Archives Experience Newsletter - January 24, 2023
The Writing on the Wall
Amidst our nation’s hectic capital sits a tranquil and solemn memorial: the Vietnam Wall. At this monument, you can feel how close history is. The open wounds of war are still healing here, even though it’s been 50 years (almost to the day) that the United States signed the Paris Peace Agreement and ended its operations in Vietnam.
This event is still recent enough that many Americans alive today have an archive of their own—whether that’s physical photos or the memories of this tumultuous time. In this newsletter, we’re marking a half-century since the end of the Vietnam War by exploring some of the Archives’ holdings of the nation’s last days in a conflict that changed the soul of our nation forever.
In this issue
President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped a bombshell on his listeners…
A New Cast, An Expanded Stage
Before LBJ left office, he gave an envelope to his National Security Advisor…
Armed Forces Radio started playing “White Christmas” on repeat…
Two If By Sea
The term “Vietnamese boat people” refers to the approximately 800,000 Vietnamese people who fled their country…
Almost one million orphans resulted from this conflict…
On March 31, 1968, at the end of a televised speech that he had titled “Steps to Limit the War in Vietnam,” President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped a bombshell on his listeners when he stated, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Johnson had kept his intention a secret from all but a handful of his closest confidants—indeed, even they weren’t certain he’d do it until they heard him utter the words. Johnson explained that he was withdrawing from the presidential race because of political divisions that he believed were tearing the country apart. “What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness and politics among any of our people,” he said. “Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the Presidency of your country.”
Many of his contentions were true. Despite his legendary domestic accomplishments—he had overseen the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and the Voting Rights Act of 1968, and the creation of Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, all legislation that transformed the landscape of American society—his popularity was suffering because of his handling of the Vietnam war. He had nearly lost the Democratic primary for the upcoming presidential election in New Hampshire to Eugene McCarthy on March 12, and four days later, Robert Kennedy, an unrelenting critic of the war, announced his candidacy for the presidency. To Johnson, it all added up to a bruising presidential campaign just when the country could least sustain it.
But Johnson had personal reasons for declining to run as well. He had had a heart attack in 1955, and the men in his family usually died by the time they were in their early 60s. Johnson was 59 in 1969, and his sense of mortality was weighing on him.
Despite his best hopes, Johnson did not calm the political waters by withdrawing from the presidential field. Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy were competing with Robert Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, but Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, a day after he had won the South Dakota and California primaries. That August, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was the scene of some of the most violent antiwar protests the nation ever experienced. Humphrey secured the nomination on the first ballot, but Republican Richard Nixon beat him in the general election by 111 electoral college votes and a narrow popular vote.
Johnson left office and returned to his ranch in Texas on January 20, 1969. He had quit smoking after his first heart attack in 1955, but according to historian Michael Beschloss, on that Inauguration Day, on the flight back home, Johnson started smoking again, and he smoked heavily for the rest of his life. He had a second heart attack in April 1972, and a final, fatal heart attack on January 22, 1973, at his home in Stonewall, Texas. He was honored with a state funeral in Washington, D.C., and buried in his family cemetery in Texas.
A New Cast, An Expanded Stage
Just a few days after McCarthy won the New Hampshire primary in March of 1968, President Johnson had stopped the bombing of North Vietnam, which encouraged the North Vietnamese to consider beginning peace negotiations. The two sides met in May in Paris. It later came out that the Nixon campaign interfered with the peace negotiations as Johnson was preparing to leave office to further stack the deck in the Republican candidate’s favor. Before LBJ left office, he gave the envelope pictured below to his National Security Advisor, Walt Rostow, because it contained evidence of the Nixon campaign’s interference. Although his instructions were to not open it for 50 years, the envelope was opened in 1994, and most of its contents were declassified.
Nixon’s election ushered in a period of escalating violence in Vietnam, with increasing bombing that Nixon expanded into Cambodia and Laos. At the same time, the Nixon administration continued the peace negotiations, which stretched on for five years until the latter agreed that the North Vietnamese forces could remain in place while the U.S. withdrew its troops from South Vietnam.
The warring parties signed the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, in Paris, France. The signatories were Nguyen Duy Trinh, the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese government; Nguyễn Thị Bình, the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam; U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers; and Trần Văn Lắm, the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam.
One of the key provisions of the Paris Peace Accords was the exchange of prisoners of war held by both sides. According to a March 8, 1973, New York Times report, South Vietnam had released 31,961 prisoners of war, 26,800 of whom were soldiers and 5,081 were civilians. At that time, the U.S. had identified about 2,500 servicemen as “missing in action” (MIA), more than 1,600 of whom were still unaccounted for as of 2015. Some 687 POWs were returned alive. Another 55 American servicemen and seven civilians died in North Vietnamese captivity. The most famous American POW was, of course, John McCain, the U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and went on to serve with distinction in the U.S. Senate.
Within two short months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, the U.S. had pulled all its combat troops out of South Vietnam. Only about 7,000 U.S. Defense Department personnel remained behind to help the South Vietnamese army defend the country from the North Vietnamese, who had agreed to cease hostilities.
In practical fact, however, the North Vietnamese never quit attacking the South Vietnamese, and in March 1975, they launched an offensive aimed at taking back control of the rest of the peninsula. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency predicted that South Vietnam could hold out until at least the end of the dry season in 1976, but that proved a futile hope. With a series of rapid attacks southward starting on March 10, the North Vietnamese quickly overran the South Vietnamese army. By April 20, the North Vietnamese were only about 25 miles from Saigon, and South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu resigned the next day. By April 27, the North Vietnamese army had surrounded Saigon. On the 29th, they began shelling the city.
Americans had begun to leave the city as early as the end of March. Initially, U.S. officials were refusing to evacuate anyone other than Americans, and many Americans refused to leave without Vietnamese friends and family members, who they feared would be mistreated or killed if they were left behind. When the shelling began on the 29th and the airport was hit and was no longer functional, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin ordered the evacuation of Saigon, Operation Frequent Wind, to begin. Armed Forces Radio started playing “White Christmas” on repeat. Escape by sea wasn’t possible either, so the only way out was via helicopter from the embassy grounds.
Thus, helicopters landed and took off from the embassy, including from the rooftop of the building, every 10 minutes from April 29 through April 30. Some pilots flew for 19 hours straight. In the ensuing 24 hours, they managed to evacuate 7,000 people, including 5,500 Vietnamese officials and staff who had worked for the Americans at the embassy, in addition to the Americans who were still in Saigon. One of the very last choppers carrying Deputy Chief of the Mission Wolfgang Lehmann, the remaining embassy staff and the civilian guards left at 5:20 a.m. and arrived on the USS Denver at 6:20 a.m. on April 30.
The televised images of the fall of Saigon, of the crowds of South Vietnamese trying to breach the gates of the U.S. embassy, of the helicopters landing and taking off from the embassy room, and of helicopters being pushed off the decks of ships to make room for more incoming choppers made indelible impressions on everyone who has seen them, at that time and forever after. They symbolized the defeat of the mightiest war power on earth by a relatively small but determined force fighting on its own soil. But they have also come to symbolize the determination and expertise of those who got all those people out of a very dangerous situation at considerable risk to themselves.
Two If By Sea
The term “Vietnamese boat people” refers to the approximately 800,000 Vietnamese people who fled their country safely by sea between the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 and 1995. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that another 200,000 to 400,000 people died attempting to reach the Southeastern Asian countries of Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and China during that period.
Most of these refugees ended up in refugee camps and from there went to more developed countries, including Australia, Italy, Canada, France, West Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. One significant development that came out of this crisis in the United States was the Refugee Act of 1980, which became law during the Carter Administration. The act allows the president to determine how many refugees can enter the United States from each country at the beginning of the fiscal year. The act also provides for assistance for refugees and the groups and communities that come forward to help them.