(COLD WAR: 1964-75 – continued)
In January 1968, regular and irregular forces of the People's Army of Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, a wave of attacks across the South that was overly optimistic. In the U.S., people were shocked by the offensive. Rhetoric emanating from the military, including "light at the end of the tunnel" was exposed as faulty. For the People's Army the offensive was a military failure. The offensive was expected to spark a general uprising against Saigon and the Americans. That didn't happen. And, having exposed themselves, the National Liberation Front in the South was weakened militarily and its membership dispirited. Mobilizing in the South by the NLF was crippled, and from now on the anti-foreign and anti-Saigon efforts would be more conventional warfare and less guerrilla warfare.
President Richard Nixon took office in 1969 with a plan he stated that would end the war. His policy was "Vietnamization" of the war, in other words turning it over to the Vietnamese to fight while gradually withdrawing U.S. forces. He ended the draft – which had been unpopular among college youth and a force behind draft card burnings and ferocity in anti-war demonstrations such as had occured in Oakland, California, in October 1967.
President Nixon's strategy was to bomb North Vietnam into compliance. This intensifed in 1972 following a 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." U.S. air power encouraged Hanoi to establish an agreement with the United States. Hanoi agreed to leave the NLF (Viet Cong) forces in the South to fight alone. The U.S. part of the agreement was that it would pull its troops out of Vietnam and dismantle its bases. The U.S. and Hanoi agreed to an exchange of prisoners. According to the agreement, the U.S. could replace arms, on a one-to-one basis, that had been supplied to the Saigon regime. And should the Hanoi violate the agreement, President Nixon planned to use air power again to deter Hanoi.
People in the U.S. had been turning against United States involvement in the war in Vietnam 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 were influenced by what they saw on television, including children running from bombing being carried out by Saigon's U.S. backed airforce. The U.S. Congress responded to the change in public opinion on the war, and it voted restrictions on material support to the regime in Saigon.
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 ceasefire 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 U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces within sixty days, and it did so. By the end of March, 1973, U.S. troops were out of Vietnam.
Most of the U.S. miliary support personnel and construction companies also pulled out. In 1974, the U.S. Congress 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 altogethe." (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 support from former anti-Communist supporters, and Thieu responded not with a hearts-and-minds strategy but by jailing new protesters and desenters.
Saigon's Thieu regime began seizing areas occupied by Communist forces in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere in the South. In a meeting in 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 U.S. bombing, and finding weakness among the Saigon forces, the North moved against Saigon in force. They believed they had the right to do because the whole of Vietnam was their country and that they were liberating their country from a regime that was not legitimate.
The speed with which the Saigon forces collapsed surprised northern strategists. Thieu resigned on April 21, 1975. Chaos occurred in Saigon as the U.S. ordered the evacuation of all its personnel. Vietnamese who had connections with the U.S. feared mistreatment following a Communist victory, and they fought for a place on departing U.S. 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 U.S. 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. 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 in Vietnam in the late 1950s.
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.