Two months after the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement, the last
U.S. combat troops leave South Vietnam as Hanoi frees the remaining
American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam. America's direct
eight-year intervention in the Vietnam War was at an end. In Saigon,
some 7,000 U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees remained
behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting what looked to be a fierce
and ongoing war with communist North Vietnam.
In 1961, after two decades of indirect military aid, U.S. President
John F. Kennedy sent the first large force of U.S. military personnel
to Vietnam to bolster the ineffectual autocratic regime of South
Vietnam against the communist North. Three years later, with the South
Vietnamese government crumbling, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered
limited bombing raids on North Vietnam, and Congress authorized the
use of U.S. troops. By 1965, North Vietnamese offensives left
President Johnson with two choices: escalate U.S. involvement or
withdraw. Johnson ordered the former, and troop levels soon jumped to
more than 300,000 as U.S. air forces commenced the largest bombing
campaign in history.
During the next few years, the extended length of the war, the high
number of U.S. casualties, and the exposure of U.S. involvement in war
crimes, such as the massacre at My Lai, helped turn many in the United
States against the Vietnam War. The communists' Tet Offensive of 1968
crushed U.S. hopes of an imminent end to the conflict and galvanized
U.S. opposition to the war. In response, Johnson announced in March
1968 that he would not seek reelection, citing what he perceived to be
his responsibility in creating a perilous national division over
Vietnam. He also authorized the beginning of peace talks.
In the spring of 1969, as protests against the war escalated in the
United States, U.S. troop strength in the war-torn country reached its
peak at nearly 550,000 men. Richard Nixon, the new U.S. president,
began U.S. troop withdrawal and "Vietnamization" of the war effort
that year, but he intensified bombing. Large U.S. troop withdrawals
continued in the early 1970s as President Nixon expanded air and
ground operations into Cambodia and Laos in attempts to block enemy
supply routes along Vietnam's borders. This expansion of the war,
which accomplished few positive results, led to new waves of protests
in the United States and elsewhere.
Finally, in January 1973, representatives of the United States, North
and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris,
ending the direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Its
key provisions included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam, the
withdrawal of U.S. forces, the release of prisoners of war, and the
reunification of North and South Vietnam through peaceful means. The
South Vietnamese government was to remain in place until new elections
were held, and North Vietnamese forces in the South were not to
advance further nor be reinforced.
In reality, however, the agreement was little more than a face-saving
gesture by the U.S. government. Even before the last American troops
departed on March 29, the communists violated the cease-fire, and by
early 1974 full-scale war had resumed. At the end of 1974, South
Vietnamese authorities reported that 80,000 of their soldiers and
civilians had been killed in fighting during the year, making it the
most costly of the Vietnam War.
On April 30, 1975, the last few Americans still in South Vietnam were
airlifted out of the country as Saigon fell to communist forces. North
Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin, accepting the surrender of South Vietnam
later in the day, remarked, "You have nothing to fear; between
Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans
have been defeated." The Vietnam War was the longest and most
unpopular foreign war in U.S. history and cost 58,000 American lives.
As many as two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed.