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Foreign Policies of President Nixon: Vietnamization & Detente

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  • 0:07 Nixon Enters Office
  • 0:36 Triangular Diplomacy
  • 2:36 Vietnam War
  • 6:24 No More War
  • 7:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

President Richard Nixon entered office in 1969 with the hope of easing international relations and honorably ending the war in Vietnam. Learn about his various attempts at securing international peace.

Nixon Enters Office

After winning the Presidential Election of 1968 and assuming office in 1969, President Richard Nixon was faced with the monumental challenge of maintaining his campaign promise of securing an honorable peace in the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement had swelled to the hundreds-of-thousands and the basic fabric that held America together was unraveling over the conflict in Southeast Asia. As a result, the next several years of Nixon's presidency was consumed by honorably ending the war.

Triangular Diplomacy

The challenge of securing peace in Vietnam was significant and Nixon realized that he needed a strong supporting staff to assist in his foreign policy decision making. In January 1969, Nixon appointed Harvard political science professor Henry Kissinger as National Security Adviser; Kissinger eventually became Secretary of State in 1973. Henry Kissinger became the main diplomat between Nixon, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union and, as you will see, North Vietnam.

Early in 1969, Nixon attempted to cool relations between the United States, the Soviet Union and China through a program known as Triangular Diplomacy. This concept supported the notion of 'linkage,' which was an attempt at securing peace by allowing the above nations to try and solve their domestic and international problems together. In other words, instead of combating one another, the hope was to work together - especially in solving the dilemma in Vietnam.

Nixon hoped that by reaching out to the Soviet Union and China, both global powers would begin to reduce support of its communist ally, North Vietnam. This, in turn, would lead to an expedited American withdrawal from the war. This rapprochement, or easing of relations, between the three nations became known as Détente. During the period of Détente, arms control between the United States and the Soviet Union took center stage. In 1969, the two adversaries entered into the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and, in 1972, signed the SALT I agreement. The accord called for a mutual reduction on anti-ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missile production.

Meanwhile, Nixon was adamant about securing friendly relations with China. As a gesture, in 1971 Nixon eased trade limitations against the communist nation. The Chinese returned the courtesy by inviting the United States to participate in a ping-pong tournament in China. The following year, in 1972, Nixon went as far as visiting the nation and Chairman Mao Zedong. This was a tremendous breakthrough in Cold War era relations!

Vietnam War

Yet, for as many of the strides as the United States had taken to ease international tensions, the Vietnam War still raged on. Nixon's first policy in bringing an end to the war took shape in July of 1969. Known as the Nixon Doctrine, the president's foreign policy maintained that while the United States would continue to provide economic and military assistance to anti-communist governments under threat, it was the responsibility of the nation to provide its own manpower to fight the enemy. This became applicable during the Vietnam War and was the beginning of Vietnamization which referred to the United States turning the war effort over to the people of South Vietnam.

While Vietnamization allowed for the gradual withdrawal of American troops, Nixon knew that he had to buy time to allow the South Vietnamese to become a more effective fighting force. He did this in two ways: first, by repeatedly attempting to secure a peace settlement with the North Vietnamese, and second, by launching several military campaigns aimed at weakening the enemy.

Henry Kissinger entered into secret peace talks with North Vietnamese representative Le Duc Tho in July of 1969. Unfortunately, the two sides struggled to reach an agreement for a number of reasons - that is, until 1973 which will be discussed shortly. While Kissinger attempted to secure an honorable resolution, Nixon began propagating the 'madman theory.' Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese to believe that he was an unstable and unpredictable leader who would stop at nothing short of nuclear war to end the conflict in Vietnam.

In fact, Nixon even considered nuclear war in 1969 under Operation Duck Hook when the North Vietnamese proved intransigent at the negotiating table. Instead, Nixon settled for Operation Menu, which was the bombing of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong targets along the Cambodia-South Vietnam border. There were even smaller missions known as Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Dessert. Do you see why it was known as Operation Menu?

The North Vietnamese remained unintimidated by the United States' military efforts. Nixon then authorized the Cambodian Incursion, a secret war in 1970. The objective of this mission was to move into Cambodia and systematically eliminate the enemy, replace the communist Cambodian government with a democratic institution and force a negotiated settlement. After becoming aware of Nixon's efforts, the American public exploded in opposition. Protesters bemoaned that Nixon promised to end, not expand, the conflict.

The anti-war sentiment grew even larger in 1971 when Nixon authorized Operation Lam Son 719, which was a secret invasion of Laos. The goal, again, was to limit the war-making ability of the North Vietnamese while attempting to force a settlement. While the Cambodian Incursion was successful militarily, Operation Lam Son 719 was an unmitigated disaster that set the process of Vietnamization back significantly.

With his political support waning in 1971, Nixon ramped up settlement talks with the North Vietnamese. However, in 1972 the North Vietnamese launched a major spring offensive, known as the Eastertide Offensive, against South Vietnam and its American supporters. The North Vietnamese moved deep into South Vietnam, yet the South Vietnamese forces were able to stem the tide and repel the communists. Nixon went one step further and unleashed a vicious bombing campaign on North Vietnam known as Operation Linebacker I.

With the North Vietnamese teetering on the brink of defeat, Kissinger attempted to secure a settlement in October of 1972. Again, the North Vietnamese proved stubborn. As a result, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II to commence during Christmas week. The round-the-clock bombing of North Vietnam finally yielded the result Americans were seeking: a negotiated settlement. On January 27, 1973, the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords. This officially marked the end of the long, costly war in Vietnam.

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