Vietnam War’s End Created Peace – Just In Time For Reelection

January 27, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, Bryan McKenzie,

Many Americans of a certain generation had a sense of forboding and déjà vu at images of panicked civilians flooding the airport and swarming military aircraft to escape as Kabul, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021.

They had seen similar scenes in the April 30, 1975 fall of Saigon, as the North Vietnamese overran the former capital of South Vietnam, bringing an ignominious end to the Vietnam War.

Unlike Afghanistan, which fell before all U.S. troops could be withdrawn, the South Vietnamese government remained in power for more than two years after the Jan. 27, 1973, peace accord, heralded by President Richard Nixon as “an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.”

But Ken Hughes, an American presidential historian with the UVA Miller Center, believes the effort was less about “peace and honor” and more about reelection. The author of “Chasing Shadows” and “Fatal Politics,” Hughes has deeply researched the Nixon White House’s tape recordings. He said conversations show Nixon and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were more concerned with reelection than the future of its ally when negotiating the agreement signed 50 years ago.

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Portrait of Ken Hughes

Miller Center presidential historian Ken Hughes has deeply researched the White House tape recordings from the Nixon administration. (Miller Center photo)

Q. The Nixon Administration had hyped the so-called “Vietnamization” of the war, in which South Vietnamese troops would be trained and U.S. troops withdrawn, as a step to securing “peace in our time.” Is there any indication from the tapes at what point the administration realized that the neither the plan nor peace would be successful?

A. By the time Nixon started secretly taping his conversations in February 1971, about halfway through his first term, it was clear that he knew his announced strategy wouldn’t work as promised. He told America he would end the war through “Vietnamization or negotiation.” Vietnamization was supposed to train and equip the South Vietnamese to defend themselves, and negotiation was supposed to secure North Vietnam’s agreement to let the South Vietnamese choose their own government by free elections.

Before Nixon announced the “Vietnamization” during his first year in office, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger asked the Pentagon, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency how long it would take to train and equip the South to defend itself without American troops. They said that, even when the United States had finished training and equipping the South Vietnam military, Saigon “would not be able to survive without US combat support in the form of air, helicopters, artillery, logistics and major ground forces.”

In other words, if America withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would take over the South.

Vietnamization was a fraud.

President Nixon visiting U.S. troops in South Vietnam

President Nixon visiting U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Nixon wanted to avoid losing the war before the 1972 election. (National Archives photo)

Q. South Vietnam survived for two more years after Nixon brought the last American troops home. Did the Pentagon, State Department and CIA underestimate Saigon’s resilience?

A. Nixon knew that he would look like a complete failure if Saigon fell right after he brought American troops home. So he spent years secretly negotiating a “decent interval.”

“Decent interval” was Kissinger’s euphemism for the period of time between Nixon’s final withdrawal of American troops and North Vietnam’s final takeover of the South.

Nixon and Kissinger’s calculations were pretty simple. If Saigon fell a few months after Nixon withdrew, it would be obvious they had lost the war. But if it fell a year or two later, they could blame someone else.

At first, they thought they would blame South Vietnam. But they wound up blaming their favorite target, the people who tried to get them to end the war sooner. That included liberals and Democrats in Congress, anyone in the news media who pointed out that things weren’t working the way Nixon and Kissinger said they were, and, of course, the antiwar demonstrators, who were even more unpopular than the war.

To get a “decent interval,” Nixon had Kissinger secretly assure the Communists that he would not intervene if they took over South Vietnam, just as long as they waited a year or two before doing so.

Q. The Vietnam War was unpopular at home and even with U.S. troops by 1970, who worried they would be “the last to die” in the war. If South Vietnam was going to fail anyway, why did the Administration not just end the war and withdraw all troops?

A. Nixon knew that leaving Vietnam meant losing Vietnam. If he lost Vietnam before Election Day 1972, he would lose his campaign for a second term. He had promised “peace with honor,” not retreat with defeat. He couldn’t deliver “peace with honor,” so he found a politically acceptable substitute, delayed retreat followed by delayed defeat.

President Nixon talking with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the White House. They hoped a ‘decent interval’ of time between the war’s end South Vietnam’s defeat would help with relection. (National Archives photo)

To keep Saigon from falling before Election Day 1972, he kept American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam through all four years of his first term. He periodically announced partial troop withdrawals, reducing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam from over 500,000 when he took office in January 1969 to under 50,000 when he won reelection in November 1972. That was enough to convince most voters he was ending the war, and it was enough to guarantee that Saigon wouldn’t fall until after he had secured his second term.

There were times when Nixon considered bringing the last American troops home before 1972, but Kissinger talked him out of it. Kissinger said, “We can’t have it knocked over – brutally– to put it brutally – before the election.” That made up Nixon’s mind.

Nixon’s decision to time military withdrawal from Vietnam to his reelection campaign cost thousands of lives. More than 20,000 American soldiers died during Nixon’s first term. The Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian death toll was many times higher. This is by far Nixon’s worst abuse of presidential power.

Q. The phrase “twist slowly in the wind” would long be associated with the Nixon Administration during and post-Watergate. Did the Nixon administration purposefully leave South Vietnamese leaders to twist slowly in the wind?

A. The South Vietnamese paid the price for Nixon and Kissinger’s refusal to level with America. If Nixon and Kissinger had been honest, they would have told America that Saigon couldn’t survive without American troops. They could have negotiated for the exodus of the South Vietnamese who had fought on our side of the war. But they wouldn’t do that, because that would have involved admitting failure, admitting that they couldn’t achieve “peace with honor.”

It would have been the right thing to do, but it would have meant sacrificing their career ambitions, Nixon’s ambition to be a two-term president and Kissinger’s ambition to be acclaimed as a statesman.

For Nixon and Kissinger to get a ‘decent interval,’ the South Vietnamese had to continue fighting and dying in a doomed effort to delay the inevitable. Many paid for Nixon and Kissinger’s deceit with their lives, others with their freedom.

Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia
Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia

Q. For years, a stabbed-in-the-back theory has circulated in politics and American society blaming anti-war sentiment for the U.S failure in Vietnam. Considering your findings, and those of other historians, does the alternative theory hold any relevance?

A. Conservatives claim liberals lost the war. Liberals claim they stopped the war. Both are wrong. America’s war in Vietnam ended when Nixon wanted it to end, after his reelection was secure. Anti-war demonstrators and anti-war efforts in Congress didn’t alter his schedule by a single day. Nixon added four years to the war to avoid losing it before Election Day 1972, and he ended the war after he was reelected because it had outlived its political usefulness to him. I wish the left and the right would unite in the knowledge that Nixon fooled them both. They both thought that Nixon would never allow a Communist victory in Vietnam. They were both wrong. Nixon was determined to prevent a Democratic victory in America, not a Communist victory in Vietnam.

Q. What should Americans learn from this part of our political history?

A. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that presidents fear that they will pay an enormous political price for losing a war, even an unpopular war like Vietnam. I think that’s why presidents have prolonged unpopular wars in the 21st century, because they knew they could not win them and they didn’t want to take responsibility for losing them.

President Biden is the great exception to that rule because he ended the war in Afghanistan knowing that he would pay a political price, as he plainly has. That took great political courage. Foreign policy experts turned on him for that, when they should have acknowledged that none of them ever came up with a way to win that war, a way to turn Afghanistan into a democratic ally.

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Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications