#Commentary #AirWarVietnam – President Nixon’s ‘Secret Plan’ to end the war in Vietnam

#Commentary #AirWarVietnam – President Nixon’s ‘Secret Plan’ to end the war in Vietnam

By Ralph Hitchens

I believe that before his election in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to end the war in Vietnam on favourable terms. He implemented it in stages, starting with the withdrawal of US troops that began in 1969, followed by the rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China in early 1972 and culminating with the repulse of North Vietnam’s 1972 ‘Easter Offensive’ and the Linebacker bombing campaigns against the North. I served in Southeast Asia during most of 1972 and had an opportunity to witness much of the successful implementation of the President’s strategy.

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Even long-range bombers like the B-52 needed refueling to reach their targets and return to base on far-off Guam. Bombing operations such as ARC LIGHT and LINEBACKER depended heavily on air refueling. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

During the presidential race of 1968, the notion that Nixon had a ‘secret plan’ to end the war surfaced in campaign rhetoric, although he never actually made such a claim. Early in the campaign, he told a hastily-convened group of newspaper editors that he had a two-phase ‘get out of the war’ plan, which included taking steps to ‘de-Americanize’ the Vietnam conflict, and also seek a summit meeting with Soviet leaders to gain their cooperation in ending the war. Decades later an article in the International Herald-Tribune also referenced Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ in passing, noting that it was not a term used by Nixon himself but something conjured up by a reporter on deadline, covering one of the candidate’s speeches in which he promised a quick victory in the war. The Richard Nixon Foundation and Presidential Library, on the other hand, seems to believe that the whole business about having a ‘secret plan’ to end the war was nothing more than an ‘urban myth’ with no basis. Still, the term ‘secret plan’ became lodged in the public consciousness during the 1968 presidential campaign and might have been a marginal factor in helping Richard Nixon win a very close election.

I heard about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ sometime during that campaign, the first in which I was eligible to vote. I was then a second lieutenant in the Air Force, a supply officer stationed at Luke Air Force Base (AFB) outside Phoenix, Arizona. A recent college graduate, I was a political ‘wonk’ then and now. Since high school, I had considered myself a ‘Kennedy Democrat’ (pay any price, bear any burden) and supported the war in Vietnam – seeing it as ‘Korea redux,’ the Truman Doctrine in action. Moreover, while President Johnson’s transformative domestic policy accomplishments deserved respect, a wartime president he was not, and the Camelot holdovers from the Kennedy Administration were rapidly wearing out their welcome.[1]

Vietnam was hardly the centrepiece of American foreign policy during the Nixon administration. The president broke new ground in several areas:  pursuing strategic arms reduction with the USSR, dismantling the Bretton Woods framework while restructuring the financial underpinning of the US/European Alliance, and famously pursuing a rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China. His domestic accomplishments were also remarkable. The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, consulted by the president about Vietnam in 1969, remarked afterwards to a National Security Council (NSC) staff member that Nixon was in his opinion America’s first ‘professional president.’[2]

However, what of the ‘secret plan?’ I believe President Nixon had a three-part solution to the Vietnam conundrum:

  1. Vietnamization – the replacement of US ground forces with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), supplemented by increased logistic and advisory support from the US Army.
  2. Strategic isolation of the battlefield. This gradually became more feasible after the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict brought about a suspension of the USSR’s use of the Chinese railways to ship military supplies to North Vietnam. That conflict followed a long, prickly relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the USSR throughout the 1960s, explored by a few scholars.[3] The USSR was North Vietnam’s primary source of military hardware and advisory support, and until 1969 about two-thirds of that military hardware was sent through China by rail, with a much smaller fraction arriving by sea at the port of Haiphong. Following President Nixon’s dramatic visit to China in February 1972, the PRC stepped up its longtime interference with Soviet resupply to North Vietnam, placing tight restrictions on overflights of Chinese territory. The resupply burden now rested primarily on Soviet cargo ships, and shortly after North Vietnam initiated the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972, the US Navy mined the approaches to the port of Haiphong. It would take several months for the full impact of this ‘strategic isolation’ to be felt by the North Vietnamese armed forces. However, I believe it did have an impact by the time a cease-fire went into effect in November, and during the brief resumption of hostilities – the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Operation Linebacker II – at the end of the year.
  3. The final element in his plan was the application of US air power on a scale unprecedented since World War II, generating lavish close air support for ARVN troops in the South and being directly applied against North Vietnam during the Linebacker air campaigns.

There should be no confusion about this fact. It was American air power – Air Force, Naval and Marine Corps aviation units swiftly flowing in to reinforce the existing air order of battle in Southeast Asia – that blunted the 1972 Easter Offensive, giving President Nixon (and the American people) ‘peace with honor.’

I was there to witness the decisive events of 1972. In 1969 I was fortuitously granted a vision waiver enabling me to enter pilot training the following year,[4] and after earning my wings I trained in the AC-119K fixed-wing gunship and served a combat tour in Southeast Asia from November 1971 to November 1972 – most of what was essentially the final year of the Vietnam War, so far as America was concerned.

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An AC-119K at Da Nang airbase in South Vietnam, c. 1972 (Source: Wikimedia)

During 1971 and into the early months of 1972 the withdrawal of American ground forces had accelerated, and the war seemed to have dropped off the front pages of our newspapers. By the time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched the Easter Offensive at the end of March, only one US Army combat brigade remained in-country, deployed in northern I Corps around Danang, defending the invaluable seaport and airfield. The battle on the ground was thus left to the ARVN, which could not hold back the NVA on its own, and close air support from the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) was wholly inadequate.[5]

At this point, the third element of Nixon’s plan was implemented with great resolve and determination. US air power in Southeast Asia was massively reinforced and succeeded in its twofold mission of supporting the ARVN and carefully, steadily disrupting the economic and military infrastructure of North Vietnam. In early 1972 there had been 14 USAF fighter-bomber squadrons deployed in-theatre, most of them in Thailand. Between the opening of the Easter Offensive and the end of 1972, no fewer than nine additional tactical fighter squadrons were transferred to Southeast Asia – seven from the continental United States and two from the Philippines and South Korea.[6] In the early years of the war the Strategic Air Command had kept four B-52 squadrons based on Guam to provide ‘Arc Light’ strikes in South Vietnam. After the NVA offensive began in the spring of 1972 four more squadrons were deployed to the western Pacific, eventually including two deployed to Thailand. The number of Arc Light strikes increased dramatically, and a few B-52 strikes were undertaken over North Vietnam soon after the US resumed bombing the North. The B-52s were famously used on a large scale during the final, brief Linebacker II campaign in December 1972.[7] For its part, the US Navy had been keeping one or two aircraft carriers on ‘Yankee Station’ in the South China Sea, and this was increased to four after the Easter Offensive began. A US Marine Corps air wing also deployed to Southeast Asia in the spring and summer of 1972, fielding six fighter-bomber squadrons based in South Vietnam and Thailand.

My own tour of duty in Southeast Asia came at the tail end of the ‘Commando Hunt’ operation against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. My fixed-wing gunship squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, with detachments at Danang and, later, at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. Our primary mission was the interdiction of truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and eastern Cambodia, although we occasionally provided close air support to the ARVN in the country. In mid-tour I was abruptly sent to MACV at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon, where I spent a couple of months working in ‘Blue Chip,’ the 7th Air Force command post. I was unhappy to miss out on flying missions, thereby losing any hope of accruing enough hours to upgrade to aircraft commander before boarding the ‘Freedom Bird.’ However, coordinating and redirecting gunship sorties during my 12-hour daily shift rarely kept me fully occupied, and I took full advantage of the birds-eye view I enjoyed of the American air war in Southeast Asia. Blue Chip was housed in an enormous auditorium, fronted by a vast map appended with extensive annotation and tabular data; all plotted on plexiglass by well-trained specialists moving discretely behind the display and writing backwards with grease pencils on the ‘big board.’

One episode from my Blue-Chip interlude stands out: an Arc Light tasking in support of the besieged ARVN forces in An Loc. This was an epic defensive battle lasting more than two months, with a reinforced ARVN infantry division holding out in this provincial capital only 90 miles north of Saigon. Three NVA divisions, supported by some VC battalions, surrounded the town on three sides. The one paved road coming up from the south, QL-13, was unusable during most of the battle, as was the airfield, but aerial resupply through parachute drops managed to keep the ARVN resupplied and in the fight. Frequent Arc Light strikes supplemented lavish close air support from fighter-bombers and fixed-wing gunships. One afternoon when I arrived for my shift, I saw a map of An Loc on one side the big board, the town enveloped on three sides by a huge array of overlapping Arc Light ‘boxes,’ each a rectangle measuring 1 x 3 kilometres into which three B-52s would drop 324 500-lb bombs. There must have been at least fifteen or twenty of these boxes.  The 7th Air Force Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations told the Battle Staff that this saturation bombing was intended to ‘relieve some of the pressure’ on the defenders – a bit of an understatement, I thought. It was aerial fire support on a truly staggering scale, and Arc Light strikes were important in other major battles during the Easter Offensive, such as Kontum (in II Corps) and Quang Tri (I Corps).

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Captains Jim Boyd and Kim Pepperell land after one of the last Wild Weasel missions of the Vietnam War, 29 December 1972. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

While all this was happening down south, the Linebacker air campaign was inflicting serious damage on military targets in North Vietnam. Technology certainly helped, as precision-guided munitions were now in the inventory. Suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) was greatly improved by better tactics and new-generation anti-radiation missiles and associated systems. Linebacker, by and large, was strategic bombing ‘done right.’ Earl Tilford, a former Air Force intelligence officer and a thoughtful critic of air power, summarised this campaign:

Linebacker One, as it would soon be known, was the most successful aerial campaign of the Vietnam War. [. . .] It was successful because it took place under the aegis of an appropriate and viable strategy. Linebacker epitomized conventional air power used to stop a conventional invasion and, beyond that, it qualified as a “strategic” use of air power in that it compelled Hanoi’s politburo to negotiate seriously for the first time since peace talks started in 1968.[8]

Subsequent events are remembered all too well. The Watergate affair brought the Nixon administration to a premature end, and even before that sordid crisis had run its course, congressional intransigence and our collective national fatigue had effectively precluded a reengagement with American air power that President Nixon had famously promised the president of the Republic of Vietnam if Hanoi violated the terms of the Paris Accords. That ‘peace with honor’ would not long outlive the Nixon administration was surely seen by many as inevitable. Still: whatever we remember about the Vietnam War we ought to acknowledge that President Nixon did have a plan, ‘secret’ or not. He implemented that plan, and it worked.

