Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States
In May 1972, President Nixon faced one of the great foreign policy challenges of his presidency. He was in the midst of a diplomatically climactic year of his presidency; the groundbreaking trip to China had opened the doors of the world’s most populous nation and a summit with the Soviet Union that hoped to cap off the first arms limitation agreement between the two nuclear superpowers was on the horizon. However, developments in Vietnam threatened to dismantle these hard-earned overtures. An invasion by the North Vietnamese of its southern counterpart in spring 1972, heavily backed by Soviet supplied arms, dampened any assuredness that the summit in Moscow would go on or that peace negotiations in Vietnam might finally enter a productive phase.
By spring 1972, only 69,000 of the 535,000 U.S. troops stationed at the beginning of the Nixon presidency still remained in Vietnam. The hallmark of Nixon’s foreign policy strategy of Vietnamization, a program which trained the South Vietnamese Army to bear more of the combat burden, matured to a point that the U.S. no longer needed to engage itself in ground combat. Seeing this as the final opportunity to unilaterally end the war on their terms, the North Vietnamese launched an invasion of the South on March 30, 1972. The invasion signaled that Hanoi, despite the United States’ constant efforts to negotiate, were unwilling to settle for less than a Vietnam controlled by their totalitarian system.
Following two months of intense fighting, the situation reached an alarming stage in May. General Creighton Abrams relayed a message on May 2, 1972 to national security advisor Henry Kissinger reporting that “it is quite possible that the South Vietnamese have lost their will to fight, or to hang together, and that the whole thing may well be lost.” The North Vietnamese had broken through the South Vietnamese Army and had taken territory vital to South Vietnamese morale.
The fate of Vietnam and the credibility of U.S. foreign policy lay in the balance. Considering the prospects of a defeated South Vietnam, Nixon could have been consoled by the fact that he would still be remembered as the president who conducted an honorable withdrawal of 500,000 troops. Domestically, many would simply be glad that the war was over.
However, President Nixon was not interested in domestic political consolation but rather in upholding the tenets of a strong foreign policy. If the South were to fall to the North Vietnamese, he believed, not only would the Soviet Union have accomplished what they were after by using the force of arms in third-world countries, but it would have seriously hindered future American efforts in establishing global peace.
On May 8, 1972, President Nixon took decisive action. He directed plans to mine Haiphong Harbor, where Soviet arms were being funneled in, and to bomb prime military targets in Hanoi including major railroad lines. His intentions were clear, as demonstrated in a memo to Kissinger:
“I cannot emphasize too strongly that I have determined that we should go for broke. What we have got to get across to the enemy is the impression that we are doing exactly that. Our words will help some. But our actions in the next few days will speak infinitely louder than our words.”
And so they did. When it seemed that Congress and media pundits alike were dismissing President Nixon’s decision as futile and dishonorable, when many wagered that the Soviets would cancel the upcoming summit, Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, relayed a defining message to Kissinger stating, “you have handled a difficult situation uncommonly well.”
Diplomatically, President Nixon avoided a crushing setback. The Moscow Summit, and Nixon’s year of foreign policy excellence, would go on.
Militarily, the mining and bombing that commenced on May 8, 1972 successfully stunted North Vietnam’s advance into the South, giving respite to a beleaguered South Vietnamese Army. After weathering the storm, South Vietnam launched a major counter offensive, retaking lost territory and proving that indeed they could carry a large share.
President Nixon’s decision to act unilaterally at a pivotal time in the Vietnam conflict ensured the survival of South Vietnam and the protection of the remaining U.S. ground forces still stationed there. He demonstrated strength at a time when various forces threatened to undermine his conduct of foreign policy. The Soviet Union, no less, recognized and respected Nixon’s unwavering resolve and granted him their utmost respect.