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A Strange Interlude in the Vietnam War

The 1973 Paris Peace Agreement Reconsidered


The Paris Peace Agreement on Vietnam of 1973 is a misnomer because peace came to Vietnam only in April 1975, and certainly not in the way the formal provisions of the agreement stipulated it would. Essentially, the Agreement separated military and political questions, the former being quite specific but the latter needing much negotiation regarding implementation—and these could not occur fruitfully. The Agreement provided for a Joint Military Commission, but since its decisions had to be unanimous it was doomed to failure.  It created an International Commission of Control and Supervision composed of members from NATO nations, neutralist, and Communist nations, but since its decisions also had to be unanimous, it too was purely ceremonial.

Upon completing the final text, Nixon stated that the U. S. recognized  the Republic of Vietnam, which General Nguyen Van Thieu headed, as the “sole legitimate government of South Vietnam,” which meant he would support those parts of the Agreement he favored and ignore the rest.  The Thieu regime, in turn, refused to recognize the Provisional Revolutionary Government (Viet Cong) at all, and would only sign a separate agreement excluding all references to it.  Each side, in effect, supported those terms that were in its interest, which meant that the Agreement was meaningless as a whole.  [443] Revolutionary wars rarely end with diplomacy.

For  President Richard Nixon and his National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, the treaty provided the time with which they hoped to win the Vietnam War by telling China and Russia, which were in the process of becoming deeply divided, that if they did not cooperate with the U. S. by cutting off military aid to the Vietnamese Communists, they would take measures to strengthen their Communist enemy, thereby threatening to play the two great nominally Communist nations off on each other–”triangulation” it was called.  Belief clever diplomacy would work tied up the American Government, and they believed in this mirage until reality in Vietnam became irreversible. The U.S. explicitly told the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese, that economic aid would be forthcoming as a “tangible incentive” if they stopped “committing aggression” in the south.  (447)  The D R V, amazingly, still regards these pledges, on which they planned (although they never were intended to be fulfilled), as justification for asking for reparations and aid even today.

But the Communists were exhausted, far inferior in numbers and equipment than the Thieu forces, which received a huge flow of military supplies from the United States—much of which they could not maintain or operate.  Not only were these new arms a violation of the Paris Agreement, they encouraged Thieu to take military risks that he was ultimately to lose. [449] Indeed, this fact caused some the American military to conclude that more arms to the Saigon regime were a waste of money (which it proved to be).  Moreover, by 1973 many American officers were well aware of the fact that the principal function of Thieu’s military command was to reinforce his personal political power rather than serve as an effective fighting force—and that its arms superiority was meaningless.

Thieu was also convinced that the U. S. would re-enter the war with B-52s: target lists were drawn up, American air controllers in Thailand were always ready.  Nixon’s Watergate scandal, leading ultimately to his resignation as U. S. President , was to end that possibility.  [451] Thieu, however, never quite realized that his powerful, closest ally was now gone.

The Treaty also caused splits in the DRV leadership, some of whom thought it might be another decade or more before victory came.

A flood of arms, and roughly 23,000 American and foreign advisers to teach the ARVN how to use and maintain them, made Thieu increasingly confident, as did Nixon’s secret pledge that American airpower might reenter the war if  the DRV sent its troops back to the South, which Congress knew nothing about and was very likely to oppose if it were ever to happen.

But neither China nor the Soviet Union, although increasingly divided, betrayed  the Vietnamese Communists in the way and time Kissinger’s convoluted diplomatic strategy had hoped. The illusion that grand diplomacy would succeed where military power had failed immobilized Nixon and Kissinger until it was too late. Moreover, the factors that were to determine the ultimate outcome of the very long war were beyond the U. S. control—even the Politburo in Hanoi failed to understand or appreciate them.

Thieu used the respite the Agreement gave him to attempt to consolidate his power and in the process began to alienate elements of South Vietnam’s population who had not been “Communist” but wanted an end to the conflict that had traumatized Vietnam for decades.  The Agreement was intended, at least ostensibly, to bring peace and reconciliation, not more war.  They knew nothing about Kissinger’s academic theories that allowed the U. S. to save its “credibility.”

South Vietnam’s urban population was now subject to a level of repression from the Thieu regime that was unprecedented, particularly the Buddhists.  The press and TV were controlled to a new extent, and repression alienated a growing section of the urban community.  These people had not been Communists but Thieu managed to alienate his natural allies: many became neutral.

Refugees who wished to return to their villages in Communist-controlled areas were generally not allowed to—a violation of Agreement conditions.  Rice stocks and sales allowed peasants in the Mekong Delta were carefully monitored to prevent rice passing to NLF forces.  Thieu, meanwhile, used the ample supplies of arms the U. S. sent him, especially artillery, and by 1974 the shooting war had resumed again in earnest (but without American forces), with ARVN firing a far greater amount than the Communists.

In effect, whatever it was intended to achieve, the 1973 Paris Agreement brought only an interlude in the Vietnam War.  Thieu’s error  was not to try to make the Peace Agreement to work, sharing some power with Buddhists, the middle class, even some nominal Communists– most of whom were really nationalists. Instead, he thought his arms superiority would allow him to win completely.  He was very wrong, ending up in exile as his military disintegrated in the spring of 1975.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience