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People & Events: Paris Peace Talks

Signing of cease-fire agreementIn 1967, with American troop strength in Vietnam reaching 500,000, protest against U.S. participation in the Vietnam War had grown stronger as growing numbers of Americans questioned whether the U.S. war effort could succeed or was morally justifiable. They took their protests to the streets in peace marches, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience. Despite the country's polarization, the balance of American public opinion was beginning to sway toward "de-escalation" of the war.

This was the backdrop as the United States and Hanoi agreed to enter into preliminary peace talks in Paris in 1968. However, almost as soon as the talks were started, they stalled. When President Lyndon Johnson turned over the presidency to Richard Nixon eight months into the talks, the only thing the two sides had agreed on was the shape of the conference table.

Despite candidate Nixon's promise of "peace with honor," the deadlock would continue for three-and-one-half years of public and secret meetings in Paris. Two key issues had locked both parties. Washington wanted all northern troops out of South Vietnam; Hanoi refused any provisional South Vietnamese government that involved its leader, Nguyen Van Thieu. In June 1969 the first troop withdrawals were made by the U.S., as part of its "Vietnamization" plan, whereby the South Vietnamese would gradually assume complete military responsibilities in the war while continuing to be supplied by U.S. arms.

In February 1970, national security advisor Henry Kissinger began secret one-on-one meetings with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho outside Paris while the formal peace process continued in the city. Still, little progress would be made until the summer of 1972. By then, Nixon was pursuing détente with both China and the Soviet Union and was eager to put Vietnam behind him before the next election. Both sides wanted peace. Hanoi feared political isolation if the U.S. had a rapprochement with China and the Soviet Union. They also knew that peace would end the fearsome U.S. bombing and might finally mean the complete withdrawal of the military giant. Nixon wanted to move to other foreign policy initiatives.

Kissinger assured the North that their troops would be able to remain in the South after the cease-fire. Kissinger also backed down on the U.S. support of the Thieu regime by agreeing to an electoral commission made up of neutralists, Viet Cong and members of the Saigon government that would oversee the political settlement in the South. In return, the North withdrew its condition of Thieu's removal, and agreed the future flow of Vietnamese troops to the South would stop.

By October 1972, a tentative cease-fire agreement was reached. The accord called for the simultaneous withdrawal of U.S. troops and freedom for American POWs, to be followed by a political settlement of South Vietnam's future. Washington would extend postwar economic assistance to help Vietnam rebuild its destroyed infrastructure. On October 22, Nixon suspended all bombing north of the twentieth parallel and four days later Kissinger proclaimed that "peace was at hand."

The celebration was premature. Thieu, who had not been consulted during the secret negotiations, demanded changes that infuriated Hanoi, and talks broke off on December 13. Nixon, caught between a stubborn ally and a tough enemy, took action. He promised Thieu $1 billion in military equipment that would give South Vietnam the fourth largest air force in the world and assured Thieu that the United States would re-enter the war if North Vietnam did not abide by the peace. They were promises that Thieu had no reason to doubt; Nixon had just won a landslide election and the Watergate affair was nearly invisible on the political landscape.

As for the stick, Nixon resolved to punish the North. During 12 days of the most concentrated bombing in world history, called the Christmas bombing, American planes flew nearly 2,000 sorties and dropped 35,000 tons of bombs against transportation terminals, rail yards, warehouses, barracks, oil tanks, factories, airfields and power plants in the North. In two short weeks, 25 percent of North Vietnam's oil reserves and 80 percent of its electrical capacity were destroyed. The U.S. lost 26 aircraft and 93 air force men.

When peace talks resumed in Paris on January 8, 1973, an accord was reached swiftly. The peace agreement was formally signed on January 27, 1973. It closely resembled what had been agreed to back in October of the previous year. Kissinger later justified the accord by saying, "We believed that those who opposed the war in Vietnam would be satisfied with our withdrawal, and those who favored an honorable ending would be satisfied if the United States would not destroy an ally."

America's longest war was over.

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