Achieving “Peace With Honor” – 1969 to 1973
The most pressing problem facing Richard Nixon when he assumed the presidency on January 20, 1969, was the war in Vietnam. When he took office, nearly 36,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam. During the 1968 campaign, Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam, secure the return of American POWs, and create a framework for a generation of peace.
According to the Gallup Poll, it had been more than three years since President Johnson’s handling of the war had received majority support, and he had lost the support of even a plurality in December 1966, 2½ years earlier, and never regained it.
Conversely, from 1969 to 1972, the Gallup Poll asked on 20 separate occasions “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Nixon is handling the situation in Vietnam?” Eighteen of the 20 times, more Americans said they approved than disapproved.
Nixon’s 14 speeches, and the countless other times he articulated his strategy in press conferences, interviews, and speeches around the country, won him the consistent support of the American people – the people he called “the great silent majority” – and were a key component to his historic landslide re-election in 1972.
May 14, 1969
In his first address to the nation on Vietnam, the President spoke of the steps his new administration was already taking to “bring lasting peace to Vietnam” and spelled out his comprehensive peace plan.
In his opening lines he made clear the principle that would guide his policy and his strategy:
Since I took office four months ago, nothing has taken so much of my time and energy as the search for a way to bring 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. 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…. We want to end [this war]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.
A Gallup Poll taken soon after the speech revealed that more than twice as many people approved of the new President’s handling of the situation in Vietnam than disapproved.
November 3, 1969
In President Nixon’s second prime-time address to the nation on Vietnam, he made clear that the United States would not abandon its South Vietnamese allies. While said the U.S. would continue to fight the North Vietnamese Communists, he also explained his commitment to reducing American’s military presence in Vietnam, including cutting American combat forces in Vietnam by 20 percent by December 15, 1969.
The most memorable part of the speech was his call for the support of the American people for his policy in Vietnam: “Tonight, to you – the great silent majority of my fellow Americans – I ask for your support.”
The response from the American people was overwhelmingly positive. Within hours, more than 50,000 telegrams and 30,000 letters had flooded the White House mail room, the vast majority supporting the President. President Nixon would later write, “Very few speeches actually influence the course of history. The November 3 speech was one of them.”
December 15, 1969
Six weeks after his “Silent Majority” address of November 3, 1969, President Nixon took to the airwaves again to report on the progress toward peace in Vietnam. The President did not attempt to sugarcoat the situation:
I must report to you tonight with regret that there has been no progress whatever on the negotiating front since November 3. The enemy still insists on a unilateral, precipitate withdrawal of American forces and on a political settlement which would mean the imposition of a Communist government on the people of South Vietnam against their will, and defeat and humiliation for the United States. This we cannot and will not accept.
Nevertheless, the President announced further reductions to America’s presence in Vietnam. By April 15, 1970, the number of American troops would be cut by 115,500 from the nearly 550,000 that were in Vietnam when the President took office on January 20, 1969.
April 20, 1970
In his fourth “Address to the Nation” on Vietnam, President Nixon announced his decision to withdraw another 150,000 Americans from Vietnam based on the progress that was achieved in training and equipping the South Vietnamese military to assume responsibility of its own defense. He also confirmed that his earlier goal of reducing American troops in Vietnam by 115,500 had been accomplished on schedule. The President reported that American combat deaths in the first three months of 1970 had dropped to the lowest first quarter level in five years. Near the end of his speech, he expressed his ongoing concern for American prisoners of war and praised the “dedication, the bravery, the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of young men who have served in Vietnam.”
But it wasn’t all good news. The President spoke of his regret that “no progress has taken place on the negotiating front” and repeated his commitment to the right of people of South Vietnam to determine their own political future. And foreshadowing what would be his next speech on Vietnam just 10 days later, the President also discussed the ongoing use of sanctuaries in Cambodia by the North Vietnamese, to attack American forces.
April 30, 1970
In what would be one of the most controversial actions of his presidency, President Nixon announced that he was launching joint American-South Vietnamese military action to “clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border” that were being used as “bases for attacks on both Cambodia and American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam.” Using a map to explain the action he had ordered, the President pledged that “Once enemy forces are driven out of these sanctuaries and once their military supplies are destroyed, we will withdraw.”
Acknowledging that his decision would be hotly debated, President Nixon asserted that his decision went beyond political differences because “the lives of American men are involved. The opportunity for 150,000 American to come home in the next 12 months is involved. The future of 18 million people in South Vietnam and 7 million people in Cambodia is involved. The possibility of winning a just peace in Vietnam and in the Pacific is at stake.”
June 3, 1970
One month after announcing the Cambodian actions, President Nixon addressed the nation to report on its results. Calling it “the most successful operation of this long and very difficult war,” the President declared that he was keeping his pledge to withdraw American forces from Cambodia once the objectives of the actions were achieved.
While film of captured enemy material appeared on the nation’s television screens, the President announced, “In the month of May, in Cambodia alone, we captured a total amount of enemy arms, equipment, ammunition, and food nearly equal to what we captured in all of Vietnam in all of last year.”
The President also said that as a result of the success of the Cambodian operation, the next 50,000 Americans would be brought home from Vietnam by October 15.
October 7, 1970
In one of his shortest addresses on Vietnam, the President explained the five elements of his new proposal, which had already been agreed to by South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
- First, a cease-fire-in-place throughout Indochina (North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).
- Second, convening an Indochina Peace Conference.
- Third, negotiating a set timetable for the complete withdrawal of American troops as part of an overall settlement.
