The Paris "Peace" Accords Were a Deadly Deception

tags: Vietnam, Richard Nixon, Vietnam War, Ken Hughes, Henry Kissinger


Ken Hughes is a research specialist with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Richard Nixon addressing troops in South Vietnam. Via The New Nixon.

"The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam," signed January 27, 1973, never looked like it would live up to its name. Four decades later it stands exposed as a deliberate fraud.

The president of South Vietnam, in whose defense more than 50,000 Americans gave their lives, wept upon hearing President Richard Nixon's proposed settlement terms. Hanoi would release American prisoners of war and agree that the South could choose its government by free elections, but the accords threw the voting process to a commission that could act only by unanimity -- all but impossible to achieve among Communists and anti-Communists who'd spent years shooting out their differences. Worse, Nixon would leave North Vietnamese troops occupying and controlling much of the South, while withdrawing all remaining American ground forces. "It is only an agonizing solution," said President Nguyen Van Thieu, "and sooner or later the government will crumble." National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger reported Thieu's response to Nixon on October 6, 1972, adding, "I also think that Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him."

Kissinger's damning admission comes from the single most comprehensive and accurate record of a presidency there's ever been or likely will be: Nixon's secret taping system. Voice-activated recorders wired to microphones hidden in the Oval Office and elsewhere clicked on whenever they detected a sound between February 16, 1971, and July 12, 1973, a time when Nixon not only negotiated the Paris "Peace" Accords and withdrew from Vietnam, but became the first American president to visit China and Moscow, signed the first nuclear arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, and won the biggest Republican presidential landslide ever in an election that realigned American politics for the rest of the Cold War.

Since Nixon's secret tapes coincide with his most acclaimed accomplishments, loyalists thought that when finally released they would reveal a foreign policy genius at work, offsetting the sordid image of the unindicted co-conspirator that emerged from the excerpts played in court as criminal evidence during the Watergate trials of the 1970s. They should have known there was a Nixon reason fought to keep his tapes from the American people until his death in 1994. Since then, the government has declassified 2,636 hours. These tapes expose far worse abuses of power than the special prosecutors ever found. After all, as the saying goes, no one died in Watergate. As commander in chief, however, Nixon sacrificed the lives of American soldiers to further his electoral ends. I've spent more than a decade studying the tapes with the University of Virginia's Miller Center, but the contrast between the public image Nixon created and the reality he secretly recorded still loosens my jaw.

As schoolchildren are taught, Nixon promised America "peace with honor" via a strategy of "Vietnamization" and negotiation. Vietnamization, he said, would train and equip the South Vietnamese to defend themselves without American troops. He realized it wouldn't. "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway," the president said on tape.

This was no mere passing doubt. On his first full day in office, he'd asked military, diplomatic and intelligence officials how soon the South would be able to handle the Communists on its own. The answer was unanimous: never. The Joint Chiefs, CIA, Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General Creighton W. Abrams, all agreed that Saigon, "even when fully modernized," would not survive "without U.S. combat support in the form of air, helicopters, artillery, logistics and major ground forces." (Emphasis added.)

Nixon faced a stark choice: continue sending Americans to fight and die in South Vietnam's defense for the foreseeable future, or bring the troops home knowing that without them Saigon would ultimately fall. There was no way he could sell either option -- endless war or withdrawal followed by defeat -- as the "peace with honor" he'd promised.

So he lied. "The day the South Vietnamese can take over their own defense is in sight. Our goal is a total American withdrawal from Vietnam. We can and we will reach that goal through our program of Vietnamization," he said -- despite his advisers' unanimous consensus (which remained classified) and his own private assessment.

To make Vietnamization look successful, he spaced withdrawal out across four years, gradually reducing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam from over 500,000 in January 1969 to less than 50,000 by Election Day 1972. Throughout those four years, he made many nationally televised speeches to announce partial troop withdrawals, claiming each one proved Vietnamization was working. Always he left enough Americans fighting and dying to conceal the fact that Vietnamization never really would work. In this way, the president made slow retreat look like steady progress.

Liberals like Senator George S. McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat, did try to end the war faster. McGovern's proposal that Congress force Nixon to bring the troops home by the end of 1971 gained the support of more than 60 percent of Americans. History has confirmed the majority's judgment. A withdrawal deadline was the only way to stop the president from prolonging the war for political purposes.

But Nixon was able to kill McGovern's bill by a simple expedient. He said it would lead to Communist victory. He didn't mention that his own approach would do the same. The difference was that Nixon's way would (1) postpone Saigon's fall until after Election Day, so voters wouldn't be able to hold him accountable and (2) add another thirteen months of casualties, including 792 American dead.

To be fair, on one occasion Nixon sounded willing to abandon his political timetable in return for the release of American prisoners of war, who routinely endured torture by their North Vietnamese jailers. "If they'll make that kind of a deal, we'll make that any time they're ready," Nixon said on March 19, 1971, more than a year before the election.

"Well, we've got to get enough time to get out," Kissinger said. "We can't have it knocked over brutally -- to put it brutally, before the election."

