In 1972, Nixon traveled to China and to the Soviet Union, meeting with the leaders of both countries. His popularity grew at home. Meanwhile, a bruising primary campaign resulted in the Democratic nomination of George McGovern for President, probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could have named. Part of North Vietnam’s strategy for victory depended upon American distaste for the war. Anti-war demonstrations in American cities made it appear that the United States government might bow to pressure from the people and withdraw from the conflict. With Nixon’s reelection increasingly probable, North Vietnam dropped that strategy and entered serious negotiations with Kissinger in Paris. As the election neared, Kissinger hinted that peace was at hand. But after the election, the negotiators from North Vietnam backpedaled on some of the concessions they had promised. Nixon renewed bombing attacks and mining on North Vietnam—which he had reduced while the negotiations seemed successful. North Vietnam returned to the bargaining table, and in January 1973 papers were signed that officially ended the war, released American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam, brought all the American troops home, and guaranteed the survival of South Vietnam.
The agreements contained numerous restrictions upon action by North Vietnam against South Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos. Reprisals by American military force against any violation of these restrictions was guaranteed. However, despite Nixon’s overwhelming reelection in November 1972, the American Congress had grown more Democratic, with many newly-elected Democrats in Congress outspoken opponents of the war. Congress passed legislation to limit the ability of a President to wage war. It also voted to allow no funding for additional military action in Indochina. North Vietnam tested the treaty, violating some of its minor terms, and saw no American response. Weakened by the Watergate scandal, Nixon was unable to keep the American promises made in the treaty. After Nixon resigned, Ford was equally unable to enforce the treaty. North Vietnam patiently strengthened its military forces and waited for an opportunity to strike. In the spring of 1975 they struck. Ford again begged Congress for funds to defend South Vietnam, and again Congress denied his request. North Vietnamese troops and equipment poured across the border and seized all of South Vietnam. Many refugees escaped South Vietnam and were resettled in the United States. Many more (600,000) died trying to escape. Still more were imprisoned, tortured, and “reeducated” or killed by the Communists. With help from North Vietnam, communists overthrew the governments of Cambodia and Laos. In Cambodia alone more than two million citizens were killed by their new leaders.
The United States won the Vietnam War. The conditions established in the treaties signed in January 1973 were consistent with the goals that brought our troops into South Vietnam. Refusal to enforce the treaty changed victory into defeat. As Nixon would later say, “We won the war, but we lost the peace.”
More than fifty thousand Americans (58,220) lost their lives fighting in Vietnam. Many more returned home with significant health problems caused by the war. More than $50 billion was spent to contain communism in southeast Asia. The 93rd United States Congress wasted all that loss when they denied funds to enforce the treaty. The Vietnam War is widely seen today as a blot on the pages of American history—a war fought at the wrong time in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Careful analysis of the facts—particularly Communist treatment of conquered people in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—shows that we were fighting what was evil and seeking to preserve what was good. We owe a debt of gratitude to the soldiers who fell in Vietnam. We should remember them this week as heroes, not as failures. J.