Nixon and Vietnam

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Nixon's approach to the War on becoming President

  • Determined not to become 'the first president of the US to lose a war' and wanted a non-Communist SV to survive, but realised a military victory was not realistic after the Tet Offensive and didn't want to escalate US involvement even further
  • Nixon believed that his reputation as a ferocious anti-Communist could be used to frighten the Communists into concessions, for fear of terrible consequences
  • Nixon was keen to be re-elected in 1972 and knew the US public was weary of the war (human and financial cost of it). They wanted reduced taxes and more focus on domestic issues
  • Nixon was more open-minded in his approach to the Cold War than he record might have suggested. He realised the USSR was finding its massive support for NV a strain and badly needed agreement with the US to limit the nuclear arms race and gain access to Western technology and wheat supplies. He was also aware that the Chinese Communists and the USSR had become rivals: so it was likely that China would welcome better relations with the US as a counterweight to the USSR
  • Nixon: prepared to put aside his past hostility and improve relations with both Communist giants in order to achieve gains for the US. His intention was to link US concessions to improved behaviour by the USSR (and possibly China) in specific areas of tension, such as Berlin and Vietnam - Nixon called this 'linkage'
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Vietnamisation

Circumstances soon pushed Nixon towards a new policy, reflecting a number of factors:

  • He and his National Security Advisor (Henry Kissinger) remained convinced that they could not simply pull the US forces out and risk the collapse of the SV regime - the effect this would have on American credibility around the world would be very damaging (vital during the Cold War). US allies would lose their faith in US power and the USSR and the Chinese would think the US was weak. It was essential that there was a face-saving end to the war - an honourable exit
  • A quick military victory was impossible and it was becoming politically unacceptable to keep US troops at current levels - US public were tiring of the war and there was pressure for troop withdrawals from the Democrat-dominated Congress (and even Republican senators)
  • Nixon's initial attempts to force the NV to make concessions: by offering improved relations with the USSR in return for pressure on Hanoi ('linkage'), or frightening the Communists by demonstrations of US power (the secret bombing of their supply lines in Cambodia) failed
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Vietnamisation

To respond to these circumstances, Nixon decided to adopt a policy of 'Vietnamisation' of the conflict: designed to enable Nixon to withdraw US troops (domestic and political reasons) but do so gradually and train and equip the ARVN to replace them.This way he number of US troops and of US casualties would be reduced without the war being lost.

The ARVN was increased to 1 million men:

  • Military schools with places for 100,000 students were introduced for new recruits
  • Officers' pay was raised
  • Conditions in mlitary camps were introduced
  • More modern equipment was introduced (M-16 Armalite rifles, tanks, helicopters and aircraft)

By the time US troops were withdrawn in 1973, SV had the 4th largest air force in the world

This policy was not new: it had been followed by Eisenhower and Kennedy and abandoned by LBJ because it didn't work. No matter how much equipment the USA gave the ARVN, its troops lacked the fundamental motivation to fight effectively and it was invariably defeated when it fought without US help.

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Domestic Opposition

  • At the same time Nixon planned secret, direct negotiations with the NV to try and reach a settlement without any obstacles being put in the way by Thieu's Saigon government (which opposed making concessions to the Communists for fear its own position would be undermined
  • While offering talks, however, he also threatened the NV with 'measures of great force' if a breakthrough wasn't achieved by 1st November 1969, the anniversary of LBJ's halt to the bombing
  • October 1969: antiwar movement staged new demonstrations (each was meant to involve a 'moratorium' - stopping normal activities in order to protest) in cities across the US. 2 million people took time out of work to participate in these protests. Washington: massive protest with a quarter of a million demonstrators
  • Alarmed Nixon and undermined his threat to the NV to act by the 1st November 1969 because this would have torn the country apart
  • In order to undercut the demonstrators before the next planned 'moratorium', Nixon announced his 'plan to end the war' to the public in November:
        1. US troops would gradually be withdrawn and the SV strengthened
         2. A compromise could be offered to the Communists if they were prepared to recognise the SV government
         3. The policy would take time and Nixon appealed to the 'silent majority' of Americans for support
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Domestic Opposition

  • Nixon's appeal succeeded in buying time - public and congressional reactions were very favourable
  • October 1969: height of the protests. An opinion poll showed 68% support for Nixon's handling on the Vietnam issue
  • December 1969: 100,000 US troops had been withdrawn
  • The antiwar movement lost some of its momentum, despite further large demonstrations and revelations of horrific atrocities by the US forces in Vietnam (Lt Willaim Calley was court martialled for the massacre of at least 347 civilians at My Lai in 1968
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The Military Situation and the Failure of Negotiat

  • Meanwhile the Communists were unable to launch further major offensives (especially as so many VC had been lost in the Tet Offensive and as a resuly of the counter-insurgency 'Phoenix Programme' 1968-72 which was designed to uncover, capture or eliminate VC agents in the villages)
  • There was much corruption, brutality and incompetence (many innocent people were arrested and some tortured while some genuine VC agents were able to bribe their way to freedom) and the claims that 29,000 VC agents were captured and 20,000 killed may have been exaggerated but it did to real damage to the VC and it became increasingly clear that the VC had no chance of defeating the ARVN on their own without help from the NVA; that is why the NVA presence in SV was such a key issue in the peace negotiations
  • On the other hand, when the brutal reality of the Phoenix Programme became publically known in the USA it increased oppostion to the war
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The Military Situation and the Failure of Negotiat

  • February 1970: Nixon's Security Adviser (Henry Kissinger) had held secret peace talks with the NV in Paris, which failed because neither side were prepared to compromise on their key demands
    - The US wanted to ensure that any settlement recognises the Saigon regime - however the NV hoped to pave the way for a Communist take-over in the South (which they weren't able to do by force). They wanted to replace the Saigon government with a coalition including the VC

    - The two sides couldn't agree over wether NV troops should be withdrawn from the South

    - NV negotiators remembered how the US had gone back on its promise in 1954 to hold nationwide elections by 1956 and were determined not to be cheated again. They would not accept any agreement which would not give them control of the whole of Vietnam
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