March 29, 1973: The U.S. Withdraws From The Vietnam War
Army Chief Master Sergeant Max Bielke, Alexandria, Minnesota, was the last U.S. serviceman to leave Vietnam 3/29 as the role of U.S. forces officially ended. He is carrying a scroll presented to him by North Vietnamese Lt. Col. Bui Tin. Source: Bettmann/G
On March 29, 1973, the final troops withdrew from Vietnam, after a years-long attempt to end the war. Richard Nixon had been elected in 1968 on a campaign pledging peace. Prior to his inauguration, Nixon nominated Henry Cabot Lodge, a former ambassador to South Vietnam to be the senior negotiator at the Paris peace talks on January 1, 1969, although he would no longer have the role by the time the talks were finished, being replaced by Henry Kissinger. The peace talks began on January 25. However, the U.S. started another Marine campaign in Vietnam on January 22, right before the peace talks began, Operation Dewey Canyon.
55e. Years of Withdrawal
The unspeakable horror of the 1968 My Lai massacre was not revealed to the American public until investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published his findings in November, 1969. According to troops who either witnessed or took part in the massacre, orders had been given "to destroy My Lai and everything in it." Over 300 civilians were killed and the village itself was burned to the ground.
President Nixon had a plan to end American involvement in Vietnam.
By the time he entered the White House in 1969, he knew the American war effort was failing. Greater military power may have brought a favorable outcome, but there were no guarantees. And the American people were less and less willing to support any sort of escalation with each passing day.
Immediate American withdrawal would amount to a defeat of the noncommunist South Vietnamese allies. Nixon announced a plan later known as Vietnamization . The United States would gradually withdraw troops from Southeast Asia as American military personnel turned more and more of the fighting over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In theory, as the South Vietnamese became more able to defend themselves, United States soldiers could go home without a communist takeover of Saigon.
Troop withdrawals did little to placate the antiwar movement. Demonstrators wanted an immediate and complete departure. Events in Vietnam and at home gave greater strength to the protesters.
In the spring of 1970, President Nixon announced a temporary invasion of neighboring Cambodia. Although Cambodia was technically neutral, the Ho Chi Minh trail stretched through its territory. Nixon ordered the Viet Cong bases located along the trail to be bombed.
Kent State and My Lai Massacres
Peace advocates were enraged. They claimed that Nixon was expanding the war, not reducing it as promised. Protests were mounted across America.
At Kent State University , students rioted in protest. The burned down the ROTC building located on campus, and destroyed local property. The governor of Ohio sent the National Guard to maintain order. A state of high tension and confusion hung between the Guard and the students. Several soldiers fired their rifles, leading to deaths of four students and the wounding of several others. This became known as the Kent State massacre.
This B-52 bomber in the background of this photo &mdash downed during bombing in 1968 &mdash sits in a small pond in Hanoi. Busy markets surround the fallen plane and the site has become a popular tourist destination.
The following year the American public learned about the My Lai massacre. In 1968, American soldiers opened fire on several hundred women and children in the tiny hamlet of My Lai. How could this happen? It was not unusual for Viet Cong guerilla activity to be initiated from small villages. Further, U.S. troops were tired, scared, and confused.
At first the Lieutenant who had given the order, William L. Calley, Jr ., was declared guilty of murder, but the ruling was later overturned. Moral outrage swept through the antiwar movement. They cited My Lai as an example of how American soldiers were killing innocent peasants.
The Pentagon Papers
In 1971, the New York Times published excerpts from the Pentagon Papers , a top-secret overview of the history of government involvement in Vietnam. A participant in the study named Daniel Ellsberg believed the American public needed to know some of the secrets, so he leaked information to the press. The Pentagon Papers revealed a high-level deception of the American public by the Johnson Administration.
The North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon in April, 1975, and renamed the capital Ho Chi Minh City. It was at this time that the last remaining American personnel in Vietnam were forced to flee.
Many statements released about the military situation in Vietnam were simply untrue, including the possibility that even the bombing of American naval boats in the Gulf of Tonkin might never have happened. A growing credibility gap between the truth and what the government said was true caused many Americans to grow even more cynical about the war.
By December 1972, Nixon decided to escalate the bombing of North Vietnamese cities, including Hanoi. He hoped this initiative would push North Vietnam to the peace table. In January 1973, a ceasefire was reached, and the remaining American combat troops were withdrawn. Nixon called the agreement "peace with honor," but he knew the South Vietnamese Army would have difficulty maintaining control.
The North soon attacked the South and in April 1975 they captured Saigon. Vietnam was united into one communist nation. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Cambodia and Laos soon followed with communist regimes of their own. The United States was finally out of Vietnam. But every single one of its political objectives for the region met with failure.
Shades of South Vietnam in US Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan
The impending U.S. withdrawal could leave Afghanistan vulnerable to a fresh takeover by the Taliban.
South Vietnam’s former presidential palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The latest bombing in Kabul – of a school that left 68 dead and 165 wounded – serves as a dreadful reminder that wars are easier to start than they are to end. Most of the victims were schoolgirls, in a classic terrorist attack that was as bloody as it was senseless.
It was detonated as the withdrawal of military forces by the United States and its allies is gathering pace after marathon negotiations with the Taliban, the ultra-orthodox Muslims who provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and still want absolute rule over Afghanistan.
Veterans of the 1970s Indochinese wars are acutely aware of this. And there is a genuine sense of foreboding that Afghanistan will tread the same path as South Vietnam did after President Richard Nixon pulled U.S. troops out in 1973.
North Vietnam immediately and persistently violated the peace agreement and Saigon fell to the communists about 18 months later, prompting a flood of refugees and the subjugation of the South Vietnamese to totalitarian rule.
An Afghan Study Group, co-chaired by retired Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., has warned that “a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat” that led to the 2001 attacks on the U.S. and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, within 18 months to three years.
But there are stark differences between the plight of South Vietnam and Afghanistan, which is not under any imminent threat from its neighbors who tend to meddle, particularly Pakistan.
American troop numbers in Afghanistan are about 3,500, plus contractors, along with a further 7,000 soldiers, mostly from NATO countries and Australia.
Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific.
It’s a small number, but when combined with Afghan forces they have proven effective against the 3,000-strong Taliban that are considered full-time militiamen, and a further 7,000 part-timers.
In comparison, Nixon pulled 69,000 American troops out of South Vietnam knowing full well the North Vietnamese had more than 150,000 soldiers in place south of the border plus the local communist militias known as the Viet Cong.
Ever since Saigon fell to the communists in 1975 and South Vietnam was formally annexed a year later, there have been no shortage of writers, historians, and left-wing politicians all too willing to rub salt into the wounds by declaring Vietnam a “crushing defeat” for U.S. forces.
The truth is Americans wanted out of the unpopular Indochinese wars for political reasons back home. They abandoned their allies and that resulted in a crushing defeat for South Vietnam, and Cambodia and Laos, at the hands of communist forces.
Their dependency on the U.S. was simply too great when Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Vientiane could ill-afford to go it alone and maintain their defenses against an advancing enemy.
This was eloquently summed up by Don Nicholas, a former marine who fought in Vietnam and Afghanistan and left both wars “unwon” and local allies on the battleground, where the prospect of retribution from an incoming enemy was and is very real.
“The same thing that happened in Vietnam is happening here,” Nicholas, told the Wall Street Journal. “They’ll say we accomplished great things… I say we accomplished nothing.”
Whether that happens in Afghanistan remains to be seen. The Taliban have never controlled all of that country but there is an old Afghan maxim, “He who controls Kabul controls Afghanistan,” and the capital will be their target once the withdrawal is complete.
There has been speculation that a small force will remain, capable of aiding and directing operations if and as required, backed up by aerial support, including drones.
It’s a decision that rests with U.S. president Joe Biden.
The latest bombing – targeting Shiite and Hazara minorities – has been blamed on the Taliban, a charge they deny. But it still serves as a reminder that the Afghan wars are far from over, 20 years after the first U.S. troops landed. They need to remain.
Luke Hunt is the author of the Vietnam War book, Punji Trap. He also served as Kabul bureau chief for Agence France-Presse in 1998-99 and has returned several times to cover the conflict. He can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.
Luke Hunt is a Southeast Asia correspondent for The Diplomat and has worked in journalism for more than 25 years.
Vietnam War: Escalation and Withdrawal, 1968-1975
A young South Vietnamese woman covers her mouth as she stares into a mass grave where victims of a reported Viet Cong massacre were being exhumed near Dien Bai village, east of Hue, in April of 1969. The woman’s husband, father, and brother had been missing since the Tet Offensive, and were feared to be among those killed by Communist forces.
Indeed, the Vietcong lost so many soldiers that thereafter the PAVN took over much of the conduct of the war. The Tet Offensive, however, was a great strategic gain for North Vietnam and its southern adherents. U.S. and ARVN losses were high, and the fighting generated thousands of refugees that further destabilized the South. Most importantly, as a result of the massive surprise attack and the pictures from Saigon, the U.S. press and public began to challenge the Johnson administration’s assurances of success and to question the value of the increasingly costly war.
U.S. air policemen take cover and leave their jeep as they come under sniper fire near Da Nang Airbase in Vietnam on January 30, 1968, after it was hit by a rocket barrage. Flares light up the Da Nang area to make it easier to spot infiltrating guerrillas.
At the same time as the Tet Offensive, the siege of Khe Sanh underscored the image of the war as an endless, costly, and pointless struggle. From 20 January to 14 April 1968, 30,000 to 40,000 NVA forces surrounded 6,000 U.S. Marines and ARVN at the remote hilltop outpost of Khe Sanh in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. Using artillery and air power, including B‐52 strikes, the United States eventually broke the siege and forced an NVA withdrawal. At the end of June, however, the Marines abandoned the base to adopt a more mobile form of fighting in the DMZ area. Once again, a major engagement left seemingly intangible results.
In March 1968, Johnson decided that the size of the U.S. effort in Vietnam had grown as large as could be justified. Prompted by a request from Westmoreland and JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler for 206,000 more men, the president asked his new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, for a thorough policy review. Johnson’s sense that a limit had been reached seemed confirmed when the “Wise Men,” a group of outside advisers including such elder statesmen as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Gen. Omar Bradley, recommended against further increases.
