Us and Vietnam War Essay

It has been three decades since America’s war in Vietnam ended with the Paris Agreement and Protocols on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam (Berman 1982). Signed at the International Conference Center in Paris on January 27, 1973, the agreement served as little more than a protocol for the return of American prisoners of war and military disengagement. By the terms of the deal, over 150,000 North Vietnamese troops remained in the South, whereas the United States, over the course of Nixon’s presidency, had unilaterally withdrawn over 500,000 of its own troops. The final contingent of the U.S. commitment departed Vietnam 60 days after the signing, but the level of violence between Vietnamese adversaries did not significantly decline; no peace came to Vietnam. In the United States, Watergate was changing from amber to red, and as his presidency unraveled in 1973, President Richard Nixon’s secret commitments to South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu were rendered meaningless. Less than two years later, faced with funding a $722 million budget supplement, the U.S. Congress showed little interest in providing military equipment or financial support to America’s longtime ally, South Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, South Vietnam ceased to exist.

For most Americans, the last images of the war were of the dazed U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin carrying a folded American flag under his arm during the final evacuation from the U.S. Embassy; or perhaps the chaos surrounding the evacuation of U.S. personnel and Vietnamese families from the Embassy rooftop; or the looting and pillaging of the Embassy safe, furniture, and files once the Americans had departed.

These images of a bitter end to the war created a societal and academic amnesia. No one seemed interested in such critical questions as the nature of the war, why the United States chose to fight the way it did, how North Vietnam had prevailed, the relationship of political objectives to military strategy, or the lessons that could be derived from the public diplomacy and secret negotiations that had characterized so much of the conflict. The dire situation would change as scholars gained access to a series of significant declassifications of primary source documents located in archival depositories in the United States, Vietnam, China, and Russia, and as principal architects of policy—the so-called “best and brightest”—began to reflect and write on their roles during the period. In 1995, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara broke his own long silence on the subject with the admission that “we were wrong, terribly wrong” (McNamara & Van De Mark 1995). Another principal architect of Vietnam policy, political scientist Henry Kissinger, has generated several books that address why the United States fought in Vietnam (Kissinger 1999). We approach our topic chronologically by examining 30 years of war from 1945 to 1975–beginning with the historic Vietnamese proclamation of independence and ending with the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975. We have identified what we believe are important components of this unfolding saga, and we begin from the intellectual premise that truly understanding why the United States fought in Vietnam requires that we comprehend the roots of the conflict (before it became America’s war in Vietnam) from the perspective of countries other than the United States— specifically, Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. After all, it was the United States that chose to fight in Vietnam’s war (Young 1991).


The disciplines of history and political science have illuminated many important aspects of the war, including presidential personality and leadership, war powers, public opinion, the role of the media, advisory processes and interactions, political dissent, and congressional-executive relations. Political science has also contributed significant theoretical advances on the subject of why nations go towards and on the nature of international conflict, belief systems, and conflict resolution processes. By and large, however, we believe that most of the seminal discoveries on the subject of “why the United States fought in Vietnam” have been made by historians.

After the communist victory in China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, new pressures were added to the mix. The bitter recriminations in the United States over “who lost China?” produced a compelling domestic incentive for the Truman administration to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam or anywhere else in Indochina. The loss of Southeast Asia was defined as threatening the security of the United States and the collectivity of Free World nations. The sovereignties of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries were valued not on their own merit but rather as a test of U.S. global position and credibility—a perception that would have a profound impact on the nature on the decision to intervene. Vietnam became important for what its loss to the communists would portend.

Based on the historical lessons of Munich, Korea, and China, not losing Vietnam became an increasingly important component in U.S. global objectives. In December 1950, the United States joined France, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in signing a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement. The United States agreed to provide military supplies and equipment through a U.S. military advisory group.

This small contingent of U.S. advisors provided limited logistical services with all supplies and equipment being dispensed through the French Expeditionary Corps. Year by year, U.S. aid to the French military effort mounted: from $130 million in 1950 to $800 million in 1953, amounting to more than three fourths of the cost of the French war effort.

In May 1953, the French government appointed General Henri Navarre commander in Vietnam and charged him with mounting a major new offensive against the Viet Minh. One of Navarre’s first moves, late in 1953, was to dispatch French troops to Dien Bien Phu, the juncture of a number of roads in northwestern Indochina about 100 miles from the Chinese border. In 1954, in Dien Bien Phu, the French and Viet Minh met in a major military confrontation. The French loss of this battle had important implications.

