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 1973War 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.