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Vietnam War Under the Nixon Administration

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The War Under the Nixon Administration

Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger came up with a plan to turn the war over to the Vietnamese by gradually withdrawing American troops. Nixon hoped that this strategy would result in a stable, democratic South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese agreed to peace talks only on condition that the United States set a date for the withdrawal of troops. As it turned out, withdrawal was a slow process; there were still 24,000 American soldiers in Vietnam at the end of Nixon’s first term.

Early in 1969, Nixon personally ordered the bombing of Cambodia, the neutral nation that bordered on Vietnam. Nixon believed that this strategy would force the Vietnamese to abandon the Ho Chi Minh Trail and prove to the North Vietnamese that the United States was militarily forceful. Nixon informed no one—not Congress, not the voters, not even key military leaders—about the bombing of Cambodia. In 1970, when the Cambodians over- threw their government in favor of a pro-U.S. leader, Nixon finally revealed his strategy. He then sent tens of thousands of United States and South Vietnamese troops to Cambodia.

Nixon’s attack on Cambodia was an important issue because it directly addressed the balance of power that is built into the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution specifically grants Congress the power to declare war. Article II, Section 2 specifically states that the president is commander in chief of the military. In other words, only Congress can declare war, but only the president can dictate how a war will be fought once it is under way. In this way, the legislative and executive powers balance each other in the area of foreign affairs. When Nixon informed Congress of the U.S. attack on Cambodia, Congress was outraged: the president had taken upon himself the congressional power to declare war.

Nixon argued that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave him the power to take any action he saw fit to bring about peace in Vietnam. Congress argued that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution did not permit the president to make war on a neutral nation without congressional consent. Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1970; when Nixon refused to acknowledge the repeal, Congress cut off funding for the war. In 1973, Congress would pass the War Powers Act, which allowed a president to commit troops to a foreign war for only 60 days without congressional approval.

Across the country, Americans began a new wave of antiwar demonstrations. In 1970, after someone set fire to a Kent State University ROTC building, National Guard troops were sent to the university to restore order. They fired at random into a large group of students, none of whom were demonstrating at the time, killing four students and wounding nine more. The Kent State massacre and a similar incident a few days later at Mississippi’s Jackson State College shocked the nation and set off a chain of strikes and demonstrations on college campuses across the country.

In 1971, former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg gave the New York Times copies of secret government documents for publication. Known ever since as the Pentagon Papers, these documents revealed that successive U.S administrations had lied to the public about their policies and actions in Vietnam. Public support for the war, already low, was eroded even further by this concrete evidence that the government had acted in bad faith.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Vietnam War Practice Test

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