The Viet Minh controlled most of Vietnam and sought a political settlement at Geneva that would lead to the withdrawal of French forces and to the establishment of an independent government led by Ho Chi Minh. But four of the men sitting around the map of Southeast Asia spread over the large horseshoe-shaped table at the old League of Nations building put their own interests ahead of those of the fifth person at the table, Pham Van Dong. The four—Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom, Premier Pierre Mendes of France, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov of the Soviet Union, and Foreign Minister Chou Enlai of China—pressured the DRV to accept much less than the DRV had won in battle. The Vietnamese would never forget this “negotiation”.

The Pentagon Papers make clear that the United States intended to disassociate itself from the results at Geneva, fearing a sellout of U.S. interests. The Chinese and Soviets, fearing American intervention under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, forced Ho to accept two major concessions—a demarcation line drawn at the 17th parallel and free nationwide elections supervised by an international commission scheduled for 1956. The elections would settle the question of political control over Vietnam. In partitioning Vietnam at a nominally temporary “line of demarcation” between North and South at the 17th parallel, the Viet Minh took control of the Northern zone whereas France and an opposing Vietnamese government, ultimately led by Ngo Dinh Diem, controlled the South. Why did Ho Chi Minh accept these compromises? Ho recognized that without the support of the Chinese and Soviets, he could not have defeated the French. He acquiesced to the pressure, realizing that in two years Vietnam would be reunified

Three months after Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower convened the National Security Council (NSC) to review U.S. policy in Asia. The president was already on record as claiming that “strategically South Vietnam’s capture by the Communists would bring their power several hundred miles into a hitherto free region. The remaining countries in Southeast Asia would be menaced by a great flanking movement. The freedom of 12 million people would be lost immediately and that of 150 million others in adjacent lands would be seriously endangered. The loss of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, would have grave consequences for us and for freedom” (quoted in Berman 1982, p. 13). Eisenhower had also articulated the line of reasoning that came to be known as the domino theory, that the fall of one state to communism would lead to the next and the next being knocked over. Not losing Southeast Asia thus became the goal of the United States.

The study of the war’s early years places responsibility with Eisenhower for establishing the underpinnings and first principles for American military intervention in Southeast Asia that guided subsequent presidents in their Vietnam policies. Strategic concerns stemming from the need to contain the threatening tentacles of communism drove Eisenhower’s plans for defending this region. Even though he chose not to intervene militarily at Dien Bien Phu to help the French, he did provide the technical and financial support that allowed the Diem regime to gain power. The fear of falling dominoes and the accompanying threat to U.S. security led to the prominence of Vietnam’s position in American national security policy. These fears and considerations, which apparently were never critically examined nor questioned by subsequent presidents, drove Johnson’s foreign policy.

The 1954 division of Vietnam led the revolution to adopt two goals—socialism in the North and liberation in the South. By 1959, it had become evident to northerners and southerners that it was necessary to take up arms in the South in order to overthrow Diem and liberate South Vietnam. At the Fifteenth Plenum in January 1959, the Party leadership decided to make reunification the number one priority of the revolution. This began a political, diplomatic, and military struggle exemplified by the development of a multifaceted international strategy: a campaign of armed violence in the countryside paralleled by a new front for political warfare.

Pike’s (1986) lifetime of research on Hanoi’s concept of general warfare shows that, when it came to understanding PAVN strategy, one of the great difficulties confronting policy makers in Washington was semantic. Pike categorizes five separate periods of war in which Hanoi’s High Command altered strategy based on their perceptions of events and balance of forces: from early 1958 to late 1960—revolutionary war preparation; from 1961 to late 1964— revolutionary guerrilla war; from early 1965 to mid-1968—regular force strategy; from late 1968 to Easter 1972—neo-revolutionary guerrilla war; and from 1972 to the end of the war—high-technology regular force strategy. What we learn from Pike’s work is that these periods were delineated both by battlefield events and by serious disputes in Hanoi over doctrines of war. Pike’s analysis distinguishes dau tranh (struggle), dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle), and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle). Dau tranh chinh tri, which translates as “politics with guns,” consists of three van (action) programs—dich van (action among the enemy), dan van (action among the people), and binh van (action among the military). Pike goes on to define khoi nghia (uprising, insurrection, to revolt), tong koi nghia (general uprising), and chien tranh (protracted conflict).

In English this translated to “regular force” battles versus “revolutionary” warfare; in official terminology, it was a debate over armed dau tranh versus political dau tranh. We now understand that when the United States considered fighting in Vietnam, policy makers were unaware that the conflict ahead was a new type of war—a struggle, dau tranh, more than a war—as the communists said it was (Pike 1986). A complex relationship existed between Lao Dong’s Political Bureau in Hanoi and the NLF’s southern-based leadership. They had conflicts and disagreements over strategy, tactics, and diplomacy.

By 1961, Vietnam loomed as a test of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural commitment to pay any price, to bear any burden, in defense of freedom. President Kennedy initiated a counterinsurgency campaign as a limited war that could be waged internally in South Vietnam

Counter insurgency was really unconventional counter-guerrilla warfare and away of countering wars of national liberation. The idea of winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population was appealing to those who had doubts about the feasibility of defeating enemy forces on the battlefield. Counterinsurgency became the “other war” that the United States chose to fight in Vietnam. It consisted of population control, strategic hamlet programs, pacification, psychological warfare, and the Phoenix program that resulted in the execution of over 20,000 suspected Viet Cong guerrillas. All of these activities were coordinated by the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). Counterinsurgency as a doctrine eventually contributed to failure because it diverted attention from the decisive enemy—the regular armed forces of the North. Another result of the counterinsurgency campaign against the Viet Cong was a rise in revolutionary violence in the South against the Diem regime. The record

shows that Ho Chi Minh persuaded Party leaders that the way to defeat the United States and Diem was not to place force against force, but to wage the battle politically through guerrilla warfare and by mobilizing the masses and worldwide opinion against Diem and the United States. Diem’s government had evolved into a family oligarchy that ruled through force and repression. Opposition grew from a wide range of political, social, and religious groups. Protests raged, including the dramatic self-immolations by Buddhist monks

On November 1, 1963, Diem was removed from office and murdered in the back of a U.S.-built personnel carrier. The coup was planned and implemented by South Vietnamese military officers, but U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had foreknowledge of the assassination. Kennedy, given the opportunity to instruct Lodge to stop the coup, issued no such order. The U.S. government’s complicity in the coup heightened its sense of responsibility for finding a replacement. Diem’s death was followed by political instability in Saigon—there would be five different governments and prime ministers over the next 12 months. The most significant event, however, occurred just three weeks after Diem’s murder, when President Kennedy was assassinated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed office with the belief that the United States would be responsible for the stability and security of South Vietnam. He believed that his predecessor’s complicity in the overthrow of Diem now gave the United States de facto responsibility for successive governments in South Vietnam. Many believe that it was the Diem assassination that set in motion a series of events that in July 1965 would force Johnson to choose between accepting defeat or Americanizing the war by introducing combat troops. Was war inevitable? Logevall (1999) challenges this view by positing that a face-saving negotiated settlement was available in the 1964–1965 period, but that Lyndon Johnson chose war, seeing the challenge as a test of his own manliness. “The Long 1964,” the period between August 29, 1963 and late February 1965, provided the window for a negotiated settlement. This period began with the approval to move ahead with the coup against Diem and ended with the decision to begin sustained bombing of North Vietnam and to land two marine combat battalions in South Vietnam.

Drawing on multi-archival sources, Logevall (1999) hypothesizes that Johnson had other options and few allies at the time but chose to listen to the hawks on his advisory team—McNamara, Bundy, and Rusk (Gardner 1995). The window of opportunity for avoiding war was available because Hanoi was willing to compromise and accept a temporarily neutralized South Vietnam—fearing a massive U.S. escalation. Drawing on archival documents from international depositories, Logevall argues that China, Russia, and France were also predisposed toward this neutralist solution and that elite public opinion would have supported it. Moreover, Logevall makes extensive use of polling data from 1964 to show that the public was ill-informed and had not formed strong opinions on Vietnam. In the end, Logevall casts responsibility with Johnson and his close advisors for the critical decisions on America taking over the war. He correctly notes that this group, the so-called best and brightest, had been involved in policy making for several years and had a large personal stake in seeing that commitment succeed.

The Logevall thesis is part of a revisionist literature that rendered the “quagmire thesis” obsolete. The quagmire thesis was that, with containment as the strategic backdrop, U.S. policy makers inadvertently stumbled into a war in Vietnam. Once an ill-conceived vital American interest was created, a series of decisions followed. There was no single deliberate calculation, but rather an incremental process whereby each prior decision was thought to have been the last best new decision, with hopes that no further action would be needed. The war became a quagmire, but there was no one to blame for the tragedy—decisions to escalate stemmed from ignorance, good-faith idealism, and unintentional bumbling rather than from strategic calculations.

Political scientists are interested in understanding nationalist and indigenous sources of the war and windows of opportunity that existed before the Cold War mentality emerged. Once policies were implemented under Eisenhower that supported the Diem regime, it became increasingly difficult for subsequent presidents to roll back those obligations because the costs of losing increased with each presidential promise to maintain the government in the South. Many if not all advisors surrounding Truman and Eisenhower would have agreed with Clark Clifford’s 1969 assertion that the original commitment was to a noble goal—ensuring that a separate, autonomous, sovereign, anticommunist, and pro-American (not just noncommunist and not neutralist) state would survive in Vietnam. Yet no one seemed interested in debating whether the nobler cause might have been in supporting the Viet Minh in their struggle for independence and self-determination.

We may also reject the quagmire thesis, maintaining that the bureaucracy of civilian policy makers knew the low odds of success but that politically no president wanted to be blamed for losing South Vietnam. In 1965, John McNaughton had already informed his boss, Secretary of Defense McNamara, of the poor probabilities for success with each increasing increment and year of American involvement. U.S. aims were identified as 70% to preserve national honor; 20% to keep South Vietnam free from communist control; and 10% to answer the call of a friend in order to help him enjoy a better life (Berman 1982, p. 140). This was no quagmire, but it was a sinkhole. The United States did not blunder into Vietnam; the bureaucratic system worked, in that McNamara knew the odds. But he and the President undertook a policy that was a compromise of competing beliefs—and decided to do what was minimally necessary to avoid losing Vietnam—which they pursued until they lost the “essential domino” of American public support. 

Political scientists have made important contributions concerning Johnson and his advisors and the impact of advisory processes on policy outcomes. Comparing 1954 and 1965, when two presidents with strikingly different leadership styles and advisory teams faced a similar challenge—committing American ground troops to Vietnam.

In Planning A Tragedy, Berman (1982) focuses on Johnson’s decision in July 1965 to Americanize the war. Johnson believed that if South Vietnam went down the drain in 1965, so would his chances of passing most of his Great Society legislation. In order to avoid a divisive national debate on the American commitment to Vietnam, Johnson decided not to mobilize the military reserves, not to request a general tax increase for 1966, and not to publicize the anticipated manpower needs in order to accomplish the limited political objective. Johnson was not misled by his advisors. He used his great talents to forge a marginal political and military consensus that resulted in a guns-and-butter decision to fight a war at home and abroad with insufficient resources. In Uncertain Warriors, Barrett (1993) challenges Berman’s thesis by positing that the Johnson advisory deliberations flowed from the actions of a rational leader and advisors pursuing a vision of an anticommunist world order.

In either case, Johnson’s July 1965 decision was tantamount to slow political suicide and forced the administration to prove that there was a crossover point in the war of attrition. The administration became fixated on statistically demonstrating to the press and the American public that progress was being made—body counts, order of battle, kill ratios, pacification, bombing targets, and population control data were all measured, averaged, and manipulated to show that there indeed was a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite these efforts, the credibility gap and a failed policy soon forced Johnson from office.

Military revisionists have contributed to a fuller appreciation of how the war was fought and lost in Washington (Summers 1982).  Colonel Harry Summers, author of the important On Strategy, agrees that political rather than military considerations played the crucial role in America’s defeat, but he reaches this conclusion for different reasons. Summers embraces the minority view (among scholars) that the war was lost in the United States, not Southeast Asia. The inability of military leaders to challenge the faulty civilian strategy of graduated response, the loss of popular support for the war in 1967, Johnson’s psychological collapse in 1968, and the sundering of Washington’s alliance with Saigon with the Paris peace accords in 1973 all contributed to the outcome. An indefatigable proponent of Vietnam revisionism, Summers also argues that Tet transformed the conflict into a conventional war, but that Americans rejected the conflict’s costs because they never understood its objectives. Like other revisionists, Summers denies that the war was a social revolution, and hence he disregards the guerrilla conflict’s impact upon Vietnam’s peasantry. But he does agree that the outcome also turned to the inability of American and South Vietnamese forces to destroy their adversary’s will to continue the fight. (Summers 1982) Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1962 to 1964, consistently misled both Kennedy and Johnson on the views of the Chiefs and misled the Chiefs on the intentions of the commander-in-chief. Johnson certainly manipulated the Chiefs into accepting his guns-and-butter policy (Berman 1982), but the Chiefs played along and kept quiet, taking the path of least resistance. McMaster shows that this was as much the result of inter-service rivalry as it was fear of challenging their commander-in-chief. Years later, many of these same senior military leaders lamented that they had not resigned in protest.

