Newly elected President Richard M. Nixon declared in 1969 that he would continue the American involvement in the Vietnam War in order to end the conflict and secure “peace with honor” for the United States and for its ally, South Vietnam.
Unfortunately, Communist North Vietnam’s leaders, believing that time was on their side, steadfastly refused to negotiate seriously. Indeed, in March 1972 they attempted to bypass negotiations altogether with a full-scale invasion of the South. Called the Easter Offensive by the United States, the invasion at first appeared to succeed. By late summer, however, Nixon’s massive application of American air power blunted the offensive. At this point, the North Vietnamese began to negotiate in earnest. In early October, American and North Vietnamese representatives met in Paris. By October 11, they had hammered out a peace agreement. Its key elements were: all parties would initiate a cease-fire in place 24 hours after signing the agreement; U.S. forces and all foreign troops would withdraw from South Vietnam no later than 60 days after signing the agreement; American prisoners would be released simultaneously with the withdrawal of American and foreign forces; and a National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord would be created to organize and oversee free and democratic elections to determine the political future of the South.
The agreement represented a victory for the North Vietnamese but also it seemed to provide an honorable way out for the Americans. Nixon quickly approved the terms. On October 22, however, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu stopped the process in its tracks. Especially infuriating to him was the cease-fire in place. It left thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam (estimates ranged from 140,000 to 300,000) well positioned to continue the war when the Americans departed. To gain Thieu’s support, the Americans reopened negotiations with the North Vietnamese based on his objections. This so offended the North Vietnamese that they too insisted on renegotiating several settled issues. By mid December the talks had collapsed.
Diplomacy had failed and a greatly frustrated Nixon concluded that only force could persuade Hanoi that negotiating with the United States was preferable to continuing the war. The President ordered his military commanders to mine Haiphong Harbor and to initiate a sustained air campaign in the Hanoi-Haiphong region. Beginning on December 18 and continuing for 11 days, American bombing attacked all significant military targets in the region. Even though the targets were military, the aim was psychological–to shock the North Vietnamese back to the negotiations in a frame of mind to end the war. On December 26, the North Vietnamese signaled their willingness to be agreeable and to meet in early January. After 3 more days of bombing, Nixon ended the air campaign. Nixon also believed that the bombing would remind the South Vietnamese that American air power was the most powerful weapon against the North Vietnamese, and that its continued availability was contingent upon South Vietnamese support of the agreement.
Nixon’s plan worked and in early January 1973, the Americans and North Vietnamese ironed out the last details of the settlement. All parties to the conflict, including South Vietnam, signed the final agreement in Paris on January 27. As it turned out, only America honored the cease-fire. Furthermore, the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord was stillborn. The North wanted to destroy South Vietnam while the South wanted to defeat the Northern forces. The inevitable solution, therefore, was to fight until one side won. Military facts on the ground, not words on paper, would determine South Vietnam’s future. Additionally, within 24 hours of the cease-fire coming into effect, the return of the almost 600 American prisoners began, as did the redeployment home of the remaining American and South Korean troops in South Vietnam. The January accords, titled the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” neither ended the war (except for the United States) nor restored the peace. A little over 2 years later, 30 North Vietnamese divisions conquered the South and restored peace in Vietnam. The American commitment to defend South Vietnam, described as unequivocal by Nixon and Kissinger, had been vitiated by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent resignation. By that time, the Paris Accords seemed memorable only as the vehicle on which the United States rode out of Southeast Asia.