The president authorized only 13,500 more soldiers and bluntly informed Thieu and Ky that their forces would have to carry more of the fighting. He then announced on television on 31 March 1968 that the United States would restrict the bombing of North Vietnam and pursue a negotiated settlement with Hanoi. Johnson also revealed that he would not seek reelection.
Battle of Saigon, First Offensive, on February 10, 1968
Meanwhile, combat raged in South Vietnam. Over 14,000 Americans were killed in action in Vietnam in 1968, the highest annual U.S. death toll of the war. The worst U.S. war crime of the conflict occurred on 16 March 1968 (although not revealed in the press until 6 November 1969) when American infantrymen massacred some 500 unresisting civilians, including babies, in the village of My Lai.
In April and May 1968 the largest ground operation of the war, with 110,000 U.S. and ARVN troops, targeted Vietcong and NVA forces near Saigon. Peace talks began in Paris on 13 May but immediately deadlocked. On 10 June 1968, Gen. Creighton Abrams succeeded Westmoreland as MACV commander. In the fall Abrams began to shift U.S. strategy from attrition to a greater emphasis on combined operations, pacification area security, and what was called “Vietnamization,” that is, preparing the ARVN to do more of the fighting.
The flag of the Republic of Vietnam flies atop a tower of the main fortified structure in the old citadel as a jeep crosses a bridge over a moat in Hue during the Tet Offensive, February 1968.
When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, the U.S. war effort remained massive, but the basic decision to de‐escalate had already been reached. Nixon owed his political victory to voter expectation that somehow he would end the war. He and his principal foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, rejected precipitate U.S. withdrawal. With the ground war stalemated, the new administration turned increasingly to air bombardment and secretly expanded the air war to neutral Cambodia.
Publicly the White House announced in June the first withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops and heralded Vietnamization as effective. In fact, South Vietnam’s armed forces remained problem‐plagued. To bolster the South, the administration leaked to the press dire threats of a “go for broke” air and naval assault on the North—possibly including nuclear weapons. Kissinger also began secret meetings with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris hoping to arrange a diplomatic breakthrough.
A dead civilian lies nearby as a young Vietnamese boy shields his ears from gunfire blasts and runs for cover on a Da Nang street on January 31, 1968.
The morale and discipline of U.S. troops declined in 1969 as the futility of the ground war and the beginnings of U.S. withdrawal became more obvious. After an intense ten‐day battle in May, infantrymen of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Mobile) took a ridge in the A Shau Valley that they had dubbed Hamburger Hill. Having fought bravely and suffered significant losses, the soldiers were bitter when the site soon was abandoned.
Such inability to see progress, and an awareness among the troops that politicians back home were giving up on the war, helped undermine military effectiveness. Simple survival of their twelve‐month tour of duty became the only motivation for many soldiers. Incidents of insubordination, mutiny, fatal assaults on officers, drug use, racial tensions, and other serious problems increased.
U.S. Marines and Vietnamese troops move through the grounds of the Imperial Palace in the old citadel area of Hue, Vietnam, on February 26, 1968, after seizing it from Communist hands. The heavy damage was the result of the artillery, air, and mortar pounding the area received for 25 days while the Viet Cong/NVA held the area.
Faced with mounting public dissatisfaction, the slow pace of Vietnamization, and diplomatic frustration, Nixon boldly sent U.S. units into Cambodia in April 1970. U.S. military leaders had long complained about the sanctuary that neutral Cambodia provided Vietcong and NVA forces. This Cambodian incursion lasted until the end of June and provided some tactical gains, but it also sparked sharp controversy and demonstrations by the Vietnam antiwar movement in the United States over what seemed an expansion of the war to another country. U.S. troop reductions continued with only 334,600 in the South as 1970 ended.
Nixon stuck with more of the same in 1971. Responding to domestic critics, he continued to order U.S. troops home, leaving only 156,000 by December. To support Vietnamization, heavy U.S. air attacks continued against Communist supply lines in Laos and Cambodia, and so‐called protective‐reaction strikes hit military targets north of the Demilitarized Zone and near Hanoi and its port city of Haiphong. Tactical air support continued, with the heaviest coming in March during a South Vietnamese assault into Laos. Code named Lam Son 719, this operation ended in a confused retreat by the ARVN that further sullied the notion of Vietnamization.
With dead U.S. soldiers in the foreground, U.S. military police take cover behind a wall at the entrance to the U.S. Consulate in Saigon on the first day of the Tet Offensive, January 31, 1968. Viet Cong guerrillas had invaded the grounds of the U.S. embassy compound in the earliest hours of the coordinated Communist offensive.
During 1971, Kissinger made progress in the secret negotiations by offering to separate the arrangement of a ceasefire from discussion of the future of the Saigon government. In 1972 Nixon traveled to China and the USSR in diplomatic initiatives, trying to isolate Hanoi from its suppliers. With the shrinking American forces nearing 100,000 (only a small portion being combat troops), General Giap launched a spring 1972 offensive by Communist forces against the northern provinces of South Vietnam, the Central Highlands, and provinces northwest of Saigon.
In most of the battles, the ARVN was saved by massive B‐52 bombing. Nixon also launched the heavy bombers against North Vietnam itself in a campaign called Linebacker, and the United States mined the harbor at Haiphong. Over the course of the war, total U.S. bombing tonnage far exceeded that dropped on Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II.
