When President Richard M. Nixon took office in January 1969, he chose former political science professor Henry A. Kissinger as his national security advisor. Kissinger saw Vietnam as a mistake and pushed for disengagement. Not long into his term, Nixon announced a new policy of Vietnamization to gradually withdraw the more than 500,000 American soldiers from Vietnam and return control of the war to the South Vietnamese ARVN.
Nixon did not intend to abandon Saigon fully—the United States would still fund, supply, and train the ARVN—but hoped that slow troop withdrawals would appease voters at home and reduce the number of troop casualties in the field. He also announced the Nixon Doctrine, in which he proclaimed that the United States would honor its current defense commitments but that it would not commit troops anywhere else.
In September 1969, the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh died. He was replaced by Le Duan, who became the new head of the North Vietnamese Communist Party. Although North Vietnam lost a powerful ideological figure in Ho, his death did not weaken the Vietnamese nationalist cause.
Vietnamization and the Nixon Doctrine did reduce combat casualties but also turned U.S. foreign policy upside down. In declaring that the United States would no longer commit troops to stop Communist revolutions abroad, Nixon effectively revoked Eisenhower’s, Kennedy’s, and Johnson’s policies of using the U.S. military to prevent Communism from spreading. Although his predecessors had sent troops to fight Soviet influence in the farthest corners of the world, Nixon believed that the political cost of more dead U.S. servicemen was simply too great.
With Vietnamization under way, Nixon and Kissinger still had a few tricks up their sleeves. While reducing U.S. personnel in Vietnam slightly in 1969, they also sought to defeat the North Vietnamese by destroying their supply lines and base camps in neighboring Cambodia. Although Cambodia was officially a neutral nation, the NVA had long used its territory to run weapons and troops, circumventing the U.S. soldiers, bombers, and raiding parties that were operating in Vietnamese territory.
In the spring of 1970, Nixon authorized a series of bombing raids in Cambodia and sent both U.S. and ARVN troops across the border, all without the consent or even awareness of Congress. When the secret Cambodian campaign was revealed in a New York Times exposé in May 1970, it sent shock waves through the uninformed Congress and the American public. Renewed public outcry and waves of protests eventually convinced Nixon to rescind the order that summer. Nonetheless, he authorized a similar action in March 1971, secretly sending ARVN forces across the border into Laos.
By 1970, the Vietnam conflagration had become the longest war in U.S. history. Nearly 50,000 had already been killed and up to 200,000 wounded. Even though this number paled in comparison to the 100,000 South Vietnamese and more than 500,000 North Vietnamese who had died, many Americans thought the number far too high for the mere defense of a strip of jungle on the other side of the world. Morale had fallen to an all-time low both for the families at home and for the men in the field. Veterans’ protest groups such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War became increasingly vocal, attacking U.S. policy after they came home. Because the draft continued to exempt college students and skilled workers, critics increasingly denounced the conflict as a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. Blacks in particular suffered some of the highest casualty rates.
In 1971, the U.S. Army court-martialed Lieutenant William Calley for his role in the My Lai Massacre of 1968, sentencing him to a life term in prison (although he was later paroled). In a series of congressional hearings that same year, a number of U.S. soldiers confessed either anonymously or publicly that dozens of similar war crimes had taken place over the course of the war and claimed that the U.S. military had tacitly supported them.
The court-martial and the hearings turned American public opinion against the U.S. military. For perhaps the first time in U.S. history, antiwar protesters focused their anger not only on the politicians who began and oversaw the war but on the troops in the field as well. Some Americans denounced men in uniform as “baby killers.” During a notorious trip to North Vietnam in 1972, prominent American actress Jane Fonda made public statements sympathizing with the North Vietnamese government, denouncing U.S. military actions, and condemning U.S. soldiers as “war criminals.” The infamous incident earned Fonda the derisive nickname “Hanoi Jane” and incensed many Americans, even those who opposed the war.
The U.S. government came under further fire in June 1971 when the New York Times published a series of articles about the contents of a secret study that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had commissioned in 1968. The leaked documents, collectively called the Pentagon Papers, detailed U.S. government and military activity in Vietnam since the 1940s. The papers revealed that the U.S. Army, as well as presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, had authorized a number of covert actions that increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam unbeknownst to the American public.
The Nixon administration attempted to halt the Times series, but a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed the articles to be published. The Pentagon Papers caused an uproar in the United States and pushed the already unpopular war into even murkier moral territory. Public distrust of the government grew deeper.
Outraged by the unauthorized invasion of Cambodia and by the double scandal from the My Lai Massacre and the Pentagon Papers, many in Congress took steps to exert more control over the war and to appease the equally angry public. The Senate voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to reduce the military’s unchecked spending power (although the House of Representatives did not follow suit). Congress also reduced the number of years drafted soldiers needed to serve in the army. Finally, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971 to lower the U.S. voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, on the grounds that the young men serving in Vietnam should have a say in which politicians were running the war.
By 1972, Nixon had reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam to 150,000. Kissinger, meanwhile, began to negotiate with senior Viet Cong official Le Duc Tho at secret meetings in Paris. As these talks progressed, Tho became increasingly stubborn and refused to negotiate, forcing Nixon and Kissinger again to change their strategy. They decided to try to improve relations with Communist China—which was not on good terms with the Soviet Union—to use as a bargaining chip to intimidate both the USSR and North Vietnam.
Nixon and Kissinger thus began secret talks with China. This warming of relations culminated with Nixon’s high-profile visit to China in February and March 1972. As expected, the Soviet Union, concerned with the improved U.S.-China relations, moved to bargain as well. Nixon therefore visited the USSR in May 1972—another landmark visit.
Nixon’s trip to China succeeded in giving him an advantage in negotiations with North Vietnam. When the NVA crossed the demilitarized zone and invaded South Vietnam in March 1972, Nixon unabashedly authorized an intense bombing campaign of Hanoi without fear of repercussion from Moscow or Beijing. On August 23, 1972, the last American ground combat troops departed Vietnam, leaving behind only a small number of military advisors (the last of whom left in March 1973). As the presidential elections of 1972 approached, Nixon clearly had the upper hand: he had warmed relations with China and the USSR, reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam from 500,000 to 30,000, and halted a major NVA advance. He defeated antiwar Democrat George McGovern in a landslide.
When Kissinger’s negotiations continued to be hindered by North Vietnamese obstinacy, Nixon became frustrated and authorized the Christmas Bombing, an intense bombing campaign of North Vietnam to pressure the country to end the war in late December 1972. The pressure worked, and Kissinger and North Vietnamese officials finally announced a cease-fire in January 1973.
Under the terms of the agreement, Nixon pledged to withdraw all remaining military personnel from Vietnam and allow the tens of thousands of NVA troops in South Vietnam to remain there, despite the fact that they controlled a quarter of South Vietnamese territory. However, Nixon promised to intervene if North Vietnam moved against the South. In exchange, North Vietnam promised that elections would be held to determine the fate of the entire country. Although Nixon insisted that the agreement brought “peace with honor,” South Vietnamese leaders complained that the terms amounted to little more than a surrender for South Vietnam.
In July 1973, Congress and the American public learned the full extent of the secret U.S. military campaigns in Cambodia. Testimony in congressional hearings revealed that Nixon and the military had been secretly bombing Cambodia heavily since 1969, even though the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff had repeatedly denied the charge. When the news broke, Nixon switched tactics and began bombing Cambodia openly despite extreme public disproval.
Angry, Congress mustered enough votes to pass the November 1973 War Powers Resolution over Nixon’s veto. The resolution restricted presidential powers during wartime by requiring the president to notify Congress upon launching any U.S. military action abroad. If Congress did not approve of the action, it would have to conclude within sixty to ninety days. In effect, this act made the president accountable to Congress for his actions abroad. Congress also ended the draft in 1973 and stipulated that the military henceforth consist solely of paid volunteers. Both the War Powers Resolution and the conversion to an all-volunteer army helped quiet antiwar protesters.
Despite Nixon’s landslide reelection victory, his days in office were numbered; on top of the uproar over the Cambodia bombings, the Watergate scandal had broken in late 1972. In short, Nixon had approved a secret burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., prior to the election, but the burglars were caught. Evidence surfaced that Nixon had authorized illegal measures to discredit prominent Democratic opponents and other people on his personal “enemies list.” Ultimately, when it became clear that Nixon himself had broken the law by covering up the scandal, many in the United States began calling for his impeachment.
As the Watergate scandal began to envelop Nixon, North Vietnamese Communist leader Le Duan assumed correctly that the United States would not likely intervene in Vietnam, despite Nixon’s earlier promises to the contrary. As a result, North Vietnamese troops began to move into South Vietnam in 1974. Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was replaced by Vice President Gerald R. Ford.
Any hope Ford might have had to salvage Vietnam evaporated in September 1974, when Congress refused to approve sufficient funding for the South Vietnamese army. By the beginning of 1975, defeat was imminent. North Vietnamese forces launched a massive offensive in the spring of 1975, forcing the South Vietnamese troops to retreat. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, all of Vietnam was united under Communist rule, and the Vietnam War was over.
Ironically, Nixon, who had risen to national prominence as a hard-line anti-Communist in the 1950s, was the president responsible for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the most visible theater of the Cold War against Communism. Furthermore, Nixon and Kissinger used the lengthy withdrawal from Vietnam as part of a larger vision of détente, or thawing of tensions among the superpowers. It is arguable that Nixon’s slow withdrawal took too long and certain that his expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos was illegal. Nonetheless, Nixon did keep his promise of removing U.S. troops, and it is impressive that he and Kissinger were able to withdraw the United States thoroughly and relatively quickly from the Vietnam quagmire they had inherited from Johnson.
Although Nixon himself made numerous poor decisions and resigned amid scandal, he kept the Vietnam debacle from having a devastating impact on the United States’ position in international relations amid the Cold War. Rather, Nixon simultaneously withdrew from Vietnam and achieved improved relations with China and the USSR, easing tension and likely decreasing the threat of nuclear war.