'Why did the US find it so difficult to disengage from the Vietnam War before 1975?'
The United States committed officially 9 years of involvement to the Vietnam War. The United States signed the Paris Peace Accords on January 27th 1973 confirming that the United States would remove their troops from Vietnam and the war officially ended in 1975. The question as to whether the war could have ended sooner was raised by government officials during the involvement years, including Senator George McGovern who in a 1972 interview in The Free Lance-Star newspaper said that ‘if Nixon can end the war by November he could have stopped it during his first few months in the White House’. The question has also been raised by historians including John Maberry who suggests that ‘this war could have ended with the same result well before the 1973 cease-fire’ and Van Nguyen Duong who argues that ‘the war could not be ended sooner but was prolonged to the point it confused and demoralised the American people’. This essay will assess the reasons for America’s long term involvement in the Vietnam War and the extent to which an earlier withdrawal was a possibility.
There were a number of reasons for the Vietnam War becoming a long drawn out war for America. Firstly, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger insisted that the war had to be ended but, it had to be done “honourably” as abandoning the South Vietnamese completely would be callous. This meant that even after a 1969 claim from Nixon that “I’m going to stop this war. Fast” the war had to last long enough for Nixon and Kissinger to secure an outcome in Vietnam that was amicable even if that meant not having outright victory. As Andrew J Rotter writes: ‘although compromise fell short of victory, it averted defeat and salvaged credibility.’ To build a compromise would take time.
Secondly, America wanted to allow the South Vietnamese troops to fight for themselves and implement the policy of ‘Vietnamisation’. This was one of the key parts of Nixon’s strategy, and was referred to by US Secretary of Defense Laird as “de-Americanization”. The strategy of Vietnamisation was difficult to implement. The issue of North Vietnamese troop strength had to be taken into consideration. On March 14th 1969 Nixon stated at a press conference that “in view of the current offensive on the part of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, there is no prospect for a reduction of American forces in the foreseeable future.”
The question of how powerful the South Vietnamese troops were was also raised as the scarecrow cartoon demonstrates. The North Vietnamese troops in this image are represented as crows pecking away at the ineffective South Vietnamese scarecrow that characterises Vietnamisation. The ability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves was a serious factor in the conditions that needed to be met for extraction of American troops to take place.
The South Vietnamese were not perceived as a strong fighting force in the late 1960s. As the scarecrow cartoon shows, the South Vietnamese soldier is not depicted as a person, just a façade, and there was not a strong back bone for South Vietnamese troops to defend themselves on their own two feet. The policy of de-Americanisation was a prelude to withdrawal but it was a slow process. However, Van Nguyen Duong argues that ‘if the removal of US forces proceeded to quickly, the ARVN could not defend South Vietnam from attack by NVA units.’ The policy was taken slowly to make sure that South Vietnam could defend itself and thus America had to continue its war effort until the ARVN was deemed to be strong enough.
The issues that occurred during Kissinger’s secret peace talks also caused setbacks for disengagement plans. Thieu saw Kissinger as an enemy of the South Vietnamese regime with dark intentions of abandoning Vietnam in a “legitimate” way. The secret talks were a difficult negotiating game and Kissinger wasn’t able to gain the concessions he wanted without proving his worth to the South and putting pressure on the North. Kissinger felt that Hanoi was “ready to give” and it “would be a disaster” to “show any nervousness” too soon.
Kissinger felt that disengaging too early would be a sign of weakness and showing strength at this time was critical. The Peace Talks were disorderly and boycotted in March 1972. In July 1971 Kissinger provided Le Duc Tho with a list of Saigon politicians that would in Kissinger’s mind create a “just” political settlement and not one of these politicians passed muster. The talks were boycotted as Le Duc Tho was not taking them seriously.
The Mad Bomber campaign was born out of the issues with the Paris Peace Talks. In April 1972 Nixon had increased the bombing on North Vietnam. ‘The bombing of civilian, not military targets sent a message.’ Nixon needed to assert his power against the North Vietnamese. It could be argued that the North Vietnamese were holding back the United States attempts to negotiate peace. Le Duc Tho blamed the US for issues in the Paris Peace Talks, he claimed that the US had “created serious obstacles” although he did not elaborate on what those precise obstacles were. America had to draw out the war to assert dominance. Using military tactics to gain peace is considered to be oxymoronic but the war was stuck in stale mate.
 Herrington, Gregg, McGovern Feels Vietnam War Could Have Ended Sooner (The Free Lance-Star, July 1st, 1972), p. 10
 Maberry, John, Waiting for Westmoreland (Eagle Peak Press, 2007), p. 194
 Duong, Van Nguyen, The Tragedy of the Vietnam War (McFarland & Company Inc., 2008) p.226
 William Saffire, Before the Fall (New York, 1975), p. 121 cited in Herring, George C., America’s Longest War (Newbery Awards Records, Inc. 1986), p. 223
 Herring, George C., America’s Longest War (Newbery Awards Records, Inc. 1986), p. 223
 Rotter, Andrew J., Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Vietnam War Anthology (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2010), p.114
 Kimball, Jeffrey, Nixon’s Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 1998), p. 139
 Ibid., p. 138
 “Scarecrow” cartoon, June 1969
 Kimball, Jeffrey, Nixon’s Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 1998), p. 138
 Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri, Peace Now (Yale University Press, 1999), p.224
 Duong, Van Nguyen, The Tragedy of the Vietnam War (McFarland & Company Inc., 2008), p. 131
 Ibid., p. 134
 Kimball, Jeffrey, Nixon’s Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 1998), p. 287
 Kissinger, Henry, Ending the Vietnam War (Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 79
 Maberry, John, Waiting for Westmoreland (Eagle Peak Press, 2007), p. 176
 Kissinger, Henry, Ending the Vietnam War (Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 231