America Withdraws from Vietnam (1971–73)

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America Withdraws from Vietnam (1971–73)

The United States continued to withdraw its troops from Vietnam throughout the early 1970s. At the same time, America transferred its many military responsibilities over to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) as part of its "Vietnamization" strategy. But even as the size of the U.S. ground forces steadily declined, South Vietnam remained heavily dependent on American air power. In fact, U.S. bombers, helicopter gun ships, and other aircraft were essential to the South, both offensively and defensively. U.S. air power was particularly important in turning back North Vietnam's 1972 Easter Offensive.

In late 1972, the endless peace negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam finally took a promising turn. When the negotiations faltered once again in December, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969–1974) approved the so-called "Christmas Bombing" of North Vietnam. Talks resumed a short time later, and in January 1973 the two sides reached agreement on a treaty that finally ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu (1923– ) bitterly opposed the deal, for he feared that the treaty's terms placed his government in jeop ardy. But when it became clear that the United States was pre pared to abandon him if he resisted, Thieu reluctantly pre pared for life without U.S. military protection.

U.S. military performance declines

The U.S. strategy of "Vietnamization"—a policy in which U.S. military forces transferred their war responsibilities to the South Vietnamese military so that American troops could be sent home—proceeded rapidly in the early 1970s. At the beginning of 1970, 450,000 American troops were sta tioned in Vietnam. By the end of 1971, only 157,000 remained. As American soldiers departed, South Vietnamese forces assumed control of American bases and other installations scattered throughout the country. The duties of the remaining American troops, meanwhile, shifted from "search and destroy" missions deep into remote areas to patrols of southern towns and other security operations.

To many observers, the U.S. withdrawal of ground forces from Vietnam was taking place in the nick of time. In the years immediately following the arrival of U.S. combat troops in 1965, many American units had performed at a very high level. Most soldiers fought bravely and conducted themselves honorably, despite being tangled in a confusing and frightening war. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, U.S. military performance in Vietnam underwent a dramatic decline. Some soldiers who served at this time continued to fulfill their duties well. But the discipline and performance of American troops as a whole deteriorated badly.

By mid-1971, U.S. military performance in Vietnam had declined so sharply that some observers warned that America's armed forces were on the verge of total collapse. This drop in performance took many forms. Some soldiers avoided combat or disobeyed orders. Others threatened or even murdered their commanding officers. Drug abuse and racial tensions took a heavy toll on many military units as well. Finally, reports of American brutality toward Vietnamese civilians (people not involved in the military, including women and children) rose dramatically during this period. "These [offenses] ranged from shooting water buffaloes for sport to running cyclists off the road, from throwing C-ration cans [heavy metal food cans] at Vietnamese children to using peasants for target practice," write Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss in The American Experience in Vietnam. "As large numbers of U.S. troops withdrew into heavily populated rear areas, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and theft became more common. In the countryside, a deadly combination of too much frustration and too little discipline led to a substantial increase in formal allegations of war crimes."

There were many reasons for this downturn in conduct and performance. Some of the factors cited include the frustrating and frightening nature of the conflict, dramatic changes in American society and culture, poor military leadership, depression over the war's unpopularity in the United States, and resentments that the war was being fought primarily by sons from America's minority and working-class families. But the single biggest factor in the drop in U.S. military performance may have been the average soldier's feeling that he was trapped in the middle of a pointless war. This feeling, according to Dougan and Weiss, "left most soldiers with little sense of mission other than personal survival." The gradual withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam further intensified this feeling, for no one wanted to be the last U.S. soldier killed in Vietnam.

Heavy losses in Laos

The growing crisis within the U.S. military was one factor in Nixon's decision to proceed with his policy of Vietnamization in 1971. The other major factor was continued strong opposition to the war among the American public. But while Vietnamization enabled Nixon to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, his administration continued to provide significant air support to the South Vietnamese government.

One region of Indochina in which America's awesome air power was most strongly felt was Laos, Vietnam's neighbor to the northwest. Throughout the 1960s, this small nation had been torn by warfare. The Communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used Laos as a base for guerrilla (guerrillas are small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) activity into South Vietnam. In addition, a large section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail—the North's main supply and communications route into South Vietnam—ran through Laos. Finally, Laos had been wracked by an ongoing civil war that pitted the Laotian government against the Pathet Lao, a Communist rebel organization that wanted to seize power for itself. Not surprisingly, the heavy Communist activity in Laos attracted a number of U.S. air bombing campaigns and other military activities over the course of the decade (see box titled, "'Secret War' in Laos" in Chapter 3, "Early American Involvement in Vietnam (1954–1962)").

In February 1971, the battle for control of Laos took center stage in the Vietnam War. Eager to show that South Vietnamese forces were capable of handling the war without the assistance of U.S. ground troops, Nixon approved a major incursion (raid) into Laos in order to destroy Communist bases and disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Seventeen thousand South Vietnamese troops, transported by U.S. helicopters and supported by U.S. artillery and airpower, crossed into Laos to attack NVA positions. U.S. ground troops were not part of the raid. In fact, they were forbidden from taking part in the offensive, code-named Lam Son 719. The U.S. Congress had imposed restrictions on the use of U.S. troops after Nixon's 1970 invasion of Cambodia. Under these new rules, American ground forces were no longer allowed to fight outside of Vietnam's borders.

Upon moving into Laos, the ARVN forces confronted a far greater number of North Vietnamese troops than they anticipated. Approximately 20,000 NVA troops rushed to meet the invasion force, and reinforcements soon increased the size of the Communist defenses to 40,000 troops. The South Vietnamese army continued to move forward, supported by hundreds of American helicopters and bombers, but the North Vietnamese held strong.

The battle in Laos continued throughout late February and the month of March. South Vietnamese troops absorbed the worst of the NVA attacks, but U.S. airplane and helicopter pilots also came under heavy fire from artillery and other anti-aircraft weaponry. "For four weeks now, American helicopter pilots have flown through some of the heaviest flak in the history of the Indochinese war," reported Newsweek on March 15, 1971. "The customary bravado of the American chopper pilot [is] beginning to wear a bit thin."

After six weeks of bloody fighting, the battered South Vietnamese army called a ragged retreat. As the ARVN troops straggled back toward South Vietnam, the enemy gave chase. Both the White House and the South Vietnamese government insisted that the ARVN withdrawal was an "orderly retreat." But when television audiences saw film clips of terrified South Vietnamese soldiers clinging to the sides of helicopters in desperate attempts to get home, many viewers dismissed these statements as yet another attempt to mislead the American public. In fact, only massive U.S. air strikes saved the ARVN from suffering a disastrous defeat.

As it was, the raid proved to be a total failure. The South Vietnamese invasion force lost almost half of its troops during the operation. The United States, meanwhile, suffered 1,400 casualties (killed and wounded soldiers) and significant damage to its helicopter fleet (108 helicopters were lost during the raid, and another 618 were damaged). Finally, the invasion failed to meet any of its military goals.

Nixon's frustrations grow

The defeat in Laos confirmed major American concerns about the state of South Vietnam's military. In fact, U.S. military experts warned the Nixon administration that the ARVN continued to suffer from a wide range of problems, including poor morale, high rates of desertion (soldiers leaving the military illegally before their terms of service have ended), lack of trained personnel, and a corrupt and inexperienced officer corps. They also complained that the South's military units continued to rely too heavily on American artillery and air support.

These reports greatly concerned Nixon, who continued to pursue a political settlement to the war. In May 1971, the United States and North Vietnam entered into secret negotiations to end the war. Unlike previous meetings held in earlier years, both sides showed a greater willingness to compromise at these sessions. For a while, Nixon held out hope that an acceptable treaty might be reached by the end of the summer. But the talks broke down when the North refused to budge from its longtime demand that South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu be removed from office as part of any agreement.

