I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
The United States, South Vietnam, Viet Cong and North Vietnam formally sign “An Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” in Paris. Due to South Vietnam’s unwillingness to recognize the Viet Cong’s Provisional Revolutionary Government, all references to it were confined to a two-party version of the document signed by North Vietnam and the United States—the South Vietnamese were presented with a separate document that did not make reference to the Viet Cong government. This was part of Saigon’s long-time refusal to recognize the Viet Cong as a legitimate participant in the discussions to end the war.
The settlement included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam. In addition, the United States agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and advisors (totaling about 23,700) and the dismantling of all U.S. bases within 60 days. In return, the North Vietnamese agreed to release all U.S. and other prisoners of war.
Both sides agreed to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Laos and Cambodia and the prohibition of bases in and troop movements through these countries. It was agreed that the DMZ at the 17th Parallel would remain a provisional dividing line, with eventual reunification of the country “through peaceful means.” An international control commission would be established made up of Canadians, Hungarians, Poles, and Indonesians, with 1,160 inspectors to supervise the agreement. According to the agreement, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu would continue in office pending elections. Agreeing to “the South Vietnamese People’s right to self-determination,” the North Vietnamese said they would not initiate military movement across the DMZ and that there would be no use of force to reunify the country.
A Peace That Couldn’t Last – Negotiating the Paris Accords on Vietnam
Signed on January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were intended to finally end the Vietnam War, which had cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers, not to mention the millions of Vietnamese civilians who were killed, injured, or displaced. Initially, the Accords were negotiated in secret by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the lead North Vietnamese negotiator. These secret negotiations took place over the course of five years in Paris, from 1968 to 1973, but it was only in the early 70’s that any real progress was made.
The secrecy of the negotiations, along with slow technology and the time differences between Washington, D.C., Paris, Hanoi, and Saigon, ensured that the negotiating process was time-consuming and tedious. In spite of these challenges, the two sides were, after many deadlocks and near agreements, able to come to a compromise in January 1973. For their efforts, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1973, although Le Duc Tho refused to accept the award since he believed the U.S. and South Vietnamese were in violation of the Accords.
In the end, the years of time and effort put into the negotiations were for naught as the ceasefire collapsed in 1975. With Richard Nixon forced out of office because of Watergate and the vast majority of Americans strongly opposed to continued involvement, it was only a matter of time that South Vietnam would collapse. That came even faster than some had expected, as the South Vietnamese army withered in the face of an all-out North Vietnamese offensive in 1975, which culminated with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in April 1975.
Winston Lord was Special Advisor to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger from 1969-1973, during which time he served as one of Kissinger’s closest confidantes and went with Kissinger to the Paris negotiations. He describes the difficulties faced by the negotiating teams in coming to an agreement that was suitable for all parties involved, as well as the reasons for the Accords’ eventual collapse. Lord later served as Ambassador to China as well as Assistant Secretary of State in various capacities from 1993-1997. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker beginning in April 1998.
“They were not in a mood to compromise”
LORD: In July 1971, we were in Paris on our way back from a secret trip to China. Not only did the world not know about our secret trip to China, but, while we were publicly in Paris, we had secret negotiations again with the North Vietnamese.
In some ways it was even more complicated to keep these discussions with the North Vietnamese secret than these weekend excursions from Washington. Everyone knew that Kissinger was in Paris and was probably following him, in a sense. So we had an elaborate operation working with the American Ambassador, who was Richard Watson.
We had to find a way for Kissinger to negotiate with the North Vietnamese without people in Paris knowing about it. So the cover story was that Kissinger was holed up in the Embassy, talking to Ambassador Watson. Dick Smyser and I went off on our own to a big, open plaza looking at the Eiffel Tower….it was the Place de Trocadero. We would wait there.
Then Secretary Kissinger slunk down in a car that went out of the back door of the Embassy, since the press was covering the front door. He picked us up at the Place and we went to the meeting place for our negotiation with the Vietnamese. We came back to the Embassy and, while [John] Negroponte and I were writing up the report of the meeting, Kissinger, for cover reasons, went out to a restaurant.
Everyone knew about that. In fact, he had a woman named Margaret Osmer (pictured with Steve Bell in 1975 on “Good Morning, America”) as his date, who used to work for ABC Television. She later joined me at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, many years later, to run my meetings programs.
There was a lot of criticism at the time of Kissinger. The press knew that [chief Hanoi negotiator in the Paris peace talks] Le Duc Tho, the senior North Vietnamese negotiator, was in Paris at the same time. So the press berated Kissinger, asking why he didn’t meet with Le Duc Tho while he was in Paris, to see if he could make some progress with the North Vietnamese, instead of going out with some good-looking blonde to a Paris restaurant. No one knew about the secret negotiations. Of course, this was a cover story for Kissinger, because we had met with Le Duc Tho earlier in the day.
In retrospect, until we got to the fall of 1972, there were times when Le Duc Tho was somewhat more polite than others. But if you were really hard-headed about it, you’d have to say that the North Vietnamese really didn’t move very much throughout this period, despite our succeeding proposals….
Also, Le Duc Tho often had headaches. When he had a headache, we knew that he wasn’t going to be flexible or forthcoming. He’d get a headache, and this signaled his attitude.
I think that it’s also fair to say, and this is a sad commentary on human nature, that Hanoi generally was more forthcoming when we were hitting them hard, militarily. They were also friendlier. They were more arrogant and intransigent when they seemed to be doing well, militarily and/or we were letting up on the pressure….I don’t want to exaggerate this, because until September-October 1972, they made no real major moves. Nevertheless, there were times in 1971-72 that we came from the meetings, more discouraged than at other times, when we were more encouraged.
The North Vietnamese negotiators had fought for a long time for their goals against the French and us. They had been around a long time and were willing to continue the negotiations for a long time. So they were not in a mood to compromise. So all of this made it extremely difficult.
Month after month, and year after year, their basic position was to call for a unilateral, U.S. withdrawal, the establishment of a coalition government in Saigon, and to stick with all these positions, in a revolutionary spirit. They tended to look to their long investment in what they were doing, feeling that domestic support for the U.S. position was crumbling, for all of the reasons that I’ve mentioned.
So they basically sought to wear us down. They would come, essentially as a part of their negotiating style, to listen to our positions and see whether the United States was going to make more concessions and move closer to what they wanted.
One milestone I should mention briefly…was May 1971, probably over Memorial Day, since we always went to Paris on holidays or weekends at this time. We presented what we considered an extremely significant proposal to move the negotiations forward, which in fact was brought out in the eventual settlement signed in January 1973. I recall how we agonized over trying to make a major proposal. I don’t recall why, but the timing was such that we tried to make a breakthrough at that point. I believe that it was a seven-point proposal, which was essentially a military settlement only, consistent with President Nixon’s principle of being willing to be flexible on the military side, but not on the political side.
October 1972: “It was the break that we were looking for”
As we headed toward January 1972, we gradually came to the conclusion that it was important for the President to make a major, public address, again on Vietnam. In the speech he would outline our strategy and goals, recalling Vietnamization [a policy to expand, equip, and train South Vietnam’s forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops] and reviewing the progress made to date in terms of declining American casualties and troop levels in Vietnam.
Above all, he would reveal the fact that we had made a reasonable offer to North Vietnam and that for some time we had been conducting secret negotiations with them. It was up to Hanoi to respond in a meaningful way. I believe that, toward the end of 1971, we fleshed out further the five more proposals made in May 1971. In fact, I am sure that we did.
We held secret meetings in June, July, August, and September 1971. I believe we took the bare bones of this proposal and added new details to make clear what a military solution only would look like. By January 1972, it was decided to go public on the heretofore secret negotiations, because Hanoi was not moving, and we were being criticized too much at home in the U.S., as well as elsewhere in the world.
So there was a Nixon speech on January 25, 1972. Like all of these speeches, I worked hard on the drafting of it. Of course, the speechwriters turned it into much better English, while I worked on the substance of it
We went over to Paris for this meeting in October 1972, and were given a present by Le Duc Tho. We still had a lot of work to do on it, but basically, it was the break that we were looking for. It incorporated the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces and the release of our prisoners, on the military side. The language of the proposal was fairly specific in this respect.
The North Vietnamese proposal also included a ceasefire in place and international supervision of the agreement. The North Vietnamese had moved away from their insistence on a coalition government. There still was some tough negotiating, but they used some new language. They proposed a national reconciliation arrangement, but, in effect, they would leave President Thieu in power in Saigon. So the North Vietnamese dropped the political demands that they had stuck with for years.
“We had several days of further negotiations. The last day ran for 14 hours straight.”
From my point of view, not to mention Nixon and Kissinger, these demands were something that we shouldn’t compromise on.
We went back to the North Vietnamese. We had several days of further negotiations, until October 11, trying to improve the draft, generally keeping Washington and Saigon informed. The last day ran for 14 hours straight. As usual we were preparing verbatim transcripts. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom when I wanted to, and I had plenty of coffee to keep me going.
We had to make sure that we got our prisoners back from Laos and Cambodia, and we were trying to get the Communist side to withdraw its troops from there and to have a ceasefire extended there. So that was a problem. Another problem was allowing military aid to both sides to continue after a ceasefire. Then there were the details of the international supervisory system and what the status of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] was. This was the actual dividing line between North and South Vietnam.
There were still a lot of details to handle, and a lot of tough questions to be resolved, but the basic breakthrough had been achieved. The North Vietnamese no longer insisted on a coalition government.
The language of the draft made it clear that President Thieu would remain in power, while suggesting that there could be a negotiation perhaps leading toward a government of national reconciliation. We tried to make that as vague and as meaningless as possible. In fact, the object was to keep the Saigon Government in power.
The final day of these negotiations was October 11, 1972. So there were four days of negotiations, but one of these days went for 14 hours straight. Kissinger prepared to go back and report to President Nixon. We had a draft agreement initially agreed, but with some outstanding issues of a secondary nature remaining to be resolved.
There were also some technical questions of what specific phrases meant, and so on. So this was an exhausting period of several days, including all night sessions of redrafting, checking, sending cables, reporting, and filling in Saigon and Washington, as well as preparing talking points for the next day. We also had to prepare new proposals, in addition to verbatim note taking and so on.
I was left behind in Paris with FSO [Foreign Service Officer] Dave Engle, who by then had been involved in the negotiations as our top Vietnamese speaker in the Foreign Service. He and I were left behind to have technical talks with the North Vietnamese to clear up some of these sub-issues. So we sat down with the North Vietnamese at the next meeting. I don’t remember the details except I was both exhilarated and exhausted.
“To say that we were depressed would be a colossal understatement”
Then, of course, our next step was to go to Saigon and present this wonderful agreement we had negotiated. We were still not entirely satisfied, but the basic issues had been solved and we thought that we now had a rough agreement, in draft, and ad referendum [subject to subsequent confirmation] by Hanoi’s Politburo and our President. Of course, we made it clear to the North Vietnamese that we would have to sell this draft to our ally in South Vietnam.
Before we went to Saigon to review the agreement with President Thieu we sent a cable ahead to foreshadow to some extent that we had something. I forget the term we used, but we said that it represented a breakthrough, a possible agreement, or something like that. We clearly let Thieu know, through Ambassador [Ellsworth] Bunker, that we were coming to discuss this draft with him. So off we went to Saigon in mid-October 1972.
We went to President Thieu’s office, and Kissinger made the presentation about why it was in the South Vietnamese interest to accept the agreement and that we would back them up. In case there were any violations, President Nixon would react strongly. Thieu could count on us to enforce the agreement.
Kissinger said that this was the best deal that we could get, based on the level of American domestic support. We had done our duty by South Vietnam. We had hung tough in the negotiations and kept Thieu in power. He had gotten a lot of economic and military aid from us. We would rush extra aid into South Vietnam before the agreement was signed, so that he would be in the strongest position possible, before the provisions of the agreement entered into effect. This effort was called Project ENHANCE, or something like that.
We said that we would resume bombing if the North Vietnamese attacked in violation of the agreement. We said that we would give South Vietnam full diplomatic support as well as military and economic aid. We said that we were working on the Chinese and the Russians to isolate Hanoi and try to get them to cut off aid to the North Vietnamese, if possible, and that this was clearly our intention. There was also the whole aid dimension, where we had agreed with the North Vietnamese that we would help them with the reconstruction of their country.
When President Thieu first heard our presentation, he didn’t react. He just listened. We had no reason to be pessimistic after the initial meeting….Whenever the next meeting did take place, we were blasted. Thieu was very upset with the agreement, almost across the board. Above all, because of the continued presence of North Vietnamese troops.
He picked out all kinds of other language which he thought was weak, in terms of international supervision, supplies, the amount of aid, or whatever. He complained about virtually everything, but above all, the continued presence of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. Secondly, Thieu said, in effect, that we had misled him. He said that this agreement went way beyond what we had been reporting to him and what he thought was in store for him.
Thirdly, in negotiating this agreement, we had been negotiating the fate of South Vietnam. Now, he said, you come to me, a couple of weeks before your elections, and expect me to accept this agreement, which will seal the fate of my country and my countrymen in a couple of days. He said that the agreement was wrong in terms of principle and also wrong in terms of perception, with the Americans ramming this agreement down my throat and not taking into account the fate of the South Vietnamese people.
“It was maddening. We were very depressed anyway, because of Thieu’s reaction. We had President Nixon and Al Haig beating up on us.”
So, overall, this was a very tough and discouraging session, to say the least. It wasn’t a matter of saying that we should go back and fix this up or deal with this or that problem. He essentially rejected the overall agreement. It was not a total formal rejection of the agreement. He said: “We’ve got to have the following changes.” But he required so many changes, and they were so important, that it was just impossible, to see a solution.
To say that we were depressed would be a colossal understatement….We ended three or four days of very difficult discussions in Saigon. We were reporting back to President Nixon, through Deputy Security Adviser Al Haig, using back channels, which involved double encrypting of the messages. We reported that Thieu was reacting negatively and what he wanted.
President Nixon and Haig were already more skeptical of the agreement than we were. They appreciated the breakthrough that we had achieved but they were not quite as enthusiastic about it as Kissinger and his team were, not including Negroponte. Above all, Nixon did not want to have a big split with our ally. After all, it was their country.
So we stayed in Saigon a couple of more days after the initial blowup to try to get President Thieu to be more flexible and to collect his requests. By then we realized that we would have to go back to Hanoi and try to accommodate what Thieu’s priority concerns were. They appeared to be so extensive that it was pretty discouraging.
