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The War in Vietnam, 1969-1973

The situation inherited by Richard Nixon was no less a "mess" than it was in November 1963 when Lyndon Johnson rose to the presidency.  In fact, it was much worse.  Over 500,000 troops were stationed in Vietnam; Americans killed in action averaged 1200 a month.  And domestic opinion about the war was divided (no consensus on a course of action in Vietnam), negative (a majority felt that the war was a mistake), and pessimistic (people saw little progress at the peace talks and believed the fighting would go on for at least 2 more years).  Added to the mix were the racial divisions in the country, the skepticism toward within the anti-war movement, and a long standing antipathy toward Nixon among Democratic loyalists.

[Results from Gallup Polls on Vietnam conducted in early 1969]

For his foreign policy team, Nixon chose Melvin Laird, a former member of the U.S. House, as Secretary of Defense. William Rogers, whom Nixon knew while both served in the Eisenhower Administration, was tapped as Secretary of State.  Henry Kissinger, a professor of international relations at Harvard University and a political ally of Nelson Rockefeller, was named the National Security Advisor.


The histories of the Nixon Administration emphasize that Kissinger quickly became "primer inter pares" among the foreign policy advisors.  An adept practioner of bureaucratic politics, Kissinger enjoyed direct access to Nixon and often kept Laird and Rogers out of the foreign policy "loop."  Over the course of the administration, Kissinger would prove to be a popular and controversial figure. His cultivation of the press aroused suspicion within the administration and led to charges of "grandstanding" and upstaging the president; reports his "hawkish" stance within administration councils and his use of wiretaps on staff members aroused the ire of liberals and anti-war activists. [1]

Discerning a "Nixon Strategy"

Nixon and Kissinger quickly agreed upon two premises about American policy in Vietnam. First, the war in Vietnam was not "winnable" in any conventional sense of the term. Public opinion would tolerate neither an escalation nor the continuation of a status quo that included over 1,000 killed per month.  Second, a unilateral withdrawal was not feasible because the political costs, both domestic and international, were unacceptable. Withdrawal would dissolve Nixon's political base at home and, as Kissinger continually emphasized, undermine American credibility abroad. [2]  Apart from the military situation in Vietnam, the political problem confronting President Nixon was complex.  How could Nixon "buy time" to achieve his understanding of "peace with honor" without succumbing to Lyndon Johnson's fate of eroding public support?  The history of his first administration reveals that Nixon's strategy consisted of four components:

(1) Vietnamization
First, it was necessary to reduce American casualty rates and the number of combat troops in Vietnam.  To this end, Nixon defined his policy as "Vietnamization" -- the idea that South Vietnamese would gradually assume a greater combat role and ultimately eliminate the need for American ground forces.  Because the US would not withdraw abrubtly, the policy of Vietnamization would require time.  The domestic political objective was to convince the public that the Army of South Vietnam could eventually handle the war on their own.

(2) The "Politics of Polarization" 
To buy time, Nixon had to build a larger and more reliable base of support within the American public. His popular vote margin in the 1968 election was razor thin. However, to his advantage, the Democratic coalition was shattered in 1968 and there were political opportunities.  To exploit these opportunities, the administration would pursue a "politics of polarization" in which it would, at one and the same time, appeal to a "silent majority" and attempt to isolate opponents and paint them, in one manner or another, as extreme.

(3) The "Madman" scenario 
A "madman theory" was devised for negotiating with the government of North Vietnam.  In this gambit, Henry Kissinger would emphasize, in his meetings with representatives of  North Vietnam, the volatility of President Nixon's personality.  He would warn the North Vietnamese that Nixon was unpredictable, that he could fly into a rage, and that this could happen in response to either North Vietnamese military action or intransigence in the peace talks. A similar theme was sounded by Kissinger in his dealing with the American press.  Over the course of the term, Nixon provided a number of examples to give credence to Kissinger's claims: secretly bombing Cambodia, bombing Hanoi and Haiphong, invading Cambodia (see below), and mining Haiphong harbor.

