How did Richard Nixon both escalate the war in Vietnam and wind it down?

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Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968 with the promise of ending the war in Vietnam. By this point, the war was perceived by many in the United States as being overly costly, bloody, and unwinnable. Nixon told voters that he had a special, secret plan to bring the long...

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Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968 with the promise of ending the war in Vietnam. By this point, the war was perceived by many in the United States as being overly costly, bloody, and unwinnable. Nixon told voters that he had a special, secret plan to bring the long war to an honorable end. Just what he might have been referring to was unclear, and it would be another seven years before the end of hostilities. While it is true that the Vietnam War eventually ended under the Nixon administration, it would go through a serious escalation first.

Once in office, Nixon began a process he called Vietnamization. This referred to the gradual practice of withdrawing American forces from Vietnam and transitioning the role of defense to the South Vietnamese military.

However, American involvement continued at high levels. During the first year of Nixon's term in office, American troop levels in Vietnam reached their highest levels at over half a million in April of 1969. In fact, Nixon further escalated the war by sending American GIs into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia to pursue Vietcong forces that had previously used these countries as safe havens.

Meanwhile, the United States pursued what was called the Nixon Doctrine. This included ramping up attacks on North Vietnam in order to pressure them to make peace on terms favorable to the interests of South Vietnam and the United States. In an attempt to achieve this, the United States heavily bombed North Vietnam.

By 1972, the United States began gradually withdrawing troops from Vietnam. The war was extremely unpopular at home, and it was becoming clear that negotiations with North Vietnam were going nowhere. In 1973, Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accord and withdrew nearly all US troops from Southeast Asia. The United States continued to support South Vietnam with advisors and supplies for the next two years.

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Nixon was elected in 1968 by promising "peace with honor" and an end to the Vietnam War. While most Americans were not war protesters, many were tired of seeing the war on television with no end in sight. Nixon increased bombing campaigns in North Vietnam; more bombs would be dropped during the Vietnam War than would be dropped on Europe and Japan during WWII. Nixon also secretly deployed special operations soldiers to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia. The Vietcong proved too successful in guarding the trail and the invasion only helped to further destabilize these countries. Nixon worked on a process of Vietnamization which was supposed to get the South Vietnamese to take more of an active role in their own defense. Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam in 1973 which stated that the United States would withdraw from actively attacking North Vietnam. The United States continued to supply munitions and advice to South Vietnam but the nation fell in 1975 due to a combination of corruption and a final invasion by the North Vietnamese Army.

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When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, he promised that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.  When he became president, he did eventually end US involvement in that war.  However, he also escalated the war in important ways.

One example of how Nixon escalated the war in Vietnam was his “Linebacker II” program of bombing North Vietnam.  Up until that point, there had been limited bombing of the North.  In late 1972, however, Nixon ordered massive bombing raids of the North.  His plan was to force the Vietnamese to break a stalemate in the peace negotiations. 

A second example of escalation was Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.  In mid-1970, Nixon ordered an invasion of a part of Cambodia.  He did so because North Vietnamese troops had been using this part of Cambodia as a safe haven.  They would retreat across the border and the US would not attack them there.  Nixon wanted to end this practice and therefore ordered the invasion.  This was seen as a major escalation of the war.

At the same time, however, Nixon was trying to end US involvement in the war.  Nixon’s time in office is known for the policy of “Vietnamization” of the war.  Nixon gradually reduced the role that American troops were playing in the war and handed more responsibilities over to the Vietnamese.  Eventually, in 1973, he ended the American presence in Vietnam.  Thus, Nixon both escalated the Vietnam War and wound down the American involvement in that war. 

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