By 1968, over 500,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam. More than 42 percent of them were draftees. Nearly 1,000 were being killed per month, and many more were being injured. On October 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt of his bombing campaign in North Vietnam, "Operation Rolling Thunder." His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, was competing that a year with Richard Nixon in campaigns for the presidency.
Johnson halted the bombing hoping to negotiate a settlement with the regime in North of Vietnam. Described by Hugh Thomas in his book Being Nixon, Richard Nixon also presented himself as favoring peace. He spoke of supporting Johnson's bombing halt. On 17 October he told voters that "We will support President Johnson because he wants peace and we do not want to play politics with peace."
Nixon like others in politics spoke publicly as if he were most sincere, but there was a private side to Nixon. Thomas describes Nixon being asked by an aide, Bill Saffire, if he were enjoying the campaign.
"Never do," replied Nixon.
He wearied of the hangers-on and glad-handers and favor-seekers, even the ministers and priests who went on too long in God's name. After one windy prayer, he turned to Safire and said, "No more goddamned benedictions."
During his campaign, Nixon pledged to end the draft. He saw this as an effective way to undermine the anti-Vietnam war movement. He sent an ally, Anna Chennalt, to tell South Vietnam's anti-communist president, Thieu, to "Hold on, we're gonna win." According to Thomas, Nixon "hoped, unrealistically in retrospect, to end the war quickly," and in private he claimed: I'm not going to end up like LBJ, holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face on the street. I'm going to stop that war. Fast. I mean it." (Being Nixon, p 218)
Nixon won the election and took office in January. He chose Henry Kissinger as his National Security advisor. Kissinger had been a Harvard professor who had studied 19th-century European history, and he was thought of as a foreign policy expert. According to Hugh Thomas,
Kissinger, too, believed that the war could be ended quickly – in a matter of months, he told various acquaintances and friends. He had faith in diplomacy backed by the threat of force, in carrots and sticks, and in his own skill. (p 219)
On 25 January, five days into Nixon's presidency, peace talks with the Hanoi regime opened in Paris. Kissinger wanted to link peace in Vietnam with his bargaining with the Soviet Union concerning arms control and trade agreements. The Soviet Union was giving military aid to North Vietnam, and Kissinger wanted Soviet officials to put pressure on Hanoi. But it didn't work out. "In time," writes Thomas, quoting Walter Isaacson, "Kissinger would be reduced to ranting that Hanoi communists were 'tawdry, filthy shits'."
On 22 February, the second month into Nixon's presidency, North Vietnam launched an offensive into the south. Nixon thought Hanoi was testing him. He was emotionally upset and ordered bombing in Cambodia against the Ho Chi Minh Trail there. The trail was a shifting web of jungle roads and paths over which Hanoi had been moving supplies and men into the south of Vietnam. Cambodia was ostensibly neutral, and Nixon and the Pentagon felt obliged to keep a widening of the war secret from the US public and Congress. .
Nixon's hit against the Ho Chi Minh trail gained nothing. Writes Thomas:
A US Special forces team was sent in to the area to mop up. The unit was wiped out. A second Special Forces unit was ordered to go but mutinied. (p 224)
In May 1969, Hanoi rejected a new proposal by Nixon that the US would pull out of South Vietnam when Hanoi also pulled out of the South. Nixon was frustrated. Declining morale and pot smoking were reported among US troops. Playing to his strategy, in September Nixon ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 US troops from Vietnam and a reduction in draft calls.
Nixon still wanted Hanoi to fear him. According to Thomas's Being Nixon, Kissinger "was playing to the president's madman" strategy" and was "agitating to step up the war." According to Thomas,
Nixon, at first, favored Kissinger's plan to strike the North with a heavy bombing campaign. But then he pulled back. He could not be absolutely sure that North Vietnam ... would break under the onslaught. He worried that the Russians and Chinese would react violently (and that he would undermine his plan, still half-formed, to create an opening to China).
Demonstrations against the war were receiving TV coverage. On November 3, Nixon delivered a major TV speech asking for support from "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans." The more divided we are at home," he said, "the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris" He added that "North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States; only Americans can do that."
The day after his "silent majority" speech, telegrams and letters of support flooded the White House. According to Being Nixon, "Polls showed that more than three out of every four Americans approved the speech. and Nixon's approval rating shot up from 52 to 68 percent."
Nixon was joyous about his public relations achievement and the support he received from Congress. But he was gloomy. In a note to Kissinger on 24 November he wrote:
I get the rather uneasy impression that the military are still thinking in terms of a long war and eventual military solution. I also have the impression that deep down they realize the war can't be won militarily, even over the long haul.
In December, Nixon ordered the withdrawal of an additional 50,000 military personnel from Vietnam. Nixon then went to the other part of his stragegy: a military response that would pressure Hanoi. On 2 February, in response to a rising number of Viet Cong raids in South Vietnam, B-52 bombers stuck again at the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia. The official peace talks in Paris had been deadlocked, and on 21 February Kissinger and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho began what would become a series of secret talks.
Nixon gave up on the secrecy of the Cambodia operations. The war had destabilized Cambodia. Its monarch, King Sihanouk, had been officially neutral but highly critical of the United States. He was replaced by one of his generals, Lon Nol. Communist forces in Cambodia had been making gains against Lon Nol's forces. On 30 April, ten days after announcing the withdrawal of another 150,000 troops from Vientam, Nixon announced on television that US and Thieu regime forces were moving into Cambodia. Its purpose, he said, was "To protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs." With the anti-war movement in mind he added.
We live in an age of anarchy. We see mindless attacks on all the great institution which have been created by free civiliations in the last five hundred years. Even here in the United States, great universities re being systematically destroyed.
The anti-war movment was stunned by what appeared to be Nixon's expansion of the war. Many pundits derided Nixon. Nixon went to a Pentagon briefing, looking for support. In the Pentagon lobby he told a woman whose husband was in Vietam that the troops in Vietnam were "the greatest," and he said:
You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue.
On 2 May, campuses across the US erupted in protest over the push of troops into Cambodia. On 4 May at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen shot and killed four student protesters and wounded nine. Responding to this, more than 400 colleges and universities across the US shut down. In Washington, nearly 100,000 protesters surrounded various government buildings, including the White House.
Nixon was to write in his memoirs that "Those few days after Kent State were amongst the darkest of my presidency." The man who had been a friend of Dale Carnegie and a devoté of his book How to Win Friends and Influence People would write that he "felt utterly rejected." Nixon saw a quote in his newspaper from the father of one girls killed at Kent State. It read: "My child is not a bum."
At a press conference on May 8th, Nixon explained what he thought was on the minds of the protesters while defending his strategy for peace:
They are trying to say that they want peace. They are trying to say that they want to stop the killing. They are trying to say that they want to end the draft. I agree with everything that they are trying to accomplish.
Thomas writes in Being Nixon that a "Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans held the protesters responsible for the Kent State shootings, while only 11 perent blamed the National Guardsmen."