The Tet Offensive and the Media
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United States: Involvement in Vietnam, 1973–1975

U.S. involvement in Vietnam steadily diminished between the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 and the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975. This period is often cynically referred to as the "decent interval," but the greatest significance of American policy during this period may well be the surprisingly little amount of controversy that it generated.

The Paris Peace Accords, signed on January 27, 1973 by representatives of the United States, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), called for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces within 60 days, the return of all captured personnel, efforts to locate missing persons on both sides, and the beginning of talks aimed at achieving "national conciliation and concord."

After some delays and threats by the United States not to withdraw after all, issues surrounding the return of American prisoners of war (POWs) were resolved, and 591 captured U.S. personnel were returned under Operation HOMECOMING in March 1973. After stating firmly on March 29 that "all our American POWs are on their way home," President Richard Nixon announced that the last American forces were also returning.

U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia did not cease, however. Immediately after the Paris agreement, a number of U.S. bases were signed over to the RVN, enough planes and helicopters were brought in to give the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) the fourth largest air force in the world, and at least 9,000 U.S. servicemen hastily resigned their commissions so that they could be legally retained by the Vietnamese as civilians. President Nixon also ordered occasional reconnaissance flights over North Vietnam so that be could match his previous promises to supply $4.75 billion in reconstruction aid with threats to drop the aid and resume bombing if the cease-fire failed to hold. The U.S. Air Force dropped 250,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia in the first six months of 1973; this was more tonnage than had been dropped on Japan in World War II. Heavy bombing also took place in Laos.

Meanwhile, President Nixon began to experience political trouble at home on a number of issues, including the emerging Watergate scandal. The decline in his political power combined with an increasing war weariness among Americans to undercut his military efforts in Southeast Asia. Despite intense Nixon administration lobbying, Congress cut the amount of aid authorized for Vietnam from $2.3 billion in fiscal year 1973 (July 1, 1972 to June 30, 1973) to $1 billion in 1974. The dramatic increase in the price of oil following the Arab oil embargo of late 1973 and resulting inflation further eroded the buying power of this appropriation. By 1974 the United States was no longer able to replace RVNAF equipment at the level permitted by the Paris peace accords, and operations by the Republic of Vietnam Air Force had to be cut by as much as 50 percent.

The Nixon administration faced even more difficulties in its own air war. Deeply upset by the disclosure of illegal bombings in Cambodia, on May 10, 1973 a rebellious, heavily Democratic Congress cut off all funding for further U.S. air operations in the theater. By late June, Congress went beyond that to pass a law forbidding further military operations of any sort in Southeast Asia. President Nixon's angry veto was overridden after negotiations extended the final deadline to August 15, 1973. By November 6, 1973, Congress overrode another Nixon veto and the War Powers Act became law. This required the president to inform Congress within 48 hours of the dispatch of U.S. troops to another country and said that the troops must be withdrawn within 60 days unless Congress explicitly authorized their presence.

In August 1974, after the Watergate scandals had forced Nixon to resign from office and Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, American interest in Vietnam declined even further. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger still talked of preserving American credibility in the region and lobbied hard for continued aid, but a generally hostile Congress cut appropriations to only $700 million for fiscal year 1975. Even charges that Americans might still be held against their will in Vietnam were largely discounted by a war-weary public. Ambassador Graham Martin and other embassy officials in Saigon were thus faced with the difficult task of trying to counter the demoralizing effects of U.S. aid cuts on a government that the Americans themselves had once played a crucial role in maintaining, but now regarded as too feeble and corrupt to be worth trying to save.

The decline in American interest in Vietnam became clear to the North Vietnamese and Provisional Revolutionary Government forces when the United States did not respond to the January 7, 1975 capture of the provincial capital of Phuoc Binh, and hence the province of Phuoc Long. DRV military leaders now believed that they could push into the Central Highlands. When a disastrous retreat destroyed key elements in the ARVN, DRV forces continued on toward the main southern cities. The final phase of the war had begun. During this period, the U.S. Congress voted an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid but refused to discuss having U.S. troops reenter the war. As Henry Kissinger sadly stated on April 17, 1975, "The Vietnam debate has run its course."

The Saigon government surrendered on April 30, 1975, a mere 55 days after the final Communist offensive began. The speed of that offensive, combined with Ambassador Graham Martin's determination to keep up morale, meant that many Vietnamese who should have been evacuated by the Americans were left behind. As television screens in America displayed dramatic images of Americans being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Communist forces quickly solidified their power in Cambodia and Laos as well.

Fortunately for the United States, Kissinger's remark about the finality of debate over the U.S. involvement in Vietnam signaled not only the cessation of all military efforts but also a lack of scapegoating over who was to blame for the tragedy. Unlike the earlier angry charges that the Democrats had "lost" China and, to a lesser extent, Korea, Americans this time around did not engage in a great debate over responsibility for the defeat. The sacrifices of the U.S. military, the clear incompetence and corruption of the Saigon forces, and the scope of the effortónot just by the relatively liberal Democratic President Lyndon Johnson but also by the conservative Republican President Richard Nixonócombined to give Americans a more realistic sense of their power to implement policy.

Peter K. Frost

 

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