Address to the Nation on Vietnam
May 14, 1969
Good evening, my fellow Americans:
I have asked for this television time tonight to report to you on our most difficult and urgent problem–the war in Vietnam.
Since I took office 4 months ago, nothing has taken so much of my time and energy as the search for a way to bring lasting peace to Vietnam. I know that some believe that I should have ended the war immediately after the inauguration by simply ordering our forces home from Vietnam.
This would have been the easy thing to do. It might have been a popular thing to do. But I would have betrayed my solemn responsibility as President of the United States if I had done so.
I want to end this war. The American people want to end this war. The people of South Vietnam want to end this war. But we want to end it permanently so that the younger brothers of our soldiers in Vietnam will not have to fight in the future in another Vietnam someplace else in the world.
The fact that there is no easy way to end the war does not mean that we have no choice but to let the war drag on with no end in sight.
For 4 years American boys have been fighting and dying in Vietnam. For 12 months our negotiators have been talking with the other side in Paris. And yet the fighting goes on. The destruction continues. Brave men still die.
The time has come for some new initiatives. Repeating the old formulas and the tired rhetoric of the past is not enough. When Americans are risking their lives in war, it is the responsibility of their leaders to take some risks for peace.
I would like to report to you tonight on some of the things we have been doing in the past 4 months to bring true peace, and then I would like to make some concrete proposals to speed that day.
Our first step began before inauguration. This was to launch an intensive review of every aspect of the Nation’s Vietnam policy. We accepted nothing on faith, we challenged every assumption and every statistic. We made a systematic, serious examination of all the alternatives open to us. We carefully considered recommendations offered both by critics and supporters of past policies.
From the review, it became clear at once that the new administration faced a set of immediate operational problems:
–The other side was preparing for a new offensive.
–There was a wide gulf of distrust between Washington and Saigon.
–In 8 months of talks in Paris, there had been no negotiations directly concerned with a final settlement.
Therefore, we moved on several fronts at once.
We frustrated the attack which was launched in late February. As a result, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong failed to achieve their military objectives.
We restored a close working relationship with Saigon. In the resulting atmosphere of mutual confidence, President Thieu and his Government have taken important initiatives in the search for a settlement.
We speeded up the strengthening of the South Vietnamese forces. I am glad to report tonight that, as a result, General Abrams told me on Monday that progress in the training program had been excellent and that, apart from any developments that may occur in the negotiations in Paris, the time is approaching when South Vietnamese forces will be able to take over some of the fighting fronts now being manned by Americans.
In weighing alternate courses, we have had to recognize that the situation as it exists today is far different from what it was 2 years ago or 4 years ago or 10 years ago.
One difference is that we no longer have the choice of not intervening. We have crossed that bridge. There are now more than a half million American troops in Vietnam and 35,000 Americans have lost their lives.
We can have honest debate about whether we should have entered the war in Vietnam. We can have honest debate about how the war has been conducted. But the urgent question today is what to do now that we are there.
Against that background, let me discuss first, what we have rejected, and second, what we are prepared to accept.
We have ruled out attempting to impose a purely military solution on the battlefield.
We have also ruled out either a one-sided withdrawal from Vietnam, or the acceptance in Paris of terms that would amount to a disguised American defeat.
When we assumed the burden of helping defend South Vietnam, millions of South Vietnamese men, women, and children placed their trust in us. To abandon them now would risk a massacre that would shock and dismay everyone in the world who values human life.
Abandoning the South Vietnamese people, however, would jeopardize more than lives in South Vietnam. It would threaten our long-term hopes for peace in the world. A great nation cannot renege on its pledges. A great nation must be worthy of trust.
When it comes to maintaining peace, “prestige” is not an empty word. I am not speaking of false pride or bravado–they should have no place in our policies. I speak rather of the respect that one nation has for another’s integrity in defending its principles and meeting its obligations.
If we simply abandoned our effort in Vietnam, the cause of peace might not survive the damage that would be done to other nations’ confidence in our reliability.
Another reason for not withdrawing unilaterally stems from debates within the Communist world between those who argue for a policy of confrontation with the United States, and those who argue against it.
If Hanoi were to succeed in taking over South Vietnam by force–even after the power of the United States had been engaged–it would greatly strengthen those leaders who scorn negotiation, who advocate aggression, who minimize the risks of confrontation with the United States. It would bring peace now but it would enormously increase the danger of a bigger war later.
If we are to move successfully from an era of confrontation to an era of negotiation, then we have to demonstrate–at the point at which confrontation is being tested–that confrontation with the United States is costly and unrewarding.
Almost without exception, the leaders of non-Communist Asia have told me that they would consider a one-sided American withdrawal from Vietnam to be a threat to the security of their own nations.
