Vietnam War Era: 1955–1975

Vietnamization and Paris Peace Accords

Nixon's Vietnamization

The election of President Richard M. Nixon marked the beginning of a new policy called Vietnamization, the gradual withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam.

With Richard M. Nixon's election in 1968, the United States embarked on a new Vietnam policy. Nixon and his team developed a policy called Vietnamization, a policy of slowly withdrawing 540,000 U.S. ground troops from Vietnam and transferring control of the war to the South Vietnamese government. According to the Nixon administration, the South Vietnamese could manage the ground war with American help in the form of advice, training, and weapons. In June 1969 President Nixon ordered the first wave of ground troops, 25,000 soldiers, withdrawn from South Vietnam. In April 1970 he announced the withdrawal of a further 150,000 troops. This action by the Nixon government was popular among the American people. There were few questions raised about whether, realistically, the faltering South Vietnamese government could effectively direct the war.

Nixon's plan was to stop U.S. soldiers from dying in Vietnam; it was not a plan to end the war. While Nixon withdrew ground troops from South Vietnam, he resumed bombing in North Vietnam. Former President Johnson had suspended the bombing in October 1968, when the North had indicated they would stop attacks into the South and open negotiations if the United States ceased bombing the North. Nixon not only resumed the bombing, he increased the scope of the war by secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos and sending ground troops into those countries without congressional approval. The government's rationale for these actions was that the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a major military supply route of jungle paths used by North Vietnam to supply troops fighting in the South, ran through Cambodia and Laos. This expansion of the war caused major protests throughout the United States.

Ho Chi Minh Trail, 1959-75

During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to infiltrate soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The weaknesses of the Vietnamization program became apparent in March 1971. A South Vietnamese ground-troop attack in Laos designed to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail ended with heavy casualties and a retreat. Consequently, encouraged by their success in Laos, the North invaded the South in March 1972 with some success. In response, Nixon unleashed even heavier bombing on the North and mined the North's harbor where Soviet supply shipments were being received. The bombing was effective and the North's efforts in the South ceased, signaling a willingness to reach a compromise. A peace accord drew a bit closer.

Antiwar Movement at Home

The antiwar movement grew in strength from events such as the killings at Kent State University and the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

By the late 1960s the American people were greatly divided by the Vietnam War. Nightly television news reported on war events almost every evening—the Vietnam War is often called America's "first television war." The American military allowed war reporting in the Vietnam War. Television reporters in Vietnam could film a military unit's daily maneuvers, and sometimes TV camera crews filmed "live" battles. There is still debate about the role such television news played in shaping the American people's views of the war.

At the end of the 1960s, an antiwar movement grew in the United States, with Americans using protests to oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. This antiwar movement was the largest movement against a war in the country's history. Initiated by college students, the movement grew as people joined from all sectors of American society to protest—stage actions showing disapproval, such as marches and sit-ins. Most of the protests were peaceful, although a few involved destroying government buildings. Sometimes the police or National Guard reacted somewhat violently to the demonstrators, such as at Kent State, a college campus in Ohio where the tragic shootings of student protesters occurred.

The demonstrations that led to the shootings of students at Kent State were in response to President's Nixon's announcement on April 30, 1970. That evening he announced American and South Vietnamese troops had invaded Cambodia, which, he explained, was a haven for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. Immediately, protests were organized throughout the country. Unfortunately, at Kent State the protests became unruly and the governor of Ohio called in the National Guard. Consequently, National Guardsmen with loaded weapons were present during a protest on May 4, 1970. It's not clear if the Guardsmen were given the order to shoot, but the demonstration ended with four students dead and nine injured. In the aftermath, there was a surge in antiwar demonstrations throughout the country.
At a 1970 antiwar rally at Kent State University, students were horrified to see fellow students shot by Ohio National Guardsmen. Investigators created a diagram describing the event.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 596837
The number of people opposed to the war kept growing. In June 1971 the New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on a top-secret study done by the Defense Department of the country's role in Indochina during World War II. A research associate at MIT, Daniel Ellsberg, turned the study over to the Times. The papers revealed to the American people that U.S. aid in the form of money and military supplies had been flowing to forces fighting North Vietnamese Communists since the Truman administration. The publication of the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force. This report, which is popularly called the Pentagon Papers, drew more Americans to the antiwar movement.

