NIXON AND THE VIETNAM WAR

NIXON AND THE VIETNAM WAR

In 1968, the year that Richard Nixon was elected president to the United States the Vietnam War was becoming perceived as unwinnable and its cost, namely in lives, was becoming too high to justify continuing fighting. Nixon’s primary concern was not winning the war but finding an honorable way out. The cornerstone of Nixon’s policy was "peace with honor"— the notion that the United States had to keep fighting to fulfill its pledge to its ally, South Vietnam. To not do so would be a dishonorable betrayal and would undermine America’s credibility in the world. Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, took credit for ending the Vietnam War on terms that he said made the region more secure and the international system more stable.

Robert Dallek wrote in the Washington Post, "Nixon campaigned in 1968 claiming to have a "secret plan" to end the war, but after entering the White House in 1969, he and Kissinger quickly accepted that a military victory in Vietnam was unattainable. "In Saigon," the new president told his national security adviser that year, "the tendency is to fight the war to victory. But you and I know it won't happen — it is impossible." [Source: Robert Dallek, Washington Post, May 20, 2007 <>]

"Such private honesty didn't mean public candor -- let alone withdrawal." Yet "despite Nixon's and Kissinger's behind-the-scenes pragmatism, they continued the fighting for four bloody years -- punctuated by their Cambodian "incursion" in the spring of 1970, a U.S.-backed South Vietnamese offensive in Laos in 1971 and the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972. Throughout, they knew that victory was impossible but hoped that military pressure on Hanoi would force the North Vietnamese into what Nixon called "peace with honor" -- a deal that could end the United States' commitment while preserving its international credibility. <>

"Having vowed during the 1968 campaign to bring U.S. troops home, he feared he might lose his reelection bid if the war was still raging in 1972. Although Nixon had privately given up on the Vietnam War early in his first term, he wanted to label Democrats as "the party of surrender." Nixon's national security team that a quick exit from Vietnam would undermine the United States' standing abroad -- turning a superpower, as Nixon put it, into "a pitiful, helpless giant." In fact, withdrawal did no such thing. What truly hurt America's international reputation on Nixon's and Kissinger's watch (Watergate aside) was the continuation of the conflict for four futile years, which encouraged major powers to conclude that the United States couldn't let go of a failed war. In fact, U.S. credibility was enhanced by ending a war that it could not win -- a war that was costing the country vital resources that it could better use elsewhere. <>

Nixon Doctrine

The so-called Nixon Doctrine— Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ to end the war—was unveiled in July 1969. It called for South Vietnam and other Asian nations to be more ‘self-reliant’ in defense matters through — Vietnamisation"—the South Vietnamese fight the war without US troops—while the U.S. sought a peace agreement with North Vietnam, using bombing and other heavy-handed means to pressure North Vietnam into making a deal that favorable to the U.S.

Robert K. Brigham wrote in the Washington Post, " Faced with a similarly hostile Congress and public, President Richard M. Nixon's administration was forced to pursue a political strategy in Vietnam. Nixon continued to apply military pressure against the North, but he also began a unilateral, phased U.S. troop withdrawal designed to force Saigon to take fuller responsibility for South Vietnam's security. Nixon also brought China and the Soviet Union into negotiations to end the war by making them partners in the solution. At the time, no one could have predicted that either communist superpower would be willing to trade Hanoi's interests for lessening cold war tensions in Southeast Asia. Nor could anyone have predicted in 1969 that the Nixon administration would eventually agree to a political settlement that required the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam without requiring North Vietnam to do the same. Yet that is what happened. [Source: Robert K. Brigham, Washington Post, January 14, 2007]

Despite promises to do the opposite Nixon escalated the Vietnam War in first half of 1969 after he took office. In April the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam reached an all-time high of 543, 400. While the fighting in Vietnam raged, Nixon’s chief negotiator, Henry Kissinger, pursued peace talks in Paris with his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho. This new escalation provoked yet more bitter antiwar protests. On May 4, 1970, four students were shot dead at Kent State by Ohio National Guardsmen. They were protesting the bombing of Cambodia. Organizations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War showed that it wasn’t just "cowardly students fearing military conscription" who were behind the anti-war movement. [Source: Lonely Planet]

"Descalation" Under Nixon

In November 1968, Richard Nixon won a close election against Johnson's Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In the election Nixon promised to end the war in six months. In July 1969, he announced the withdrawal of 60,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam, while secretly ordering an bombing of Viet Cong positions in Cambodia.