"That's right," Nixon said. The POWs, like American soldiers in Vietnam, had to wait on Nixon's political timetable before they could come home -- the ones who survived long enough to. Publicly, Nixon insisted that he needed to keep American troops in Vietnam to pressure Hanoi to free the prisoners. Privately, he acknowledged the opposite was true: The North would only release the POWs when he agreed to withdraw all American ground forces. Prolonging the war meant prolonging the POWs' captivity. A senator once asked how 50,000 soldiers would be enough to persuade Hanoi to free the POWs when 500,000 did not. "Of course, I couldn't say to him, ‘Look, when we get down to 50,000, then we'll make a straight-out trade -- 50,000 for the prisoner of wars -- and they'll do it in a minute 'cause they want to get our ass out of there."

"That's right," Kissinger said.

Nixon laughed. "You know? Jesus!" The president claimed it took great political courage to continue waging an unpopular war, but his tapes and declassified documents reveal the cold political calculation underlying his decision to add for more years to the war.

Negotiations, like Vietnamization, served Nixon's political ends. "We want a decent interval," Kissinger scribbled in the margin of the briefing book for his secret trip to China in July 1971. "You have our assurance." For decades Kissinger has denied making a "decent interval" deal, one that would merely put a year or two between Nixon's final troop withdrawal and Saigon's final collapse. Kissinger's denials have collapsed under the weight of his own words caught on Nixon's tapes and transcribed in memos by NSC aides to document negotiations with foreign leaders. During this initial encounter with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger outlined Nixon's requirements for a Vietnam settlement. Peace wasn't one of them. Nixon did need the POWs, total American withdrawal, and a ceasefire for "say eighteen months." After that, if the Communists overthrew the South Vietnamese government, "we will not intervene." In other words, Hanoi didn't have to abandon its plans to conquer the South, just hold off on them for a year or two.

The Soviet Union received the same assurances. During a closed-door session with Nixon during the 1972 Moscow Summit, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev said, "Dr. Kissinger told me that if there was a peaceful settlement in Vietnam you would be agreeable to the Vietnamese doing whatever they want, having what they want after a period of time, say eighteen months. If that is indeed true, and if the Vietnamese knew this, and it was true, they would be sympathetic on that basis."

This wasn't just some clever negotiating ploy on Nixon and Kissinger's part to trick the Communists into making a deal. They discussed their strategy in the privacy of the Oval Office. "We've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two," Kissinger said on Aug. 3, 1972. "After a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater," and "no one will give a damn."

The "decent interval" served an all-important political purpose. If Saigon fell immediately after Nixon withdrew the last American troops, his failure would have been too obvious. Americans would have seen that he'd added four years to the war and still managed to lose. "Domestically in the long run it won't help us all that much because our opponents will say we should've done it three years ago," Kissinger said. He was right about that. Few Americans, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, would have been willing to send their children to die for a "decent interval."

Politics dominated the president's military moves. In his first year in office, the Republican National Committee commissioned a secret poll that identified the most popular way to end the war. Pressing on until victory got just 37 percent support; "agreeing to anything to end the war" was even less popular at 30 percent. But a massive 66 percent favored bombing and blockading the North to make Hanoi agree to a compromise settlement with free elections for the South. Those polled said they would support the bombing and blockade for six months. So on May 8, 1972, exactly six months minus one day before the election, President Nixon went on national television and announced that he would bomb the North and mine its harbors. It's all in the timing.

Nixon claimed the escalation would cut off supplies from the North to its armies in the South. It didn't. That summer the CIA estimated that Hanoi was still managing to infiltrate 3,000 tons of war material into South Vietnam every day -- 300 tons more than was needed. Although the bombing and mining proved to be strategic failures, they were great political successes. Polls showed a large majority approved. No surprise -- the strategic failure of the bombing and mining remained classified.

When the North accepted Nixon's settlement terms shortly before Election Day, it looked like Nixon's military move had brought the enemy to heel. It hadn't. Hanoi took Nixon's deal for the same reason Saigon refused it. Both sides realized it would lead to a Communist takeover of the South -- as did Nixon and Kissinger.

The president managed to turn losing a war into a winning political issue. In his last campaign speech, nationally broadcast the night before the election, Nixon urged voters "to have in mind tomorrow one overriding issue, and that is the issue of peace -- peace in Vietnam and peace in the world at large for a generation to come." The president boasted of a negotiating "breakthrough," which is one thing to call a deal that is a roadmap to victory for the enemy and a death sentence for an ally. "We have agreed that the people of South Vietnam shall have the right to determine their own future without having a Communist government or a coalition government imposed upon them against their will." He made no mention of the secret assurances he'd given China and the Soviets that the North could impose a Communist government on the South without fear of U.S. intervention as long as it waited a "decent interval" of a year or two. "There are still some details that I am insisting be worked out and nailed down because I want this not to be a temporary peace. I want, and I know you want, it to be a lasting peace." No matter what anyone wanted, Nixon and Kissinger had been negotiating a temporary peace for more than a year. "By your votes, you can send a message to those with whom we are negotiating, and to the leaders of the world, that you back the president of the United States in his insistence that we in the United States seek peace with honor and never peace with surrender." That last phrase, "peace with surrender," was meant as a crack at McGovern, then the Democratic presidential nominee, but it aptly summarizes Nixon's true strategy. What is a "decent interval" other than slow, secret surrender?

But Americans didn't know what their president was really doing. On Election Day, Nixon won 60.7 percent of the vote, more than any other Republican president in history. The price of political victory included the lives of more than 20,000 American soldiers who died in the four years it took Nixon to create the illusion of "peace with honor" and conceal the reality of defeat with deceit.

Afterwards, Nixon blamed liberals for the consequences of his actions. While the fall of Saigon was built into his "decent interval" exit strategy, Nixon accused Congress of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

One line of attack was to blast Congress for cutting foreign aid to Saigon. It's true lawmakers gave South Vietnam less than Nixon and, later, President Gerald R. Ford requested. But lawmakers could have doubled or tripled aid to Saigon, and it still would have collapsed under Nixon's settlement terms. As the JCS, Pentagon, CIA, State Department and General Abrams had all pointed out to Nixon shortly after he took office, the South Vietnamese couldn't handle the Communists without the combat support of major U.S. ground forces. Nixon had withdrawn all American troops under the terms of the Paris Accords. That was Hanoi's price for freeing American POWs, and Nixon paid it (after he was safely re-elected and could afford to let Saigon fall). Without U.S. ground forces, Saigon was doomed, even if by some miracle it had received unlimited American aid. Complaining about aid cuts allowed Nixon to evade the truth about his exit strategy. Rather than negotiate a safe exodus for the South Vietnamese who had fought on the American side of the war, he left them to either die in "decent interval" combat or live under Communist rule. Yes, Congress could have thrown more money at the problem, but Nixon knew that wouldn't solve it.

In No More Vietnams, the ex-president's 1985 work of revisionist personal history, he castigated Congress for voting on June 29, 1973 (three months after American soldiers and POWs had come home) to ban further American combat in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: "This defeat stripped me of the authority to enforce the peace agreement in Vietnam -- and gave Hanoi's leaders a free hand against South Vietnam." While Nixon termed the vote a "defeat" for him, Congress approved the combat ban only in direct response to a message from the president through Ford, then the House Minority Leader, promising Nixon would sign it into law. He didn't have to. Earlier that same week, the House had sustained Nixon's veto of a less sweeping bill that would have prohibited U.S. military action in Laos and Cambodia only. The bill's supporters knew they lacked the votes to overturn a veto. They said so on the House floor. Lawmakers were so incredulous when Ford announced Nixon's agreement to a combat ban for all of Indochina, including Vietnam, that he had to leave the House floor and telephone the president to confirm that he got the story straight. "I just finished talking with the president himself for approximately ten minutes," Ford told his colleagues, "and he assured me personally that everything I said on the floor of the House is a commitment by him." Only then did conservative supporters of Nixon and the war join liberals and moderates in voting to prohibit the use of American military power in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.

This wasn't a "defeat" for Nixon, but a smooth legislative maneuver. As memories faded, Nixon would claim that he coulda woulda shoulda intervened with American airpower to save South Vietnam, if only Congress hadn't tied his hands. The secret assurances he gave China and the Soviets that he would not intervene remained classified until long after he was dead.

Even today, Nixon's real Vietnam exit strategy remains virtually unknown to the public, although scholars have been writing about it for years. Jeffrey Kimball has published two landmark works on the subject, Nixon's Vietnam War and The Vietnam War Files, showing how Nixon engineered his "decent interval." Even Jeremi Suri, whose Henry Kissinger and the American Century garnered praise from Nixon loyalists as well as critics, wrote, "By 1971 he and Nixon would accept a ‘decent interval' between U.S. disengagement and a North Vietnamese takeover of the [S]outh." (I turned my own research on the subject into educational videos used in classrooms and anywhere else people want to hear Nixon and Kissinger in their own words.) The facts are out.

Yet Nixon's stabbed-in-the-back myth lives on. When politicians and pundits debate how and when to exit Afghanistan (as they earlier did Iraq) they cite the false history of Nixon's "success" at training the South Vietnamese to defend their government and at negotiating with warring parties to settle their differences through free elections -- two things Nixon never really managed to do. If the Nixon tapes are, in Bob Woodward's witty phrase, the gift that keeps on giving, his backstabbing myth is the gift that keeps on taking -- American lives, America's fortunes, and the honor of politicians overseeing wars they can't win and are afraid to end (at least until after they're re-elected). It's one more reason Iraq and Afghanistan eclipsed Vietnam as America's longest wars.

The fortieth anniversary of the fraudulent Paris "Peace" Accords came, by coincidence, in the same month as the hundredth anniversary of Nixon's birth. It's high time for us to free our minds and politics from his deadly legacy.