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Nixon’s War in Vietnam - A new approach to foreign policy

Facharbeit (Schule) 2007 22 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: USA


Table of Contents


1 Richard Nixon
1.1 Short Biography
1.2 Aspects of Nixon’s Personality

2 History of the Vietnam War (1945-1968)

3 Richard Nixon’s Cold War Policy
3.1 The 1968 Election Campaign
3.2 The Initial Position
3.3 The Nixon Doctrine
3.4 Détente with the Soviet Union and China
3.5 Vietnamization and U.S. Withdrawal
3.6 Cambodia and Laos
3.7 Negotiations with North Vietnam
3.7.1 Nixon’s Carrot and Stick Policy
3.7.2 The Paris Peace Accords

4 The Aftermath





Whoever wins the upcoming election and becomes President of the United States, will have to face the considerable challenge of pacifying Iraq. Although the war has officially ended four years ago, there still is no peace in sight. No one seems to know how long the U.S. soldiers will have to stay in Iraq and up to now, no candidate has been able to present an elaborated plan.

In a way, the current events bear some striking similarities to the situation in 1968 when the most urgent question was, how to end the war in Vietnam. In June of 2007, the approval ratings of the present office holder George W. Bush fell to 26 percent. There has been only one President who has ever received an even worse rating.1 His name was Richard Nixon and he was the man who won the 1968 election. He was supposed to bring peace to Vietnam. However, this conflict can only be seen and examined in the context of the Cold War. In order to understand the measures which Nixon took in Vietnam, one has to take a closer look at his overall concept of foreign policy.

Nixon was one of the most influential and formative politicians of the Cold War era; a key figure for almost thirty years who essentially defined the politics of his time “ by his successes and by his failures ”2 Much has been written about him and his presidency but nevertheless, Nixon remains a mysterious character, full of contradictions and open questions.

The aim of this term paper is to respond to the following questions: Who was this man who polarized the United States like hardly any other president of the 20th century? What were the cornerstones of his policy? What were his motives, what were his goals? And in which way did his personality influence or even derogate his actions?

1 Richard Nixon

1.1 Short Biography

Richard Milhous Nixon was born on January 9th, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. His parents, Francis and Hannah Nixon, raised their five children following the conservative rules of Quakerism which included abstinence and pacifism. From 1919 to 1930 Nixon went to school in Fullerton and Whittier. He was a very good student and soon showed interest in going into politics.3 As he wasn’t able to attend Harvard University for financial reasons, he went to Whittier College and Duke University School of Law in order to become a lawyer. During World War II, Nixon served in the U.S. Navy.

His political career started in the late 1940s when he was elected to the House of Representatives, the Congress and the Senate for the Republican Party. During this time Nixon became known as a staunch anti-communist and gained nationwide fame as an investigator for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In 1960, after two terms as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nixon narrowly lost the race for presidency to John F. Kennedy. Two years later he announced his retirement from politics.

In 1968, however, the political situation seemed to be advantageous for a comeback. Once again Nixon ran for presidency and won with a mere advance of one percent. He was re-elected in 1972 but chose to resign on August 9, 1974, to escape a likely impeachment. The Watergate investigations had revealed his involvement in several criminal activities. In the two decades following his resignation, Nixon wrote numerous books on international affairs and became a respectable political adviser. On April 22, 1994, he died at the age of 81.

1.2 Aspects of Nixon’s Personality

Richard Nixon was a complex personality with many different layers. On the one hand he could be a warm and loving husband and father, a brilliant thinker and a great visionary. On the other hand, there were his irascibility and vulgarity, his selfishness and the habit of taking everything too personally. He “ saw life as a battle against a hostile world where enemies waited around every corner. ”4 In the end, Nixon’s presidency suffered highly from his personal flaws. According to Michael Genovese it was his “lack of moral understanding, his lack of character ” that “ proved to be his undoing ”.5

One of Nixon’s most striking features was his distrust of even his closest associates. In many cases, the President wasn’t willing to involve anyone in his schemes as he believed his staff members to be disloyal. Institutions like the FBI or the Congress were often excluded from decision making processes. As the historian Barbara Tuchman puts it, Nixon had “ turned the government into a monarchy ”.6 And his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger later wrote:

“ [Nixon] had very little confidence in the State Department. Its personnel had no loyalty to him; [...] He was determined to run foreign policy from the White House. ” 7

This led to an extreme form of secrecy and helped create a siege mentality in the White House. Paranoia began to creep in and distort the judgment of administration officials.8 Nixon’s fear of traitors went so far, he eventually ordered investigations, lie detector tests and sworn affidavits. Several members of government were wiretapped without warrants for “national security reasons”.9 Furthermore, every conversation held in the White House offices was recorded on tape. Some of these recordings were later opened to the public and revealed a rather short-tempered and foul-mouthed side of Richard Nixon.

Nixon’s distrust and animosity were not only directed against his staff members but also against anti-war protesters and especially the media which he generally regarded as hostile. Already in 1962, Nixon had accused journalists of having worked against him since the beginning of his political career. As President, he compiled a “master list of political opponents” which included the names of two hundred politicians, businessmen, actors and organizations. At times he even suspected the peace demonstrations to be financed by communists nations.10

During his time in office, Nixon repeatedly crossed the line to illegality by ordering break-ins, forgery of documents and the payment of hush-money. Defamation of political opponents was one of his common measures. In 1970, he introduced the Huston Plan which among other things called for spying on student groups and the establishment of detainment camps for anti-war protesters. Although the plan, which the Democratic Senator Sam Ervin later described as evidence of a “ Gestapo mentality ”11, was never realized, it tells a lot about the President’s concept of legitimacy. In 1977, Nixon explained to the journalist David Frost what seemed to have been his credo: “ When the President does it, that means it is not illegal. ”12 It was this attitude that eventually forced him to resign.

2 History of the Vietnam War (1945-1968)

The Vietnam conflict found its beginning in August 1945 when the country gained independence from its colonial power France. In 1954, it was divided into the communist Democratic Republic Vietnam in the North and the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam in the South. As the United States feared a possible communist extension (“domino theory”13 ), they started positioning troops in South Vietnam. Warlike operations between North and South began with the founding of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, inofficially known as the Viet Cong), a guerilla army consisting of communists and nationalists who offered resistance against the South Vietnamese government. In order to support the NLF, North Vietnam used a channel of supply through Cambodia and Laos - the so-called H Chí Minh trail. By 1961, the NLF had large parts of rural South Vietnam under its control. On the foundation of the domino theory and the Truman doctrine14, President Kennedy expanded the United States’ engagement in Vietnam.

On August 2, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to an escalation of the war. By 1967, President Johnson had raised the number of U.S. soldiers to 500,000. Together with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), the United States were facing about 100,000 guerilla fighters and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Furthermore, North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The war is therefore commonly labeled a proxy war.

Massive bombings by U.S. aircrafts were supposed to cut off the H Chí Minh trail. But the United States had obviously underestimated their enemy’s strength and the difficulty of leading a war in an unfamiliar environment. In 1967, almost 20,000 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives while South Vietnam’s civil population suffered from American napalm bombings and the the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange.

The year 1968 marked a turning point of the war. The surprising and large-scale T t offensive, led by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, inflicted severe casualties on the United States. The troop’s moral condition was at a low. Having lost the faith in winning the war, the United States were now willing to negotiate. On May 13, 1968, President Johnson stopped U.S. bombing raids and initiated peace talks in Paris.

At the end of his term in 1968, he left a seemingly hopeless war with 35,000 U.S. casualties and a cost of about 25 billion dollars a year. Since the mid-1960s, the worldwide anti-war movement had gained more and more importance and the government had come increasingly under fire; the political sentiment was changing. As the Democrats were enervated, vulnerable and divided after eight years in office, the Republicans with Nixon as their front runner scented the chance of winning the upcoming elextion.

3 Richard Nixon’s Cold War Policy

3.1 The 1968 Election Campaign

The Presidential election campaign of 1968 was dominated by the Indochina crisis. Nixon didn’t have any illusions about the gravity of the situation in Vietnam. In March of 1968, he told his advisers:

“ There's no way to win the war. But we can't say that, of course. In fact, we have to say the opposite just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage. “ 15

Nevertheless he had a clear vision and some “ definite ideas as to where he wanted to lead the nation ”16 Many of his later decisions had been hinted at in pre-Presidential writings and conversations with friends and officials.17

As Nixon knew a military victory was a distant prospect, he began to develop the concept of “just peace” or “peace with honor”, meaning no surrender and no defeat. When asked about details, Nixon maintained a low profile, claiming he didn’t want to interfere with the Paris Peace negotiations. This discreetness and reservation eventually led to the origin of the term “secret plan”. In reality, Nixon most likely never had such a plan, but his constant promises established him as “the peace candidate”18 and undoubtedly helped him win the election.

This wasn’t the only arguable trick pulled by Nixon during the campaign. Shortly before the election, he secretly talked to General Nguy n V n Thi u who represented South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Talks and convinced him to manipulate the negotiations. Nixon assured Thi u that a Republican as President would be better for South Vietnam than a Democrat. As a result, Thi u refused to take part in the peace talks on November 2, 1968, four days prior to the election.19 By this means he conclusively sealed the Democrats’ defeat.

3.2 The Initial Position

When Nixon came to power, the nation was deeply divided. People had lost their confidence in the government and vocally expressed their opposition against the war. The relationship between legislature and executive had been disturbed by Johnson’s controversial leadership and foreign policy was stuck in a dead-end street. Inflation and unemployment were rising, partly due to the enormous price of the war. The critical situation in Southeast Asia caused the Congress to demand a disengagement of U.S. forces in Vietnam and the limitation of Presidential power.

Nixon now had to face the difficult task of ending a the war. Although, in his eyes, the global political situation provided both challenges and opportunities,20 he soon found himself stuck in a great dilemma: On the one hand, the war couldn’t possibly go on for very much longer. Not only had the number of U.S. casualties exceeded 36,000 in 1968, but the engagement was also very expensive and encountered resistance all over the world. The damage for the United States’ economy and international prestige was devastating. On the other hand, Nixon had stated multiple times, he didn’t want to be the first President to lose a war.21 He knew that his precessors’ faith in the United States’ invincibility had been proven wrong and there was hardly any chance of coming off as a winner. Nevertheless, in March of 1969, he openly expressed his confidence that the war would end within a year.22 But, as Time Magazine suspected in 1972, he had “ apparently shown more confidence in public than he has in private. ”23

Nixon believed the engagement in Vietnam was only distracting the United States from their actual ambitions. For this reason, the troop withdrawal had to be started as soon as possible, so the nation would be able to concentrate on more important issues again. On the other hand, he realized a too hasty and unconditional disengagement could durably damage the United States’ repution and result in a loss of face. The price for the war had already been very high and it was too late to end it in an easy and fast way (“ We can't lose 50,000 Americans and lose this war ”24 ).

Nixon took the war as well as the anti-war protest personally. He felt that his reputation and credit were at stake (“ To Nixon it was a matter of both individual and national pride ”25 ). Fearing disgrace and humiliation, he was determined not to fail (“ I ’ m not going to end up like LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson], holed up in the White House afraid to show my face on the street. I ’ m going to stop that war fast ”26 ). Nixon wanted to be remembered as the “Peace President” and was constantly working for his place in history. During his Inaugural Address he declared:

“ The greatest honor history can bestow ist he title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America. If we succeed, generations to come will say of us now living that we mastered our moment, that we helped make the world safer for mankind. This is our summons to greatness. ” 27

Having felt underestimated and unvalued for most of his career, he now saw the chance of promoting himself and perhaps even outperforming one of his biggest rivals: John F. Kennedy.


1,1518,490058,00.html (October 3, 2007)

2,9171,980651-2,00.html (October 3, 2007)

3,1518,475329,00.html (October 3, 2007)

4 Genovese, M. 1990. The Nixon presidency. Power and politics in turbulent times. New York: Greenwood Press, p. 240

5 ibid., p. 243

6 (October 3, 2007)

7 Genovese. op.cit., p. 113

8 ibid., p. 124

9 ibid., p. 125-126

10 ibid., p. 124

11 ibid., p. 127

12 ibid., p. 137

13 The theory was based on the presumption that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect.

14 On March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman had proclaimed: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.“

15,9171,943430-2,00.html (October 3, 2007)

16 Genovese. op.cit., p. 104

17 ibid, p. 114

18 Genovese. op.cit., p. 116

19 (October 3, 2007)

20 The, A. D. 1979. Die Vietnampolitik der USA – Von der Johnson- zur Nixon-Kissinger-Doktrin. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, p. 221

21,9171,966188-9,00.html (October 3, 2007)

22 Nixon, R. 1981. Memoiren. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Taschenbuchverlag, p. 396

23,9171,943430-2,00.html (October 3, 2007)

24 (Ocotober 3, 2007)

25 Genovese, op.cit., p. 117

26 ibid., p. 118

27 (October 3, 2007)


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Titel: Nixon’s War in Vietnam - A new approach to foreign policy