U.S. Options to Respond to North Vietnam’s 1973 Violations of the Paris Peace Accords

October 21, 2019
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Timothy Heck is a free-lance editor focusing on military history and national security topics.  An artillery officer by trade, he lived and worked in Southeast Asia for four years.  He can be found on Twitter @tgheck1.  Josh Taylor is a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer and a 2018 Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.  He is presently Head of International Plans & Policy at Headquarters, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, HI.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  In 1973 North Vietnam violated the Paris Peace Accords.

Date Originally Written:  August 12, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  October 21, 2019.

Article and / or Article Point of View:  This article summarizes some of the options presented by U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and his Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG), to U.S. President Richard Nixon to address North Vietnamese violations of the Paris Peace Accords in the spring of 1973.  These options are based on realities as they existed on April 18, 1973, the day before the U.S. agreed to another round of talks with North Vietnam in Paris and U.S. Congress Representative Elizabeth Holtzman sued Secretary of Defense Schlesinger to stop the “secret” bombing of Cambodia. Nixon addressed the nation on Watergate on April 30, 1973, effectively closing the door on military options to coerce North Vietnamese compliance.  Included in this article are several errors in judgment common in WSAG or with Kissinger at the time.

Background:  On January 28, 1973, the ceasefire in Vietnam began in accordance with the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, also known as the Paris Peace Accords.  Since the ceasefire began, repeated violations of the Accords, specifically Articles 7 and 20, have occurred as a result of North Vietnamese action[1].  At the recent WSAG meetings on April 16-17, 1973, National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger asked for options on how to address North Vietnamese violations. The WSAG presents the below two options to meet Dr. Kissinger’s desired end state of securing North Vietnamese compliance with the Accords. 

Significance:  The collapsing security in Southeast Asia presents several concerns for American national security.  First, failure to forcefully respond to gross North Vietnamese violations of the Accords makes the U.S. seem impotent, undermines U.S. credibility, and endangers the President’s Peace with Honor goal. Second, unimpeded infiltration of men and equipment into South Vietnam place it at risk in the event of another North Vietnamese general offensive. Third, given the weak governments in Laos and Cambodia, further violations by North Vietnam risk destabilizing those nations with spillover effects on South Vietnam and Thailand. Fourth, any recalcitrance on behalf of North Vietnam risks damaging ongoing U.S. negotiations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), long known to be their primary patron.

Option #1:  The U.S. conducts airstrikes against the Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT).

Recent North Vietnamese resupply efforts to their forces in South Vietnam offer numerous targets for the resumption of a massive aerial campaign lasting between three to seven days.  These airstrikes would be conducted by the Thailand-based U.S. Support Activities Group/7th Air Force against targets in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.  Targets along the HCMT in Laos will require strikes against surface-to-air missile sites located near Khe Sanh.

Risk:

New U.S. Prisoners of War (POW):  With the repatriation of the last American POWs on March 29, 1973, the creation of new POWs resulting from military action would cause a domestic uproar. Such an uproar risks reinvigorating the Administration’s political enemies, jeopardizing other initiatives.

Domestic criticism:  Continued military actions in Indochina fuel growing concerns over continued involvement in Indochina post-Accord.  It is reported that Representative Holtzman (D-NY) will be filing a federal lawsuit over bombing in Cambodia in an effort to stop the President’s efforts there.

International reprobation:  The Agreement did not specify how violations would be addressed. Though the North Vietnamese bear little political cost for blatant disregard of the Accords, it will damage U.S. international credibility if we do not scrupulously adhere to its articles as we would be seen as violating the ceasefire despite our efforts to enforce it.

United States Air Force (USAF) limitations:  Previous losses during the similar OPERATION LINEBACKER II were significant and wing metal fatigue limits the availability of B-52D bombers. Converting nuclear-capable B-52Gs to conventional B-52Ds is time prohibitive and would reduce strategic readiness[2]. Additionally, the USAF possesses limited stocks of the precision stand-off weapons needed to strike targets on the HCMT (40-55 nautical mile range).

Ceasefires in Laos and Cambodia:  Currently, bombing operations are being conducted in the vicinity of Tha Viang, Laos against a Pathet Lao assault.  While in violation of the ceasefire treaty, the measure is being taken to dissuade further Pathet Lao violations.  Larger bombing operations, however, risk the fragile ceasefires in place or being sought in Laos and Cambodia.

Gain:

Signals to North Vietnam:  As Dr. Kissinger stated in his meetings, North Vietnam only respects brutality.  Thus, massive bombing will increase their likelihood of compliance with the Accords.

Demonstrates American power and resolve:  By demonstrating the U.S. is willing to back up its words with force, we reinforce messaging of enduring support to our Allies and Partners.  Importantly in Indochina, bombing demonstrates U.S. commitment to our allies, Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, Souvanna Phouma of Laos, and Lon Nol of Cambodia, that the U.S. is not cutting off their support after the Accords. 

Attrition of North Vietnamese Supplies & Equipment:  Bombing the HCMT significantly reduces North Vietnamese capacity to launch a general offensive in the short term.  Given the significant disruption the 1972 Easter Offensive created in South Vietnam, diminishing the North Vietnamese capacity for a repeat offensive is crucial to South Vietnamese survival.

Encourages PRC involvement:  The PRC only supports the U.S. when they feel we are unrestrained.  Any escalation of our actions will induce them to compel the North Vietnamese to comply with the terms of the Accords[3].

Option #2:  The U.S. continues negotiations with North Vietnam.

An insolent cable from North Vietnamese foreign minister Le Duc Tho to Dr. Kissinger offered to open another round of talks in Paris on May 15, 1973[4].  Any discussions about ceasefire violations should include all members of the Four Parties (U.S., Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (Viet Cong)) so that the diplomatic process is respected.  Significant headway was made during previous negotiations.

Risk:

North Vietnam stalling for time:  Given the recent surge in resupply, this meeting could begin too late given recent Central Intelligence Agency warnings of an imminent North Vietnamese offensive[5].

South Vietnamese intransigence:  While the U.S. remains South Vietnamese President Thieu’s staunchest ally and largest benefactor, Thieu may resist returning to negotiations as a means of holding out for additional financial and military aid and support. As he demonstrated in the fall of 1972, he has no qualms about scuttling negotiations that he feels are not in the best interest of his country. South Vietnam must participate if the negotiations are to have any credibility or effect.

Highlights diplomatic weakness:  There is no indication that North Vietnam will adhere to any new agreements any more than it has the original

Gain:

Supports Peace with Honor:  The U.S. maintains international and domestic support by scrupulously adhering to the Agreement and avoiding additional bloodshed.

Preserves domestic political capital:  This option safeguards Congressional and public support for financial reconstruction assistance to South Vietnam and potentially North Vietnam as part of the Accords.

Military options remain open:  Option #2 discussions do not preclude a future employment of military options and allows time for the reconstitution of the USAF’s conventional bomber fleet.

Other Comments:  President Nixon is slated to address the nation on April 30, 1973 regarding recent developments in the Watergate incident[6]. 

Recommendation:  None.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

Endnotes:

[1] Article 7: [T]he two South Vietnamese parties shall not accept the introduction of troops, military advisers, and military personnel including technical military personnel, armaments, munitions, and war material into South Vietnam.  Article 20: The parties participating in the Paris Conference on Vietnam undertake to refrain from using the territory of Cambodia and the territory of Laos to encroach on the sovereignty and security of one another and of other countries. (b) Foreign countries shall put an end to all military activities in Cambodia and Laos, totally withdraw from and refrain from reintroducing into these two countries troops, military advisers and military personnel, armaments, munitions and war material. Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam (Paris, 27 January 1973) https://www.cvce.eu/content/publication/2001/10/12/656ccc0d-31ef-42a6-a3e9-ce5ee7d4fc80/publishable_en.pdf

[2] “Memorandum from the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger),” Washington, April 11, 1973 in FRUS: X, VN, 1973, 188.

[3] “Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting,” Washington, April 16, 1973, 10:03–11:45 a.m. in FRUS: X, VN, 1973, 196.

[4] “Transcript of Telephone Conversation between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger),” Washington, April 21, 1973, 11:40 a.m. in FRUS: X, VN, 1973, 206-207.

[5] “Memorandum from the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger),” Washington, April 11, 1973 in FRUS: X, VN, 1973, 188.

[6] “Address to the Nation about the Watergate Investigations, April 30, 1973” in Public papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, containing the public messages, speeches, and statements of the President by United States and Richard M. Nixon. 1975. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Office, 328-333.



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