Thieu, meanwhile, won re-election as South Vietnam's president in September after forcing his two leading opponents out of the race. Thieu's efforts to manipulate the election in his favor were tolerated—and perhaps assisted—by American officials because the Nixon administration viewed Thieu as a strong ally. But the rigged elections drew harsh criticism from congressional opponents of the war and triggered renewed complaints about Nixon's Vietnam policies from antiwar activists.

The Pentagon Papers

Another source of frustration for Nixon during the summer of 1971 was the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers by the New York Times. This massive collection of secret defense department documents traced the history of U.S. policy in Vietnam from the end of World War II (1939–45) to the final months of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. Formally known as the History of U.S. Decision-making Process on Vietnam, 1945–1967, the so-called Pentagon Papers had been given to the Times by U.S. official Daniel Ellsberg, a former war supporter who became a strong opponent of American involvement in Vietnam.

Nixon was enraged when the New York Times began publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. Convinced that their release would hinder his own ability to wage war in Vietnam, he tried to stop their publication in court. But other newspapers soon began publishing excerpts as well. On June 30 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times had the constitutional right to publish the documents.

As the Pentagon Papers were published over the next several weeks, many sectors of the American public expressed anger and disappointment at what the documents revealed. To many Americans, the Pentagon Papers indicated that the Johnson administration and other U.S. officials had repeatedly deceived Congress and the general public over the years in order to justify and expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Leaders of the antiwar movement, meanwhile, expressed outright fury at the information contained in the papers. They charged that the documents proved that America's long and bloody involvement in the Vietnam War was based on a foundation of lies.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers also worsened the already terrible relations between Nixon and America's antiwar movement. In fact, Nixon's hatred of the protestors became so great that he approved a variety of illegal activities designed to intimidate or spy on antiwar leaders. For example, the White House created a secret group known as the "plumbers" to gather information against opponents of the war and other people thought to be enemies of the administration. This group's activities came to light only after they broke into the Democratic Party's campaign headquarters at Washington, D.C.'s Watergate Hotel in June 1972. The Nixon administration's later efforts to cover up the burglary created the so-called "Watergate" scandal that forced Nixon to resign from office in August 1974.

Peace talks continue

In late 1971, Nixon's primary negotiator, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (1923–), resumed peace talks with North Vietnam and its chief representative, Le Duc Tho. These discussions were serious. But as with previous peace talks, they failed to produce an agreement to end the war. "They eventually broke down for the same reasons earlier efforts had failed," explains George Herring in America's Longest War. "Having invested so much blood, treasure, and prestige in a struggle of more than ten years' duration, neither side was yet willing to make the sorts of concessions necessary for peace. Perhaps more important, each side still felt that it could get what it wanted by means other than compromise."

Nixon was disappointed when Kissinger returned without an agreement in hand. The president knew that the American public's opposition to the war was rising to its highest levels yet. In fact, one poll conducted in late 1971 showed that seventy-one percent of the people believed that America should never have entered Vietnam. Another fifty-eight percent called the war "immoral." The president recognized that if the war continued deep into 1972, when presidential elections would be held, it might cost him a second term in office.

Nonetheless, Nixon refused to agree to North Vietnam's demands of an immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam and the removal of Thieu. He took this stand partly because he continued to believe that the United States could eventually negotiate a better deal for itself and South Vietnam. But Nixon also realized that as U.S. troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam, the American public's interest in the war was waning. The majority of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in the conflict. But with few U.S. combat troops left in Vietnam, their opposition became overshadowed by a general relief that American soldiers were no longer being sacrificed to the war effort.

The Easter Offensive

By early 1972, almost all U.S. ground forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam. Of the 95,000 U.S. military personnel remaining in the country, only 6,000 were combat troops. This decline in U.S. troop strength prompted North Vietnam to launch a massive invasion—called the Easter Offensive— into South Vietnam in the spring of 1972 in hopes of winning the war once and for all.

When the North Vietnamese Communists launched their invasion on March 30, they were confident that they would roll to victory. After all, they had been conserving their strength for the past two years in preparation for such an operation. In addition, they believed that the South Vietnamese military would not fight well without the support of U.S. troops. Finally, the leaders of the North thought that antiwar sentiment within the United States would prevent the Nixon administration from responding to the attack with a massive military operation of its own. As the invasion developed, however, it became clear that the North had underestimated the response of both the United States and South Vietnam.

In its early stages, the Easter Offensive looked like it might produce a quick victory for the Communists. A total of 125,000 NVA troops surged into South Vietnam in three main forces, supported by large numbers of tanks and heavy artillery. They overwhelmed ARVN forces in a series of clashes, driving toward the South's major population centers along the coast. But the South Vietnamese military showed surprising grit as the battle wore on, and they halted the Communist advance. By May, the invasion had stalled and turned into a vicious toe-to-toe battle.

U.S. air power smashes advance

Nixon, meanwhile, reacted angrily to the Easter Offensive. The North Vietnamese "have never been bombed like they're going to be bombed this time," Nixon stated when he heard about the invasion. On April 4, he authorized U.S. air strikes and artillery fire against Communist targets from U.S. warships located in the South China Sea. This U.S. air campaign also included targets in North Vietnam. These strikes marked the first bombings of the North since 1968, when Operation Rolling Thunder came to an end (see Chapter 6, "Vietnam Becomes an American War (1965–1967)"). In May, Nixon ordered the mining of several North Vietnamese harbors and a further expansion of air strikes against North Vietnam. This campaign of sustained bombing took a heavy toll on Northern factories, airfields, bridges, highways, and other targets.

Nixon's decision to intensify American attacks on North Vietnam triggered a new round of demonstrations and protests in the United States. Congressional critics of the war also condemned the president for the escalation. By mid-sum mer, bills that would dramatically reduce American involve ment in Vietnam were circulating in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

But many Americans did not actively oppose Nixon's choice to retaliate against the North. Relieved that most U.S. troops were no longer in harm's way, they blamed North Vietnam for launching the Easter Offensive in the first place.

In the meantime, America's massive bombing campaign against NVA forces provided invaluable help to the South Vietnamese military. "By the end of June the aerial onslaught had stalled the Communist offensive amid the smoking wreckage of thousands of North Vietnamese tanks, trucks, and self-propelled artillery pieces," Dougan and Weiss reported. These attacks, combined with the surprisingly tough performance of the ARVN, forced North Vietnam to abandon the invasion in September.

A major defeat for the North

The Easter Offensive proved to be a major military setback for North Vietnam. The Communists did manage to gain control of some territory along the Laotian and Cambodian borders, but at a very heavy cost. By some estimates, the North lost 100,000 soldiers and 450 tanks in the assault, which failed to capture any major cities of strategic significance. These losses severely reduced the strength of the NVA for the next two years. North Vietnam's leadership was so upset by the failed offensive that it removed longtime general Vo Nguyen Giap (1911– ) from command and replaced him with General Van Tien Dung.

In addition, the performance of the ARVN pleased the Nixon administration. South Vietnam's successful defense of its urban centers and other strategic areas showed that its military was capable of performing well, even under brutal conditions. Still, few observers believed that the South could have prevailed without direction from U.S. military advisors or the awesome power of the U.S. air attacks.

Return to the negotiating table

By the fall of 1972, North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho signaled a new willingness to resume peace talks with Kissinger, America's chief representative. After all, North Vietnam had suffered heavy losses during the Easter Offensive, and the U.S. bombing campaign was taking a major toll in the North. In addition, the Communists worried that improving relations between the United States and China and Soviet Union—countries that had long supported North Vietnam— might complicate their efforts to take control of the South.

In September 1972, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho resumed their secret negotiations in Paris. A short time later, the United States called a halt to its bombing campaign against the North. As the talks progressed, Le Duc Tho indicated that North Vietnam was now willing to drop its long-time demand for Thieu's removal as part of any peace agreement. Delighted by this change of heart and the rapid progress of negotiations, Kissinger announced on October 26 that "we believe that peace is at hand." But when President Thieu learned of the basic framework for the treaty, he raised objections to the agreement. He did not believe that it provided his government with the level of protection it needed to resist future challenges from North Vietnam. As a result, the negotiators wearily returned to Paris in an effort to address Thieu's concerns.

Meanwhile, Nixon benefited greatly from Kissinger's premature announcement of a peace agreeement. He defeated Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern (1922–)— an outspoken opponent of the war—by a wide margin in the November 1972 presidential election to earn a second term as president of the United States. He won sixty percent of the popular vote and carried every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

United States launches Christmas Bombing

On December 13, 1972, the Paris peace talks collapsed once again. One day later, Nixon ordered U.S. forces to resume bombing targets in North Vietnam. This campaign was officially known as Operation Linebacker II, but it became better known as the "Christmas Bombing." The Christmas Bombing began on December 18 and continued day and night for two weeks, stopping only for Christmas Day. During that time, American bombers dropped an estimated 36,000 tons of explosives on Hanoi, Haiphong, and other North Vietnamese targets. According to some military experts, U.S. forces dropped more bombs on the North during this two-week period than they had during the entire three-year period from 1969 to 1971.

The timing and intensity of the air strikes drew harsh criticism from antiwar leaders and organizations. After all, Nixon had approved the most intensive bombing of the entire Vietnam War during the holiday season, at a point in time when the American public was extremely tired of the war. Nixon's decision also received heavy criticism from religious organizations, press commentators, members of Congress, and neutral countries around the world. Various voices labeled the bombing campaign as "shameful," "monstrous," and "murderous."

But Nixon and his supporters argued that the Christmas Bombing convinced North Vietnam to resume peace negotations. "Our bombing achieved its purposes," claimed Nixon in No More Vietnams. "Hanoi [the North Vietnam government] quickly accepted our first offer to resume the talks. We had forced Hanoi to come back to the negotiating table." The Christmas Bombing campaign ended on December 29, three days after North Vietnam agreed to resume peace negotations in Paris.

The Paris Peace Accords

On January 9, 1973, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho reached agreement on a treaty to end the war in Vietnam. The agreement was signed on January 27, almost five years after peace negotiations between the two sides first opened on May 13, 1968. Under the terms of the agreement, North Vietnam agreed to drop its demands for a coalition government (one that included Communist representation) in South Vietnam. In exchange, the United States agreed to allow some North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South as long as they promised not to resume military aggression. This section of the treaty left an estimated 160,000 North Vietnamese troops in various regions of South Vietnam. The treaty also provided for an exchange of prisoners of war (POWs) between the two sides. All U.S. troops were required to leave South Vietnam 60 days after the return of all American POWs.

Finally, the agreement left Thieu in charge of the Saigon government. But it also created a Committee of National Reconciliation that included political representatives from North Vietnam. This organization was charged with supervising elections for a new government in which all parties—including Communists—could take part. Historians agree that this part of the treaty left the political future of South Vietnam very much in doubt.

Thieu forced to go along

President Thieu was outraged by the terms of the peace agreement. He told U.S. officials that he would never agree to its conditions. The Nixon administration reacted to this threat in two ways. First, they tried to reassure South Vietnam's president. Nixon ordered the immediate delivery of $1 billion in military equipment, a gift that left South Vietnam with the fourth largest air force in the world. The administration also promised to provide other military and economic aid to the Thieu government. In addition, the United States promised that it would take "swift and severe retaliatory action" if North Vietnam violated the peace agreement. But second, Nixon administration officials warned Thieu that America was going to go forward with the agreement whether Thieu approved of it or not. Fearful that the United States would simply abandon him, Thieu reluctantly dropped his objections to the treaty.

The Paris Accords did not immediately end U.S. involvement in Indochina. American planes continued to bomb targets in Laos until February 21, when a peace agreement ending that nation's civil war was signed. In Cambodia, meanwhile, the United States continued to bomb Communist opponents of Lon Nol's national government. But to most Americans, the January 1973 Paris Accords marked the end of U.S. military involvement in Indochina. On March 29, the last U.S. troops left Vietnam to return home.

The American public expressed great relief when the 1973 Paris Accords were signed. After all, most people had grown very unhappy with the Vietnam War, which had taken thousands of American lives and plunged the nation into a period of great turmoil. As the last U.S. soldiers returned home, many Americans looked back over the previous decade with deep regret. The country had spent an estimated $200 billion on the war from the early 1960s to 1973. Over that period, more than 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, while another 300,000 were wounded. In addition, about 2,000 U.S. servicemen were still listed as missing in action when the last POWs returned home. Finally, the war triggered bitter divisions in American families and communities that remained deep for years to come.

Nixon's record in Vietnam

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, many Americans—from political leaders and journalists to common citizens—praised Nixon and his administration for their direction of the war effort. The Denver Post, for example, praised the Paris treaty as "a tribute to the skill and statesmanship of Henry Kissinger and to the determination, spirit and persistance of President Nixon." The president's supporters argued that his strong leadership—as shown in his defiance of antiwar demonstrators and willingness to use American air power—enabled the United States to negotiate a cease-fire that allowed it to leave South Vietnam "with honor."

Opponents of the war, however, were more critical of Nixon's record in Vietnam. They argued that the war became even more devastating during his first term of office than it had been during the Johnson administration. They charged that Nixon's heavy use of bombing resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, and that U.S. air strikes virtually destroyed large sections of the country. "The tonnage of bombs dropped on Indochina during the Nixon era exceeded that of the Johnson years, wreaking untold devastation, causing permanent ecological damage to the countryside, and leaving millions of civilians homeless," claims Herring.

Finally, Nixon's critics argued that he spent four years smashing Vietnam and neighboring countries, only to settle for a peace agreement that was similar in most respects to ones that he turned down in the late 1960s. "Four years of the Nixon administration had made only one change from the conditions available to the United States in 1968," comments Robert D. Schulzinger in A Time for War. "The United States had not been forced to drop its support for the government of President Thieu, but that government now had agreed to share power. The final agreement allowed the government of President Thieu a fighting chance to remain in power—no more, no less. U.S. casualties had risen by twenty thousand dead in the four years of the Nixon administration, and an additional three hundred thousand Vietnamese had lost their lives. And still the war went on."


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Words to Know

ARVN The South Vietnamese army, officially known as the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. The ARVN fought on the same side as U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

Cambodia Southeast Asian nation located on the western border of South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia experienced its own civil war between its pro-U.S. government and Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge.

Hanoi The capital city of Communist North Vietnam. Also an unofficial shorthand way of referring to the North Vietnamese government.

Indochina The name sometimes given to the peninsula between India and China in Southeast Asia. The term narrowly refers to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which were united under the name French Indochina during the colonial period, 1893–1954.

Khmer Rouge Communist-led rebel forces that fought for control of Cambodia during the Vietnam War years. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol in 1975.

Laos A Southeast Asian nation located on the western border of North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Laos experienced its own civil war between U.S.-backed forces and Communist rebels known as the Pathet Lao.

North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.

NVA The North Vietnamese Army, which assisted the Viet Cong guerilla fighters in trying to conquer South Vietnam. These forces opposed the United States in the Vietnam War.

Pentagon Papers A set of secret U.S. Department of Defense documents that explained American military policy toward Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. They created a controversy when they were leaked to the national media in 1971.

Saigon The capital city of U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Also an unofficial shorthand way of referring to the South Vietnamese government.

South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.-supported government.

Vietnamization A policy proposed by U.S. President Richard Nixon that involved returning responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese.

People to Know

Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) After serving as vice president under John Kennedy, he became the 36th president of the United States after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Johnson sent U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Opposition to his policies convinced him not to seek re-election in 1968.

Henry Kissinger (1923–) U.S. national security advisor (1969–1975) and secretary of state (1973–1977) during the Nixon administration. Represented the United States in peace negotiations with North Vietnam

Le Duc Tho (1911–1990) North Vietnamese Communist leader who represented North Vietnam in peace negotiations with the United States.

Lon Nol (1913–1985) Cambodian military and political leader who overthrew the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Despite U.S. military assistance, he was removed from power by Communist Khmer Rouge forces in 1975.

George McGovern (1922–) U.S. senator from South Dakota who opposed the Vietnam War. Became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 but lost the election to Richard M. Nixon.

Nguyen Van Thieu (1923–) President of South Vietnam, 1967–1973.

Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) Elected as the 37th president of the United States in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. Resigned from office during the Watergate scandal in 1974.

The Montagnard Tribes of Vietnam

The montagnards, or "mountain people," of Vietnam are a distinct ethnic group who live in remote mountain areas of central Vietnam. Historically, the montagnard tribespeople kept a great distance between themselves and the Vietnamese people who competed for control of the rest of the nation. The proud and independent montagnards maintained a primitive society deep in Vietnam's interior, resisting all Vietnamese efforts to impose authority over them.

When the Vietnam War expanded in the early 1960s, however, the montagnards found it impossible to avoid becoming entangled in the conflict. Military forces from Vietnam's warring North and South both tried to enlist the support of the tribespeople in hopes of using them for military advantage. After all, the montagnard homeland was viewed as an important strategic area. It offered both a potential invasion route into the heart of South Vietnam and an ideal launching area for raids against Communist camps in Laos and Cambodia.

Over time, the United States succeeded in recruiting a number of montagnard tribes to the side of the South. American officials convinced the montagnards that their way of life would be in danger if the North succeeded in its efforts to capture control of the South.

During the early 1960s, American Green Beret units (elite, specially trained members of the U.S. Marines) and other U.S. intelligence personnel organized the montagnards into military units that guarded their mountain homes against Northern invasion. The Americans also sometimes used the montagnards in guerrilla raids into Communist-controlled areas. The bravery and toughness of the montagnards deeply impressed many U.S. troops, and Green Beret units and other American forces expressed great affection and sympathy for the montagnards as the war dragged on.

By the mid-1960s, however, many montagnards refused to aid the South because of mistreatment at the hands of South Vietnamese soldiers. Some montagnards even organized an open rebellion against the government in Saigon. Hostilities between the montagnards and the South Vietnamese continued to flare up throughout the late 1960s, despite the fact that they both viewed the North as a dangerous threat.

In the late 1960s, the montagnard units were transferred from U.S. supervision to the Army of South Vietnam as part of the "Vietnamization" process. This change failed miserably, however, because of the hostility and distrust that dominated montagnard-Vietnamese relations. By late 1971, most montagnards left the South's military forces. Disillusioned and angry, they either returned home or took up arms against the South.

According to official estimates, approximately 200,000 montagnards were killed during the Vietnam War. In addition, 80 percent or more of the tribespeople were forced to abandon their homes during the fighting. When the North finally conquered the South to unite the country in 1975, some montagnards continued to do battle against the Vietnamese. But they never grew into a major threat. Some members of the devastated montagnard people were forced to flee into Cambodia or seek asylum in the United States in order to avoid punishment.

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America Withdraws from Vietnam (1971–73)

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