Meanwhile, we were sending cables back to Washington, reporting the results of our conversations with Thieu. It was maddening, because there was a time delay in sending the cables, especially using double encryption….
It was maddening. We were very depressed anyway, because of Thieu’s reaction. We were nervous as hell about this agreement blowing up. We had President Nixon and Al Haig beating up on us, and we had this communications glitch because of the time difference and the delays occasioned by communications and the double encryption process. We were always one message behind on these things.
We left Saigon with very extensive South Vietnamese demands for changes in the agreement. We had to do a holding action with Hanoi. By this time, of course, it was impossible to go to Hanoi. We could only go there if we could absolutely close the deal.
We had to postpone the trip to Hanoi, and Kissinger said, in effect, to the North Vietnamese: “Well, we told you in Paris that this deal is a good one and we still think that it is. However, we cannot implement this agreement without South Vietnamese acceptance. We will continue to work with our allies and will try to bring them around. However, we’re going to have to make some changes. We just can’t sell the agreement to the South Vietnamese in this way. We stand by the basic agreement. We think that it’s a good agreement. Don’t give up. We’ll be in touch with you. I can’t come to Hanoi now.”
So we went back to Washington. I don’t know how soon this happened, but within a day or two there was a press release out of Hanoi, lambasting the United States, President Nixon, and Kissinger. The statement said that the United States had agreed to a deal with Hanoi and now, under the pretense that it couldn’t tell their lackeys in Saigon what to do, the U.S. was now reneging on the arrangements we had made.
Hanoi said that we had broken a solemn agreement with Hanoi and also an agreement for Kissinger to visit Hanoi. They then proceeded to publish the entire agreement that we had reached with them.
“I recall vividly having sensational, three-star meals, but being very gloomy”
We went over to Paris in November 1972, after the elections. The Hanoi representatives were very intransigent. After a couple of days of discussions, when we essentially treaded water but didn’t make any progress, the North Vietnamese representatives came in and basically tried to unravel the agreement. They began to make some new demands and to take back some of the concessions that they had already made.
We said that we were going to blow the whistle and stop. We weren’t getting anywhere. So we stopped. We had another go-around with the North Vietnamese in Paris in December 1972, with the same lack of results. We were not getting anywhere. In fact, we raised the South Vietnamese points with the North Vietnamese, and there were a few technical points they ceded, but we were not getting anything significant, and Hanoi was making counter-demands.
During the November and December sessions we stayed at the U.S. embassy. I recall vividly having sensational, three-star meals, but being very gloomy. As we headed toward the Christmas holidays in 1972, we were at an impasse. We had tried to make clear that we wanted to go essentially with the October agreement but that we needed a few changes, both on the merits and to bring the Saigon Government aboard. But Hanoi was not having any of this.
Whatever the extent of the bombing of North Vietnam, the objective, of course, was never to cause civilian casualties….The fact is that within days of the beginning of the bombing, we received a conciliatory note from Hanoi, suggesting that we resume negotiations. So this worked out well, and it probably encouraged President Thieu of South Vietnam to think that we would be tough in the negotiations with the North Vietnamese, or at least in enforcing a settlement….
“Toasts were exchanged, and there was a feeling of camaraderie all around”
So, in early January 1973, we resumed negotiations. Things moved quite quickly. The North Vietnamese stopped telling us that certain issues could not be discussed, and stopped introducing new demands, so we weren’t going backwards. We reached a few of our objectives of some significance. We made no really major changes in the agreement. The agreement was marginally better in some areas.
We concluded the agreement in Paris with the North Vietnamese and initialed it on January 23, 1973. Toasts were exchanged, and there was a feeling of camaraderie all around. There had been too much pain and anguish, but clearly there was a feeling of relief on our part and that of the North Vietnamese.
We had to get the Saigon Government on board with the revised text, in these final days. We sent [Deputy National Security Adviser to President Nixon] Al Haig to Saigon. There were at least a couple of letters from President Nixon to [President of the Republic of Vietnam] Nguyen van Thieu. These letters were very tough and also very reassuring at the same time. I did the basic drafting, as usual, with Kissinger’s direction and Nixon’s approval.
Basically, they said that we had done all that we could. We told President Thieu that we had gotten whatever we could and that we weren’t going to get a better deal. The letters said that President Nixon felt that the revised agreement satisfied the national interests of the United States and of the Republic of Vietnam. The letters said that we would enforce the agreements and would bomb North Vietnam, if necessary, and that the United States would stick by South Vietnam. Furthermore, we would provide economic and military aid to South Vietnam.
We pointed out the advantages of the agreement and our willingness to enforce it. President Nixon said, in effect, that we had given the Saigon Government all that we could give it in terms of years of blood and treasure and in terms of the deal. Now was the time for the Saigon Government to come aboard and support the agreement that had been negotiated.
