Peace talks between representatives from United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the NLF had been taking place in Paris since January, 1969. By 1972, Richard Nixon, like Lyndon B. Johnson before him, had been gradually convinced that a victory in Vietnam was unobtainable.
Henry Kissinger was put in charge of peace talks and In October, 1972, he came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.
The main problem with this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam to withdraw its troops. President Richard Nixon ordered a new series of air-raids on Hanoi and Haiphong. It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities. The destructive power was equivalent to five times that of the atom bomb used on Hiroshima. This bombing campaign was condemned throughout the world. Newspaper headlines included: "Genocide", "Stone-Age Barbarism" and "Savage and Senseless".
The North Vietnamese refused to change the terms of the agreement and so in January, 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the peace plan that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with many of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been "bombed into submission."
The last US combat troops left in March, 1973. It was an uneasy peace and by 1974, serious fighting had broken out between the NLF and the AVRN. Although the US continued to supply the South Vietnamese government with military equipment, their army had great difficulty using it effectively.
President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam appealed to President Nixon for more financial aid. Nixon was sympathetic but the United States Congress was not and the move was blocked. At its peak US aid to South Vietnam had reached 30 billion dollars a year. By 1974 it had fallen to 1 billion. Starved of funds, Thieu had difficulty paying the wages of his large army and desertion became a major problem.
Le Duc Tho and Vo Nguyen Giap continued to direct the military operations against South Vietnam. The spring of 1975 saw a series of NLF victories. After important areas such as Danang and Hue were lost in March, panic swept through the AVRN. Senior officers, fearing what would happen after the establishment of an NLF government, abandoned their men and went into hiding.
Nguyen Van Thieu announced in desperation that he had a signed letter from Richard Nixon promising military help if it appeared that the NLF were winning in South Vietnam. However, Nixon was no longer in a position to fulfil his promise as he had been forced to resign over Watergate. The new president, Gerald Ford, a strong supporter of US involvement in Vietnam, tried to raise support for the South Vietnamese government but the Senate was adamant that as far as it was concerned, the war was over.
On April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford told the American people: "Today Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished." Two days later. President Thieu, accusing the United States of betrayal, resigned and left the country. He was quickly followed by other South Vietnamese leaders and the remaining American advisers.
Kissinger had already planned to hold a press conference on October 26 (1972) in order to reassure the North Vietnamese that we were serious about reaching an agreement as well as to distract attention from Thieu's obstructionism. Now his press conference took on an additional purpose and importance: we had to use it to undercut the North Vietnamese propaganda maneuver and to make sure that our version of the agreement was the one that had greater public impact.
In his opening remarks Kissinger said, "We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight, based on the May 8 proposals of the President and some adaptations of our January 25 proposal, which is just to all parties."
Public attention focused on this turn of phrase, "Peace is at hand." Another statement later in the briefing would also come back to haunt us. Kissinger said, "We believe, incidentally, what remains to be done can be settled in one more negotiating session with the North Vietnamese negotiators, lasting, I would think, no more than three or four days, so we are not talking of a delay of a very long period of time." When Ziegler told me that the news lead from Kissinger's briefing was "Peace is at hand," I knew immediately that our bargaining position with the North Vietnamese would be seriously eroded and our problem of bringing Thieu and the South Vietnamese along would be made even more difficult. No less disturbing was the prospect of the premature hopes for an early settlement that would be raised at home, while the McGovern supporters would naturally claim that we were trying to manipulate the election. Kissinger himself soon realized that it was a mistake to have gone so far in order to convince the North Vietnamese of our bona fides by making a public commitment to a settlement.
On the positive side, there was no doubt that Kissinger's briefing had succeeded in completely undercutting the enemy's ploy and superseding their false interpretation of the proposed peace agreement.
The North Vietnamese thought they were going to surprise us by going public through the NLF with a somewhat distorted and garbled version of the peace plan. Consequently, Henry (Kissinger) went public and indicated that "peace was at hand." This was really going considerably further than I would have gone, and I know Henry was worried about it. However, when I talked to him about what I should say when we went to campaign in Kentucky, he very much did not want me to go back from what he had said.
To the realist, peace represents a stable arrangement of power; to the idealist, a goal so pre-eminent that it conceals the difficulty of finding the means to its achievement. But in this age of thermonuclear technology, neither view can assure man's preservation. Instead, peace, the ideal, must be practised. A sense of responsibility and accommodation must guide the behavior of all nations. Some common notion of justice can and must be found, for failure to do so will only bring more "just" wars.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner expressed his hope that "man will not merely endure, he will prevail".1 We live today in a world so complex that even only to endure, man must prevail - over an accelerating technology that threatens to escape his control and over the habits of conflict that have obscured his peaceful nature.
Certain war has yielded to an uncertain peace in Vietnam. Where there was once only despair and dislocation, today there is hope, however frail. In the Middle East the resumption of full scale war haunts a fragile ceasefire. In Indo-china, the Middle East and elsewhere, lasting peace will not have been won until contending nations realise the futility of replacing political competition with armed conflict.
America's goal is the building of a structure of peace, a peace in which all nations have a stake and therefore to which all nations have a commitment. We are seeking a stable world, not as an end in itself but as a bridge to the realisation of man's noble aspirations of tranquility and community.
If peace, the ideal, is to be our common destiny, then peace, the experience, must be our common practice. For this to be so, the leaders of all nations must remember that their political decisions of war or peace are realised in the human suffering or well-being of their people.