President Johnson chose not to run for reelection in 1968. Several candidates entered the race, including former Vice-President Richard Nixon, the eventual winner of the election. Some of the Democratic candidates emphasized that they would pull American troops out of Vietnam as quickly as possible. When a reporter asked Nixon about his plans involving the war, he assured the reporter that he also wanted to bring Americans home from Vietnam. Somehow this statement turned into a rumor that candidate Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. He never said he had a “secret plan,” only that he wanted to end the war. What he wanted, though, was “peace with honor”—not a surrender to the Communists, but an assurance that South Vietnam would survive as a free country.
There are rumors, believed by some historians, that the Nixon campaign interfered with President Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War in 1968. This rumors center around Anna Chenault, a supporter of Nixon who also knew General Nguyen Van Thieu, who had replaced Diem in the government of South Vietnam. Chenault had some minor contact with members of Nixon’s campaign. She also communicated with Thieu, apparently assuring him that he would get a better deal from President Nixon than from Johnson; that he should refuse any deal to end the war before the end of 1968. The latter may have been the opinion of Chenault, and she may have expressed that opinion to Thieu, but this was by no means a message from the candidate or from any official in his campaign.
At any rate President Johnson did try to influence the American election by manipulating the war. Five days before the election, he declared a halt to American bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson did this unilaterally, without any corresponding concessions from North Vietnam. His tactic may have shifted some votes to Humphrey, but it did not win the election for Humphrey. Nor did it contribute to ending the war.
President Nixon acted on three fronts to try to end the war. First, he established secret negotiations in Paris between American officials—primarily National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger—and North Vietnamese negotiators. For three years the talks remained stalled, as North Vietnam insisted that the United States withdraw all its troops from South Vietnam and also assist in the overthrow of Thieu’s government. Only in the second half of 1972, when it became apparent to the North Vietnamese that Nixon would be reelected, did they offer serious negotiations to end the war.
Second, Nixon embarked on a program he called “Vietnamization.” He announced that American forces would train the army of South Vietnam to defend its own land, adding that the number of Americans fighting in South Vietnam would be steadily reduced. Over the next four years, Nixon kept his promise, bringing home soldiers by the thousands without replacing them with new American troops. By January 1, 1972, the number of Americans fighting in South Vietnam had been reduced by 400,000. Yet the remaining American fighters, assisting the strengthened South Vietnamese army, were able to withstand a strong invasion out of North Vietnam.
Nixon’s third strategy to end the war was to attack the enemy where the enemy was strongest rather than waiting for the enemy to enter South Vietnam. He resumed bombing military targets in North Vietnam. He ordered attacks on North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia and Laos. Political critics of Nixon have claimed that he expanded the war by involving neutral countries, but the North Vietnamese were already present in force in those countries. By attacking those positions, Nixon was able to prevent attacks upon South Vietnam, saving lives and moving toward victory against the enemy. Nixon also authorized planting mines in the waters near Hanoi, North Vietnam’s capital. These mines deterred shipments of military supplies into North Vietnam.
To be continued… J.