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Vietnam War (1945-1975). Vietnam War (1945-1975). The Vietnam War was the longest war in United States history.

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Vietnam War (1945-1975)

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Vietnam War (1945-1975)

The Vietnam War was the longest war in United States history.

Promises and commitments to the people and government of South Vietnam to keep communist forces from overtaking them reached back into the Truman Administration. Eisenhower placed military advisers and CIA operatives in Vietnam, and John F. Kennedy sent American soldiers to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson ordered the first real combat by American troops, and Richard Nixon concluded the war.

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Early Involvement

  • After World War I, a nationalist movement formed in Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh. Ho was educated in the West, where he became a disciple of Marxist thought. Ho resented and resisted the French. When the Japanese invaded Vietnam during World War II, they displaced French rule. Ho formed a liberation movement known as the Viet Minh. Using guerrilla warfare, the Viet Minh battled the Japanese and held many key cities by 1945. Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Ho proclaimed the new nation of Vietnam — a new nation Western powers refused to recognize.

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Early Involvement

  • France was determined to reclaim all its territories after World War II. The United States now faced an interesting dilemma. American tradition dictated sympathy for the revolutionaries over any colonial power. However, supporting the Marxist Viet Minh was unthinkable, given the new strategy of containing communism.

Ho Chi Minh

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Domino Theory

  • American diplomats subscribed to the domino theory. A communist victory in Vietnam might lead to communist victories in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Such a scenario was unthinkable to the makers of American foreign policy.

  • President Truman decided to support France in its efforts to reclaim Indochina by providing money and military advisers. The United States financial commitment amounted to nearly $1 billion per year.

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Early Involvement

  • The French found Ho Chi Minh a formidable adversary. Between 1945 and 1954 a fierce war developed between the two sides. Slowly but surely, the Viet Minh wore down the French will to fight. On May, 8th, 1954 a large regiment of French troops was captured by the Vietnamese led by communist general Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu.

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French Withdrawl

  • The rest of the French troops withdrew, leaving a buffer zone separating the North and South. Negotiations to end the conflict took place in Geneva. A multinational agreement divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The territory north of this line would be led by Ho Chi Minh with Hanoi its capital.

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The US Takes Over

  • The southern sector named Saigon its capital and Ngo Dinh Diem its leader. This division was meant to be temporary, with nationwide elections scheduled for 1956. Knowing that Ho Chi Minh would be a sure victor, the South made sure these elections were never held.

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The US Takes Over

During the administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy, the United States continued to supply funds, weapons, and military advisers to South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh turned North Vietnam into a communist dictatorship and created a new band of guerrillas in the South called the Viet Cong, whose sole purpose was to overthrow the military regime in the South and reunite the nation under Ho Chi Minh.

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The US Takes Over

  • The United States was backing an unpopular leader in Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was corrupt, showed little commitment to democratic principles, and favored Catholics to the dismay of the Buddhist majority. In November 1963, Diem was murdered in a coup with apparent CIA involvement.

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Buddhist Protests

  • On June 11th, 1963 a Buddhist protest march was making it’s way down one of Saigon’s busiest arteries, Phan-Dinh-Phung St. The procession of around 400 Buddhist monks and Nuns moved through the city until they hit Le-Van-Duyet St where a light blue Austin that was part of the procession, the car seen in the background of the picture, stopped. The hood was raised as if the

  • car had engine trouble while the nuns and monks in the parade quickly surrounded the car forming a circle of some seven monks deep. Thich Quang Duc a 66 year old monk calmly got out of the car and walked to the center of the circle sitting on a cushion provided for him. His religious brothers removed a jerry can of fuel from the car and proceeded to pour it over Quang-Duc who was now meditating in the lotus position. Quang-Duc with his Buddhist prayer beads in his right hand, then opened a box of matches, lit one and was instantly engulfed in flames. He did not move while his body was incinerated, while Malcome Browne the only western reporter present snapped the picture of the monk on fire..

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Buddhist Protests

  • Passers-by stop to watch as flames envelope a young Buddhist monk, Saigon, October 5th, 1963. The man sits impassively in the central market square, he has set himself on fire performing a ritual suicide in protest against governmental anti-Buddhist policies. Crowds gathered to protest in Hue after the South Vietnamese government prohibited Buddhists from carrying flags on Buddha's birthday. Government troops opened fire to disperse the dissidents, killing nine people, Diems government blamed the incident on the Vietcong and never admitted responsibility. The Buddhist leadership quickly organized demonstrations that eventually led to seven monks burning themselves to death.

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The US Takes Over

  • Few of Ngo's successors fared any better, while Ho Chi Minh was the Vietnamese equivalent of George Washington. He had successfully won the hearts and minds of the majority of the Vietnamese people. Two weeks after the fall of Diem, Kennedy himself was felled by an assassin's bullet.

  • By the time Lyndon Johnson inherited the Presidency, Vietnam was a bitterly divided nation. The United States would soon too be divided on what to do in Vietnam.

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Gulf of Tonkin Incident

  • In August 1964, in response to American and GVN espionage along its coast, the DRV launched a local and controlled attack against the C. Turner Joy and the U.S.S. Maddox, two American ships on call in the Gulf of Tonkin. The first of these attacks occurred on August 2, 1964. A second attack was supposed to have taken place on August 4, although Vo Nguyen Giap, the DRV's leading military figure at the time, and Johnson's Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara have recently concluded that no second attack ever took place. In any event, the Johnson administration used the August 4 attack as political cover for a Congressional resolution that gave the president broad war powers. The resolution, now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed both the House and Senate with only two dissenting votes (Senators Morse of Oregon and Gruening of Alaska). The Resolution was followed by limited reprisal air attacks against the DRV.

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Gulf of Tonkin Incident

  • Throughout the fall and into the winter of 1964, the Johnson administration debated the correct strategy in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to expand the air war over the DRV quickly to help stabilize the new Saigon regime. The civilians in the Pentagon wanted to apply gradual pressure to the Communist Party with limited and selective bombings. Only Undersecretary of State George Ball dissented, claiming that Johnson's Vietnam policy was too provocative for its limited expected results. In early 1965, the NLF attacked two U.S. army installations in South Vietnam, and as a result, Johnson ordered the sustained bombing missions over the DRV that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had long advocated.

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Operation Rolling Thunder

The bombing missions, known as OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER, caused the Communist Party to reassess its own war strategy. From 1960 through late 1964, the Party believed it could win a military victory in the south "in a relatively short period of time." With the new American military commitment, confirmed in March 1965 when Johnson sent the first combat troops to Vietnam, the Party moved to a protracted war strategy. The idea was to get the United States bogged down in a war that it could not win militarily and create unfavorable conditions for political victory. The Communist Party believed that it would prevail in a protracted war because the United States had no clearly defined objectives, and therefore, the country would eventually tire of the war and demand a negotiated settlement. While some naive and simple-minded critics have claimed that the Communist Party, and Vietnamese in general, did not have the same regard for life and therefore were willing to sustain more losses in a protracted war, the Party understood that it had an ideological commitment to victory from large segments of the Vietnamese population.

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The Tet Offensive

  • By 1968, things had gone from bad to worse for the Johnson administration. In late January, the DRV and the NLF launched coordinated attacks against the major southern cities. These attacks, known in the West as the Tet Offensive, were designed to force the Johnson administration to the bargaining table. The Communist Party correctly believed that the American people were growing war-weary and that its continued successes in the countryside had tipped the balance of forces in its favor. Although many historians have since claimed that the Tet Offensive was a military defeat, but a psychological victory for the Communists, it had produced the desired results. In late March 1968, a disgraced Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democratic Party's re-nomination for president and hinted that he would go to the bargaining table with the Communists to end the war.

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My Lai Massacre

March 28, 1968 - The initial report by participants at My Lai states that 69 Viet Cong soldiers were killed and makes no mention of civilian causalities.

The My Lai massacre is successfully concealed for a year, until a series of letters from Vietnam veteran Ronald Ridenhour spark an official Army investigation that results in Charlie Company Commander, Capt. Ernest L. Medina, First Platoon Leader, Lt. William Calley, and 14 others being brought to trial by the Army. A news photos of the carnage, showing a mass of dead children, women and old men, remains one of the most enduring images of America's involvement in Vietnam.

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

The situation inherited by Richard Nixon was no less a "mess" than it was in November 1963 when Lyndon Johnson rose to the presidency. In fact, it was much worse. Over 500,000 troops were stationed in Vietnam; Americans killed in action averaged 1200 a month. And domestic opinion about the war was divided (no consensus on a course of action in Vietnam), negative (a majority felt that the war was a mistake), and pessimistic (people saw little progress at the peace talks and believed the fighting would go on for at least 2 more years). Added to the mix were the racial divisions in the country, the skepticism toward within the anti-war movement, and a long standing antipathy toward Nixon among Democratic loyalists.

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

Nixon and Kissinger quickly agreed upon two premises about American policy in Vietnam. First, the war in Vietnam was not "winnable" in any conventional sense of the term. Public opinion would tolerate neither an escalation nor the continuation of a status quo that included over 1,000 killed per month. Second, a unilateral withdrawal was not feasible because the political costs, both domestic and international, were unacceptable. Withdrawal would dissolve Nixon's political base at home and, as Kissinger continually emphasized, undermine American credibility abroad. [2] Apart from the military situation in Vietnam, the political problem confronting President Nixon was complex. How could Nixon "buy time" to achieve his understanding of "peace with honor" without succumbing to Lyndon Johnson's fate of eroding public support?

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

The history of his first administration reveals that Nixon's strategy consisted of four components:

1. Vietnamization

2. The "Politics of Polarization"

3. The "Madman" scenario

4. Triangular Diplomacy

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

  • Vietnamization

  • First, it was necessary to reduce American casualty rates and the number of combat troops in Vietnam. To this end, Nixon defined his policy as "Vietnamization" -- the idea that South Vietnamese would gradually assume a greater combat role and ultimately eliminate the need for American ground forces. Because the US would not withdraw abrubtly, the policy of Vietnamization would require time. The domestic political objective was to convince the public that the Army of South Vietnam could eventually handle the war on their own.

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

The "Politics of Polarization"

To buy time, Nixon had to build a larger and more reliable base of support within the American public. His popular vote margin in the 1968 election was razor thin. However, to his advantage, the Democratic coalition was shattered in 1968 and there were political opportunities. To exploit these opportunities, the administration would pursue a "politics of polarization" in which it would, at one and the same time, appeal to a "silent majority" and attempt to isolate opponents and paint them, in one manner or another, as extreme.

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The Silent Majority

The "Politics of Polarization"

To buy time, Nixon had to build a larger and more reliable base of support within the American public. His popular vote margin in the 1968 election was razor thin. However, to his advantage, the Democratic coalition was shattered in 1968 and there were political opportunities. To exploit these opportunities, the administration would pursue a "politics of polarization" in which it would, at one and the same time, appeal to a "silent majority" and attempt to isolate opponents and paint them, in one manner or another, as extreme.

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The Silent Majority

The polarizing effect of Vice President Agnew's attacks were intentional and part of the political strategy of the administration. As Agnew noted, "I say it is time for a positive polarization. It is time to rip away the rhetoric and to divide on authentic lines." [9] President Nixon and his political advisors were strongly influenced by The Emerging Republican Majority, published by Kevin Phillips in 1969 and called "The Political Bible of the Nixon Era" by Newsweek magazine. In the book, Phillips argued that the once potent New Deal coalition of the Democrats was in shambles. Nixon could, Phillips contended, build a permanent national majority for the Republicans by holding his traditional Republican base while augmenting that base with southern Democrats (many of whom voted for George Wallace in 1968) and other conservative elements in the Democratic Party.

At 9:30 PM on November 3, President Nixon addressed a national television audience from the White House. This speech, whose date was announced just two days before the first moratorium, was designed to buy time in Vietnam and to reach out to dissident Democrats along with Nixon's core constituency. In the speech, the president traced the history of American involvement in Vietnam, highlighted the negotiating efforts of administration since taking office, outlined his policy of Vietnamization, and placed the blame for the continuation of war on the government of North Vietnam. The speech reached its crescendo when he appealed to the public for support:

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The Silent Majority

And so tonight-- to you, the great silent majority of my fellow

Americans-- I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign

for the Presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the

peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to

keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the

American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed; for

the more divided we are at home, the less likely, the enemy is to

negotiate at Paris. Let us be united for peace. Let us also be

united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam

cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans

can do that.

- Nixon’s “Silent Majority” Speech Nov. 3, 1969

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The Silent Majority

The public reaction to the president's speech was most favorable. Among those who watched the address, 77% approved of how Nixon was handling the situation in Vietnam and only 6% disapproved. In the wake of the speech, Nixon's overall approval rating climbed from 56% to 67%. Although Nixon had increased his personal support, other indicators suggested that the public remained divided on policy in Vietnam. 55% of public now classified themselves as "doves" with only 31% using the "hawk" label (down from 41% after the TET offensive).