Also, as part of the negotiation, we included the aid program, which was somewhat separate. We were very careful not to promise to make reparations payments to North Vietnam. However, we wanted to offer them some economic incentives. We would call them funds for the reconstruction of Indochina and provide large amounts of money for Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam as well….
Thus, with Saigon’s grudging acceptance, we initiated the agreement and returned to Paris for the final signature on January 27, 1973. Kissinger stayed in Washington, and Secretary of State [William] Rogers went to sign the agreement in Paris with the other foreign ministers.
“Whatever you feel about the war,…our cutting off economic and military aid when North Vietnam was breaking the agreement, was absolutely immoral”
Within a few months after the signature of the Paris Accord in 1973, Hanoi began to nibble around the edges of the agreement. I left the NSC [National Security Council] staff in May, 1973….
The North Vietnamese continued to make trouble. While I was out of government service, Kissinger went over to Paris to negotiate with [North Vietnamese Politburo member] Le Duc Tho in an effort to get enforcement of the basic agreement back on track. This effort didn’t work out.
Meanwhile, Congress was beginning to put limits on what we could do in Cambodia and stopped the bombing there and in Laos. Finally, a couple of years later, Congress virtually put a stop to aid to South Vietnam, a truly dishonorable and reckless act. So, over a period of time, the Saigon Government was being undermined.
Whatever its shortcomings — and there were serious ones — the psychological and military impact at limiting and then stopping our aid was devastating. And, of course, it encouraged Hanoi.
In 1975 there was an all-out offensive which resulted in the Communists taking over South Vietnam completely.
Toward the end, in 1975, when the South Vietnamese Army was defeated in a hurry, Congress had already, and unconscionably, virtually cut off military and economic aid to South Vietnam.
Whatever you feel about the war, we had negotiated this agreement with North Vietnam and had gone through all of this torture and losses. Even though the South Vietnamese Government was not perfect, our cutting off economic and military aid to them, when North Vietnam was continuing to be resupplied by its allies and was breaking the agreement, was absolutely immoral, in my opinion.
Whether continued aid on our part would have made all of that much difference is another issue, but has nothing to do with the principle. And imperfect as the Saigon government was, it certainly was preferable to the Hanoi Communists. In any event the economic and military aid which had been promised to the South Vietnamese was not being delivered, which weakened them further.
So our military plans to handle the North Vietnamese threat turned out to be based on a mistaken set of assumptions. This contributed to the South Vietnamese military collapse. A second consideration was the major offensive by North Vietnam against South Vietnam, to which we had planned to respond by bombing.
This plan was undercut by Congressional action in September 1973, prohibiting the further bombing of targets in Southeast Asia. There was also the growing problem of the Watergate affair, which related to the manner of President Nixon’s reelection in November 1972. As a result, over time, the executive power of the U.S. administration was effectively broken and our ability to take strong action against North Vietnam was further weakened, on top of the general fatigue over the war.…
The North Vietnamese figured all of this out, and so the various means of discouraging North Vietnam from attacking South Vietnam were ineffective.
In terms of U.S. economic aid referred to in the Paris Agreement, Hanoi never got it. We had told them two things. First, we told them that we had to get Congressional approval to provide economic aid to Hanoi. Secondly, North Vietnam would have to observe the Paris Agreement. There was some controversy as to whether we had made a commitment to provide aid to North Vietnam.
We made it clear to Hanoi that we couldn’t provide aid to North Vietnam without Congressional approval, and we had already told the Congress that. Many Members of Congress didn’t like the idea of providing any assistance to Hanoi. They also didn’t like the fact that we had made promises to provide such aid secretly, even though we had hedged the promise by stating that we needed Congressional approval to provide it.
That created further controversy, which was worsened by the fact that from the very beginning Hanoi began to violate the Paris Accord of 1973. These violations were fairly blatant, and then the North Vietnamese escalated the situation by blatantly breaking the ceasefire agreement. Under these circumstances, we weren’t about to give aid to North Vietnam, which we couldn’t get out of Congress anyway. So that incentive for Hanoi was rapidly withering away.
All of the sticks and carrots, in short, were effectively removed, and the Paris Agreement collapsed.
The Paris “Peace” Accords Were a Deadly Deception
“The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” signed January 27, 1973, never looked like it would live up to its name. Four decades later it stands exposed as a deliberate fraud.
The president of South Vietnam, in whose defense more than 50,000 Americans gave their lives, wept upon hearing President Richard Nixon’s proposed settlement terms. Hanoi would release American prisoners of war and agree that the South could choose its government by free elections, but the accords threw the voting process to a commission that could act only by unanimity — all but impossible to achieve among Communists and anti-Communists who’d spent years shooting out their differences. Worse, Nixon would leave North Vietnamese troops occupying and controlling much of the South, while withdrawing all remaining American ground forces. “It is only an agonizing solution,” said President Nguyen Van Thieu, “and sooner or later the government will crumble.” National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger reported Thieu’s response to Nixon on October 6, 1972, adding, “I also think that Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him.”
Kissinger’s damning admission comes from the single most comprehensive and accurate record of a presidency there’s ever been or likely will be: Nixon’s secret taping system. Voice-activated recorders wired to microphones hidden in the Oval Office and elsewhere clicked on whenever they detected a sound between February 16, 1971, and July 12, 1973, a time when Nixon not only negotiated the Paris “Peace” Accords and withdrew from Vietnam, but became the first American president to visit China and Moscow, signed the first nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, and won the biggest Republican presidential landslide ever in an election that realigned American politics for the rest of the Cold War.
Since Nixon’s secret tapes coincide with his most acclaimed accomplishments, loyalists thought that when finally released they would reveal a foreign policy genius at work, offsetting the sordid image of the unindicted co-conspirator that emerged from the excerpts played in court as criminal evidence during the Watergate trials of the 1970s. They should have known there was a Nixon reason fought to keep his tapes from the American people until his death in 1994. Since then, the government has declassified 2,636 hours. These tapes expose far worse abuses of power than the special prosecutors ever found. After all, as the saying goes, no one died in Watergate. As commander in chief, however, Nixon sacrificed the lives of American soldiers to further his electoral ends. I’ve spent more than a decade studying the tapes with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, but the contrast between the public image Nixon created and the reality he secretly recorded still loosens my jaw.
As schoolchildren are taught, Nixon promised America “peace with honor” via a strategy of “Vietnamization” and negotiation. Vietnamization, he said, would train and equip the South Vietnamese to defend themselves without American troops. He realized it wouldn’t. “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway,” the president said on tape.
This was no mere passing doubt. On his first full day in office, he’d asked military, diplomatic and intelligence officials how soon the South would be able to handle the Communists on its own. The answer was unanimous: never. The Joint Chiefs, CIA, Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General Creighton W. Abrams, all agreed that Saigon, “even when fully modernized,” would not survive “without U.S. combat support in the form of air, helicopters, artillery, logistics and major ground forces.” (Emphasis added.)
Nixon faced a stark choice: continue sending Americans to fight and die in South Vietnam’s defense for the foreseeable future, or bring the troops home knowing that without them Saigon would ultimately fall. There was no way he could sell either option — endless war or withdrawal followed by defeat — as the “peace with honor” he’d promised.
So he lied. “The day the South Vietnamese can take over their own defense is in sight. Our goal is a total American withdrawal from Vietnam. We can and we will reach that goal through our program of Vietnamization,” he said — despite his advisers’ unanimous consensus (which remained classified) and his own private assessment.
To make Vietnamization look successful, he spaced withdrawal out across four years, gradually reducing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam from over 500,000 in January 1969 to less than 50,000 by Election Day 1972. Throughout those four years, he made many nationally televised speeches to announce partial troop withdrawals, claiming each one proved Vietnamization was working. Always he left enough Americans fighting and dying to conceal the fact that Vietnamization never really would work. In this way, the president made slow retreat look like steady progress.
Liberals like Senator George S. McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat, did try to end the war faster. McGovern’s proposal that Congress force Nixon to bring the troops home by the end of 1971 gained the support of more than 60 percent of Americans. History has confirmed the majority’s judgment. A withdrawal deadline was the only way to stop the president from prolonging the war for political purposes.
But Nixon was able to kill McGovern’s bill by a simple expedient. He said it would lead to Communist victory. He didn’t mention that his own approach would do the same. The difference was that Nixon’s way would (1) postpone Saigon’s fall until after Election Day, so voters wouldn’t be able to hold him accountable and (2) add another thirteen months of casualties, including 792 American dead.
To be fair, on one occasion Nixon sounded willing to abandon his political timetable in return for the release of American prisoners of war, who routinely endured torture by their North Vietnamese jailers. “If they’ll make that kind of a deal, we’ll make that any time they’re ready,” Nixon said on March 19, 1971, more than a year before the election.
“Well, we’ve got to get enough time to get out,” Kissinger said. “We can’t have it knocked over brutally — to put it brutally, before the election.”
“That’s right,” Nixon said. The POWs, like American soldiers in Vietnam, had to wait on Nixon’s political timetable before they could come home — the ones who survived long enough to. Publicly, Nixon insisted that he needed to keep American troops in Vietnam to pressure Hanoi to free the prisoners. Privately, he acknowledged the opposite was true: The North would only release the POWs when he agreed to withdraw all American ground forces. Prolonging the war meant prolonging the POWs’ captivity. A senator once asked how 50,000 soldiers would be enough to persuade Hanoi to free the POWs when 500,000 did not. “Of course, I couldn’t say to him, ‘Look, when we get down to 50,000, then we’ll make a straight-out trade — 50,000 for the prisoner of wars — and they’ll do it in a minute ’cause they want to get our ass out of there.”