Why did bombing fail as a political tool for Johnson yet succeed for Nixon? This important and frequently misunderstood issue has also clouded discussion pertaining to the use of air power in subsequent interventions. Rolling Thunder was the longest bombing campaign in the history of the U.S. Air Force, and it failed. Its objective was to destroy the North’s means of production and distribution, but the communist forces in South Vietnam needed few external supplies. Rolling Thunder was strategically flawed because the war was stalemated in the South and conventional attacks against the North had little effect on the enemy’s initiative. The enemy had no breaking point with respect to Rolling Thunder because the more Rolling Thunder attacked industry, rail, and roadways, the more successful the enemy was in developing the Ho Chi Minh Trail for transport.

Linebacker II was more effective, since it was used against a large-scale conventional assault requiring massive logistical support. Linebacker II seriously disrupted and damaged North Vietnam’s lines of communication. But most significantly, Nixon employed Linebacker II in support of very limited objectives. Whereas Johnson had explained the use of air power as the means of helping to establish an independent, stable, noncommunist South Vietnam, Nixon applied air power only to guarantee America’s continued withdrawal and to assure that the South did not face imminent collapse after the U.S. departure. Opinion polls conducted immediately after the initiation of Linebacker II revealed that the American public approved of the bombing by wide margins. Nixon was also correct in his assessment that the Soviets would not risk d´etente over the bombings. There was a crucial irony to the Linebacker support: While Linebacker pushed Hanoi to make significant concessions, it also stiffened South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu’s opposition to any agreement. Viewing the concessions that Linebacker helped extract from Hanoi, the South Vietnamese president reasoned that continued strikes could bring him total victory.  

The day before the Christmas 1972 bombing, Nixon told Admiral Moorer, “I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one. This is your chance to use military power effectively to win this war, and if you don’t, I’ll consider you responsible.” Drawing a comparison between himself and his predecessor, Nixon frequently said that he had the “will” to punish Hanoi with B-52s. Nixon intended Linebacker II to inflict maximum physical damage on the North Vietnamese. Whereas Linebacker I sought to wreck North Vietnam’s war-making capacity, Linebacker II was intended to destroy the North’s will to fight and to serve as a Western Union message to President Thieu that the United States intended to continually support South Vietnam. Hanoi was indeed rendered defenseless by the Linebacker assault, but the United States sustained serious losses as well. During the 12-day campaign (11 days, a pause on Christmas, and another day of bombing), the enemy downed 13 U.S. tactical aircraft and 15 B-52s. U.S. aircrew casualties during the expanded bombing of December amounted to 93 missing, with 31 reported captured.

In case after case, each of these three assumptions was proven to be in error because the war was not an ongoing bargaining process. The empirical reality in Hanoi and Washington did not comport with the base assumptions of a unitary rational actor. The bureaucratic conflict model captures reality much more accurately —the decision maker on both sides of the conflict is best seen as a collection of rival groups battling over policy rather than as a single individual who consistently engages in predictable cost-benefit analysis. Assuming such rationality on the part of one’s enemy led to problematic and unsuccessful actions by the Johnson administration.

And what of the essential domino—American public opinion? Johnson found that he could not wage a war against poverty at home and against the Viet Cong in Asia without public backing, and his actions soon created a credibility gap. Nixon always insisted that his actions, especially bombing, were supported by the silent majority of Americans and that the American people believed he had secured a peace with honor.

The United States fought in Vietnam because of a Cold War consensus was shared by journalists and policy makers alike. The critical crossover point in media criticism of policy came with the January 1968 Tet offensive, which challenged the administration’s claims of progress. The oft-promised light at the end of the tunnel was that of an oncoming train. Tet revealed that despite over 525,000 troops, billions of dollars, and extensive bombing, the United States had not stopped the enemy from replacing his forces. The pace of the war and the capacity to sustain it were controlled not by America’s superior technology but by the enemy. In effect, the United States faced stalemate in Vietnam. 

On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced a partial suspension of the bombing and asked that Hanoi’s negotiators come to the table. The President then stunned the nation by announcing that he would not seek renomination for the presidency. The leader who committed forces abroad thereby removed himself from the disengagement process. The battle over disengagement and its meaning would now belong to his successor.