(4) Triangular Diplomacy   
Finally, Nixon pursued a "geopolitical" approach to the war as well.  During the first years of  his term, Nixon discovered reason to believe that both the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China were interested in what became known as detente -- an easing of Cold War tensions and expanding trade relations.  This interest, plus the suspicions between USSR and the PRC, would provide Nixon with leverage for pressing the Soviets and Chinese to "do business" with the U.S. and to pressure the North Vietnamese to settle the war.

When we examine the history or chronology of the first Nixon administration, each component is evident as is the manner in which the components "meshed" into both a political strategy for getting America out of Vietnam and reelecting Nixon in 1972.

Fall 1969: The Mobe

During 1969, a new coalition of anti-war groups arose and called itself the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. The coalition consisted of "student government leaders, liberal Democratic activists, clergy, trade unionists, and veterans." [3]  The Mobe, as it was known, established October 15th as a nationwide day of protest against the war in Vietnam. 


 As Stephen Ambrose writes, 

                        Tens of thousands of protesters marched around the White House
                        on October 15th; across the country, in every major city, tens of
                        thousands attended antiwar rallies. It was, by far, the largest antiwar
                        protest in America's history. Altogether, millions were involved. There
                        was little or no violence. Most disturbing to Nixon and his supporters,
                        the Moratorium brought out the middle class and the middle-aged in    
                        in very large numbers. [

 The Committee also called for continued demonstrations and vigils on the 15th of each month until the war ended.

Vice President Spiro Agnew

 Having earlier instituted a program of investigation and harassment against anti-war groups [5], the response of the Nixon Administration to such demonstrations was a "PR" offensive and rhetorical warfare. Vice President Spiro Agnew launched the first verbal attack against the demonstrators.  Speaking at a dinner in Jackson, Mississippi on October 20th, Agnew attacked "liberal intellectuals," asserting that they possessed a "masochistic compulsion to destroy their country's strength." [6]  Ten days later, Agnew spoke in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; there he argued that

                    the student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. A spirit
                    of  national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of
                    impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals. [7]

Fueled by speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan, the broadsides would continue. Agnew spoke of "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "pusillanimous pussyfooters."  The leaders of the Vietnam Mobilization were described as "hard-core dissidents and professional anarchists;" others were called "ideological eunuchs" and "vultures" who "prey upon the good intensions of gullible men." Agnew insinuated that the youth who protested "overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants" and, as a result, "subtlety is lost and fine distinctions based on acute reasoning are carelessly ignored." [8]. 

Fall 1969: The Silent Majority &
 The Politics of Polarization

  The polarizing effect of Vice President Agnew's attacks were intentional and part of the political strategy of the administration. As Agnew noted, "I say it is time for a positive polarization. It is time to rip away the rhetoric and to divide on authentic lines." [9]  President Nixon and his political advisors were strongly influenced by The Emerging Republican Majority, published by Kevin Phillips in 1969 and called "The Political Bible of the Nixon Era" by Newsweek magazine.  In the book, Phillips argued that the once potent New Deal coalition of the Democrats was in shambles.  Nixon could, Phillips contended, build a permanent national majority for the Republicans by holding his traditional Republican base while augmenting that base with southern Democrats (many of whom voted for George Wallace in 1968) and other conservative elements in the Democratic Party.

At 9:30 PM on November 3, President Nixon addressed a national television audience from the White House. This speech, whose date was announced just two days before the first moratorium, was designed to buy time in Vietnam and to reach out to dissident Democrats along with Nixon's core constituency. In the speech, the president traced the history of American involvement in Vietnam, highlighted the negotiating efforts of administration since taking office, outlined his policy of  Vietnamization, and placed the blame for the continuation of war on the government of North Vietnam. The speech reached its crescendo when he appealed to the public for support: 

                And so tonight-- to you, the great silent majority of my fellow     
             Americans-- I ask for  your support.  I pledged in my campaign for 
                the Presidency to end  the war in a way that we could win the peace. 
                I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge.     
                The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that
             pledge can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less
                likely, the enemy is to negotiate at Paris.  Let us be united for peace. Let 
                us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North 
                Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only 
                Americans can do that

[Transcript of President Nixon's "Silent Majority Speech"]

The public reaction to the president's speech was most favorable. Among those who watched the address, 77% approved of how Nixon was handling the situation in Vietnam and only 6% disapproved. In the wake of the speech, Nixon's overall approval rating climbed from 56% to 67%. [10].  Although Nixon had increased his personal support, other indicators suggested that the public remained divided on policy in Vietnam. 55% of public now classified themselves as "doves" with only 31% using the "hawk" label (down from 41% after the TET offensive). The following results were obtained when the public was asked to consider alternative plans for Vietnam:   

        Withdraw all troops immediately                                           19%
        Withdraw all troops by the end of 1970                                22%
        Withdraw troops but take as long as needed for                    40%
            Vietnamization to work
        Send more troops & step up fighting                                     11%
        No Opinion                                                                            8%

The ambivalence in opinion was obvious. Support for Vietnamization would depend upon the length of time the process would take.

In addition to buttressing his public support, the "Silent Majority Speech" was also used by the Nixon Administration to isolate another opponent --- the national media. As was the practice at the time, the networks followed the broadcast of the speech with commentary and analysis.  Nixon was infuriated. Despite the public response and his belief  that the speech was a "milestone and turning point," Nixon decided "to take on the TV network news organizations for their biased and distorted 'instant analysis.'" [11]. The attacks on the anti-war movement would be expanded to include the networks with Vice President Agnew leading the way.

The venue was a meeting of Republicans in Des Moines, Iowa. On November 13, Vice President Agnew addressed the group. After a "suggestion" from the administration, the networks broadcast the speech. Agnew first complained about "a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts" who subjected the President Nixon's speech "to instant analysis and querulous criticism." He then embarked on a lengthy analysis and critique of the power of the media. The news, Agnew argued, "that forty-million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible to their corporate employers, and filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases." Arguing that the news was distorted and, at times, manufactured, Agnew asked "[H]ow many marchers would we have if the marchers did not know that the ever-faithful TV cameras would be there to record their antics for the next news show?"  Agnew then concluded by urging his audience to question the power of the media, a power that was "in the hands of a small and unelected elite."

[Complete Transcript of Vice President Agnew's speech in Des Moines]

Since the moratorium of October 15th then, the administration had managed to bolster its public support and, at the same time, to identify both the leaders of the anti-war movement and the national media as objects worthy of scorn among the silent majority.

In the wake of Agnew's Des Moines speech, the second mobilization drew over 250,000 demonstrators to Washington, D.C.  H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff, recorded the following in his diary: "Mobe Day. The march turned out to be huge. Official estimate 250,000. By our photocount, it was 325,000. Anyway, it was really huge. E. Krogh and I went out in helicopter to look it over in the morning, very impressive." [12]

Spring 1970: Cambodia & Kent State

On April 20, 1970, President Nixon addressed a national television audience. In his speech, he reviewed the progress of his Vietnamization policy and announced that 150,000 American troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam in the following year. This was the third and largest announcement of troop withdrawals since Nixon took office. And, unlike the troop increases of the Johnson years, the announcements by Nixon were well publicized.

[Table: The Pace of Troop Withdrawals during the Nixon Administration]

Ten days later, Nixon took to the airwaves again. The news this time was more controversial as the president announced that American and South Vietnamese forces were launching an invasion of Cambodia. The object of the offensive was to wipe out sanctuaries within Cambodia that were used by the North Vietnamese infiltrating the south. 

In his speech, Nixon emphasized not only the strategic value of the operation but also American credibility.  "If, when the chips are down," the president argued, "the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."  In order to persuade the public, the speech exaggerated the strategic value of the operation and contained a number of "whoppers." [13]  The address concluded with a classic Nixonian flourish as the president asserted that "I would rather be a one-term President and do what is right than to be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this Nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history."

The response of public opinion to the military action was peculiar. The public approved of the way Nixon was handling the situation in Cambodia by a margin of 50% to 35%; in response to the question of whether U.S. troops should be sent to Cambodia, only 25% responded affirmatively while 59% said troops should not be sent. [14

The day after the speech, Nixon's impromptu remarks about campus unrest diverted substantial attention from the reports on the Cambodian operation:

                You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen,
                the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest
                people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they
                are burning up the books, I mean storming around about this 
                issue -- I mean you name it -- get rid of the war; there will be
              another one. [15]


Despite the nature of the polls, the "Cambodian decision" triggered a firestorm of protest.  The most publicized occurred on the campus of Kent State University in northeast Ohio. On the evening of May 1, 1970, antiwar protests turned violent when the ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corp) building was torched. In response, the Governor of Ohio, James Rhodes, dispatched the National Guard  to Kent.  During another demonstration on Monday, May 4th, members of the National Guard began firing at demonstrators.  Four students were killed and eight injured.

In the wake of Kent State, all hell broke loose. Two students were killed when Mississippi State police fired on a crowd of students at Jackson State University. 450 colleges and universities went on strike; Governor Ronald Reagan closed the entire college and university system in California; within a week, the National Guard had been deployed in sixteen different states and on 21 different campuses. [16]  A number of universities simply closed down for the year.


In the weeks after Kent State, "hard hats" --- the slang for workers in construction and the building trades --- staged a series of demonstrations in support of Nixon. In one New York city demonstration, the "hardhats" attacked a group of antiwar demonstrators with "fists, boots, and hammers, chanting 'Love It or Leave It.' " [17]  These blue collar workers, traditionally Democratic voters, were one of the groups Nixon hoped to attract with the politics of polarization. 

The remainder of 1970 saw a continuation of the Vietnamization policy. By the end of the 1970, there were 335,000 American troops in Vietnam (down from 537,000 at the end of Johnson's term) with an average monthly casualty rate of 344 (down from an average of 1,200 during 1968).

The Problems of 1971

The political fortunes of the Nixon administration hit a low point in 1971, the third year of the administration.

The Laotian Incursion

 In early February, the South Vietnamese army, backed by the US air and tactical support, launched an incursion into Laos with the intent of cutting off the Ho Chi Minh trail. Initially, the operation was successful with South Vietnamese forces moving twenty miles deep into Laos.  On February 20th, the North Vietnamese launched a counteroffensive and, during nearly a month of fighting, captured the territory initially occupied by South Vietnamese forces. On March 19th, the U.S. began an airlift to remove South Vietnamese from Laos and on March 24th, the operation was officially declared at an end [  ]

South Vietnamese troops in Laos

The Laotian incursion was seen as the first "test" of Nixon's Vietnamization policy in the sense of revealing whether the army of South Vietnam could sustain an offensive. The results were, at best, mixed. As Stephen Ambrose notes, "the offensive designed to prove that Vietnamization was working had turned into a rout, made painfully visible to American television viewers by footage showing ARVN troops fighting among themselves for a place on American helicopters extracting them from Laos." [ ]

The My Lai Massacre

While coverage of the "Laotian incursion" dominated the news in February, the story of Laos had to share billing with another --- the My Lai killings and the trial of Lieutenant William Calley.   On March 16, 1968, U.S. forces were conducting a "search and destroy" operation against the Viet Cong and entered the village of My Lai. There, civilians --  including women and children -- were gunned down by American troops. The story first broke in late 1969 and throughout 1970, the Army conducted an internal investigation. The result was that Lieutenant William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina would be brought before a court martial on the charge of murder. 