The number of soldiers in South Vietnam dropped from a peak of 554,000 in April 1969 to 475,200 at the end of 1969. By this time 40,024 American soldiers had been killed. By the end of Nixon’s first term in 1972 the number of American casualties per months was reduced from 1,200 to 30. In 1973 the number of American troops in South Vietnam was reduced to 30,000.

In the meantime fighting raged on. Describing Hue in 1971, a U.S official told David Alexander of Smithsonian magazine, "All the royal tombs were a no- man's-land. You'd get in a copter...and you'd have to sort of fly around the mountain tops because the Viet Cong would be firing at you. And you didn't know from one day to the next whether you'd be able to land because the control of the area went back and forth so much." As for the state of the South Vietnamese Army, photographer Don McCullin recalled that by 1972, "They had thrown away their boot and weapons. They were fleeing the fighting."

Vietnamization

The Vietnamization" program implemented by Nixon and his commander in Vietnam, Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, in the late stages of the war called for the U.S. to arm and train South Vietnam's forces to take care of their country's security. To achieve this the policy called for an influx of military advisors and a speeded-up handover to indigenous forces followed by a gradual U.S. withdrawal. Robert Dallek wrote in the Washington Post, "In effect, Nixon hoped that as the South Vietnamese stood up, the United States would stand down."

John A. Graham wrote in the Washington Post, "Sometime in 1969, the White House, faced with unrelenting facts on the ground and under siege from the public, had quietly decided that the United States couldn't win in Vietnam. President Richard M. Nixon and national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger didn't put it that way, of course. The United States was a superpower and could not lose a war to a third-rate nation whose soldiers lived on rice and hid in holes in the ground. So the White House conceived an elaborate strategy to mask the U.S. defeat: Slowly withdraw combat troops over several years, while the remaining Americans would focus on training the South Vietnamese to fight on their own. We gave the South Vietnamese a series of performance ultimatums -- call them benchmarks -- that, if unmet, would trigger full U.S. withdrawal and shift blame to the South Vietnamese for the debacle that would follow. [Source: John A. Graham, Washington Post, January 14, 2007, John A. Graham, a former Foreign Service officer, served in Vietnam in 1971-1977 <*>]

"To make the drama of Vietnamization work, the pullout had to be gradual and easily explained to the American public. The U.S. training force left behind had to be large enough to provide signs of our commitment on the 6 o'clock news. Pictures of unarmed advisers like me shaking hands with happy peasants would support the fallacy that Vietnamization was working. The White House hoped that this strategy would keep the house of cards upright for at least a couple of years, providing what Kissinger infamously called a "decent interval" that could hide the U.S. defeat by declaring that the fate of South Vietnam was now the responsibility of the South Vietnamese. If they didn't want freedom badly enough to win, well, we had done our best. <*>

Peter Spiegel wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Abrams' shift in Vietnam after he took over from Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland in 1968—which involved an increased advisory effort and an accelerated pacification program, and the enlarging the South Vietnamese army—was finally beginning to work by the early 1970s, military scholars argue. Those efforts were undermined, their thesis goes, by a lack of political will at home, which forced the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the Saigon government to go it alone before they were ready. [Source: Peter Spiegel, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2006 >>>]

"Gen. Westmoreland preferred to fight the war with American troops; he saw the advisory effort to help the South Vietnamese as very secondary," said Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert at the Naval Postgraduate School who has traveled to Iraq frequently to advise U.S. commanders. "When Abrams took over, he turned it back around, and he emphasized the advisory system as part of the way the Americans could disengage." >>>

"There's a considerable sentiment of those who really studied Vietnam and, ideally, served there, that the approach to the war after Westmoreland left was on a new track," said retired Army Col. Stuart A. Herrington, another Vietnam veteran who has advised the Pentagon on Iraq policy. "It was a radical change in the approach to the war, and there's no question that even [former North Vietnamese] adversaries now admit that the second approach was extremely, extremely damaging to them." >>>

"Veterans of later years of the Vietnam conflict, some of whom are now in positions at the military's leading war colleges, often describe a strategy that was beginning to work even as combat forces began to withdraw in the early 1970s. James Willbanks, a former military advisor in Vietnam who heads the history department at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, argued that pacification efforts -- the strategy of pushing South Vietnamese forces into the countryside to provide a physical and psychological sense of security -- had largely succeeded by 1972. He adding that the ARVN was even able to hold its own without American combat troops until Congress decided to withhold military funding to Saigon shortly after U.S. troops withdrew in 1973. >>>