The war in Vietnam was negotiated over almost as long as it was fought. The role of these negotiations in the political settlement remains one of the least understood aspects of the war. The negotiations became a contest of wills: the resolve of the United States to see the war through to an honorable end and the resolve of the North Vietnamese to reach an advantageous settlement that would allow them to continue their struggle toward unification of Vietnam under the flag of Hanoi. The real negotiations were conducted in secret between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. This private channel meant that the United States and North Vietnam would negotiate the terms for South Vietnam’s survival. President Thieu was kept in the dark, as were most bureaucratic entities in the United States. The veil of secrecy surrounding the talks meant that very few would be aware of the concessions being made. There was no precise negotiating position that had been agreed to within the U.S. government, nor even a general negotiating position agreed on with the government of Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger viewed secrecy as the key to a successful negotiating outcome.  The United States entered the negotiations during the Nixon presidency from the position of “mutual withdrawal” of troops as the essential component of any settlement. The United States would withdraw its troops from South Vietnam only if the North would do the same. The North Vietnamese position called for a unilateral withdrawal of all foreign troops and the removal of President Thieu from power. North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho insisted that the only invading foreign army in South Vietnam was that of the United States. Kissinger soon capitulated (in secret). After the United States agreed to allow the Northern troops to remain, Hanoi waited until 1972, when the balance of forces in the South was decidedly in Hanoi’s favor. The Politburo then instructed Tho to concede on the point of Thieu remaining in power because in Hanoi’s eyes, Thieu would be irrelevant given the other concessions. In his memoirs, Kissinger describes Hanoi’s concession as the one he had dreamed about for years—Tho had separated military from political issues. 

President Thieu remained in power, buttressed with private assurances from Nixon, Kissinger, and Haig of massive, brutal retaliation for communist violations of the Paris Agreement—but only after the return of American prisoners of war in the 60 days following the signing of the Agreement in January 1973.

The declassified record shows that President Thieu was encouraged (a) not to hold elections until the Northern troops went home, (b) to use political prisoners as hostages—even though Kissinger had promised Tho their release—to compel the North’s withdrawal, and (c) to treat with contempt the National Council on Reconciliation. Thieu was being asked to accomplish something that Kissinger failed to achieve in three years of negotiations. Kissinger and Nixon repeatedly told their ally that there was no reason to risk a political solution until a North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South. The aged men in the Politburo had no intention of accommodating this daydream. Thieu was informed and never consulted; Kissinger kept him in the dark while negotiating directly with Tho on the future of South Vietnam. The new documentation suggests a deceitful plan on the same level as Lyndon Johnson’s manipulation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was used to justify expanded military engagement (Moise 1996). The Paris Agreement was intended to justify American reengagement, and as in the case of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the public and the Congress would not be told. The plan was for permanent war at acceptable political costs; only Watergate derailed it.

Nixon planned for an indefinite stalemate by using U.S. airpower to prop up the government of South Vietnam through 1976 and the end of his second term. He was prepared to take on Congress by appealing directly for the support of the silent majority. Nixon expected violations, but he had an enforcing mechanism—the return of the B-52s. The President would take whatever actions were necessary to guarantee that when he turned the keys of the White House over to the next occupant in 1976, there would be a South Vietnam. 

At midnight Greenwich Mean Time on January 27, 1973, the war in Vietnam was declared officially over. Delegations representing the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Communist Government of South Vietnam signed the agreement known officially as the “Paris Agreement and Protocols on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam.”

The agreement provided for the end of the fighting and the withdrawal of American forces. The United States committed itself to ending all air and naval actions against North Vietnam and to dismantling or deactivating all mines in the waters of North Vietnam. Within two months after the signing of the agreement, all forces of the United States and of U.S. allies would depart Vietnam. The United States was barred from sending new war materials or supplies to South Vietnam and was required to dismantle all military bases there. The armed forces of the government of South Vietnam and the NLF were allowed to remain where they were, but the ceasefire barred the introduction of new troops, military advisers, military personnel (including technical military personnel), armaments, munitions, and war materials from North Vietnam or anywhere else. In addition, the Agreement required the return of all captured military personnel and foreign civilians during the same two-month period. The two South Vietnamese parties would handle the return of Vietnamese civilians. The United States and North Vietnam promised to uphold the principles of self-determination for the South Vietnamese people, which included free and democratic elections under international supervision.