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

  • The "Madman" scenario

  • A "madman theory" was devised for negotiating with the government of North Vietnam. In this gambit, Henry Kissinger would emphasize, in his meetings with representatives of North Vietnam, the volatility of President Nixon's personality. He would warn the North Vietnamese that Nixon was unpredictable, that he could fly into a rage, and that this could happen in response to either North Vietnamese military action or intransigence in the peace talks. A similar theme was sounded by Kissinger in his dealing with the American press. Over the course of the term, Nixon provided a number of examples to give credence to Kissinger's claims: secretly bombing Cambodia, bombing Hanoi and Haiphong, invading Cambodia and mining Haiphong harbor.

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Escalation of the Vietnam War

  • Triangular Diplomacy

  • Finally, Nixon pursued a "geopolitical" approach to the war as well. During the first years of his term, Nixon discovered reason to believe that both the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China were interested in what became known as detente -- an easing of Cold War tensions and expanding trade relations. This interest, plus the suspicions between USSR and the PRC, would provide Nixon with leverage for pressing the Soviets and Chinese to "do business" with the U.S. and to pressure the North Vietnamese to settle the war.

  • When we examine the history or chronology of the first Nixon administration, each component is evident as is the manner in which the components "meshed" into both a political strategy for getting America out of Vietnam and reelecting Nixon in 1972.

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Invasion of Cambodia

  • On April 20, 1970, President Nixon addressed a national television audience. In his speech, he reviewed the progress of his Vietnamization policy and announced that 150,000 American troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam in the following year. This was the third and largest announcement of troop withdrawals since Nixon took office. And, unlike the troop increases of the Johnson years, the announcements by Nixon were well publicized.

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Invasion of Cambodia

Ten days later, Nixon took to the airwaves again. The news this time was more controversial as the president announced that American and South Vietnamese forces were launching an invasion of Cambodia. The object of the offensive was to wipe out sanctuaries within Cambodia that were used by the North Vietnamese infiltrating the south.

In his speech, Nixon emphasized not only the strategic value of the operation but also American credibility. "If, when the chips are down," the president argued, "the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world." In order to persuade the public, the speech exaggerated the strategic value of the operation and contained a number of "whoppers." [13] The address concluded with a classic Nixonian flourish as the president asserted that "I would rather be a one-term President and do what is right than to be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this Nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history."

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Invasion of Cambodia

The response of public opinion to the military action was peculiar. The public approved of the way Nixon was handling the situation in Cambodia by a margin of 50% to 35%; in response to the question of whether U.S. troops should be sent to Cambodia, only 25% responded affirmatively while 59% said troops should not be sent.

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Kent State Massacre

Despite the nature of the polls, the "Cambodian decision" triggered a firestorm of protest. The most publicized occurred on the campus of Kent State University in northeast Ohio. On the evening of May 1, 1970, antiwar protests turned violent when the ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corp) building was torched. In response, the Governor of Ohio, James Rhodes, dispatched the National Guard to Kent. During another demonstration on Monday, May 4th, members of the National Guard began firing at demonstrators. Four students were killed and eight injured.

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Kent State / Jackson State

In the wake of Kent State, all hell broke loose. Two students were killed when Mississippi State police fired on a crowd of students at Jackson State University. 450 colleges and universities went on strike; Governor Ronald Reagan closed the entire college and university system in California; within a week, the National Guard had been deployed in sixteen different states and on 21 different campuses. A number of universities simply closed down for the year.

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Kent State / Jackson State

In the weeks after Kent State, "hard hats" --- the slang for workers in construction and the building trades --- staged a series of demonstrations in support of Nixon. In one New York city demonstration the "hardhats" attacked a group of antiwar demonstrators with "fists, boots, and hammers, chanting 'Love It or Leave It.' " These blue collar workers, traditionally Democratic voters, were one of the groups Nixon hoped to attract with the politics of polarization.

The remainder of 1970 saw a continuation of the Vietnamization policy. By the end of the 1970, there were 335,000 American troops in Vietnam (down from 537,000 at the end of Johnson's term) with an average monthly casualty rate of 344 (down from an average of 1,200 during 1968).

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The Laotian Incursion

In early February, 1971,the South Vietnamese army, backed by the US air and tactical support, launched an incursion into Laos with the intent of cutting off the Ho Chi Minh trail. Initially, the operation was successful with South Vietnamese forces moving twenty miles deep into Laos. On February 20th, the North Vietnamese launched a counteroffensive and, during nearly a month of fighting, captured the territory initially occupied by South Vietnamese forces. On March 19th, the U.S. began an airlift to remove South Vietnamese from Laos and on March 24th, the operation was officially declared at an end

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The Laotian Incursion

The Laotian incursion was seen as the first "test" of Nixon's Vietnamization policy in the sense of revealing whether the army of South Vietnam could sustain an offensive. The results were, at best, mixed. As Stephen Ambrose notes, "the offensive designed to prove that Vietnamization was working had turned into a rout, made painfully visible to American television viewers by footage showing ARVN troops fighting among themselves for a place on American helicopters extracting them from Laos."

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The Spring Protests, 1971

The coming of spring brought more anti-war protests to Washington D.C. There were sizable demonstrations in March, April, and May. The April demonstrations were led by the organization known as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). The most dramatic moment of the April protests occurred near the Capitol Building where numerous combat veterans threw back their medals to protest Nixon's continuation of the war.

Another round of demonstrations began on May 3, 1971. For the “Silent Majority” this was proof that the students were out of control. It also led country music singer Merle Haggard to write ‘Okie from Muskogee’ which became a rallying song for the “Silent Majority.

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The Spring Protests, 1971

On April 7, 1971, Nixon announced, in a nationally televised speech, that 100,000 troops would be withdrawn by the end of the year. In an impromptu news conference on November 11th, he reported that another 45,000 would be withdrawn by February 1st, 1972. By the end of 1971, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam would stand at 157,000; the average number of casualties per month would fall to 123.

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The Pentagon Papers

  • In 1971, the New York Times published excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret overview of the history of government involvement in Vietnam. A participant in the study named Daniel Ellsberg believed the American public needed to know some of the secrets, so he leaked information to the press. The Pentagon Papers revealed a high-level deception of the American public by the Johnson Administration.

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The Pentagon Papers

  • Many statements released about the military situation in Vietnam were simply untrue, including the possibility that even the bombing of American naval boats in the Gulf of Tonkin might never have happened. A growing credibility gap between the truth and what the government said was true caused many Americans to grow even more cynical about the war.

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The Pentagon Papers

  • By December 1972, Nixon decided to escalate the bombing of North Vietnamese cities, including Hanoi. He hoped this initiative would push North Vietnam to the peace table. In January 1973, a ceasefire was reached, and the remaining American combat troops were withdrawn. Nixon called the agreement "peace with honor," but he knew the South Vietnamese Army would have difficulty maintaining control.

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The Pentagon Papers

  • The North soon attacked the South and in April 1975 they captured Saigon. Vietnam was united into one communist nation. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Cambodia and Laos soon followed with communist regimes of their own. The United States was finally out of Vietnam. But every single one of its political objectives for the region met with failure.

  • Over 55,000 Americans perished fighting the Vietnam War.

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The Fall of Saigon

By April 25th, 1975, after the NVA captured Phuoc Long city, Quang Tri, Hue, Da Nang and Hue, the South Vietnamese Army had lost its best units, more than a third of its men, and nearly half its weapons. The NVA were closing in on Saigon, which forced President Ford to order an immediate evacuation of American civilians and South Vietnamese refugees in Operation Frequent Wind.

The operation was put into effect by secret code. Remaining citizens, refugees, and officials were to stand by until the code was released. "White Christmas" was the code, which was broadcast on the morning of April 29th. Refugees and Americans then "high-tailed" it to designated landing zones.

U.S. Marine and Air Force helicopters, flying from offshore carriers, performed a massive airlift. In 18 hours, more than 1,000 American civilians and nearly 7,000 South Vietnamese refugees were flown out of Saigon.

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The Fall of Saigon

South Vietnamese pilots also were permitted to participate in the evacuation, and they landed on U.S. carriers. More than 100 of those American-supplied helicopters (more than $250,000 each) were then pushed off carrier decks to make room for more evacuees.

At 4:03 a.m., April 30th, 1975, two U.S. Marines were killed in a rocket attack at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport. They were the last Americans to die in the Vietnam War. At dawn, the remaining marines of the force guarding the U.S. Embassy lifted off.

Only hours later, South Vietnamese looters ransacked the embassy as Soviet-supplied tanks, operated by North Vietnamese, rolled south on National Highway 1. On the morning of April 30th, Communist forces captured the presidential palace in Saigon, which ended the Second Indochina War.