South Vietnamese combat police advance toward a burning building in northeastern Saigon on February 19, 1968, as they battle Viet Cong forces who had occupied several city blocks in the area.
Wearied by the latest round of fighting, the United States and North Vietnamese governments agreed in October on a ceasefire, return of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs), at least the temporary continuation of Thieu’s government, and, most controversially, permission for NVA troops to remain in the South. Objections from Thieu caused Nixon to hesitate, which in turn led Hanoi to harden its position.
In December, the United States hit North Vietnam again with repeated B‐52 attacks, codenamed Linebacker II and labeled the Christmas Bombing by journalists. On 27 January 1973, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government representing the NLF signed the Paris Peace Agreements Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, which basically confirmed the October terms.
A Viet Cong prisoner sits next to corpses of 11 of his slain fellow guerrillas after a street fight in Saigon-Cholon on February 11, 1968. In the background are Vietnamese Marines that defeated a Viet Cong platoon holed up in the residential area. The prisoner was later taken out for interrogation.
By 1 April 1973, U.S. forces were out of Vietnam (except for a few embassy guards and attaches) and 587 POWs had returned home (about 2,500 other Americans remained missing in action). Congress cut off funds for the air war in Cambodia, and bombing there ended in August. Over Nixon’s veto, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in November 1973. It limited presidential power to deploy U.S. forces in hostile action without congressional approval.
Nixon characterized the Paris Peace Agreements of 1973 as “peace with honor,” but primarily they allowed the U.S. military to leave Vietnam without resolving the issue of the country’s political future. Without U.S. air and ground support, South Vietnam’s military defenses steadily deteriorated. In the spring of 1975, an NVA thrust into the Central Highlands turned into an ARVN rout. On 30 April, as NVA and Vietcong soldiers entered the city, the last remaining Americans abandoned the U.S. embassy in Saigon in a dramatic rooftop evacuation by helicopters.
The South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon street on February 1, 1968, early in the Tet Offensive. Lem was suspected of commanding a death squad which had targeted South Vietnamese police officers that day. The fame of this photo led to a life of infamy for Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who quietly moved to the United States in 1975, opening a pizza shop in Virginia. Read more about this picture .
The United States failure in Vietnam raised important questions. Should the United States have fought the war at all? Did the United States fight the war the wrong way? Many analysts believe that the strategic importance of Vietnam was vastly exaggerated and, furthermore, that the nationalism driving Vietnam’s history and politics could not be altered by U.S. military power, no matter how great.
An alternative view is that even if the odds were poor for U.S. success, the United States had to make the effort to maintain its moral and strategic credibility in the world. On the question of how the war was fought, the debate centers on whether the United States used its military power adequately and effectively. Assuming that more is better, some critics argue that a greater use of U.S. force, either against North Vietnam or to isolate the battlefield in South Vietnam, would have produced victory.
Throughout the conflict, however, the Saigon regime proved incapable of translating military success into political success. Also, massive U.S. assistance seemed to prove North Vietnam’s and the Vietcong’s claims that South Vietnam was not a Vietnamese but an American creation. Finally, a larger war would have risked a dangerous military conflict with China and the Soviet Union. Most scholars conclude that the Vietnam War was a tragic event whose costs far exceeded any benefits for the United States.
Assault boats in the Mobile Riverine Force of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division glide along the My Tho River, an arm of the Mekong Delta near Dong Tam, 35 miles southwest of Saigon, on March 15, 1968.
Police struggle with anti-Vietnam War demonstrators outside the Embassy of the United States in Grosvenor Square, London, on March 17, 1968.
Marine Lance Corporal Roland Ball of Tacoma, Washington, wearing his flak vest, starts the day off with a shave in a trench at the Khe Sanh Base in Vietnam on March 5, 1968, which was surrounded by North Vietnamese regulars. Ball uses a helmet as a sink and a rear-view mirror taken from a military vehicle.
Vietnamese women on the streets of Saigon, April 1968.
The bodies of U.S. Marines lie half buried on Hill 689, about two-and-a-half miles west of Khe Sanh, in April of 1968. Fellow Marines stand guard in the background after battling entrenched North Vietnamese troops for the hill.
As fellow troopers aid wounded comrades, the first sergeant of A Company, 101st Airborne Division, guides a medevac helicopter through the jungle foliage to pick up casualties suffered during a five-day patrol near Hue, in April of 1968.
Smoke rises from the southwestern part of Saigon on May 7, 1968, as residents stream across the bridge leaving into the capital to escape heavy fighting between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese soldiers.
Evidence of violence in the second offensive of the Vietnam War, north of Saigon, in May of 1968.
A U.S. trooper runs past a burning building in Saigon in June of 1968.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson listens to a tape recording from his son-in-law Captain Charles Robb at the White House on July 31, 1968. Robb was a U.S. Marine Corps company commander in Vietnam at the time. Robb was later awarded the Bronze Star and, after returning home, became governor of Virginia in 1982, and later a senator for the same state.
Two napalm drops explode just outside Katum, a U.S. Special Forces camp about 60 miles northwest of Saigon on August 28, 1968. The napalm was used when Viet Cong attacked the camp.
A U.S Marine with several days of beard growth sits in a helicopter after being picked up from the landing zone near Con Thein on the southern edge of the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam on July 18, 1968. His unit had just been relieved of duty after patrolling the region around the DMZ.
Flying 100 feet above the jungle hills west of Hue, five bulky C-123 “providers” cut loose a spray of chemical defoliant on August 14, 1968. The planes are flown by U.S. air force crews who have nicknamed themselves the “ranch hands.” The aircraft are specially equipped with huge 1,000-gallon tanks holding 11,000 pounds of herbicide. U.S. planes dropped millions gallons of chemical defoliant on Vietnam over the course of the war.
Marines prepare their 105-mm Howitzers for action at the end of a day in which this dense jungle area west of Hue was chopped down and molded into a fire-support base for a sweep of the area on February 18, 1969. Troops used explosives and earth-moving equipment to carve out the gun pits and bunkers which by nightfall became a fire-support base.
A Cobra helicopter gunship pulls out of a rocket and strafing attack on a Viet Cong position near Cao Lanh in the Mekong Delta on January 22, 1969. Large craters caused by air and artillery strikes brought in on the area can be seen near the white explosion.
FBI agents carry Vietnam War draft resister Robert Whittington Eaton, 25, from a dwelling in Philadelphia on April 17, 1969, where Eaton had chained himself to 13 young men and women. The agent leading the way pushed one of the group who tried to block path to the sidewalk. At least six young persons were taken away with Easton.
A trooper of the 101st Airborne Division attempts to save the life of a buddy at Dong Ap Bia Mountain, near South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley on May 19, 1969. The man was seriously wounded in the last of repeated attempts by U.S. forces to capture enemy positions there.
A GI gets a closeup photo as President Nixon meets with troops of the 1st Infantry Division at Di An, 12 miles northeast of Saigon, on his eighth visit to South Vietnam and his first as president, on July 30, 1969.
Marine Lance Corporal David L. Cruz tunes into the latest news on the Apollo moon shot on a helmet-mounted transistor radio while standing guard at Da Nang’s Marble Mountain, on July 17, 1969. In background is a tall Buddhist figure found in many limestone caves of the mountain.
Demonstrators listen to a performer in Central Park on Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969. Moratorium Day was a mass demonstration and teach-in staged across the United States, in protest against continued American involvement in Vietnam.
Three shirtless U.S. soldiers advance through the Mimot rubber plantation in the Fishhook region of Cambodia, on May 4, 1970, taking aim at a fleeing suspect. The rubber plantation, one of the largest in Indochina, had been in operation until just a few days earlier.
A GI of the U.S. 199th light infantry brigade walks through bodies laid out just outside the barbed wire perimeter of U.S. firebase crown in Cambodia on May 14, 1970. Fifty North Vietnamese were killed and only four Americans wounded when the North Vietnamese, presumably thinking the firebase already abandoned, walked into an ambush by the American defenders.
Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees crowd a U.S. helicopter which evacuated them from immediate combat zone of the U.S.-Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia on May 5, 1970. They were taken to a refugee reception center at the Katum Special Forces camp in South Vietnam, six miles from the Cambodian border.
The Ohio National Guard moves in on rioting students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, on May 4, 1970. Four persons were killed and eleven wounded when National Guardsmen opened fire.
Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screams over the body of 20-year-old Kent State student Jeffrey Miller after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970.
In this photo taken from video, soldiers in fire-support base Aries, a small clearing in the jungles of War Zone D, 50 miles from Saigon, smoke marijuana using the barrel of a shotgun they nicknamed “Ralph,” to get high on November 13, 1970.
U.S. artillerymen relax under a crudely made peace flag at the Laotian border in 1971. The gunners were giving covering fire for South Vietnamese troops operating inside Laos.
South Vietnamese troopers test fire flame throwers mounted atop APCs prior to moving out on operation west of Krek, Cambodia, on November 28, 1971.
South Vietnamese Marines check the bodies of dead soldiers for cigarettes near My Chanh, new government defense line 20 miles north of Hue, on May 5, 1972. The soldiers were killed during fighting when Quang Tri City was abandoned.
Bombs with a mixture of napalm and white phosphorus jelly dropped by Vietnamese AF Skyraider bombers explode across Route 1, amid homes and in front of the Cao Dai Temple in the outskirts of Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972. In the foreground are Vietnamese soldiers and news and cameramen from various international news organizations who watch the scene.
La Vang, town south of Quang Tri City, on July 6, 1972.
A beheaded statue of an American soldier stands next to a bombed-out theater near the district town of Cu Chi, northwest of Saigon, on December 13, 1972. The statue was placed by troops of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division before they were withdrawn from Vietnam two years earlier. Its head was lost in the explosion that destroyed the theater in background.
A South Vietnamese widow cries as a bell at a Saigon Buddhist pagoda tolls the ceasefire at 8 a.m., on Sunday, January 28, 1973, Saigon time. The United States had begun drastically reducing forces in the country, and, following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the last remaining American troops withdrew in March of 1973.
A bon voyage banner stretches overhead in Da Nang, South Vietnam, as soldiers march down a street following a farewell ceremony for some of the last U.S. troops in the country’s northern military region, on March 26, 1973.
The released prisoner of war Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Stirm is greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, as he returns home from the Vietnam War, March 17, 1973. In the lead is Stirm’s daughter Lori, 15 followed by son Robert, 14 daughter Cynthia, 11 wife Loretta and son Roger, 12. This famous photo, also called “Burst of Joy,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. The happy scene depicted here was not to last, however. Stirm, after spending five years in captivity, had received a “Dear John” letter from his wife Loretta, just three days before returning home. They divorced in 1974. Read more about this picture.
A refugee clutches her baby as a government helicopter gunship carries them away near Tuy Hoa, 235 miles northeast of Saigon on March 22, 1975. They were among thousands fleeing from recent Communist advances. With U.S. forces out of the country, North Vietnamese troops tested South Vietnamese defenses (and the willingness of the U.S. to return to the fight) starting in 1974, and began capturing territory.
The Fall of Saigon. Fleeing advancing North Vietnamese forces, mobs of South Vietnamese civilians scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans departed from Vietnam.
A cluster of South Vietnamese marines, some of whom unable to swim, hold onto inner tubes and empty plastic containers as buddies throw them a line to pull them aboard a navy LST off China Beach at Danang as they fled the port city in April of 1975.
A North Vietnamese tank rolls through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, April 30, 1975, signifying the fall of South Vietnam. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was formed in 1976, uniting North and South. Millions of South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, millions more fled the country on their own, leading to the Indochina refugee crisis that lasted another quarter of a century.
While we have you.
. we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19&mdashfrom the medical to the economic, the social to the political&mdashdemands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we&rsquove organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review&rsquos responsibility to public reason is sure. That&rsquos why you&rsquoll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
America`s Vietnam War in Indochina
Abuses perpetrated against the North Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian people, which began as far back as the French occupation in the 1840s, galvanized many to fight a 30-year battle for their eventual freedom from foreign occupation. The United States involvement in the struggles of French Indochina began in 1945 at the Potsdam Conference and continued through many phases, culminating in a final withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. Billions of dollars spent in military aid and equipment from the United States ended after more than 58,000 American lives were lost and another 153,000 were wounded in what is sometimes called “The Impossible War.” The Indochinese Peninsula consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, formerly Burma Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. French Indochina included Cambodia and Laos plus Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. The latter three later united to form Vietnam. End of Japanese occupation Directly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Vietnam's communist Viet Minh National Congress met in Tan Trao to ratify the Central Committee’s recommendation to begin a general uprising in the hopes of ousting the Japanese military command. The Congress also elected nationalist Ho Chi Minh, leader of the National Liberation Committee, as the head of the provisional government. When the news of Japan’s surrender in World War II arrived, the local Japanese military command turned over governance to the local authorities. Once Hanoi fell, the Viet Minh declared its independence, established the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and made Ho president and minister of foreign affairs. In a speech given on September 2, 1945, Ho announced the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, modeled nearly verbatim after the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, to half a million people assembled in Ba Dinh Square. Ho’s attempt to garner support from the United States was useless because, unknown by him, the fate of Indochina had already been decided at the Potsdam Conference. The Allies had agreed to a Japanese surrender of their occupation of Indochina above the 17th parallel and the British surrender south of that line. Instead of supporting Ho, the United States gave their support to France, which demanded to re-colonize Vietnam under threats of France’s non-cooperation in helping to rebuild Europe if the U.S. refused. Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated that France’s demand was nothing short of "blackmail." The United States also saw the Indochina situation as a potential example of The Domino Theory, which holds that if a country falls to communism, weaker surrounding nations also eventually fall. Due to political pressure from anti-communist Republican Joseph McCarthy and others in Washington, D.C., against Democrats who were seen as soft on communism’s spread throughout the world, President Harry S. Truman stepped up America’s involvement in the French re-colonization of Indochina under the Truman Doctrine. Anxious to re-establish their colony of 60 years, the French brought in forces in 1946 that included soldiers from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The colony had once supplied the French with not only important raw materials, but also vast wealth from its opium drug trade. French businessmen and a small number of Vietnamese became wealthy, while most became poorer. Citizens were often held in prison for long periods without being charged, or they died from malaria, tuberculosis, or malnutrition. By refusing to educate most Vietnamese children, literacy of France's re-colonized people reversed from 80 percent literate to 80 percent illiterate when the French left in 1954. Having traveled to France to sign a cease-fire agreement and to negotiate eventual freedom for the Vietnamese people, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed by the French government when the puppet government of Bao Dai was established in his absence in 1947. Although Dai had come from a long line of royal leaders, he had no talent for governing, nor did he have the desire to do it. Ho was forced to assent to French re-occupation. Given the choice, however, Ho preferred French occupation over the Chinese in Vietnam, knowing the French would be easier to depose than the Chinese. First Indochina War The beginning of the First Indochina War was marked by an outbreak of fighting as a result of a violation in the cease-fire agreement when Viet Minh soldiers refused a French demand to leave Haiphong. Fighting broke out and approximately 1,000 Vietnamese were killed in a battle fought with armored units against a French gunboat firing from the harbor. After seven years of fighting against the Viet Minh, the French governance in Indochina ended shortly after the bloody battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when, at the brink of surrender, they were unable to obtain U.S. reinforcements or additional military aid. The United States had funded approximately one third of France’s attempt to retain control of Indochina. After inheriting the engagement from Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, continued to support French occupation without much deviation from Truman’s policy. Eisenhower surmised that continued support would eventually lead to the liberation of the Vietnamese people from communism. The tide of U.S. support receded when the hopelessness of a full-scale occupation of Indochina against the Viet Minh was realized in 1953. The French also had requested an additional $400 million in assistance but, due to pressure from Washington for the French to make good on their promise to cooperate in Europe, they received only $385 million. By the end of the First Indochina War, 75,867 French soldiers had lost their lives and $3 billion had been spent in a war that led to the withdrawal of French troops after the 1954 Geneva Accords were signed. At the Geneva Conference in Switzerland in July 1954, not only did the Geneva Accords effectively end French control over Indochina, but Cambodia and Laos were also granted independence from France, thus bringing an end to French Indochina. Maintaining the partitioning of North and South Vietnam by the 17th parallel that was first established at the Potsdam Conference, Ho Chi Minh was given the territory north of the 17th parallel while Emperor Bao Dai was given the area south of the 17th parallel. Vietnam was temporarily divided, but an agreement had been reached for free elections to be held in July 1956 to unify the two regions. Emperor Dai’s rule was short lived in that by 1955, Dai was overthrown and U.S.-backed Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was instated as president. United Action Rather than bear the entire burden of containment in Southeast Asia, the U.S. began to favor what Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called “United Action.” Under the plan, a coalition of local forces would be called upon to assist with disputes. Out of the “United Action” approach came the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, referred to as the Manila Pact. The pact was signed by Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States on September 8, 1954, in Manila. The aim of the Manila Pact was to find peaceful means to resolve differences in Southeast Asia by establishing a council to determine how to implement the treaty and to provide consultation for military and other planning within the treaty area. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), whose principal architect was Secretary Dulles, was originated from that defense treaty in an effort to stem further communist takeovers of countries in the Pacific region and to legitimize the United States' presence in South Vietnam. Representatives from the eight original signatories pledged to defend against what it saw as an increase of communist military aggression against democracy. But in the end, the United States carried the heaviest burden in defending against that aggression. Due to Diem’s success against the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects and other political factions in South Vietnam in 1955, the U.S. began to believe Diem could stave off the Viet Minh with military assistance, and thus engaged in a deeper commitment to their freedom from the communist threat. But because of political instability in South Vietnam and fears that a communist leadership would not allow free elections, Dulles later argued that it was in the best interest of the U.S. to allow Diem to hold a rigged referendum ahead of the elections that had been mandated by the Geneva Conference. The decision not to allow free elections fueled the Viet Minh’s resolve to re-unify Vietnam. As the threat of a communist takeover of South Vietnam and a possible later capitulation of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia came closer to becoming a reality, President John F. Kennedy began to increase the number of “military advisors” in South Vietnam. Military advisors were used to train and equip South Vietnamese troops. Where there had only been 700 advisors at the end of President Eisenhower’s administration in 1961, Kennedy increased that number to 12,000. Covert operations involving Special Forces (Green Berets) moved the United States closer to an open conflict with North Vietnam and the Vietcong (communist guerillas fighting in South Vietnam). Second Indochina War (Vietnam War)
The United States negotiates a withdrawal
While Vietnamization and troop withdrawals proceeded in Vietnam, the negotiations in Paris remained deadlocked. Kissinger secretly opened separate talks with high-level Vietnamese diplomats, but the two sides remained far apart. The Americans proposed a mutual withdrawal of both U.S. and North Vietnamese forces. Hanoi insisted on an unconditional U.S. withdrawal and on the replacement of the U.S.-backed regime of Nguyen Van Thieu by a neutral coalition government. Nixon considered using renewed bombing and a blockade of the North to coerce the communist leadership, but his military and intelligence experts advised him that such actions would not be likely to have a decisive effect, and his political advisers worried about the impact of such actions on an American public eager to see continued de-escalation of the war.
Nixon consequently refrained from striking North Vietnam, but he could not resist the opportunity to intervene in Cambodia, where a pro-Western government under Gen. Lon Nol had overthrown Sihanouk’s neutralist regime in March 1970. Since that time, the new regime had attempted to force the communists out of their border sanctuaries. The North Vietnamese easily fended off the attacks of the Cambodian army and began to arm and support the Cambodian communist movement, known as the Khmer Rouge. Eager to support Lon Nol and destroy the sanctuaries, Nixon authorized a large sweep into the border areas by a U.S. and South Vietnamese force of 20,000 men. The allies captured enormous quantities of supplies and equipment but failed to trap any large enemy forces. In the United States, news of the Cambodian incursion triggered widespread protest and demonstrations. These became even more intense after National Guard troops opened fire on a crowd of protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four students and wounding several others, on May 4. At hundreds of campuses, students “went on strike.” Congress, meanwhile, repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
By the summer of 1970 the White House was left with little more than Vietnamization and troop withdrawals as a way to end the war. Vietnamization appeared to be proceeding smoothly, and American counterinsurgency experts had moved swiftly after Tet to help the South Vietnamese government to develop programs to root out the Viet Cong’s underground government and establish control of the countryside. The Viet Cong, seriously weakened by losses in the 1968–69 offensives, now found themselves on the defensive in many areas. However, the limits of Vietnamization were soon demonstrated, when in March 1971 a large ARVN attack into Laos, code-named Lam Son 719 and designed to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ended in heavy casualties and a disorderly retreat.
In the United States, large-scale demonstrations were now less common, but disillusionment with the war was more widespread than ever. One poll claimed that 71 percent of Americans believed that the United States had “made a mistake” in sending troops to Vietnam and that 58 percent found the war “immoral.” Discontent was particularly directed toward the Selective Service System, which had long been seen as unfairly conscripting young men from racial minorities and poor backgrounds while allowing more-privileged men to defer conscription by enrolling in higher education. College deferments were limited in 1971, but by that time the military was calling up fewer conscripts each year. Nixon ended all draft calls in 1972, and in 1973 the draft was abolished in favour of an all-volunteer military.
Encouraged by their success in Laos, the Hanoi leadership launched an all-out invasion of the South on March 30, 1972, spearheaded by tanks and supported by artillery. South Vietnamese forces at first suffered staggering defeats, but Nixon, in an operation code-named Linebacker, unleashed U.S. air power against the North, mined Haiphong Harbour (the principal entry point for Soviet seaborne supplies), and ordered hundreds of U.S. aircraft into action against the invasion forces and their supply lines. By mid-June the communists’ Easter Offensive had ground to a halt.
With the failure of their offensive, Hanoi leaders were finally ready to compromise. The United States had indicated as early as 1971 that it would not insist on the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from the South. Now Hanoi signaled in return that it would not insist on replacing Thieu with a coalition government. On the basis of these two concessions, Kissinger and North Vietnamese emissary Le Duc Tho secretly hammered out a complicated peace accord in October 1972. The Saigon government, however, balked at a peace agreement negotiated without its participation or consent and demanded important changes in the treaty. In November (following Nixon’s reelection), Kissinger returned to Paris with some 69 suggested changes to the agreement designed to satisfy Thieu. The North Vietnamese responded with anger, then with proposed changes of their own. Nixon, exasperated with what he saw as the North’s intransigence and also anxious to persuade Thieu to cooperate, ordered B-52 bombers again to attack Hanoi. This so-called Christmas bombing was the most intense bombing campaign of the war.
One of the last remaining river patrol boats used by the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War is lifted from the Naval Support Base display at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, S.C., March 26, 2013. The boat is going to a boatyard for a month for $30,000 in repairs.
"LBJ Tapes Pour Salt on Still-Unhealed Wounds of Vietnam War"
F irst, we had Robert McNamara's retrospective confession, in a 1995 book, that winning the Vietnam War he ran as secretary of defense for President Lyndon Johnson was "impossible, short of genocidal destruction."
Now, we have the release, after more than 30 years, of audiotapes of Johnson's own anguish, including a telephone conversation with McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, in which Johnson says, "I don't think [Vietnam] is worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out."
In McNamara's book, "In Retrospect," the former Cabinet officer exhibits the same trepidation. Yet he both called for, and prepared, itineraries for the escalation of hostilities.
For the more than 58,000 Americans who died in that futile endeavor, for the more than 150,000 who were wounded and for the millions of other Americans who were forever scarred by the divisiveness of that disputatious war, the not-so-surprising revelations rekindle a bitterness that has no closure.
Why, when report after report enumerated the pointlessness of continuation, did Johnson escalate the war?
It can be found in a single sentence uttered by Johnson over the phone on May 27, 1964, to Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: "They'd impeach a president, though, that would run out, wouldn't they?"
It was ego. He didn't want to be the first president who lost, or fled, a war.
Consequently, he placed our younger generation in harm's way and turned American against American on the home front. While privately expressing his doubts about the value of increasing our presence in Vietnam, he and his staff were drawing up plans to do just that.
It is interesting to piece together what the tapes reveal Johnson was saying to others with what McNamara details in his book about was happening in the Oval Office at the same time.
Johnson made his calls of consternation one day after McNamara and others of his inner circle met with the president with a draft of a congressional resolution they'd prepared that would let the president escalate the war. It was, McNamara wrote later, the genesis of what would become the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
McNamara says it was Johnson's idea "to prepare an integrated political-military plan for graduated action against North Vietnam."
Meanwhile, the president was playing both ends, calling old congressional friends and advisers, giving them that "it is with a heavy heart" routine for which he was so well known but all the time plotting to commit the United States to yet another war against communism in Asia, thus disregarding the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who in a 1952 reference to our involvement in Korea, said, "It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it."
Vietnam is an American lesion that never has healed, and probably never will. Many of the young who avoided it, including Bill Clinton, are forever hounded by an image of cowardice. Those who answered the call of our country still feel unappreciated and betrayed by the anti-war American public. Those who died left us with a haunting wall of memory as a physical heirloom, and infinite anguish over their loss.
"What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?" Johnson cried out to Sen. Russell in the recently released tapes. "What the hell is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to the country?"
Yeah, what the hell was it worth?
Mark Bowden discussed his book, "Hue 1968", about one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.