"Their fear is that, like the ultimately failed Vietnamization effort, an unwillingness by the American public to support the war. "The [Vietnam] war was so far along and the withdrawal was so far along that the U.S. advisory effort was losing its effectiveness," recalled retired Army Col. Walter Clark, who served as a provincial military advisor in the Mekong Delta in 1971 and 1972 before becoming commandant of the Citadel, the private military college in South Carolina. "I couldn't snap my fingers and get a bunch of helicopters the Vietnamese might need." >>>

Vietnamization in Practice on the Ground

During a typically inept South Vietnamese offensive against North Vietnamese forces in early 1971, Nixon privately seethed with frustration. "If the South Vietnamese could just win one cheap one," he fumed to his national security aides. "Take a stinking hill. . . . Bring back a prisoner or two." When the South Vietnamese air force failed to attack North Vietnamese trucks because they were "moving targets," [Source: Robert Dallek, Washington Post, May 20, 2007]

John A. Graham wrote in the Washington Post, "I was a civilian adviser in Vietnam, sent there by the State Department in early 1971 just as U.S. combat troops were starting to go home. I wasn't there to fight, but I soon learned that "noncombatant" didn't mean much in Hué, the provincial capital 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone where I was posted. A week into my stay, a sniper's bullet whistled past my ear on the main highway. Joe Jackson, the burly major who was driving the Jeep, yelled at me to hold on and duck as he zigzagged to spoil the sniper's aim. [Source: John A. Graham, Washington Post, January 14, 2007, John A. Graham, a former Foreign Service officer, served in Vietnam in 1971-1977 <*>]

The "Vietnamization" strategy cost at least 10,000 more U.S. lives and countless more Vietnamese ones, plus billions of dollars. And it was rigged from the start. All but Washington's wildest dreamers knew that the South Vietnamese could not meet our ultimatums -- especially our demand that they create a popular national state strong enough to control the rivalries that had long ripped the country apart. And more years of U.S. training could not possibly make a difference because the core missing element was not South Vietnamese combat or leadership skills — it was belief in a nation worth fighting for. <*>

"By June 1971, the 101st Airborne Division, stationed just outside Hué, had all but stood down from active fighting. It had provided the security that allowed my training/advisory teams and me to continue building schools and roads and training local officials. Even as that protection ebbed, my teams were still expected to go into a countryside that was becoming more dangerous by the day. As the U.S. adviser to Hué, I was an easy target anytime the Viet Cong might have wanted to take me out. I kept a case of grenades under my bed, slept with an M-16 propped against the bedstead and had a dubious army of four Vietnamese house guards who I hoped would at least fire a warning shot before running away. <*>

"On April 27, 1972, North Vietnamese forces swept south across the demilitarized zone, scattering the South Vietnamese army defenders in Quang Tri and pushing south toward Hué. By early May, the battle line arced 15 miles north and 10 miles west of the city. To the east was the South China Sea and to the south, the road to Danang -- Hué's last ground link to the outside world. More than 200,000 refugees poured into Hué. Hungry people fought for scraps of garbage and looted homes and shops. Among the refugees were hundreds of deserters from the South Vietnamese divisions shattered in Quang Tri, still wearing uniforms and carrying M-16s. A mob of drunken soldiers torched the main market at Dong Ba. The city's firemen had long since fled, and black smoke hung in a pall over streets now jammed with terrified people and echoing with gunshots and shattering glass. There was nothing we could do but watch the shouting, shoving mass of people stream past us toward the Danang road. <*>

"No one knew it at the time, but the battle raging just north and west of Hué that night -- May 2, 1972 -- was the turning point in the war. If the city fell, the road to Danang would be open to the North Vietnamese army. My three American colleagues in Hué and I did not believe we would be pulled out in time if the city fell. We knew that any choppers sent to save us would be mobbed by Vietnamese desperate to escape. We're alive because U.S. carrier jets caught the advancing North Vietnamese at daybreak just short of the city walls and all but obliterated them. <*>

Successes for the South Vietnam Government Behind the Headlines

In 1971 and 1972, the communists faced some serious problems unrelated to United States offensive operations. The Saigon government began to gain some support in the Mekong Delta because of the implementation of a "land-to-the-tiller" reform program pressed on the Thieu government by Washington in 1970. Almost 400,000 farmers received a total of 600,000 hectares, and by 1972 tenancy reportedly had declined from about 60 percent to 34 percent in some rural areas. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Mark Moyar wrote: "In March 1970, President Thieu enacted the momentous "Land to the Tiller" law. To all tenant farmers and to all villagers farming on land distributed by the VC, it gave legal ownership of the land they cultivated. The cultivators merely had to submit an application to the GVN to receive title to the land. Saigon paid the original owner a certain amount of money, and the compensation generally was large enough to satisfy most landowners. Land to the Tiller reduced the maximum allowable land holdings of an individual to 15 hectares, and anyone holding that much land could do so only if he and his family farmed the land themselves. By the end of 1973, the GVN had issued approximately 1.2 million hectares to roughly 950,000 titleholders, exceeding its redistribution goal of one million hectares. In the Mekong Delta and the provinces around Saigon, the program worked extremely well. It redistributed about one half of all riceland in the Delta. In most of I Corps and II Corps, however, the Government distributed relatively few parcels of land. In the highlands, the Government did not make a serious attempt to institute these reforms. In the lowlands, stiff opposition from village officials and landlords, along with the scarcity of arable land and non-agricultural employment opportunities, prevented the redistribution. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

In addition, a People's Self-Defense Force Program begun about this time had some success in freeing ARVN troops for combat duty, as United States forces were gradually withdrawn. Although it wasn't clear at the time whether the withdrawal of United States troops would cause the ARVN to crumble instantly, as predicted by the communists, the decisive defeat of an ARVN operation mounted against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in March 1971 was an early indication. At the time of the ARVN defeat, however, the communists were coping with deteriorating morale and with dwindling numbers of troops; a rising desertion rate and falling recruitment levels had reduced PLAF strength from 250,000 in 1968 to less than 200,000 in 1971. *

Successes of Nixon’s Vietnam Strategy Team: Ellsworth Bunker, William Colby and Gen. Creighton Abrams?

Lewis Sorley wrote in the New York Times: "Few seem aware of the many successful changes in strategy undertaken in the later years of the conflict. The credit for those accomplishments goes in large part to three men: Ellsworth Bunker, who became the American ambassador to South Vietnam in 1967; William Colby, the CIA officer in charge of rural "pacification" efforts; and Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became the top American commander there in 1968. [Source: Lewis Sorley, New York Times, October 17, 2009, Lieutenant Colonel (U.S. Army, Retired) Lewis Sorley holds the following degrees: B.S. from the United States Military Academy, M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam" (1999) \:/]

1) Fight one war: Abrams, Bunker and Colby agreed that the war would be fought — and won or lost — in the villages. They decided to put equal priority on all key aspects of the war — thus the improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces and the elimination of covert Viet Cong bases and refuges in rural areas were given the same emphasis as large combat operations. 2) Rethink combat operations: The early strategy in Vietnam was to use large units in "search and destroy" sweeps — often on ground of the enemy’s choosing in the deep jungle. Abrams decided instead to try "clear and hold" operations, in which small patrols were sent to villages to protect the populace. These troops were followed by South Vietnamese security forces — which Abrams made sure would get better training and equipment and were integrated into the regular army — to provide the "hold." 3) Restrain the use of force: Early on, Abrams said, "My problem is colored blue." By that he meant that friendly forces (usually portrayed in blue on battle maps, as contrasted to the enemy shown in red) were causing undue "collateral damage" to the South Vietnamese people and their property. He reined in the use of heavy firepower like artillery and tactical airstrikes.\:/

4) Create an effective central government: As Nguyen Van Thieu, who became South Vietnam’s president in 1967, gained experience and influence, senior Americans came to regard him as the "No. 1 pacification officer." He traveled extensively, promoting and evaluating local programs. And by 1972 his "Land to the Tiller" initiative had achieved genuine land reform, distributing two and a half million acres of land to nearly 400,000 farmers. 5) Support local governments: In Vietnam, rural hamlets were able to elect their own officials, who were sent to training sessions in the port city of Vung Tau. President Thieu spoke to every class, emphasizing that they had to be "little presidents" and make good use of the resources that the central government would provide for economic growth, health care and schools. 6) Gather intelligence: "The intelligence is the most important part of this whole damn thing," Abrams told a visiting officer. "And if that’s good, we can handle anything." The best way to root out the enemy’s secret bases in Vietnam was to get good information from villagers and "ralliers," former Viet Cong rebels who had switched sides. \:/

