On April 20, 1975, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin asked Thieu to resign for the good of the country. Six days later, after berating the U.S. for not supporting him, Thieu left for Taiwan on a U.S. transport plane, allegedly with gold bars from the national treasury packed into oversized suitcases. On the morning of April 30, Thieu’s successor, Duong Van Minh, ordered a general cease-fire, which undoubtedly saved many lives. NLF-NVA tanks rolled down the main thoroughfares of Saigon and took control of the government. There was no bloodbath.
Reorienting American thinking about the war was an uphill climb. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War was raised on heroic World War II stories, pumped full of national pride, and indoctrinated to believe in the benevolence of American foreign policies. Still, the purported “threat” of a communist-led government in a small country halfway around the world did not elicit the same fighting spirit as defending the nation in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This was true for the general population as well – the necessity of the war was not obvious. Hence, the administration had to work assiduously to persuade the public that developments in Vietnam did indeed pose a dire threat to the security of the United States as well as to the survival of the so-called Free World.
In the most serious incident, 20 to 30 demonstrators slipped through lines of U.S. marshals and military policeman and into a small vestibule inside the office of the Pentagon’s Mall entrance. Once inside they encountered heavily armed troops. The troops, carrying rifles with sheathed bayonets, used gun butts to force some outside and carried others out bodily. Blood was spotted on the floor. Outside, the big crowd surged forward and began throwing what they had at hand – picket signs, magazines, leaflets, sticks and at least one rock which crashed through a Pentagon press room window…. Throughout the afternoon there were sporadic encounters between small groups and the troops. Several demonstrators were clubbed when they pressed too close to troop lines or refused to move out of forbidden sectors.
Demonstrations, despite difficulties, were of great value to the antiwar movement. They fostered camaraderie, stimulated learning, encouraged activism, made a public statement, and gave people a sense of being part of something important and larger than themselves. They also fostered hope that the wheels of democracy would turn in favor of the protesters, that citizen advocacy would compel a recalcitrant Congress to put an end to the war. That hope was the source of much frustration as neither protest in the streets nor lobbying on Capitol Hill seemed to affect the administration’s relentless escalation of the war for three years running.
On June 30, 1966, Pfc. James Johnson, Pvt. David Samas, and Pvt. Dennis Mora (Fort Hood Three) held a press conference to announce their refusal of orders to board a plane at the Oakland Army Terminal for deployment to South Vietnam
In part to limit the damage from America’s impending loss in Vietnam, the Nixon administration undertook a dramatic new policy in early 1972, inaugurating détente with the great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union. New trade and arms control agreements were signed as part of a general relaxation of tensions. After twenty-five years of anti-communist propaganda and policies, it appeared that the U.S. could live with communist nations after all, that peaceful competition could replace militant confrontation and that mutual interests could be pursued. This seismic change in official U.S. attitudes toward communism was surprisingly well-received by the American public. Nixon and Kissinger essentially adopted the liberal program advocated by former Vice-president Henry A. Wallace in the late 1940s, and by many European leaders beginning in the mid-1950s. Had the détente policy been taken up a generation earlier, the American War in Vietnam would never have taken place.
The administration’s peace rhetoric was aimed at domestic and international audiences, not the Vietnamese. Indeed, UN Secretary-General U Thant worked tirelessly during the 1960s to broker a peace agreement based on the Geneva Agreements of 1954, but to no avail. The real difficulty for Johnson and company would be to explain to the American people why American blood had been shed in Vietnam at all. Having passed up ripe opportunities to resolve the burgeoning war in Vietnam in late 1963, following the Diem overthrow, and in late 1964, following his re-election as the “peace candidate,” President Johnson sabotaged another opportunity to negotiate an end to the war in late 1966. The Hanoi government was prepared to sit down with U.S. representatives in secret talks arranged by Poland, code-named “Marigold,” when Johnson authorized bombing raids on the center of Hanoi for the first time on December 13 and 14. The North Vietnamese pulled out, the talks collapsed, and the war expanded.
Fighting in Vietnam nonetheless continued. In lieu of setting up unification elections, as stipulated in the Paris treaty, Thieu declared in November 1973 that the “Third Indochina War” had begun and went on the offensive. The NLF and NVA responded in kind, and with more success. Their final offensive to take Saigon was launched in March 1975. On April 2, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the Provisional Revolutionary Government representative who had signed the Paris treaty, offered to halt the NLF-NVA offensive if Thieu were replaced by a leader who would implement the terms of the Paris agreement. Thieu refused and lashed out against the NLF-NVA troops surrounding Saigon with every weapon at his command. The U.S. military, which came under the command of President Gerald Ford after Nixon was forced to resign on August 9, 1974 (due to the Watergate scandal), provided Thieu with monstrous 15,000-pound CBU-55 bombs originally intended to clear landing zones in the jungle.
The phasing out of the American chemical war in Southeast Asia was the result of an expanding ecological awareness as well as specific studies of chemical agents. The insecticide DDT, which was widely used in American agriculture, was banned in 1972 after a ten-year movement that began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. In a similar way, reports of birth defects and other deleterious effects of Agents Orange, Blue, and White in Vietnam led to scientific studies that correlated these effects with toxic ingredients, particularly 2,4,5-T. Scientific experiments produced malformations and stillbirths in mice.
King suggested “five concrete things that our government should do to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict.” These included ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam; declaring a unilateral cease-fire; curtailing the U.S. military buildup in Thailand and interference in Laos; accepting the National Liberation Front in negotiations; and setting “a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.”
Having spoken from his conscience, King was labeled an enemy of the state by his government, and derided as a dupe of the communists by the press. He was not alone in this. Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations besmirched antiwar activism as support for the communist cause, if not actually being controlled by communists. Using an expansive definition of “subversion,” they employed the FBI and CIA to conduct surveillance and sabotage of antiwar groups, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As for the mainstream media, its denunciations of antiwar activism decreased over time as more Americans joined the antiwar movement and the costs of the war increased.