In determining what choices would be acceptable, we have to understand our essential objective in Vietnam: What we want is very little, but very fundamental. We seek the opportunity for the South Vietnamese people to determine their own political future without outside interference.
Let me put it plainly: What the United States wants for South Vietnam is not the important thing. What North Vietnam wants for South Vietnam is not the important thing. What is important is what the people of South Vietnam want for South Vietnam.
The United States has suffered over a million casualties in four wars in this century. Whatever faults we may have as a nation, we have asked nothing for ourselves in return for those sacrifices. We have been generous toward those whom we have fought. We have helped our former foes as well as our friends in the task of reconstruction. We are proud of this record, and we bring the same attitude in our search for a settlement in Vietnam.
In this spirit, let me be explicit about several points:
–We seek no bases in Vietnam.
–We seek no military ties.
–We are willing to agree to neutrality for South Vietnam if that is what the South Vietnamese people freely choose.
–We believe there should be an opportunity for full participation in the political life of South Vietnam by all political elements that are prepared to do so without the use of force or intimidation.
–We are prepared to accept any government in South Vietnam that results from the free choice of the South Vietnamese people themselves.
–We have no intention of imposing any form of government upon the people of South Vietnam, nor will we be a party to such coercion.
–We have no objection to reunification, if that turns out to be what the people of South Vietnam and the people of North Vietnam want; we ask only that the decision reflect the free choice of the people concerned.
At this point, I would like to add a personal word based on many visits to South Vietnam over the past 5 years. This is the most difficult war in America’s history, fought against a ruthless enemy. I am proud of our men who have carried the terrible burden of this war with dignity and courage, despite the division and opposition to the war in the United States. History will record that never have America’s fighting men fought more bravely for more unselfish goals than our men in Vietnam. It is our responsibility to see that they have not fought in vain.
In pursuing our limited objective, we insist on no rigid diplomatic formula. Peace could be achieved by a formal negotiated settlement. Peace could be achieved by an informal understanding, provided that the understanding is clear, and that there were adequate assurances that it would be observed. Peace on paper is not as important as peace in fact.
And so this brings us to the matter of negotiations.
We must recognize that peace in Vietnam cannot be achieved overnight. A war that has raged for many years will require detailed negotiations and cannot be settled by a single stroke.
What kind of a settlement will permit the South Vietnamese people to determine freely their own political future? Such a settlement will require the withdrawal of all non-South Vietnamese forces, including our own, from South Vietnam, and procedures for political choice that give each significant group in South Vietnam a real opportunity to participate in the political life of the nation.
To implement these principles, I reaffirm now our willingness to withdraw our forces on a specified timetable. We ask only that North Vietnam withdraw its forces from South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos into North Vietnam, also in accordance with a timetable.
We include Cambodia and Laos to ensure that these countries would not be used as bases for a renewed war.
Our offer provides for a simultaneous start on withdrawal by both sides, for agreement on a mutually acceptable timetable, and for the withdrawal to be accomplished quickly.
The North Vietnamese delegates have been saying in Paris that political issues should be discussed along with military issues, and that there must be a political settlement in the South. We do not dispute this, but the military withdrawal involves outside forces, and can, therefore, be properly negotiated by North Vietnam and the United States, with the concurrence of its allies.
The political settlement is an internal matter which ought to be decided among the South Vietnamese themselves, and not imposed by outsiders. However, if our presence at these political negotiations would be helpful, and if the South Vietnamese concerned agreed, we would be willing to participate, along with the representatives of Hanoi, if that also were desired.
Recent statements by President Thieu have gone far toward opening the way to a political settlement. He has publicly declared his Government’s willingness to discuss a political solution with the National Liberation Front, and has offered free elections. This was a dramatic step forward, a reasonable offer that could lead to a settlement. The South Vietnamese Government has offered to talk without preconditions. I believe the other side should also be willing to talk without preconditions.
The South Vietnamese Government recognizes, as we do, that a settlement must permit all persons and groups that are prepared to renounce the use of force to participate freely in the political life of South Vietnam. To be effective, such a settlement would require two things: first, a process that would allow the South Vietnamese people to express their choice, and, second, a guarantee that this process would be a fair one.
We do not insist on a particular form of guarantee. The important thing is that the guarantees should have the confidence of the South Vietnamese people, and that they should be broad enough and strong enough to protect the interests of all major South Vietnamese groups.
This, then, is the outline of the settlement that we seek to negotiate in Paris. Its basic terms are very simple: mutual withdrawal of non-South Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam and free choice for the people of South Vietnam. I believe that the long-term interests of peace require that we insist on no less, and that the realities of the situation require that we seek no more.
And now, to make very concrete what I have said, I propose the following specific measures which seem to me consistent with the principles of all parties. These proposals are made on the basis of full consultation with President Thieu.