7) Build the economy: Vietnam depended on rice, and widespread fighting and enemy gains in early years took many acres of land out of cultivation. Pacification efforts put some of that land back into production and re-opened local markets, while the introduction of genetically engineered "miracle rice" greatly increased yields. In Afghanistan, finding viable alternative crops for farmers now growing opium poppies would seem to be a first order of business. 8) Improve security: Protection of the people (not body counts, as in the earlier period) became the measure of progress in Vietnam. The appropriate metrics to watch in Afghanistan are probably economic growth, the percentage of children attending school and health data, along with freedom of movement within and between population centers. 9) Control the borders: In South Vietnam, allied forces were never able to seal off borders with Cambodia, Laos or North Vietnam. The self-imposed prohibitions against going outside South Vietnam with ground forces allowed the enemy to use border areas for training, supply routes and sanctuary. 10) Maintain political support at home: All that was accomplished on the battlefield in the latter years of Vietnam was lost when Congress, having tired of the whole endeavor, drastically cut support for South Vietnam. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was able to rally public and press support for the war. \:/

Bombing of Cambodia

The secret bombing began on March 18, 1969. Between that time and 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, the United States dropped four times as many tons of conventional bombs (539,000 tons) on Cambodia as were dropped on the Japan during World War II. “Huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees. Many of the bombs were dropped after the peace treaty with Vietnam was signed and American soldiers had been evacuated from Vietnam. As bad as this was Laos had even more bombs dropped on it.

United States bombing of enemy troop dispositions and guerrilla sanctuaries in Cambodia-- particularly in the summer of 1973, when intense aerial bombardment (known as Arclight) was used to halt a Khmer Rouge assault on Phnom Penh--bought time for the Lon Nol government, but did not stem the momentum of the communist forces. United States official documents give a figure of 79,959 sorties by B-52 and F-111 aircraft over the country, during which a total of 539,129 tons of ordnance were dropped, about 350 percent of the tonnage (153,000 tons) dropped on Japan during World War II. Many of the bombs that fell in Cambodia struck relatively uninhabited mountain or forest regions; however, as declassified United States Air Force maps show, others fell over some of the most densely inhabited areas of the country, such as Siemreab Province, Kampong Chhnang Province, and the countryside around Phnom Penh. Deaths from the bombing are extremely difficult to estimate, and figures range from a low of 30,000 to a high of 500,000. Whatever the real extent of the casualties, the Arclight missions over Cambodia, which were halted in August 15, 1973, by the United States Congress, delivered shattering blows to the structure of life in many of the country's villages, and, according to some critics, drove the Cambodian people into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

The bombing was by far the most controversial aspect of the United States presence in Cambodia. In his book Sideshow, William Shawcross provides a vivid image of the hellish conditions, especially in the months of January to August 1973, when the Arclight sorties were most intense. He claims that the bombing contributed to the forging of a brutal and singlemindedly fanatical Khmer Rouge movement. However, his arguments have been disputed by several United States officials--including the former ambassador to Cambodia, Emory C. Swank, and the former Air Force commander in Thailand, General John W. Vogt--in an appendix to the second volume of the memoirs of then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. *

Impact of the Bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam War

The bombing of Cambodia coincided with Khmer Rouge’s five year drive to Phnom Penh and hurt the pro-American Cambodian regime. That government was too weak to carry on after the United States left Southeast Asia as South Vietnam fell. The bombing helped the Khmer Rouge win the sympathy of villagers and attract new recruits: One Cambodian scholar told AP, “It gave the Khmer Rouge the means to convince people to join them. They just had to say, ‘See they bombed our villages...join us and fight the United States.’”

The American bombing complicated and intensified the Cambodian Civil War and exacerbated problems and tensions within Cambodia. Many have blamed the United States recklessness in Cambodia as setting in motion a chain of events that led to the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. According to Lonely Planet: Undoubtedly, the bombing campaign helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive, as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. While the final, heaviest bombing in the first half of 1973 may have saved Phnom Penh from a premature fall, its ferocity also helped to harden the attitude of many Khmer Rouge cadres and may have contributed to the later brutality that characterised their rule. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “U.S. bombs dropped on Cambodia at that time caused widespread destruction and upheaval in the countryside, so the Nixon administration is partly to blame for what happened after the Khmer Rouge was left to clean up the mess in 1975. Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan said. "I think the responsibility must be shared to be just." He said the Khmer Rouge did what was necessary to save their country. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2007]

The COSVN sanctuaries and headquarters turned out be collection of temporary huts that were quickly replaced. One villager who lost her son to an American bomb told AP, “My boy was beautiful. He had a big, round face. I could not sleep. I could not eat for months...I do not even swear at the Americans. There was no time. We had to keep running and hiding from place to place.” Some were sympathetic to what the United States was trying to do. One villager told AP, “There were lots of Viet Cong in the area—that’s why they were bombing. If they had wanted to kill the villager, no one would be here today. The Americans knew how to kill.”

President Nixon stopped the airstrikes in August 1973 after a U.S. federal judge ruled them unconstitutional and Congress refused to fund them. From the Khmer Rouge perspective, however, the severity of the bombings was matched by the treachery of the North Vietnamese. The Cambodian communists had refused to take part in the Paris peace talks. When North Vietnam and the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, bombing missions over Vietnam and Laos were terminated. The fighter bombers and other aircraft thus released were diverted to strike Khmer Rouge positions in Cambodia. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Nixon Mulled Getting Out of Vietnam in 1972

The BBC reported: "President Richard Nixon discussed a Vietnam exit strategy before the 1972 election, a tape released to mark 30 years since he resigned shows. US forces had engaged in a huge bombing campaign that year in North Vietnam. But Nixon told his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that even with US backing, South Vietnam was unlikely to survive. Some historians see the conversation as evidence that Nixon sacrificed US forces in his quest for a second term. But Mr Kissinger, now a foreign policy consultant, told the Associated Press news agency that it was an informal conversation which did not reflect Nixon's policies. "Every once in a while he got discouraged and said 'chuck the whole thing,' but that was never his policy," he said. [Source: BBC News - August 08, 2004 |~|]

"Nixon reportedly denied until his death in 1994 that the 1972 election affected his policies in Vietnam. In the Oval Office conversation recorded by Nixon's voice-activated taping system, the then president told Mr Kissinger that winning the election was crucial. "It's terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That's the real question," he said. Nixon started to draw back US ground troops from Vietnam in 1969. After winning the election in 1972, he agreed in 1973 to bring the rest of the troops home. South Vietnam fell two years later to North Vietnamese troops. |~|

"In the tape transcribed by the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs, Mr Kissinger advised the president that they could avoid being seen as failures if South Vietnam held on to its independence for a few years. "If we settle it, say, this October, by January '74 no-one will give a damn," Mr Kissinger said. |~|

Bombing of Hanoi in 1972

Nixon ordered the bombing of Hanoi and bombing and mining of Haiphong Harbor during Christmas time 1972 in response to major North Vietnamese offensive across the DMZ into South Vietnam. Nixon believed his decision to bomb Hanoi would bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table.

During the Christmas bombings in December 1972, the US dropped some 20,000 tones of ordnance in 11 days. More than 1,600 civilians died in the attack Rebecca Kesby of the BBC wrote: "The biggest ever bombing campaign by US B-52 aircraft took place over Christmas in 1972....Some claim the assault may have helped bring about the deal signed a month later that led to an end to US involvement in the war. Operation Linebacker II was President Richard Nixon's attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam War, as the growing strength of the Viet Cong caused heavy casualties among US ground troops. The capture and torture of downed airmen in the north, regularly paraded on television, was also an embarrassment for Washington. Nixon was under pressure to bring the troops home. At the same time, long-running negotiations in Paris between the warring parties had broken down.[Source: Rebecca Kesby, BBC, December 24, 2012 ////]

"The relationship between American negotiator Henry Kissinger and the government in the south was strained, while Le Duc Tho - representing the northern Communist government - was refusing to budge on the issue of prisoner releases. So the Americans decided to take decisive action. On the evening of 18 December, 129 B-52s roared over Hanoi - huge bombers each capable of carrying many tonnes of explosives. They flew in formation, in successive waves made up of smaller cells, containing three planes. Thousands of metres below them, the sirens sounded and residents of Hanoi raced for the shelters. ////