“That’s right,” Kissinger said.
Nixon laughed. “You know? Jesus!” The president claimed it took great political courage to continue waging an unpopular war, but his tapes and declassified documents reveal the cold political calculation underlying his decision to add for more years to the war.
Negotiations, like Vietnamization, served Nixon’s political ends. “We want a decent interval,” Kissinger scribbled in the margin of the briefing book for his secret trip to China in July 1971. “You have our assurance.” For decades Kissinger has denied making a “decent interval” deal, one that would merely put a year or two between Nixon’s final troop withdrawal and Saigon’s final collapse. Kissinger’s denials have collapsed under the weight of his own words caught on Nixon’s tapes and transcribed in memos by NSC aides to document negotiations with foreign leaders. During this initial encounter with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger outlined Nixon’s requirements for a Vietnam settlement. Peace wasn’t one of them. Nixon did need the POWs, total American withdrawal, and a ceasefire for “say eighteen months.” After that, if the Communists overthrew the South Vietnamese government, “we will not intervene.” In other words, Hanoi didn’t have to abandon its plans to conquer the South, just hold off on them for a year or two.
The Soviet Union received the same assurances. During a closed-door session with Nixon during the 1972 Moscow Summit, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev said, “Dr. Kissinger told me that if there was a peaceful settlement in Vietnam you would be agreeable to the Vietnamese doing whatever they want, having what they want after a period of time, say eighteen months. If that is indeed true, and if the Vietnamese knew this, and it was true, they would be sympathetic on that basis.”
This wasn’t just some clever negotiating ploy on Nixon and Kissinger’s part to trick the Communists into making a deal. They discussed their strategy in the privacy of the Oval Office. “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two,” Kissinger said on Aug. 3, 1972. “After a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater,” and “no one will give a damn.”
The “decent interval” served an all-important political purpose. If Saigon fell immediately after Nixon withdrew the last American troops, his failure would have been too obvious. Americans would have seen that he’d added four years to the war and still managed to lose. “Domestically in the long run it won’t help us all that much because our opponents will say we should’ve done it three years ago,” Kissinger said. He was right about that. Few Americans, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, would have been willing to send their children to die for a “decent interval.”
Politics dominated the president’s military moves. In his first year in office, the Republican National Committee commissioned a secret poll that identified the most popular way to end the war. Pressing on until victory got just 37 percent support; “agreeing to anything to end the war” was even less popular at 30 percent. But a massive 66 percent favored bombing and blockading the North to make Hanoi agree to a compromise settlement with free elections for the South. Those polled said they would support the bombing and blockade for six months. So on May 8, 1972, exactly six months minus one day before the election, President Nixon went on national television and announced that he would bomb the North and mine its harbors. It’s all in the timing.
Nixon claimed the escalation would cut off supplies from the North to its armies in the South. It didn’t. That summer the CIA estimated that Hanoi was still managing to infiltrate 3,000 tons of war material into South Vietnam every day — 300 tons more than was needed. Although the bombing and mining proved to be strategic failures, they were great political successes. Polls showed a large majority approved. No surprise — the strategic failure of the bombing and mining remained classified.
When the North accepted Nixon’s settlement terms shortly before Election Day, it looked like Nixon’s military move had brought the enemy to heel. It hadn’t. Hanoi took Nixon’s deal for the same reason Saigon refused it. Both sides realized it would lead to a Communist takeover of the South — as did Nixon and Kissinger.
The president managed to turn losing a war into a winning political issue. In his last campaign speech, nationally broadcast the night before the election, Nixon urged voters “to have in mind tomorrow one overriding issue, and that is the issue of peace — peace in Vietnam and peace in the world at large for a generation to come.” The president boasted of a negotiating “breakthrough,” which is one thing to call a deal that is a roadmap to victory for the enemy and a death sentence for an ally. “We have agreed that the people of South Vietnam shall have the right to determine their own future without having a Communist government or a coalition government imposed upon them against their will.” He made no mention of the secret assurances he’d given China and the Soviets that the North could impose a Communist government on the South without fear of U.S. intervention as long as it waited a “decent interval” of a year or two. “There are still some details that I am insisting be worked out and nailed down because I want this not to be a temporary peace. I want, and I know you want, it to be a lasting peace.” No matter what anyone wanted, Nixon and Kissinger had been negotiating a temporary peace for more than a year. “By your votes, you can send a message to those with whom we are negotiating, and to the leaders of the world, that you back the president of the United States in his insistence that we in the United States seek peace with honor and never peace with surrender.” That last phrase, “peace with surrender,” was meant as a crack at McGovern, then the Democratic presidential nominee, but it aptly summarizes Nixon’s true strategy. What is a “decent interval” other than slow, secret surrender?
But Americans didn’t know what their president was really doing. On Election Day, Nixon won 60.7 percent of the vote, more than any other Republican president in history. The price of political victory included the lives of more than 20,000 American soldiers who died in the four years it took Nixon to create the illusion of “peace with honor” and conceal the reality of defeat with deceit.
Afterwards, Nixon blamed liberals for the consequences of his actions. While the fall of Saigon was built into his “decent interval” exit strategy, Nixon accused Congress of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
One line of attack was to blast Congress for cutting foreign aid to Saigon. It’s true lawmakers gave South Vietnam less than Nixon and, later, President Gerald R. Ford requested. But lawmakers could have doubled or tripled aid to Saigon, and it still would have collapsed under Nixon’s settlement terms. As the JCS, Pentagon, CIA, State Department and General Abrams had all pointed out to Nixon shortly after he took office, the South Vietnamese couldn’t handle the Communists without the combat support of major U.S. ground forces. Nixon had withdrawn all American troops under the terms of the Paris Accords. That was Hanoi’s price for freeing American POWs, and Nixon paid it (after he was safely re-elected and could afford to let Saigon fall). Without U.S. ground forces, Saigon was doomed, even if by some miracle it had received unlimited American aid. Complaining about aid cuts allowed Nixon to evade the truth about his exit strategy. Rather than negotiate a safe exodus for the South Vietnamese who had fought on the American side of the war, he left them to either die in “decent interval” combat or live under Communist rule. Yes, Congress could have thrown more money at the problem, but Nixon knew that wouldn’t solve it.
In No More Vietnams, the ex-president’s 1985 work of revisionist personal history, he castigated Congress for voting on June 29, 1973 (three months after American soldiers and POWs had come home) to ban further American combat in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: “This defeat stripped me of the authority to enforce the peace agreement in Vietnam — and gave Hanoi’s leaders a free hand against South Vietnam.” While Nixon termed the vote a “defeat” for him, Congress approved the combat ban only in direct response to a message from the president through Ford, then the House Minority Leader, promising Nixon would sign it into law. He didn’t have to. Earlier that same week, the House had sustained Nixon’s veto of a less sweeping bill that would have prohibited U.S. military action in Laos and Cambodia only. The bill’s supporters knew they lacked the votes to overturn a veto. They said so on the House floor. Lawmakers were so incredulous when Ford announced Nixon’s agreement to a combat ban for all of Indochina, including Vietnam, that he had to leave the House floor and telephone the president to confirm that he got the story straight. “I just finished talking with the president himself for approximately ten minutes,” Ford told his colleagues, “and he assured me personally that everything I said on the floor of the House is a commitment by him.” Only then did conservative supporters of Nixon and the war join liberals and moderates in voting to prohibit the use of American military power in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.
This wasn’t a “defeat” for Nixon, but a smooth legislative maneuver. As memories faded, Nixon would claim that he coulda woulda shoulda intervened with American airpower to save South Vietnam, if only Congress hadn’t tied his hands. The secret assurances he gave China and the Soviets that he would not intervene remained classified until long after he was dead.
Even today, Nixon’s real Vietnam exit strategy remains virtually unknown to the public, although scholars have been writing about it for years. Jeffrey Kimball has published two landmark works on the subject, Nixon’s Vietnam War and The Vietnam War Files, showing how Nixon engineered his “decent interval.” Even Jeremi Suri, whose Henry Kissinger and the American Century garnered praise from Nixon loyalists as well as critics, wrote, “By 1971 he and Nixon would accept a ‘decent interval’ between U.S. disengagement and a North Vietnamese takeover of the [S]outh.” (I turned my own research on the subject into educational videos used in classrooms and anywhere else people want to hear Nixon and Kissinger in their own words.) The facts are out.
Yet Nixon’s stabbed-in-the-back myth lives on. When politicians and pundits debate how and when to exit Afghanistan (as they earlier did Iraq) they cite the false history of Nixon’s “success” at training the South Vietnamese to defend their government and at negotiating with warring parties to settle their differences through free elections — two things Nixon never really managed to do. If the Nixon tapes are, in Bob Woodward’s witty phrase, the gift that keeps on giving, his backstabbing myth is the gift that keeps on taking — American lives, America’s fortunes, and the honor of politicians overseeing wars they can’t win and are afraid to end (at least until after they’re re-elected). It’s one more reason Iraq and Afghanistan eclipsed Vietnam as America’s longest wars.
The fortieth anniversary of the fraudulent Paris “Peace” Accords came, by coincidence, in the same month as the hundredth anniversary of Nixon’s birth. It’s high time for us to free our minds and politics from his deadly legacy.
history.com, “Paris Peace Accords signed.” by History.com editors; teaties.un.org, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIET-NAM, PROVISIONAL REVOLUTIONARY GOVERNMENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF SOUTH VIET-NAM and REPUBLIC OF VIET-NAM.”; adst.org, “A Peace That Couldn’t Last – Negotiating the Paris Accords on Vietnam.”; historynetwork.org, “The Paris “Peace” Accords Were a Deadly Deception.”;
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