–As soon as agreement can be reached, all non-South Vietnamese forces would begin withdrawals from South Vietnam.
–Over a period of 12 months, by agreed-upon stages, the major portions of all U.S., allied, and other non-South Vietnamese forces would be withdrawn. At the end of this 12-month period, the remaining U.S., allied, and other non-South Vietnamese forces would move into designated base areas and would not engage in combat operations.
–The remaining U.S. and allied forces would complete their withdrawals as the remaining North Vietnamese forces were withdrawn and returned to North Vietnam.
–An international supervisory body, acceptable to both sides, would be created for the purpose of verifying withdrawals, and for any other purposes agreed upon between the two sides.
–This international body would begin operating in accordance with an agreed timetable and would participate in arranging supervised cease-fires in Vietnam.
–As soon as possible after the international body was functioning, elections would be held under agreed procedures and under the supervision of the international body.
–Arrangements would be made for the release of prisoners of war on both sides at the earliest possible time.
–All parties would agree to observe the Geneva Accords of 1954 regarding South Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Laos Accords of 1962.
I believe this proposal for peace is realistic, and takes account of the legitimate interests of all concerned. It is consistent with President Thieu’s six points. It can accommodate the various programs put forth by the other side. We and the Government of South Vietnam are prepared to discuss the details with the other side.
Secretary Rogers is now in Saigon and he will be discussing with President Thieu how, together, we may put forward these proposed measures most usefully in Paris. He will, as well, be consulting with our other Asian allies on these measures while on his Asian trip. However, I would stress that these proposals are not offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. We are quite willing to consider other approaches consistent with our principles.
We are willing to talk about anybody’s program–Hanoi’s 4 points, the NLF’s [National Liberation Front] 10 points-provided it can be made consistent with the very few basic principles I have set forth here tonight.
Despite our disagreement with several of its points, we welcome the fact that the NLF has put forward its first comprehensive program. We are studying that program carefully. However, we cannot ignore the fact that immediately after the offer, the scale of enemy attacks stepped up and American casualties in Vietnam increased.
Let me make one point clear. If the enemy wants peace with the United States, that is not the way to get it.
I have set forth a peace program tonight which is generous in its terms. I have indicated our willingness to consider other proposals. But no greater mistake could be made than to confuse flexibility with weakness or of being reasonable with lack of resolution. I must also make clear, in all candor, that if the needless suffering continues, this will affect other decisions. Nobody has anything to gain by delay.
Reports from Hanoi indicate that the enemy has given up hope for a military victory in South Vietnam, but is counting on a collapse of American will in the United States. There could be no greater error in judgment.
Let me be quite blunt. Our fighting men are not going to be worn down; our mediators are not going to be talked down; and our allies are not going to be let down.
My fellow Americans, I have seen the ugly face of war in Vietnam. I have seen the wounded in field hospitals–American boys, South Vietnamese boys, North Vietnamese boys. They were different in many ways–the color of their skins, their religions, their races; some were enemies; some were friends.
But the differences were small, compared with how they were alike. They were brave men, and they were so young. Their lives–their dreams for the future-had been shattered by a war over which they had no control.
With all the moral authority of the Office which I hold, I say that America could have no greater and prouder role than to help to end this war in a way which will bring nearer that day in which we can have a world order in which people can live together in peace and friendship.
I do not criticize those who disagree with me on the conduct of our peace negotiations. And I do not ask unlimited patience from a people whose hopes for peace have too often been raised and then cruelly dashed over the past 4 years.
I have tried to present the facts about Vietnam with complete honesty, and I shall continue to do so in my reports to the American people.
Tonight, all I ask is that you consider these facts, and, whatever our differences, that you support a program which can lead to a peace we can live with and a peace we can be proud of. Nothing could have a greater effect in convincing the enemy that he should negotiate in good faith than to see the American people united behind a generous and reasonable peace offer.
In my campaign for the Presidency, I pledged to end this war in a way that would increase our chances to win true and lasting peace in Vietnam, in the Pacific, and in the world. I am determined to keep that pledge. If I fail to do so, I expect the American people to hold me accountable for that failure.
But while I will never raise false expectations, my deepest hope, as I speak to you tonight, is that we shall be able to look back on this day, at that critical turning point when American initiative moved us off dead center, and forward to the time when this war would be brought to an end and when we shall be able to devote the unlimited energies and dedication of the American people to the exciting challenges of peace.
Thank you and good night.
Note: The President spoke at 10 p.m. in the Theater at the White House. His address was broadcast on radio and television.
On the same day, the White House Press Office released an advance text of the President’s address to the Nation on Vietnam.
Citation: Richard Nixon: “Address to the Nation on Vietnam.,” May 14, 1969. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2047.