March 29, 1973: The U.S. Withdraws From The Vietnam War
On March 29, 1973, the final troops withdrew from Vietnam, after a years-long attempt to end the war. Richard Nixon had been elected in 1968 on a campaign pledging peace. Prior to his inauguration, Nixon nominated Henry Cabot Lodge, a former ambassador to South Vietnam to be the senior negotiator at the Paris peace talks on January 1, 1969, although he would no longer have the role by the time the talks were finished, being replaced by Henry Kissinger. The peace talks began on January 25. However, the U.S. started another Marine campaign in Vietnam on January 22, right before the peace talks began, Operation Dewey Canyon.
The Action Continued After the Peace Talks Began
On February 23, 1969, the Viet Cong attacked 110 targets in South Vietnam, including Saigon and two days later, 36 Marines were killed by the NVA in their camp near the demilitarized zone. In March, Nixon then threatened to resume the bombing in North Vietnam in retaliation for the Viet Cong actions. For the first time since 1968, in March, American troops went on the offensive in the demilitarized zone. That same month, the U.S. Army started an investigation into the My Lai massacre and Nixon began Operation Menu, a secret bombing operation in Cambodia to target North Vietnam supplies.
By the end of April in 1969, troops in Vietnam had lost 43,400 soldiers and the death toll exceeded that of the Korean War. In May, The New York Times published a story about secret bombings in Cambodia, leading Nixon to order FBI wiretaps to find out the source of the leak. The anti-war sentiment was further stoked by the 10-day battle at “Hamburger Hill,” where 46 died and 400 were wounded. Although the U.S. took the hill, their commander ordered them to abandon it. Americans were protesting the senseless deaths. As morale declined, drug use became rampant among drafted soldiers and drug-related casualties began to outnumber those from combat.
Nixon Continued To Try To End The War
Nixon then presented a peace plan on May 14, 1969, but Hanoi rejected it. On June 27, Life published portraits of all 242 soldiers killed the prior week, further fueling anti-war sentiment. In July, Nixon once again urged Ho Chi Minh to end the war, but Ho Chi Minh continued to repeat demands for a South Vietnamese coalition government that allowed for Viet Cong participation. That month, Nixon withdrew 800 troops, with plans for continued withdrawal in separate stages, and Nixon released the “Nixon Doctrine” which said that the U.S. would only provide assistance to countries battling communism and would no longer engage in Vietnam-style ground wars.
Peace Rallies As The Soldiers Withdraw
In August, the Viet Cong struck again, targeting 150 targets in South Vietnam. By September, Nixon ordered a reduction of the draft calls and the withdrawal of 35,000 soldiers from Vietnam, but the anti-war protests continued. The first draft lottery since the beginning of World War II happened in December and by the end of the year, the American forces were reduced by a total of 115,000 men. Meanwhile, the numbers of South Vietnamese fighters were to be increased, a process called Vietnamization.
The Fight Extends Into Cambodia
In 1970, in Cambodia, previously ousted Prince Sihanouk allied with the Khmer Rouge, a group of Cambodian communists led by Pol Pot. Pol Pot’s later reign would eventually result in the death of a quarter of the Cambodian population. To help Lon Nol fight the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, U.S. forces combined with the South Vietnamese and invaded Cambodia. Nixon argued the invasion was to expedite the end of the Vietnam War. However, more American protests erupted, and by June 30, U.S. troops withdrew from Cambodia. During the incursion there, 350 soldiers died. On September 5, Operation Jefferson Glen, the last American offensive began and a month later, Nixon proposed a “standstill” cease fire. The number of troops continued to drop and by year end, they were down to 280,000.
The Pentagon Papers Are Released
On January 4, 1971, Nixon announced that the end was in sight, however, two weeks later, NVA supply in Laos and Cambodia were targeted by heavy air strikes and as protests continued, the Capitol building in Washington was damaged by a bomb. By April, the American death toll had exceeded 45,000 and the last Marine combat units left Vietnam. 1971 also saw the publication of the Pentagon Papers, secret Defense Department papers regarding Vietnam, which infuriated Nixon, who took The New York Times to court and the case would end up before the Supreme Court. The Court would rule in favor of The New York Times and The Washington Post, the two newspapers which had published the Papers; this would eventually lead to the creation of a list of people who were considered Nixon’s enemies. As 1971 drew to a close, Saigon released 3,000 Viet Cong POWs, American ground troops were engaging in active refusal to go into combat, and the number of troops continued to drop, but the U.S. bombed North Vietnamese military installations.
Nixon's Peace Proposal
In 1972, Nixon proposed an eight-point peace plan, but North Vietnam rejected it, and the U.S. boycotted the Paris peace talks. From March-September, the Eastertide Offensive occurred, as 200,000 North Vietnamese soldiers attempted to conquer the south. Nixon launched a retaliation, including a bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor and during an airstrike conducted by South Vietnamese pilots, Napalm bombs were dropped on civilians, including children. Fighting continued throughout 1972, and by August 23, the last combat troops left. North Vietnam suffered 100,000 casualties during the Eastertide Offensive.
One Final Airstrike
The stalemate in the peace talks ended as both sides made concessions. However, President Thieu denounced them and presented a list of 69 demands and peace negotiations collapsed. Richard Nixon threatened that negotiations needed to resume within 72 hours, and when they didn’t, he initiated another offensive, during which B-52 bombers bombed military targets in Hanoi for 11 days and nights, the most intensive bombing of the entire war, with over 100,000 bombs dropped, killing 1318 citizens.
In 1973, the peace talks resumed, and on January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by both sides and the U.S. agreed to withdraw all military personnel within 60 days. By March 29, the withdrawal was concluded.
After They Came Home
When the soldiers returned from the war, they faced horrible treatment, from people shouting invectives at them, to others spitting in their faces. They not only had to contend with the public’s reaction, but with the lack of government support. They contended with a lack of GI benefits from health care to education support. The vets also faced discrimination when they applied for jobs. The media also perpetrated the stereotypes of the homeless Vietnam vet in films such as The Deer Hunter and First Blood.
While the protests may not have resulted in the immediate withdrawal from Vietnam that the protestors desired, in part because of the difficulties of reaching peace, they may have had a lasting effect in other ways, as conscription has not happened since Vietnam, and there has been increased interest in nonviolent solutions.