Nixon's War & Vietnamization: 1968-1973

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon campaigned in 1968 with a claim to have a "secret plan" to end the war. The war wound down after 1969 while unproductive peace talks went on in Paris. Domestic support for the war in Vietnam continued to diminish during Nixon's administration, with Vietnamizaion the main strategy to facilitate U.S. withdrawal.

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon with armed forces in Vietnam, 30 July 1969. Magical Mystery Tour M113 track on the left with M151 jeep in foreground.
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon with armed forces in Vietnam, 30 July 1969. "Magical Mystery Tour" M113 track on the left with M151 jeep in foreground.

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Follow Up After the Vietnam Tet Offensive

Following the Tet Offensive in early 1968, U.S. and ARVN forces engaged in battles with VC and NVA units all over Vietnam to destroy fighters involved in the Tet attacks and to prevent reinforcements. In the Central Highlands, major battles in the A Shau Valley NVA staging area (April-August 1968) seized large quantities of enemy supplies and temporarily drove the NVA out. At Dai Do, near the DMZ, Marines battled the NVA during May and push them out of the area. In these and many other battles during 1968, the NVA/VC lost heavily but at most the war situation could be called a stalemate.

Vietnamization:  training the South Vietnam Civil Guard
Vietnamization: training the South Vietnam Civil Guard.

When Gen. Abrams took over as head of MACV from Gen. Westmoreland in July, he continued the aggressive combat tactics but also increased pacification efforts. Tet had cost the VC control of many villages and it was an essential part of U.S. strategy to deny them future control by arming trustworthy civilians, accepting VC defectors, and by assassination of key VC leaders under the CIA's Phoenix Program.

Nixon and Kissinger Take Over the War

Peace talks with the North Vietnamese began in Paris on 13 May 1968, not long after Pres. Johnson's 31 March 1968 speech announcing the intention of the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam and limit bombing of the North. But Johnson was also not running for re-election so talks went nowhere while the N. Vietnamese waited to see who would be the new President and what his policies would be. Richard Nixon was elected, narrowly, and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became his chief advisor on the war.

The election made politics the master of the war strategy. On 31 October, Johnson announced progress in the peace talks and a bombing halt to boost Humphrey, the Democrat candidate. Nixon countered with a claim to have a "secret plan" to end the war, providing no details. Nixon won the election but had no plan other than Vietnamization during gradual withdrawal.

Following Nixon's election, U.S. combat strategy focused on defensive operations as a show of good faith in peace negotiations and to appease domestic opponents of the war. As this became clear to military units in the field, morale and combat effectiveness sank. Drug use, insubordination and other problems increased as soldiers realized they were pawns in a diplomatic and political end game.

In June 1969, Nixon ordered the first actual reduction of troop strength in Vietnam and 25,000 soldiers returned home. More withdrawals followed, timed for maximum political benefit. While major war protests continued in the U.S., the war was actually winding down. In Paris, the Peace Talks droned on inconclusively for years as the conduct of the war was manipulated to serve political and diplomatic purposes.

Battle of Hamburger Hill

The last large-scale battle between U.S. units and the NVA took place in the A Shau Valley during 10-20 May 1969. While searching for NVA infrastructure in Operation Apache Snow, the latest in a long series of attempts to neutralize the A Shau Valley, units of the 187th Infantry discovered a major NVA bunker emplacement on Hill 937, known locally as Ap Bia Mountain but forever remembered by soldiers as Hamburger Hill. After an infantry assault failed to dislodge the underestimated NVA, artillery and air strikes were called in. The rugged terrain and incessant rainfall made progress costly and unit coordination proved close to impossible. Days of renewed attacks by ground and air failed to dislodge the enemy as casualties increased and the hill was blasted into a wasteland. Finally on 20 May a four battalion attack reached the summit, but found most of the NVA had withdrawn. After two nights holding the position, U.S. forces abandoned Hill 937, having lost 70 American dead and 372 wounded.

Nixon's Problems Multiply

The leaked publication in June 1971 of a top secret Pentagon study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (the "Pentagon Papers") and the Nixon Adminstration's effort to suppress their disclosure, again undermined support for the war and trust in the government. The documents revealed offensive ground and air operations undertaken in secret by Pres. Johnson at a time when he was denying any widening of the war. Nixon was incensed by the leak while many in the public understood the news as more evidence that the government was covering up essential information concerning the war.

Early in 1969, Pres. Nixon ordered bombing of areas in Cambodia that were used as sanctuaries and supply points for Communist forces. Then, on 29 April 1970, U.S. forces began an invasion of Cambodia by land and via the Mekong River to destroy NVA/VC forces and shut off the supplies. Both the bombing and the Cambodian Incursion caused storms of anti-war protest to erupt all over the U.S. The relationship of Cambodia to the war in Vietnam is covered on its own page of the Vietnam War History section.

Vietnamization: Creating the American Withdrawal

After the Tet Offensive and Johnson's decision to withdraw, the U.S. had several objectives to achieve: 1) obtain the release of American POWs, 2) avoid a formal capitulation and loss of the war, and 3) preserve U.S. credibility in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Communist countries. At the same time, North Vietnam sought its goals: 1) get the Americans out of Vietnam, 2) preserve the Communist government in the North, and 3) leave the door open to the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule. Initially the North Vietnamese were unconvinced that their goals could be accomplished by a treaty, but after 1) the failure of the 1972 Easter Offensive, and 2) the Linebacker B-52 raids on North Vietnam starting in May 1972, both Washington and Hanoi saw the Paris Peace Talks as the best route to exit the stalemate. From mid-1972, the talks became more serious and both sides made concessions. Even at the time it was known that the Agreement would probably not ensure the future of South Vietnam and give the U.S. "Peace with Honor" but it was a way out.

In parallel with the Paris peace negotiations, the process of Vietnamization continued to reduce American forces in Vietnam and turn over more and more roles to the partially-prepared ARVN. In 1969 there were 540,000 U.S. servicemen in country but that number fell to 135,000 by early 1972. U.S. forces were relegated to support and logistical duties while combat was increasingly borne by ARVN alone. Australian, New Zealand and other allies withdrew on the same schedule. The invasion of Laos by ARVN troops in 1971 was successful enough to allow the politicians to declare that South Vietnam had shown its readiness to be self-reliant.

By 1972, the ARVN had over 1 million soldiers, well supplied with American equipment. The raw numbers were encouraging although many problems infested the ARVN organization, leadership and training making them far less effective than their numbers would suggest. Corruption and political instability further undermined the credibility of the ARVN. Still, on balance there was some plausibility to the ability of S. Vietnam to defend itself as the U.S. pulled out. The performance of the ARVN, supported by U.S. B-52 air power, during the 1970 Cambodian Incursion and the 1972 Easter Offensive was impressive and dealt a humiliating defeat on the NVA. As Nixon faced re-election in 1972, withdrawals were increased while air operations and intensive pacification programs kept pressure on the Communist forces.

There was real progress. After the watershed Tet Offensive in 1968, the North Vietnamese relied increasingly on conventional military operations because of the dramatic erosion of the Communist political base in South Vietnam. The Viet Cong never recovered from their disastrous Tet losses, and its viability was further compromised by the flight of millions of rural Vietnamese into the cities, and by an accelerated pacification program that both killed off many remaining Viet Cong cadre as well as delivered genuine land reform and prosperity to much of rural South Vietnam. By virtually all accounts, the percentage of South Vietnam's population under effective communist control dropped sharply during the period between the Tet Offensive and the Paris Peace Accords.

Closing the Deal in Paris for Peace in Vietnam

Negotiations and associated maneuvers led a draft agreement in October 1972 that Nixon was willing to sign, just in time for the election. But S. Vietnamese Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu objected to provisions that would freeze large numbers of enemy forces in position within S. Vietnam, well positioned to continue the war after the American withdrawal. When the U.S. negotiators tried to re-open discussion of these provisions, the North Vietnamese responded with their own revised demands and the talks once again collapsed.

When the N. Vietnamese withdrew from the Paris negotiations in December, newly re-elected Pres. Nixon demanded their return. When they failed to do so, Nixon launched an air offensive on 18 December against targets in N. Vietnam, the so-called "Christmas Bombing," focused on the Hanoi-Haiphong region. By 28 December the talks resumed in Paris with increased focus and energy. On 27 January 1973 an agreement was signed, titled the "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam". It neither ended the war nor restored the peace.

Terms of the Paris Peace Accords

The agreement was signed by all parties to the struggle, North and South Vietnam, the United States, and the political arm of the Viet Cong (PRG). As with the 1954 Geneva Accords, this agreement called for a unified Vietnam to be negotiated between North and South Vietnam. Prisoner exchanges were planned within sixty days. North Vietnam agreed not to increase its strength in the South, while all U.S. and allied troops were to leave Vietnam along with all foreign troops to be withdrawn from Laos and Cambodia. Most important was what was omitted: there was no provision requiring North Vietnam to withdraw the estimated 145,000-160,000 NVA regulars located in the Central Highlands and other areas of S. Vietham, a fatal flaw that was obvious at the time to Nixon, Kissinger and S. Vietnam's President Thieu. To get Thieu's signiture, Nixon promised Thieu that any violation of the agreement by N. Vietnam would be met by massive U.S. airstrikes in support of ARVN defenses.

Nixon and Kissinger claimed that "Peace with Honor" had been achieved. The war ended for the United States with the Paris Peace Accords. South Vietnam was left with no U.S. or allied troops on its soil while the Communist forces remained menacingly in place. On 12 February 1973 Operation Homecoming began to implement the release of 591 American POWs from Hanoi. But subsequent events in Vietnam during 1973-1975 destroyed any claim to peace or honor for the U.S. in Vietnam.

Recommended Books about the Vietnam War 1968-1973

The Nixon period of the Vietnam War is still political and controversial. The books listed here are generally anti-Nixon in tone and explore how he failed to deliver on the "Peace with Honor" promise.

More books about the Nixon period of the Vietnam War: