War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1972-1975) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1972-1975)

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All warfare is based on deception.
- Sun Tzu

1972 - 1973: The End?


Vietnam War Memorial statue group, photograph by Carol M Highsmith.

In January, 1972, President Nixon announced that the United States would continue to withdraw from Vietnam in coming months, removing another 70,000 troops over the next three months, but stated that 25,000 to 35,000 American troops would remain until the North Vietnamese released all the American prisoners of war.

The North Vietnamese government informed the United States, at the Paris talks, that its prisoners of war would not be released until the US agreed to withdraw all of its military forces.

In the following month, the United States bombed North Vietnamese bases along the Laos/South Vietnam border, to prevent a potential North Vietnamese offensive operation. United States commander General Creighton Abrams stated that troop morale was up and drug addiction among military personnel in Vietnam was down.

On 23 March, 1972, the United States suspended the peace talks in Paris, citing North Vietnamese refusal to seriously discuss concrete issues.

On 30, March, 1972, the North Vietnamese Army began a new offensive. After a day of heavy artillery fire, more than 20,000 North Vietnamese troops crossed the border into South Vietnam, forcing the South Vietnamese army into a disorganized retreat. The United States responded with heavy bombing of North Vietnam and by mining Haiphong Harbour.

In April of 1972, North Vietnamese forces attacked the cities of Hue, Quang Tri and Dong Ha. They were forced to retreat from Hue, where the South Vietnamese Army had assistance from a division of US Marines and American B-52 bombers, but took control of Quang Tri and Dong Ha by 1 May.

A battle for control of the provincial capital of An Loc, 60 miles North of Saigon, went on throughout the spring of 1972. The United States began bombing around the North Vietnamese city of Hai Phong, 60 miles East of Hanoi.

On 4 April, 1972, President Nixon authorized massive bombing of the North Vietnamese troops invading South Vietnam, saying, in private, 'The b*stards have never been bombed like they're going to be bombed this time'. On 15 April, Hanoi and Haiphong Harbour were bombed by the United States.

On 19 April, the North Vietnamese Army attacked the city of An Loc.

On 8 May 72, President Nixon ordered the mining of all North Vietnamese ports. He took this action without first consulting Congress. When he announced his decision to do this, he stated that it was to prevent the flow of arms and other supplies to North Vietnam until all American prisoners of war were returned and the North Vietnamese government agreed to an internationally supervised ceasefire. The government of North Vietnam called Nixon's decision to mine Hai Phong harbour and step up the air war 'the gravest step in escalation of the war to date'.

Also in May, the South Vietnamese army abandoned Quang Tn, the northernmost provincial capital in South Vietnam. North Vietnamese troops advanced in northern Binh Dinh Province on the central coast. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu declared martial law and dismissed the military commander in the Central Highlands, Lieut General Ngo Dzu, as a result of the loss of Quang Tn.

The Peace Talks in Paris resumed on 27 April, but were suspended again in May.


The 4 April decision to resume bombing in Vietnam sparked a series of protests across the United States. The decision to mine Haiphong Harbour intensified opposition within the United States to the continuing war in Vietnam. About 1,000 students at the University of Florida formed a blockade in front of that institution's student union. Hundreds of police officers from all of the surrounding counties responded, arresting more than 400 students.

In May 1972, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The Southern Regional Co-ordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Bill Lemmer, revealed himself as an undercover FBI operative in May of 1972. Eight people, seven of whom were Vietnam veterans, were charged with conspiring to disrupt the Republican National Convention, which was to be held in Miami, Florida, that summer.

When it was revealed that members of VVAW had attempted to order slingshots, to use for defence during demonstrations they had planned, they were charged with being a subversive organization and a threat to the United States government. The eight who had been arrested became known as 'The Gainesville [Florida] Eight'. Folk singers Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs came to the support of The Gainesville Eight, as did the paralyzed Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, whose life story was later told in the Oliver Stone movie Born on the Fourth of July. All eight were acquitted, after the Republican National Convention had ended.

Bad Press for the Anti-War Movement

In July of 1972, actress Jane Fonda travelled to North Vietnam and toured the area for two weeks. While there, she made four broadcasts on North Vietnamese radio. On 14 July, 1972, she said:

This is Jane Fonda speaking from Hanoi, and I'm speaking particularly to the US servicemen... I don't know what your officers tell you... but [your] weapons are illegal and that's not just rhetoric... The men who are ordering you to use these weapons are war criminals according to international law, and in the past, in Germany and Japan, men who committed these kinds of crimes were tried and executed.

In another broadcast, she quoted Ho Chi Minh and referred to President Nixon as a 'new-type Hitler'. She advised South Vietnamese soldiers to desert, saying 'You are being used as cannon fodder for US imperialism'.

Speaking to the men on the aircraft carriers in the area, she said 'Use of these bombs or condoning the use of these bombs makes one a war criminal'. To the pilots of the American planes; 'Examine the reasons given to justify the murder you are being paid to commit'. Upon returning to the United States, she addressed university students, starting her comments with 'I bring greetings from our Vietnamese brothers and sisters'.

Although her popularity increased with the more militant anti-war faction within the United States, many Americans considered her words and actions nothing less than treason.

In 1988, Jane Fonda expressed some measure of regret for her 1972 statements. In an interview with Barbara Walters, she had this to say:

I would like to say something, not just to Vietnam veterans in New England, but to men who were in Vietnam, who I hurt, or whose pain I caused to deepen because of things that I said or did. I was trying to help end the killing and the war, but there were times when I was thoughtless and careless about it and I'm... very sorry that I hurt them. And I want to apologize to them and their families.

To some Americans, Jane Fonda will always be 'Hanoi Jane'.

Bad Press for the United States Military

At about this time, a Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, was on a road near Trang Bang, where the village had just been bombed with napalm. He captured an image that was to disturb Americans who had previously supported US involvement in Vietnam. Five children were running down the road, their mouths open with cries of terror. One girl was completely naked.1 She had torn off her clothing, because it was on fire. Some soldiers appeared to be casually walking down the road behind the children.

The war was 'winding down'. Napalm was supposed to be used to clear terrain, not as an anti-personnel weapon. The United States was supposedly trying to save the village. The United States was supposed to be the 'good guys'. Americans found themselves wondering why the 'good guys' dropped napalm on children2.


On 11 July, 1972, a North Vietnamese Army attack on An Loc was defeated by South Vietnamese troops, with the assistance of American B-52 air strikes. Eight days later, South Vietnamese troops started a major counter-offensive campaign against the North Vietnamese Army in Binh Dinh Province.

The last US ground combat troops left Vietnam on 23 August, 1972. Less than a month later, on 16 September, South Vietnamese troops recaptured Quang Tri City. US air support continued. On 29 September, US raids against airfields in North Vietnam destroyed ten per cent of the North Vietnamese Air Force.


The Paris Peace Talks resumed on 13 July, 1972. The following day, The Democratic Party chose Senator George McGovern, an outspoken critic of the war, as their candidate for president in the upcoming election. McGovern advocated 'immediate and complete withdrawal' from Vietnam.

On 1 August, Henry Kissinger again met with North Vietnamese President Le Duc Tho in Paris. South Vietnamese President Thieu said that he was determined to reject all forms of coalition government for South Vietnam.

Finally, on 8 October, 1972, the United States government agreed to allow North Vietnamese troops already in South Vietnam to remain and the North Vietnamese government dropped its demand that South Vietnamese President Thieu step down so the entire South Vietnamese government could be dissolved. Some members of Henry Kissinger's staff were worried about the continued presence of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, but Kissinger knew what his priorities were. 'I want this war to end before the election' he said.

President Thieu did not have the same priorities. Thieu refused to have anything to do with a proposal that allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam. On 24 October, Thieu publicly denounced the peace proposal.

Hoang Duc Nha, at that time an aide to President Thieu, later recalled how the proposed peace settlement had been presented to the South Vietnamese government.

We say, fine, you know, thank you, could, could we see the text? And, we want to have time to study the text. Of course, they gave us the text in English, and at that time I thought I say, if our opposition knew that, that right this moment we were discussing the fate of a country in a text in English, boy, you know, it would be so bad that we shouldn't even think about it! So I ask, I say, where is the Vietnamese text? Oh, we forgot, and I say, what do you mean, you forgot? The other side, I know they don't present a text to you in English. You know between Vietnamese, we know each other, you know, there is something called national pride, and you present your own language. They say, oh this is good translation, and we have our own translators, I don't know what the name, what is the name of the guy he gave; I say, you mean to tell me an American is, you know, understand Vietnamese better than Vietnamese? We want to see the Vietnamese text.

In the United States, Supreme Court voted 7-2 to decline to hear a case questioning the constitutionality of American involvement in Vietnam (Sarnoff vs Schultz). Justices Douglas and Brennan dissented, expressing their opinion that the Constitution specifically gives Congress the power to declare war, and thus 'impliedly bars its exercise by the executive branch'.

On 26 October, 1972 , Radio Hanoi revealed the terms of the peace proposal and accused the US of trying to sabotage the settlement. Henry Kissinger held a press briefing and announced 'We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is in sight'.

Richard Nixon won the 7 November, 1972, presidential election by the widest margin (at that time) in United States history. One week later, on 14 November, Nixon sent a letter to President Thieu, promising 'to take swift and severe retaliatory action' if North Vietnam violated the proposed peace treaty.

President Thieu prepared a list of 69 changes to the proposed treaty, which was presented by Henry Kissinger to Le Duc Tho on 13 December. As a result, the peace talks came to a halt.

President Thieu signed a decree eliminating all political parties in South Vietnam, other than his new Democratic party.


When the peace talks broke down, President Nixon responded with 'Operation Linebacker II', a massive bombing campaign in Hanoi, starting on 18 December, 1972. This came to be known as 'The Christmas Bombings', and was denounced by political leaders around the world, including the Pope. 'Operation Linebacker II' ended on 29 December, with more than 100,000 bombs having been dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong over the course of 11 days. On 26 December, North Vietnam had agreed to resume negotiations within five days of the end of the bombing.

Dr Nguyen Luan, of North Vietnam, would later remember 22 December, 1972. American bombs had hit Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi.

'Cries and moans filled the dark night. We had to use knives, hammers and shovels to break through the concrete walls in order to get to the victims trapped inside. As a surgeon, I operate on people to save their lives. Now I was using my surgical knife not to save people but to cut apart the corpses in the bomb shelter so we could rescue those still alive'.


Peace negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho started again on 8 January, 1973, and terms were agreed upon the next day, 9 January, 1973. President Thieu accepted the treaty only under threat of having all American aid to the South Vietnamese government discontinued if he rejected it. Thieu called the treaty, which allowed the estimated 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers then in South Vietnam to remain, 'tantamount to surrender' for South Vietnam. The treaty specified that South Vietnam was to be considered one country with two governments, one led by Thieu and one led by the NLF/PALF, until such time as a single government was formed.

Lt Col William B Nolde was the last American soldier listed as having been killed in combat. He died on 27 January, 1973, the same day that United States Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced an end to the draft in favour of voluntary enlistment.

On 29 March, 1973, The United States officially withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam. President Nixon announced that 'the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come'.


The United States Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment on 19 June, 1973. This Act specifically forbade any further US military activity if Southeast Asia, beginning August 15, 1973. It passed by a vote of 278-124 in the House of Representatives and 64-26 in the senate. That vote would have been adequate to override a Presidential veto. The United States stopped its bombing in Cambodia on 14 August, 1973.

In July 1973, as the US Navy was removing mines from ports in North Vietnam, the US Senate Armed Forces Committee was holding hearings into the secret bombings of Cambodia during 1969 and 1970. Testimony by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger that 3,500 bombing raids had been made in Cambodia, a country whose neutrality in the Vietnamese War was officially recognized, without the knowledge of that Committee, resulted in the first call for Nixon's impeachment.

Political scandals plagued the Nixon administration. Nixon found himself accused of being directly involved in the placing of illegal surveillance equipment in the Democratic national campaign headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Then, on 10 October, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, having pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to charges of income tax evasion. Nixon appointed Congressman Gerald R Ford as his new Vice President, making Ford the first person to hold that office without having been elected.

On 7 November, 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which required that the President obtain the support of Congress within 90 days of sending American troops abroad.

The 1973 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. Kissinger accepted the award. Le Duc Tho declined, saying that a true peace did not yet exist in Vietnam.

1974 - 1975, The End


The United States Congress began impeachment proceedings against President Nixon on 9 May, 1974. The move related to Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal. On 8 August, 1974, Richard M Nixon became the first United States President to resign. Gerald Ford became the first US President to hold that office without having been elected to the Presidency or Vice Presidency. On 19 December, Ford appointed Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President, making Rockefeller the second person to hold the vice presidency without having been elected to that office.

On 16 September, 1974, President Ford announced a clemency programme for draft evaders and military deserters. The programme was to run until 31 March, 1975. It required that participants take an oath of allegiance and perform up to two years of community service. About 22,500 people participated in the programme, out of an estimated 124,000 eligible.

On 19 November, 1974, William Calley was freed after serving three-and-a-half years under house arrest following his conviction for the murder of 22 civilians in My Lai.


In December 1974, North Vietnamese military forces attacked Phuoc Long Province in South Vietnam, in violation of the peace treaty. President Ford registered diplomatic protests, but complied with the Congressional ban on all US military activity in Southeast Asia.

President Thieu announced that the war had resumed. South Vietnam prepared for a significant North Vietnamese and NLF/PALF offensive.

On 8 January, 1975, a North Vietnamese Army plan for the invasion of South Vietnam by 20 divisions was approved by the Politburo of North Vietnam. The plan anticipated victory for North Vietnam in about two years.

On 21 January, President Ford, during a press conference, stated the US would not re-enter the war.

On 10 March, the North Vietnamese Army attacked Ban Me Thuot, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Half of the South Vietnamese soldiers surrendered or deserted. Three days later, President Thieu decided to abandon the Highlands region and two northern provinces of South Vietnam.

Between 19 March and 30 March, the North Vietnamese Army captured Quang Tri City, Tam Ky, Hue, Chu Lai and Da Nang. In Da Nang, 100,000 South Vietnamese soldiers surrendered after their commanding officers abandoned them. The North Vietnamese Army started its final push to Saigon on 31 March.

President Thieu resigned from office on 21 April, 1975. During his 90-minute resignation speech, he read a letter sent to him by Nixon in 1972, in which Nixon promised 'severe retaliatory action' if South Vietnam was threatened. Thieu condemned the Peace Treaty that had been forced on him, Henry Kissinger, and the United States. He said that 'The United States has not respected its promises. It is inhumane. It is untrustworthy. It is irresponsible'.

Two days later, as 100,000 North Vietnamese soldiers advanced on Saigon, President Ford, speaking at Tulane University, said that the war in Vietnam was 'a war that is finished as far as America is concerned'.

On 28 April 28, General Duong Van Minh became the new president of South Vietnam. He immediately appealed for a ceasefire. The march on Saigon continued.

On 29 April, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army shelled the Tan Son Nhut air base in Saigon. President Ford ordered the evacuation of all Americans. As the helicopter evacuation got under way, South Vietnamese civilians made their way into the base and started looting. The evacuation was shifted to the American embassy, which was walled in and secured by US Marines in full combat gear.

At 8.35 am, 30 April, the last ten Marines were evacuated from the Embassy. The United States was no longer involved in the Vietnamese War. By 11.00 am, the North Vietnamese Flag was flying over the presidential palace in Saigon. President Minh broadcast a message of unconditional surrender. The North Vietnamese Army had completed the campaign, which had been expected to last two years, in 55 days.

North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin accepted the surrender, telling Minh that 'Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy'.

The last two US soldiers to die in Vietnam were killed when their helicopter crashed during the evacuation, some 30 years after Lt Col A Peter Dewey had become the first casualty.

Three US aircraft carriers were off the coast of Vietnam, handling the incoming Americans and South Vietnamese refugees. South Vietnamese pilots also landed on the carriers, flying American-made helicopters. News camera crews captured the scene of $250,000 helicopters being pushed overboard to make room for more helicopters to land on the carriers. The United States had suffered its first clear military defeat.

The Price of War

An estimated total of 2,122,244 people were killed during the war in Vietnam. Of these, 58,169 were Americans. Of those Americans, 11,465 were teenagers. An estimated 3,650,946 additional people were wounded, of whom 304,000 were Americans. 153,329 Americans were categorized as 'seriously' wounded. That total includes 10,000 amputees.

An estimated 444,000 North Vietnamese and 220,557 South Vietnamese military personnel and 587,000 civilians were killed.

6,727,084 tons of bombs were dropped. This is about two-and-a-half times the total tonnage dropped on Germany during World War II.

3,750 fixed wing aircraft and 4,865 helicopters were lost.

18 million gallons of poisonous chemicals were poured on Vietnam.

The dollar cost of the United States involvement in the war in Vietnam is estimated at $140 billion.

One Analysis of the Anti-War Movement

According to the Oxford Companion to American Military History:

The American movement against the Vietnam War was the most successful antiwar movement in US history. During the Johnson administration, it played a significant role in constraining the war and was a major factor in the administration's policy reversal in 1968. During the Nixon years, it hastened US troop withdrawals, continued to restrain the war, fed the deterioration in US troop morale and discipline (which provided additional impetus to US troop withdrawals), and promoted congressional legislation that severed US funds for the war. The movement also fostered aspects of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately played a significant role in ending the war by undermining Nixon's authority in Congress and thus his ability to continue the war. It gave rise to the infamous 'Huston Plan'; inspired Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of the Pentagon Papers led to the formation of the Plumbers; and fed the Nixon administration's paranoia about its political enemies, which played a major part in concocting the Watergate break-in itself.

Based on that, one of the lessons to be learned as a result of the experience of the United States in Vietnam would seem to be that popular opinion can, in fact, change policy at the highest levels of power. Enough people, saying 'This is wrong', loudly enough and long enough, can make a difference.

Other Entries in the Series

Photograph by Carol M Highsmith.

1The girl, Kim Phuc, although heavily scarred, lived through the war and eventually moved to Canada.2It now seems that the air strike had been carried out by South Vietnamese, not American, forces. The American who 'admitted' to having ordered the strike has recanted. This does not change the impact of that photograph on the American public.

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