War Powers Act, 1973

Concerned about President Nixon's use of power to wage war, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 to limit a president's use of military power.

By 1973 Congress was becoming more concerned about President Nixon's secrecy regarding military actions and his use of power to wage war. Even after the Vietnam cease-fire in January 1973, Nixon carried on his bombing of communist forces in Cambodia. This extension of presidential military power by Nixon was also a concern for the American public. Congress tried to stop the bombing of Cambodia by cutting off appropriations, or the money to conduct the bombings. Finally, in June 1973, with the funding for the bombings in question, Nixon agreed to end the bombing in Cambodia and, in the future, seek congressional approval for any future bombings in Cambodia. In the summer of 1973 Congress passed a law prohibiting any U.S. military involvement or operations in or over Indochina, which included South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. But Congress's concern about presidential war powers persisted. In November 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Act. This law required the president to "consult" Congress before sending troops to foreign nations. Nixon vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode his veto.

The overall goal of the War Powers Act was to prevent a U.S. president from committing the military to fight in foreign wars. This would effectively limit a president's use of force. The Act states the president must first consult with and then report to Congress within 48 hours if he has sent armed forces to foreign countries. For armed forces to remain over 90 days in a foreign land, Congress must give its approval.

The War Powers Act was considered by many a way to ensure against any "future Vietnams." Since its passage, though, many critics have claimed the Act does not work because most presidents resist or ignore it, viewing it as an unconstitutional attempt to limit executive power. Nevertheless, presidents have complied with the act. They have sought congressional approval before taking major military action and sent reports to Congress on various military operations. In some cases, presidents have asked Congress to declare war, thereby following the U.S. Constitution, which states in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11: "Congress shall have the Power to declare War."

Nixon submitted to Congress's decision, however, and in 1973 the bombing of Cambodia ceased. Unfortunately, the war continued between North and South Vietnam after the bombings. The cease-fire between the two countries that was part of the Paris Accords was constantly broken. But the Nixon administration turned its attention to its own problems regarding a national issue called the Watergate scandal. In August 1974 Nixon resigned his presidency over the scandal and Vice President Gerald Ford became president.

Paris Peace Accords and the Outcome of the Vietnam War

A complicated peace agreement was finally reached in 1973 between representatives of North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government, South Vietnamese Communists, and the United States.

Vietnam peace talks had begun as early as 1968, but it was only in 1972 that parties were able to effectively reach an agreement. After North Vietnamese troops had pushed back the South's troops in Laos, they launched an invasion of South Vietnam in March 1972. In response, Nixon launched massive air strikes against the North and its supply lines. By mid-June, the North's invasion of South Vietnam had ended and the North Vietnamese indicated they were willing to reach a compromise. The North agreed to drop its demand for the establishment of a coalition government in the South. The United States had already indicated it would drop its demand for the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South. A series of back-and-forth negotiations began.

In October 1972 these concessions by both sides led to a secret and complicated peace accord made by American statesman Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Le Duc Tho. But the South Vietnamese government vigorously complained a peace agreement had been made without its representation and insisted on some changes. North Vietnam then proposed changes of its own. Nixon, again, turned to bombing the North and, after eight days, North Vietnam agreed to sign the agreement.

Officially, the "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam" was signed on January 27, 1973, by representatives of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG, the alternative government created in 1969 by South Vietnamese communists), and the United States. The terms of the agreement stipulated a cease-fire in North and South Vietnam was in effect, all U.S. forces would be withdrawn and U.S. bases closed, and all prisoners of war would be released. North Vietnam would keep troops in the South, although the South had the right to determine its own future. The 17th parallel would continue to divide Vietnam.

For the next two years, recurring hostilities between North Vietnam and South Vietnam violated the peace agreement. In March 1975 the North Vietnamese began an offensive to take control of South Vietnam. Within two months the South Vietnamese government and army had collapsed. President Ford tried to convince Congress to send military aid, but by then Congress and the American people were finished with what many people believed had been a futile war in Southeast Asia. On April 30 the government of South Vietnam surrendered and the remaining Americans fled.

The PRG, under whose management areas of Vietnam had already begun to rebuild, assumed control of the country. However, the PRG's leadership was short-lived. In July 1976 Vietnam was reunited under President Ton Duc Thang as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with Hanoi as its capital city. Saigon, which had been the South's capital, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.