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The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 intended to establish peace in Vietnam and an end to the Vietnam War, ended direct U.S. military involvement, and temporarily stopped the fighting between North and South Vietnam. The governments of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the United States, as well as the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) that represented indigenous South Vietnamese revolutionaries, signed the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam on January 27, 1973. The agreement was not ratified by the U.S. Senate.
The negotiations that led to the accord began in 1968 after various lengthy delays. As a result of the accord, the International Control Commission (ICC) was replaced by International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS) to carry out the agreement. The main negotiators of the agreement were United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politburo member Lê Ðức Thọ; the two men were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, although Lê Ðức Thọ refused to accept it.
The document began with the statement that "the United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Vietnam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Vietnam". The inclusion of this provision was a victory for the communist side of the negotiations by allowing that the war was not a foreign aggression against South Vietnam. The main military and political provisions of the agreement were:
Following the success of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, in March 1968 U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson halted bombing operations over the northern portion of the North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder), in order to encourage Hanoi to begin negotiations. Shortly thereafter Hanoi agreed to discuss a complete halt of the bombing, and a date was set for representatives of both parties to meet in Paris. The sides first met on 10 May, with the delegations headed by Xuan Thuy, who would remain the official leader of the North Vietnamese delegation throughout the process, and U.S. ambassador-at-large Averell Harriman.
For five months the negotiations stalled as North Vietnam demanded that all bombing of North Vietnam be stopped, while the U.S. side demanded that North Vietnam agree to a reciprocal de-escalation in South Vietnam; it was not until 31 October that Johnson agreed to end the air strikes and serious negotiations could begin.
One of the largest hurdles to effective negotiation was the fact that North Vietnam and its ally in South Vietnam, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or Viet Cong), refused to recognize the government of South Vietnam; with equal persistence, the government in Saigon refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the NLF. Harriman resolved this dispute by developing a system by which North Vietnam and U.S. would be the named parties; NLF officials could join the North Vietnam team without being recognized by South Vietnam, while Saigon's representatives joined their U.S. allies.
A similar debate concerned the table to be used at the conference. The North favored a circular table, in which all parties, including NLF representatives, would appear to be "equal"' in importance. The South Vietnamese argued that only a rectangular table was acceptable, for only a rectangle could show two distinct sides to the conflict. Eventually a compromise was reached, in which representatives of the northern and southern governments would sit at a circular table, with members representing all other parties sitting on individual square tables around them.
Bryce Harlow, former Eisenhower White House staff member, claimed to have "a double agent working in the White House....I kept Nixon informed." Harlow and Henry Kissinger (who was friendly with both campaigns and guaranteed a job in either a Humphrey or Nixon administration) separately predicted Johnson's "bombing halt": "The word is out that we are making an effort to throw the election to Humphrey. Nixon has been told of it," Democratic senator George Smathers informed Johnson. According to Robert Dallek, Kissinger's advice "rested not on special knowledge of decision making at the White House but on an astute analyst's insight into what was happening." William Bundy stated that Kissinger obtained "no useful inside information" from his trip to Paris, and "almost any experienced Hanoi watcher might have come to the same conclusion". While Kissinger may have "hinted that his advice was based on contacts with the Paris delegation," this sort of "self-promotion....is at worst a minor and not uncommon practice, quite different from getting and reporting real secrets." Nixon asked Anna Chennault to be his "channel to Mr. Thieu"; Chennault agreed and periodically reported to John Mitchell that Thieu had no intention of attending a peace conference. On November 2, Chennault informed the South Vietnamese ambassador: "I have just heard from my boss in Albuquerque who says his boss [Nixon] is going to win. And you tell your boss [Thieu] to hold on a while longer." In response, Johnson ordered wire-tapping members of the Nixon campaign. Dallek wrote that Nixon's efforts "probably made no difference" because Thieu was unwilling to attend the talks and there was little chance of an agreement being reached before the election; however, his use of information provided by Harlow and Kissinger was morally questionable, and Humphrey's decision not to make Nixon's actions public was "an uncommon act of political decency." Conrad Black agreed that there is "no evidence" connecting Kissinger, who was "playing a fairly innocuous double game of self-promotion", with attempts to undermine the peace talks. Black further commented that "the Democrats were outraged at Nixon, but what Johnson was doing was equally questionable", and there is "no evidence" that Thieu "needed much prompting to discern which side he favored in the U.S. election."
In 1969 Richard Nixon succeeded to the U.S. presidency and replaced Harriman with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was later replaced by David Bruce. Also that year, the NLF set up a Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), to gain government status at the talks. However, the primary negotiations that led to the agreement did not occur at the Peace Conference at all but were carried out during secret negotiations between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, which began on 4 August 1969.
North Vietnam insisted for three years that the agreement could not be concluded unless the United States agreed to remove South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu from power and replace him with someone more acceptable to Hanoi. Nixon and Kissinger were unwilling to overthrow through an agreement a government the NLF had failed to overthrow by force of arms, though the extent of North Vietnamese demands is contested; Marilyn Young contends that the contents of Hanoi's proposal were systematically distorted from their original plea to permit Thieu's replacement, to what Kissinger propagated as a demand for his overthrow.
The major breakthrough came on 8 October 1972. North Vietnam had been disappointed by the results of its Nguyen Hue Offensive (known in the West as the Easter Offensive), and feared increased isolation if Nixon's efforts at détente significantly improved U.S relations with the chief communist powers, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, who were backing the North Vietnamese military effort. In a meeting with Kissinger, Tho significantly modified his bargaining line, allowing that the Saigon government could remain in power and that negotiations between the two South Vietnamese parties could develop a final settlement. Within ten days the secret talks drew up a final draft. Kissinger held a press conference in Washington during which he announced that "peace is at hand".
When Thieu, who had not even been informed of the secret negotiations, was presented with the draft of the new agreement, he was furious with Kissinger and Nixon (who were perfectly aware of South Vietnam's negotiating position) and refused to accept it without significant changes. He then made several public radio addresses, claiming that the proposed agreement was worse than it actually was. Hanoi was flabbergasted, believing that it had been duped into a propaganda ploy by Kissinger. On 26 October Radio Hanoi broadcast key details of the draft agreement.
However, as U.S casualties mounted throughout the conflict, American domestic support for the war had deteriorated, and by 1973 there was major pressure on the Nixon administration to withdraw. Consequently, the U.S. brought great diplomatic pressure upon their South Vietnamese ally to sign the peace treaty even if the concessions Thieu wanted could not be achieved. Nixon pledged continued substantial aid to South Vietnam, and given his recent landslide victory in the presidential election it seemed possible that he would be able to follow through on that pledge. To demonstrate his seriousness to Thieu, Nixon ordered the heavy Operation Linebacker II bombings of North Vietnam in December 1972. These operations were also designed to keep North Vietnam at the negotiating table and to prevent it from abandoning negotiations and seeking total victory. With the U.S. committed to disengagement (and after threats from Nixon that South Vietnam would be abandoned if he did not agree), Thieu had little choice but to accede.
On 15 January 1973, Nixon announced a suspension of offensive actions against North Vietnam. Kissinger and Tho met again on 23 January and signed off on a treaty that was basically identical to the draft of three months earlier. The agreement was signed by the leaders of the official delegations on 27 January at the Majestic Hotel in Paris.
The Paris Peace Accords had little practical effect on the conflict, and were routinely flouted mainly by the North Vietnamese, as well as the Saigon government, which enlarged the area under its control in 1973. North Vietnamese military forces gradually moved through the southern provinces and two years later were in position to capture Saigon.
Nixon had secretly promised Thieu that he would use airpower to support the Saigon government should it be necessary. During his confirmation hearings in June 1973, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger was sharply criticized by some Senators after he stated that he would recommend resumption of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam if North Vietnam launched a major offensive against South Vietnam. However, Nixon was driven from office due to the Watergate scandal in 1974 and when the North Vietnamese did begin their final offensive early in 1975, the United States Congress (controlled by the Democratic Party) refused to appropriate the funds needed by the South Vietnamese, who collapsed completely. Thieu resigned, accusing the U.S. of betrayal in a TV and radio address:
"At the time of the peace agreement the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis. But the United States did not keep its word. Is an American's word reliable these days? The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom and it was in the same fight that the United States lost 50,000 of its young men."
The North Vietnamese entered Saigon on April 30. Schlesinger had announced early in the morning of 29 April 1975 the evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last U.S. diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel.