In the wake of the Tet offensive, on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, initiated peace talks with Hanoi, and declared he would not run for a second term. In that election year, Richard Nixon called for “peace with honor” and defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who could not attack Johnson for waging what had become a hugely unpopular war. Many Americans assumed that peace would come in short order. But, though the peace talks had begun, fighting in Vietnam continued for another seven years. In those years, Nixon gradually withdrew American troops from Vietnam but expanded the war to Cambodia and Laos, and with extensive bombing campaigns wreaked more destruction on the Indochinese than had been visited upon them in all the preceding years of war. More than twenty thousand American troops died, and upheavals in the United States tore the country apart, creating divisions that remain with us today.
The reason for this was simple: Nixon, as he said, had no intention of becoming “the first president of the United States to lose a war.” To him, that meant that he had to sustain the anticommunist government in Saigon at least through his own term in office. On the other hand, the Vietnamese communists, north and south, who had fought a nationalist and a revolutionary struggle against the Japanese, the French, and the Americans since the Second World War, would not abandon their cause.
During the 1968 campaign, Nixon ruled out a U.S. “military victory.” The only strategy the military planners had figured out was the attrition of enemy forces, and the Tet offensive had convinced the American public that attrition wasn’t working and that the only prospect was for more American casualties with no end in sight. A withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam had thus become a political necessity.
But how to withdraw and maintain the Saigon government? Created by the United States after the French withdrew in 1954, that government, the Republic of Vietnam, never gained political legitimacy. Since the fall of Ngo Dinh Diem to a military junta in 1963, it had been merely an administration and an army held together by American aid, with no politics except anticommunism. Johnson had sent U.S. troops to Vietnam in 1965 because it was disintegrating under political and military pressure from the southern revolutionaries, the National Liberation Front. Later, regular North Vietnamese troops had joined the battle. However, the three years of the American war had taken a toll on the NLF’s guerrilla forces and driven much of the rural population that supported them into the garrisoned cities and towns. In the Tet offensive, the NLF suffered crippling casualties; the North Vietnamese army was less affected, but it could not undertake a major new offensive soon. Nixon determined to press the military advantage while slowly withdrawing the American troops.
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