"The US Air Force lost two B-52s that night out of a total of 15. A number of fighter jets and support aircraft were also destroyed during the 11 days of Linebacker II. At least 30 US airmen were killed and more than 20 went missing in action, others were captured after ejecting over North Vietnam. At the time the communist authorities said about 1,600 Vietnamese were killed, but many suspect the true figure is far higher. ////

"Linebacker II came to an end on 29 December and by 8 January all parties were back in the negotiating room in Paris. The Paris Peace Accords were signed by the end of the month, leading to the release of some US prisoners of war and paving the way for an end to US military involvement in Vietnam. The wording of the agreement was almost exactly the same as it had been at the beginning of December - before the Christmas bombing campaign. ////

Giap wrote in Newsweek, "In 1966, Ho told me that only when we can destroy the B-52 bombers over Hanoi will the U.S. withdraw. He was right. On Dec. 28 1972, I heard that we had brought down 17 percent of the B-52 attacking us. As soon as we received the news that the U.S. intended to negotiate its withdrawal. This shows how humans can win over steel weapons."

Eyewitess Accounts of the of Bombing of Hanoi in 1972

Rebecca Kesby of the BBC wrote: Among those who witnessed the Hanoi bombing "was Ha Mi, who was 10 years old at the time and remembers sheltering under the stairs of her family home with her sister, listening to the bombers overhead. "You can hear them coming from very far away," she remembers. "Advancing, they are looming, coming towards you with a very low hum. It's frightening."The Americans had been using fighter jets over Hanoi for years, targeting fuel depots and munitions stores, but Ha Mi recalls it was the B-52s, and their massive payloads of bombs, that struck terror into Vietnamese hearts. [Source: Rebecca Kesby, BBC, December 24, 2012 ////]

"The fighter jets were faster and would only drop one or two bombs, then they were gone," says Ha Mi, who works as a journalist for the BBC Vietnamese Service. Ha Mi Ha Mi saw the destruction on a busy shopping street - including the ruins of a friend's house "The B-52s were slower... and the bombing is more regular. Boom, boom, boom, for a longer period of time. It's more threatening," ////

"The bombing was suspended on Christmas Day, but during the days either side, the US Air Force flew 729 night-time sorties over North Vietnam with devastating effect. Later, Kissinger would describe the communists as being "on their knees" as a result.But it was a dangerous mission for the American airmen. The North Vietnamese had sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles or SAMs, and plentiful supplies of anti-aircraft artillery. They also had a number of Soviet MiG-21 fighter jets. The lull on Christmas Day gave the Vietnamese a chance to regroup. When bombing resumed on 26 December, they put up strong resistance. A rare recording of the radio communications inside one of the US B-52s survives from that night. One airman can be heard saying, "I've never seen so much triple A [Anti-aircraft artillery] in my life." Another comments: "Those SAMs came right up past my window, they were damn close." ////

In just one night, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed around Kham Thien, a busy shopping street in Hanoi. About 280 people were killed and at least as many again injured. Ha Mi had a friend, whose house was hit. "There were a few houses still standing, but most of it was just rubble, flattened on the ground - or even just a big hole. Houses were just gone, it was horrible. I remember seeing people just standing there looking at it - but there was nothing there. Everything was just gone." ////

Jon Meacham wrote in Newsweek, Col. Bud Day, who was in the POW prison dubbed the Hanoi Hilton with future U.S. Senator John McCain "when America began the Christmas bombings of '72, said the future senator's reaction to the Christmas raid was joyful despite the dangers. "I was the squadron commander at the time," Day recalled. "The bombardments started the night of Dec. 19th. They were falling very close to the camp. Shrapnel was coming into the windows … A lot of stuff was falling off the ceiling. We were wildly ecstatic because that was the airline ticket home. John was like all of us—deliriously happy … Everyone was hysterical and jubilant that finally the right thing was happening because this was the only way we'd get out. We knew that and the Vietnamese knew that. We were slapping each other on the back … They went berserk. They told everyone to sit down as soon as we started laughing and everything. They immediately stuck guns through the window and started yelling at us in Vietnamese … They were always worried we'd riot … I told everyone, 'Sit down against the wall. I don't want anyone to get killed. We're going home in a few days. I don't want anyone getting hurt'." [Source: Jon Meacham, Newsweek, September 8, 2008]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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