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(COLD WAR: 1964-75 – continued)

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The Vietnam War, 1968 to 1975

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, known to Americans as "North Vietnam," on 30 January 1968 launched its Tet Offensive – a wave of attacks in the South with its regular and irregular forces. The irregular forces included the Viet Cong in the South. The offensive included combat in Saigon and lasted into late March. Many in the US were shocked by the offensive. It was contrary to claims they had been hearing that included "light at the end of the tunnel."

Democratic Republic strategists had expected the offensive to spark a general uprising against Saigon and the Americans. That didn't happen. And, having exposed themselves, the Viet Cong organization in the South was weakened militarily and its membership demoralized. Mobilizing in the South by the Viet Cong was crippled. From now on their fighting would be less guerrilla warfare and more conventional warfare associated with forces from the North.

On March 16 US army company rampaged through the hamlet of My Lai killing more than 500 Vietnamese civilians from infants to the elderly, to be known as the My Lai massacre. Fifteen days later President Johnson spoke on television and said he would not run for re-election.

On May 15, communist units launched another offensive, striking 119 targets throughout the South, including in Saigon. On October 31, President Johnson agreed to end the air strikes so that serious negotiations in Paris could begin. He was accused of trying to get his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party candidate, elected.

The vote in early November went to Richard Nixon, and he took office on January 20 with a plan he said would end the war. His policy was described as Vietnamization of the war, in other words turning it over to the Vietnamese to fight while gradually withdrawing US forces. Nixon directed his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to begin secret meetings with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho, and these meetings began in August, without the knowledge of the government in Saigon or other US allies.

The draft had been fueling opposition to the war, and he had plans to end the draft. He reduced the draft calls by 50,000 for the two months of November and December, and in a special message to Congress on 23 April 1970 he said it was "now time to embrace a new approach to meeting our military manpower requirements."

The secret talks with North Vietnam were going nowhere, and President Nixon's strategy was to bomb North Vietnam into compliance. This intensified in 1972 following another North Vietnamese offensive into the South. Nixon also mined Haiphong harbor and initiated a naval blockage called Linebacker I. Several Soviet and Chinese ships were hit, but their response, in the words of historian Mark Philip Bradley, "were muted."

In October 1972, Le Duc Tho communicated to Kissinger the North's willingness to consider an agreement recognizing the government of South Vietnam, so long as it included processes for free elections and political reform. The North agreed to leave the NLF (Viet Cong) forces in the South to fight alone. The US part of the agreement was that it would pull its troops out of Vietnam and dismantle its bases. The US and the North agreed to an exchange of prisoners. According to the agreement, the US could replace arms on a one-to-one basis that had been supplied to the Saigon regime. It was President Nixon's plan to use more air power should the North violate the agreement. The treaty was drafted in late October and unveiled by Kissinger with much fanfare at a White House press conference.

People in the US, meanwhile, had been turning against the war in greater numbers – as had happened among the French. They had not been influenced much by demonstrations. They were not influenced at all by demonstrations that disrupted traffic and other routines of daily life, but they had been influenced by what they saw on television, including children running from bombing being carried out by Saigon's US backed airforce.

After the Paris Peace Accords

In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by the United States, North Vietnam, the Republic of Vietnam (of Saigon) and the Viet Cong (the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam). A cease fire began. Like the Geneva Accords of 1954, it was built upon the assumption that Vietnam was one country. There were to be negotiations between Saigon and the Viet Cong that would allow elections in the south and an eventual reunification of Vietnam to be "carried out step by step through peaceful means." The US agreed to withdraw its forces within sixty days, and it did so. By the end of March, 1973, US troops were out of Vietnam.

Most of the US miliary support personnel and construction companies also pulled out. In 1974, the 93rd US Congress, controlled by the Democratic Party, cut off funding military assistance for Saigon or anyplace else in Indochina. And in 1974, Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal. United States military aid dropped from 2.3 billion in 1971 to 1 billion in 1974, and "the annual $400 million the US had spent in Vietnam ceased altogether." (Bradley, p. 170)

The result for Saigon was a weakened economy and more frustrated people, more corruption and political instability. Inflation reached 90 percent and unemployed skyrocketed with three to four million unemployed. Saigon's less than democratic president, Nguyen Van Thieu, was losing the support of his former anti-Communist supporters, and Thieu responded not with a hearts-and-minds strategy but by jailing new protesters and dissenters.

Saigon's Thieu regime began seizing areas occupied by Communist forces in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere in the South. In a meeting in the North's capital, Hanoi, Communist strategists acknowledged that their troops in the South were exhausted and in disarray. Their spies told them Saigon's President Thieu had plans to continue grabbing territory. Fighting between the Viet Cong and Saigon forces persisted.

Believing that Saigon was not living up to the Paris Peace Accords, and with no fear of  US bombing and finding weakness among the Saigon forces, the North moved against the Saigon regime. As they saw it they were liberating their country from a regime that was not legitimate.

The speed with which the Saigon forces collapsed surprised the North's strategists. Thieu resigned on April 21, 1975. Chaos occurred in Saigon as the US ordered the evacuation of all its personnel. Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans or had other connections with the US feared mistreatment following a Communist victory, and they fought for a place on departing US ships.

The effort by the United States to prop up an anti-Communist regime in Saigon had cost the lives of something like 50,000 US military men, and it had accomplished nothing. Losses among the Vietnamese were greater. Among those fighting in Saigon's military, about 220,000 were killed. Those killed fighting on the side of the Communists are estimated to be between 650,000 and 1,000,000. (The population for the whole of Vietnam was around 46.6 million in 1975). Civilian deaths are estimated at around 4,000,000 – a lot of lives that would have been spared if nation-wide elections had been allowed to unite Vietnam in the late 1950s. 

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Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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