President Richard Nixon was probably better known for keeping secrets than revealing them, but today marks the anniversary of a significant departure from his legendary circumspection. On this day in 1972, Nixon bowed to mounting public criticism over his administration’s efforts to end the Vietnam War.
Nixon did so by telling the world about a series of 12 secret peace-negotiating sessions that took place in Paris between Aug. 4, 1969, and Aug. 16, 1971. The American effort was led by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. On the other side of the table, Kissinger faced Le Duc Tho, a member of Hanoi’s Politburo, and Xuan Thuy, Hanoi’s chief delegate to the formal Paris peace talks.
At the same time, Nixon disclosed the details of an eight-point peace proposal that had been presented privately to the North Vietnamese in October 1971. The primary elements of the plan were: withdrawal of all U.S. and Allied troops and all communist troops from South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos within 12 months of an agreement; as soon as possible, there would be a simultaneous release of all military and civilian prisoners of both sides; the cease-fire would be conducted under the supervision of a mutually acceptable international commission; and presidential elections in South Vietnam organized and supervised by a coalition of factions including the Viet Cong, with President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Tran Van Huong resigning one month after the voting.
At the time of this revelation, Nixon ruled out the possibility of a broad one-sided withdrawal from Vietnam, but hinted strongly that a time-table was under consideration.
The North Vietnamese soundly rejected Nixon’s proposal and made a nine-point counter-proposal of their own. The primary elements of the North Vietnamese plan were an unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops from Indochina and the immediate resignation of the Thieu regime.
With neither side willing to embrace the other’s proposal, conditions on the ground became much worse. In March 1972, North Vietnam launched a massive invasion of South Vietnam.
With this turn, it became clear that Nixon’s Vietnam policy had failed. Nixon immediately ordered the withdrawal of half a million troops. By May 1972, no U.S. personnel were on combat missions.
The ignominious end to the protracted fighting signaled a major shift in the power of the presidency to wage war. Despite Nixon’s veto, Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution in 1973. This legislation established the requirement that the president must seek Congressional approval for a continuation of any military action lasting longer than 60 days.
U.S. Presidents have consistently argued that the War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement on the power of the executive branch. The resolution has been the seat of ongoing controversy since its enactment. Moreover, it has been a regularly recurring issue owing to the commitment of U.S. military personnel in conflicts all over the globe. According to the Library of Congress, presidents have submitted a total of over 120 reports to Congress pursuant to the resolution.
As history has shown repeatedly, the resolution has been little fetter to war. In the 40 years since its passage, thousands of flag-draped coffins have been escorted down the ramps of transport planes.
While most of us likely agree that our nation should always be ready to defend itself, this resolution speaks to something much larger: Wars, no matter their size or length, exact a price. That price is something to be weighed carefully, cautiously and with due diligence. While we have not always followed that course, at least we have a formal statement of principle that says we should.