- Fourth, agreement to reach a fair political settlement in South Vietnam that respects the right of the people of South Vietnam to self-determination.
- Fifth, the immediate release of all prisoners of war held by both sides.
The President concluded his speech by calling on the leaders of North Vietnam to agree to this initiative for peace. They would not.
April 7, 1971
President Nixon made just one televised address to the nation on Vietnam in 1971, although he discussed his efforts to end the war on more than 100 other occasions in press conferences, speeches around the country, interviews, on radio, and other venues.
In this speech, the President announced that by May 1, more than 265,000 American troops will have been brought home from Vietnam – cutting almost in half the number there when he took office on January 20, 1969. He also announced that from May 1 to December 1, 1971, another 100,000 would be withdrawn.
Citing the drawdown of American forces, and the increasing ability of the South Vietnamese military to defend its country, the President said, “I can assure you tonight with confidence that American involvement in this war is coming to an end.”
January 25, 1972
Two weeks after approving the withdrawal of an additional 70,000 American troops from Vietnam, President Nixon made his ninth primetime address to the nation about the war. The President revealed for the first time that the United States had been pursuing secret talks with North Vietnam. He explained that over the previous 2½ years his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had held 12 meetings in Paris with senior officials of the North Vietnamese government, working to bring the war to an end.
The President outlined the elements of the numerous proposals the United States had made during these negotiations, only to see them repeatedly rejected by North Vietnam.
“We are ready to negotiate peace immediately…. We want to end the war not only for America but for all the people of Indochina. The plan I have proposed tonight can accomplish that goal.” It would take another year before the North Vietnamese would finally agree to a negotiated peace.
April 26, 1972
On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale invasion of the South, crossing the neutral territory of the Demilitarized Zone with as many as 120,000 troops. “What we are witnessing here,” the President said, “what is being brutally inflicted upon the people of South Vietnam, is a clear case of naked and unprovoked aggression across an international border.”
Citing the performance of the South Vietnamese army’s success in resisting the attack without the involvement of any American ground troops, the President announced the withdrawal of 20,000 more Americans within the coming two months – a reduction of nearly 500,000 from when he took office in January 1969.
He closed his speech with a call for national unity: “My fellow Americans, let us therefore unite as a nation in a firm and wise policy of real peace – not the peace of surrender, but peace with honor – not just peace in our time, but peace for generations to come.”
May 8, 1972
Fewer than two weeks later, President Nixon was again given television and radio time to speak to the American people. This time the message was much more sobering. During the prior two weeks, the North Vietnamese had launched three new attacks against the South, and, in the President’s words, “the risk that a Communist government may be imposed on the 17 million people of South Vietnam has increased, and the Communist offensive has now reached the point that it gravely threatens the lives of 60,000 American troops who are still in Vietnam.”
The President described the hard choices he now faced: to either undertake the “immediate withdrawal of all American forces, continued attempts at negotiation, or decisive military action to end the war.”
He chose the third option, but offered an olive branch. If the North would agree to return all American POWs and would agree to a ceasefire in all of Indochina, the United States would complete a total withdrawal of American troops within four months.
The President’s announcement re-energized swaths of protestors —and protests— around the country. But as they had done over the previous 3½ years, a majority of the American people continued to support the President.
November 2, 1972
Five days before the 1972 election, the President gave a wide-ranging speech to the nation from the Library in the White House, laying out his vision for the next four years should he be re-elected. Early in his talk he reviewed the record of his Vietnam policy and reported that “we have reached substantial agreement on most of the terms of a settlement” with North Vietnam.
Five days later, the President won an historic victory, carrying 49 of the 50 states (96.7 percent of the total electoral votes) and winning nearly 61 percent of the popular vote. It was quite a contrast to just four years earlier, when then-President Johnson refused to run for reelection and then-candidate Nixon won just 43.4 percent of the popular vote (and just 56 percent of the electoral votes) in one of the closest presidential elections in history.
January 23, 1973
“I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that today we have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.” With those words, President Nixon announced to the nation that four years and three days after he first took the oath as president, the war in Vietnam was over.
During the course of the previous four years, the Gallup Poll asked on 20 separate occasions, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Nixon is handling the situation in Vietnam?” Eighteen of the 20 times, more Americans said they approved than disapproved.
Following the President’s 13th speech, the Gallup Poll asked the question one last time. Fully 75 percent of those polled approved of the President’s policy; just 18 percent disapproved.
March 29, 1973
Two months after announcing the peace agreement, President Nixon addressed the nation for the last time about Vietnam:
For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All of our American POWs are on their way home. The 17 million people of South Vietnam have the right to choose their own government without outside interference…. We can be proud tonight of the fact that we have achieved our goal of obtaining an agreement which provides peace with honor in Vietnam.
After paying tribute to “every one of the 2½ million Americans who served honorably in our Nation’s longest war,” he thanked the American people for their support of his policy:
Tonight I want to express the appreciation of the Nation to others who helped make this day possible. I refer to you, the great majority of Americans listening to me tonight, who, despite an unprecedented barrage of criticism from a small but vocal minority, stood firm for peace with honor. I know it was not easy for you to do so…. Because you stood firm – stood firm for doing what was right – [Air Force Lt.] Colonel [ George G.] McKnight was able to say for his fellow POWs when he returned home a few days ago, “Thank you for bringing us home on our feet instead of on our knees.”
President Nixon achieved the goals he established at the beginning of his presidency – and he did so, in no small part, through these speeches – speeches that earned him the consistent support of the American people to win peace with honor, bring the POWs home, and establish the framework for a generation of peace.