by Florian Sohnke
Although the war in Vietnam spurred endless debate on the use of military force and the limits of power, interminably scarred the nation’s psyche, and is widely considered the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history, America’s involvement in its longest war ended on January 27, 1973 with negotiations concluding on the Paris Accords, formally known as the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet-Nam.
Following Senators Eugene McCarthy’s (D-MN) and Robert Kennedy’s (D-NY) insurgent challenges to President Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in early 1968, the Johnson Administration extended overtures to North Vietnam seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict and a wider peace to Southeast Asia. After Johnson promised to halt American bombing missions over the northern portion of North Vietnam, Hanoi agreed to meet in Paris in early May, 1968.
Negotiations stalled immediately: Hanoi’s mission, led by Xuan Thuy, demanded a complete halt to all American bombing of North Vietnam and the American delegation, led by Ambassador Averill Harriman, urged a reciprocal end their infiltration of South Vietnam with troops and equipment. Johnson ordered a bombing pause on October 31, 1968 in order to energize the talks.
Despite Johnson’s good-faith gesture, the North Vietnamese obstructed immediately: Hanoi’s arguments were childlike and revolved around the size and shape of the negotiation table and included a refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to the South Vietnamese government.
Realizing Hanoi was resorting to dilatory tactics by pinning their hopes to a change in power in Washington with the 1968 elections, North Vietnam offered little legitimate cooperation with Johnson’s delegation.
Following the election of President Richard Nixon, the Paris talks resumed under the direction of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and shortly thereafter by David Bruce. Frustrated at the burdensome talks, Nixon ordered his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to open a secret channel to Hanoi and agreed to meet Le Duc Tho in private to arrange a political settlement.
Talks between all stakeholders continued through 1972 at the Hotel Majestic, Paris and at a private villa outside Paris between Kissinger and Le; however, Hanoi refused to retreat from its demand South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, be replaced with a South Vietnamese representative more amenable to them.
It required three years, but on May 8, 1972, with the 1972 election approaching, Nixon offered an arrangement Hanoi embraced: Kissinger proffered a cease-fire in place and assured U.S. troops would leave South Vietnam without requiring a North Vietnamese withdrawal from South Vietnam.
The deadlock broken, Hanoi accelerated its cooperation for two reasons: Hanoi feared Nixon’s overtures to both China in 1971 and the Soviet Union in 1972 would isolate the North Vietnamese from their patrons; andthe failure of the Easter Offensive in April 1972 revealed Hanoi could never conquer the South Vietnamese government with American troops and air power present.
Feeling uneasy about America’s improved relations with Moscow and a re-born relationship with Beijing, Hanoi abruptly changed its stance in the secret talks with Henry Kissinger: Le agreed to allow Thieu to remain in Saigon and assented to further talks between South Vietnam and both Hanoi and the Communist National Liberation Front (NLF) to resolve the conflict.
Shortly after, at a White House press conference, Henry Kissinger announced: “Peace is at hand.”
Thieu, enraged at Kissinger’s announcement without the favor of consulting Saigon, held a series of radio broadcasts denouncing the agreement and broadcast his intent to reject the agreement. Hanoi responded by blasting the agreement, revealing the existence of the private negotiations between Le and Kissinger and threatened to walk away from the negotiating table.
Dismayed, Nixon had no intention of witnessing the negotiations fall apart and attempted to assure Thieu of America’s commitment to a free and secure South Vietnam. Nixon ordered a massive increase of American military aid, in sum close to $3 billion, under Operation Enhance and Enhance Plus and, infuriated at Hanoi’s intransigence, ordered a 12-day bombing campaign over North Vietnam, Operation Linebacker II, the most intensive bombing campaign of the war.
Soon after, both sides returned to the negotiation table and on January 15, 1973, President Nixon ordered the suspension of all American military action against the North Vietnamese.
Despite Nixon’s attempts to assuage Thieu’s concerns, South Vietnam’s plight was politically toxic and considered a policy disaster at home: Nixon was forced from office 19 months later and in early 1975, Hanoi resumed its long-standing goal to vanquish the Saigon government and unite the two nations.
On April 30, 1975, a mere 55 days after launching its first attack of the renewed offensive aimed at subduing the south, North Vietnamese tanks rolled through Saigon and the south was absorbed into Hanoi’s dysfunctional communist dictatorship.