50 years later, the legacy of the Paris Peace Accords isn’t one of peace

Historian Fredrik Logevall discusses why the agreement that ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam never led to the promised “peace with honor”

View of diplomats and politicians from the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam sitting around the newly installed round table for initial talks, part of the concerted efforts to reach agreement on the Paris Peace Accords to end the conflict in the Vietnam War, in Paris, France on 25th January 1969.
Paris, France, January 25, 1969

After years of negotiations and secret talks, on January 27, 1973, representatives of the South Vietnamese communist forces, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States gathered in Paris to sign the Paris Peace Accords, officially titled, “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” A ceasefire to the decades-long war was set to go into effect the next morning. Yet, by the time the last American combat troops left the country on March 29, 1973, fighting had already resumed.

The Accords didn’t bring lasting peace to Vietnam. The anti-communist South Vietnamese government would fall two years later.

To help us better understand how the Accords came to be and played a central role in the ultimate fate of Vietnam, the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia sat down for a conversation with historian Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at HKS, and author of “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for History.

Ash: As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which effectively put an end to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, how would you describe the legacy of the accords?

Logevall: For the United States, the legacy is immense. The agreement permitted the extrication of U.S. forces; in this way, it marked the effective end of America’s long and bloody military involvement in Indochina. American society had been torn apart by the struggle, and the Accords marked the beginning of closure. (Though Richard Nixon promised to punish North Vietnam with airpower if it violated the terms of the deal, the threat lacked credibility—Congress and the public were not going to allow a reapplication of U.S. firepower.) For the Vietnamese, however, the Accords meant something else, for the core question over which the war had been fought—the political existence of South Vietnam—remained unresolved. No real peace resulted, as Hanoi stayed committed to its goal of reunification of the country under its control. For Vietnamese in both the north and south, therefore, the 1973 deal can be said to have marked the start of another phase in a three-decades-long struggle for control of Vietnam. The Americans were leaving, but the core stakes didn’t change. Only in April 1975, with the so-called “Fall of Saigon,” would Hanoi complete its takeover of the South.

Why did the U.S., after years of growing military involvement in Southeast Asia agree to withdraw from the region?

In broad terms, the American public and its representatives in Washington had had enough. Congress, which for years had been content to let the White House drive Vietnam policy, had progressively reasserted itself. In 1972, lawmakers finally made clear their determination to reduce U.S. involvement. The Nixon administration too had concluded that it must seek a settlement to the conflict, and thus Henry Kissinger made concessions to his North Vietnamese negotiating counterpart Le Duc Tho that he had hitherto resisted. Did Nixon and Kissinger believe that South Vietnam would survive in the medium or long-term following the Accords? As I read the evidence, they did not. Though both men later blamed Congress for permitting South Vietnam’s 1975 collapse, the record shows that they saw South Vietnam as doomed and that they wanted no part of a new U.S. intervention.

A black and white photo shows officials sitting and standing around a table as one man in the middle signs a piece of paper
Peace negotiations took place over several years, they first began in Paris in 1968 and continued through the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.

How did the Nixon administration sell this massive policy reversal to the American public?

I’m not sure I would call it a massive policy reversal per se. Bit by bit over a period of years, the administration had reduced the American troop count in South Vietnam, through a policy known as Vietnamization (that is, a reversal of the “Americanization” undertaken in 1964-65), and by the end of 1972 the number of troops had dropped to 24,200. (That year, 759 Americans died in the war, as compared to 16,899 in the peak year of 1968.) Also, press reporting had shown for months that the Paris negotiations between Washington and Hanoi were beginning to bear fruit and that an agreement might finally be achievable. Still, there can be no denying that the signing of the Accords in January 1973 represented a major moment and that observers saw this at the time. Nixon sold it at home by insisting that he had fulfilled his objective of achieving “peace with honor” (critics said he had gotten neither), that the United States would continue to back South Vietnam, and that he would hit the North Vietnamese hard if they violated the terms of the deal.

Why did the anti-communist government of South Vietnam agree to the accords, which ultimately contributed to the fall of Saigon two years later?

The Thieu government did not really agree to the Accords. Thieu understood all too well how vulnerable South Vietnam would be without active American involvement, and he feared that Nixon’s promises of continued robust support were empty. Nixon was forced to issue a threat: Unless Thieu acquiesced to the agreement, he faced the prospect of a complete cutoff from American aid. To apply further pressure, conservative senators such as Barry Goldwater and John Stennis were sent to tell Thieu that he had no meaningful support on Capitol Hill. Thieu held out until right before the deadline, greatly irritating Nixon, before finally capitulating. Even then, he did not formally endorse the agreement but merely indicated he would no longer oppose it. “I have done all that I can for my country,” he sullenly said.

Given that much of the negotiations were conducted in secret, what have we learned in the intervening 50 years about the motivations between the various parties involved in the accords?

The evidence that has emerged in recent years (from documents and other written sources, as well as from the Nixon White House tapes) indicates clearly, in my view, that Nixon and Kissinger were gloomy realists about Vietnam—if not from the start in 1969, then from a point not long thereafter. They understood, even if they would not admit it publicly, what the Johnson team before them had long since understood: The odds of maintaining an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam into the indefinite future were long and getting longer. Therefore, Kissinger in particular believed, a “decent interval” between the departure of U.S. forces and the collapse of the Saigon government was the best that could be hoped for. Yet for domestic U.S. political reasons, this could not be admitted openly, and it was imperative that an agreement with Hanoi not be reached too soon, lest it jeopardize Nixon’s re-election prospects in 1972. With respect to the North Vietnamese, meanwhile, we now understand much better than before that they had their own strong incentive to reach a deal. The U.S. bombing was exacting a huge cost, materially as well as in terms of lives lost and plunging morale; though there could be no question of giving up the fight, there was an advantage in using the deepening popular weariness in the United States to secure a respite and get the Americans out.

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