[Read more about the My Lai massacre here]

On March 29, 1971, Calley was convicted of the murder of  civilians; on March 31st, he was sentenced to life in prison. The conviction and sentence produced a storm of protest.  Essentially, polls showed that the public disagreed with the conviction and sentence, believed that Calley was only following orders, and that he was used by the Army as a scapegoat. 

[Poll Results on the Calley Trial]

In the wake of this reaction, President Nixon ordered Calley removed from the stockade and placed under "house arrest." He promised to review Calley's case. On August 20, 1971, Calley's sentence was reduced to 20 years and on September 10, 1975, he was paroled after serving 3 1/2 years. Captain Ernest Medina, Calley's superior officer, was acquitted of all murder charges in September of 1971.

The Spring Protests

The coming of spring brought more anti-war protests to Washington D.C.  There were sizable demonstrations in March, April, and May.  The April demonstrations were led by the organization known as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). The most dramatic moment of the April protests occurred near the Capitol Building where numerous combat veterans threw back their medals to protest Nixon's continuation of the war.  


Another round of demonstrations began on May 3, 1971.  This effort involved attempts by demonstrators to shut down the city. As H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff, records in his diary:

                        It all went reasonably well; they were able to keep traffic open
                        and keep the city under control, although a lot of the demonstrators
                        were running loose. Ultimately they ended up arresting about 8,000
                        of them and holding them in a stockade sort of setup out at Kennedy
                        Stadium.  Tehy finally put them in the Uline Arena to hole them up
                        for tonight and do the processing and then releasing them them after
                        putting up bail. The P was concerned that we perhaps should let
                     them out and let them disrupt traffic rather than keeping them locked

The events of early 1971 registered an impact on the polls. The Harris Poll records that positive evaluations of Nixon's handling of Vietnam dropped from 44% to 34% in the wake of the Laotian incursion [ ].  In the Gallup Poll, approval of Nixon's overall job performance dropped to 48% in June, the lowest level recorded during his first term.

Nixon Rebounds
Diplomacy, War, and Reelection

President Nixon was far from a passive observer of unfolding events. The removal of U.S. forces associated with Vietnamization continued. On April 7, 1971, Nixon announced, in a nationally televised speech, that 100,000 troops would be withdrawn by the end of the year.  In an impromptu news conference on November 11th, he reported that another 45,000 would be withdrawn by February 1st, 1972.  By the end of 1971, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam would stand at 157,000; the average number of casualties per month would fall to 123. 

The administration also made three "blockbuster" policy announcements in 1971.  On May 20th, Nixon announced before a national television audience that the United States and Soviet Union had reached tentative agreements on limiting anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems and strategic arms (SALT).  Next came relations with the People's Republic of China.  In a nationally broadcast address on the evening of July 15, President Nixon announced that, after a series of secret meetings, the government of the PRC had extended an invitation --- which he accepted --- for the president to visit the country. Finally, on August 15th, the president informed the public of his "New Economic Policy."  The policy included a 90 day freeze of wages and prices along with abandoning the gold standard for the U.S. dollar. 

 By 1972, both the troop levels in Vietnam and American casualties had been substantially reduced.  Additional announcements of troop reductions accelerated. There were announcements in November 1971 (45,000), January 1972 (70,000), April 1972 (20,000) and June (10,000).  As a result, the number of American personnel stationed in Vietnam on election day 1972 was 27,400. 


Further, as the figure below demonstrates, the monthly average of American casualties dropped from 123 in 1971 to 22 in 1972.  

In February 1972, President Nixon made his landmark trip to China where he met with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and conducted negotiations with Premier Chou En-Lai. The visit was a symbolized U.S. recognition of the PRC, a recognition that had been withheld since the victorious communist revolution led by Mao in 1949.


The President next turned his attention to the Soviet Union. In May, he traveled to Europe and then Moscow. There, he and Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the historic SALT I treaty and, in several media events, trumpeted the coming era of detente. 


