewise, “advisors…to all paramilitary organizations and the police force” would leave forthwith. The Accords were trying to close all loopholes that would allow any reintroduction of outside armed forces.

The references to the return of prisoners, found in numerous places, were especially important for the United States, as public clamor had grown for the government to achieve the return of US troops captured by communist forces. By the end of the war in early 1973, around six hundred Americans remained in enemy hands, including more than thirty who had recently been imprisoned when shot down during Nixon's December 1972 bombing campaign of North Vietnam. All of these prisoners were returned to the United States as American forces left in early 1973, but a similar issue would linger for decades in the form of searching for Americans who were still missing in action (MIA) in the Indochina region. At the end of the war, almost 2,400 US servicemen remained unaccounted for; as of 2015, the number remains over 1,600, although the investigative work continues. As historian Gary Hess points out, while US MIA rates in earlier twentieth century wars were actually higher than in Vietnam, the issue remained influential for more than two decades in the relations between the two countries. Overall, while the Paris Accords was, in some respects, a standard treaty that included the removal of military forces, the specifics of future political developments, and language of reconciliation, the document also dealt with specifics of the American war in Vietnam, including aerial bombing of North Vietnam, the role of military advisors during the build-up to full-fledged war, and the thorny issue of prisoners of war (POWs) and MIAs.

Essential Themes

In addition to the themes already noted above, a central debate among Americans in the 1970s and among historians since then has been over whether or not the Paris Accords had contained the necessary stipulations for South Vietnam to survive on its own after American withdrawal. As historian Gary Hess notes, in early 1973, the South Vietnamese government “could claim control over 75 percent of the territory and 85 percent of the population of South Vietnam. Its army, including reserves, totaled about one million troops, nearly 10 times the estimated strength of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units in the South” (Hess 132). In addition, most American bases and military hardware were simply turned over to South Vietnamese forces and, as historian George Herring indicates, “the United States kept a formidable armada of naval power and airpower” in the region (Herring 287–288). Nevertheless, with fighting resuming shortly after the exit of US forces, and after a final push in the first months of 1975 by communist forces in South Vietnam, that country ceased to exist by May 1, 1975. Some, including Nixon, Kissinger, and some of the final leaders of South Vietnam, later claimed that had Congress provided the funding for South Vietnam as requested in early 1975 by President Gerald Ford (who replaced Nixon in August 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal), the South would not have fallen. Still, most historians argue that no matter what the actions of the United States might have been, the ongoing unpopularity of various South Vietnamese governments, the unwillingness of most units in the South Vietnamese army to fight during the final campaigns between 1973 and 1975, and the decades-old determination by communist leaders and forces to unite the nation meant that South Vietnam was doomed after early 1973.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1996. Print.
  • Hess, Gary. Vietnam and the United States: Origins and Legacy of War, rev. ed. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. Print.
  • Phillips, Jak. “Top 10 Nobel Prize Controversies: Nobel-Winner Wrangling, Henry Kissinger.” TIME. Time Inc., 7 Oct. 2011. Web. <http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2096389_2096388_2096386,00.html>.
  • US Department of Defense. “Soldier Missing from Vietnam War Accounted For (Newton).” Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Department of Defense, 8 Jun. 2015. Web. <http://www.dpaa.mil/NewsStories/NewsReleases/tabid/10159/Article/598458/soldier-missing-from-vietnam-war-accounted-for-newton.aspx>.
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