Apart from their substantive significance, the China and Russia initiatives boosted Nixon's public support and placed him in a strong position for his 1972 re-election campaign in the fall.  Whereas Nixon's public support had bottomed out in 1971, the events of 1972 reversed the decline and placed his public support on an upward trajectory. 

As Nixon pursued the ceremonial aspects of triangular diplomacy, he also acted on the "madman theory" as well.  In response to a North Vietnamese "spring offensive" against the south, the U.S. launched heavy bombing raids (February 10), called a halt to the talks in Paris (March 23), bombed fuel and supply depots in Haiphong (March 30).  On the eve of Nixon's trip to Moscow, it was revealed that the U.S. had mined North Vietnamese harbors and in the wake of the trip, the U.S. launched new rounds of bombing raids on Hanoi and Haiphong (June 9th and August 28th). 

On October 26th, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger returned to the United States and speaking before the press announced that "[W]e believe that peace is at hand."  The announcement was premature.  Athough Kissinger had reached a general understanding with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, on the outline of an agreement, there were details to iron out.  More importantly, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu announced that he would not accept an agreement unless the North Vietnamese withdrew their troops from the south and recognized the sovereignty of his government. 

Peace is at Hand?
Henry Kissinger with Le Duc Tho, Nguyen Van Thieu

The failure to bring negotiations to a close had little impact on the outcome of the 1972 presidential election. Nixon thoroughly defeated his Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. The president won 60.7% of the popular vote to McGovern's 37.5%; Nixon carried 49 of the 50 states to win 520 electoral votes while McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia for a total of 17 electoral votes.

Senator George McGovern

Vietnam: The End Game

In the wake of his reelection, Nixon again relied upon the "madman" theory. In response to North Vietnamese intransigence, the president ordered a new bombing campaign, Linebacker I, against the north.  The so-called "Christmas bombing" campaign began on December 18th and continued, with a pause on Christmas day itself,  until December 30th (Karnow, 654). 

In the meantime, President Thieu of South Vietnam was pressured, indeed threatened, to accept an agreement.  The core of Thieu's position was that North Vietnamese troops must be withdrawn from the South; as drafted, the Paris agreement permitted North Vietnamese troops to remain in areas that they controlled in the South. On December 19th, General Alexander Haig was sent to Saigon to meet with Thieu and deliver a personal letter from President Nixon (drafted by Henry Kissinger). "Let me emphasize," Nixon wrote, that General Haig is not coming to Saigon for the purpose of negotiating with you.  The time has come for us to present a united front in negotiating with our enemies, and you must decide now whether you desire to continue our alliance or whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves U.S. interests alone." (Hersh, p. 526; emphasis added).

In a nationally televised address on January 23, 1973, President Nixon announced that the United States had reached an agreement to end the war in Vietnam.  The agreement established a ceasefire throughout southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), stipulated that the U.S. would withdraw its remaining troops from Vietnam, and that the American prisoners of war would be returned.  It also recognized that the Thieu government would remain in power but permitted North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South. 

The program for releasing the POWs began on February 11, 1973.  The return of the servicemen to the United States received substantial coverage on all television networks. 


President Nixon and Returning  POW, John McCain

The announcement of the peace agreement and return of the POWs represents the high water mark of the Nixon administration.  In the wake of the January 23rd speech, public support for Nixon climbed to 67%, the highest level recorded for Nixon during his time as president. As the successor to the Lyndon Johnson  --- who died on January 22, 1973, one day before the Nixon's official announcement of a ceasefire --- Nixon required 48 months and an additional 15,183 battle deaths to end the war (see below).

Along with the Paris accords, the legacy of Nixon and Vietnam include the all-volunteer army and elimination of the draft as well as the continuing debates over the war powers of the president and the "bias" in the media. 


All Text & Analysis, Copyright , August 2002, Dennis M. Simon