Author’s Disclaimer: This essay reflects a deep dive into my own memory banks, supplemented by some confirmatory Internet searches. There is no doubt in my mind that President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to bring the war in Vietnam to a satisfactory conclusion. He implemented that plan, and for a fleeting moment in time we had ‘peace with honor’ before the Watergate crisis brought everything crashing down.

Ralph M. Hitchens, Lt. Col. USAFR (Ret.) is a graduate of Southern Illinois University and the National Defense Intelligence College. While on active duty he flew combat missions in Vietnam and VIP missions in the US and Europe. He worked as a corporate pilot before joining the government as a civilian analyst with Army Intelligence, attached to NSA. He subsequently moved to the Office of Intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he managed current intelligence analysis, drafted and contributed to National Intelligence Estimates, and served as Information Technology Program Manager. Retiring in 2004, he worked as a contractor in the DOE Office of Classification and other program offices. He regularly contributes book reviews to the Journal of Military History as well as other publications.

Header Image: B-52Ds from the Strategic Air Command line up for takeoff as they prepare for strikes over Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam, during OPERATION LINEBACKER. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

[1] David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) made a strong and lasting impression on me and countless others.

[2] I wish I could source this quotation better. I heard it in 1969 from my late father, Colonel Harold L. Hitchens, USAF. Then serving in the Air Staff Directorate of Plans, he had been told of Thompson’s remark by an acquaintance on the National Security Council. It was also quoted by Stewart Alsop in ‘Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?,’ The Atlantic (February 1972). It was also repeated in a Nixon Reelection Campaign televised ad in November 1972: ‘He is a completely professional president.’ Thompson himself certainly repeated his bon mot: ‘I think for the first time in a long time you have a professional President.’ Quoted in David Fitzgerald, ‘Sir Robert Thompson, Strategic Patience, and Nixon’s War in Vietnam,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 37:6/7 (2014).

[3] For a good summary account of this festering rivalry see Christian Talley, ‘The Vietnam War as China’s Watershed,’ Vanderbilt Historical Review, (January 2016), pp. 42-8. Also, Stephen J. Morris, ‘The Soviet-Chinese-Vietnamese Triangle in the 1970s:  The View from Moscow,’ Working Paper No. 25 (Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, 1999).

[4] The system worked, sometimes. A routine physical exam in 1969 showed that my vision had improved since college and was within the waiver limits for undergraduate pilot training (UPT). The bad news was that waivers were granted only to US Air Force Academy graduates. That was unfair, I believed, and I submitted a formal letter request through personnel channels to change the governing directive. Mirabile dictu, the directive was changed, and I was admitted to UPT as a ‘test case.’

[5] An incident I witnessed influenced this conclusion. On a rare daylight mission in April 1972, during the fighting near Kontum in II Corps, I saw a VNAF A-37 attack aircraft make two bomb runs against a VC heavy machine gun position, clearly visible atop a bare ridgeline; weather conditions were perfect. Both bombs missed, neither was close. The II Corps Senior Advisor, John Paul Vann (call sign Rogues Gallery) was loitering nearby in a helicopter and encouraged our AC-119K Stinger gunship to engage. The heavy machine-gun position was quickly silenced by our 20mm rounds; We suffered a .51 caliber hit in one of the tail booms. I further believe that the quality of VNAF pilots was questionable. Pilot training was a highly prestigious opportunity for young men of military age, and I suspect that merit took a back seat to family influence and political connections. My UPT class at Williams AFB, which graduated in June 1971, included one South Vietnamese pilot candidate. He was the exception that proved the rule. Despite speaking very poor English he passed through the year-long course at the same pace as the rest of us, and we were told by a senior instructor pilot that he was the very first Vietnamese officer to do so – prior VNAF trainees had taken as long as two years to complete the course.

[6] This included the wholesale redeployment of the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing (four F-4 squadrons) from Holloman AFB in New Mexico, across the Pacific Ocean to Thailand.

[7] The employment of so many B-52s in this 11-day operation undeniably generated some ‘shock and awe’ but losses were heavy, in large part due to unimaginative centralised mission planning at SAC Headquarters during the first few days – ingress routes, altitudes and formations saw little variance on the first three missions. Losses on the third day of the operation forced SAC planners to reconsider their assumptions. ‘Changes were made to operations and tactics. Gone were bomber streams seventy miles long with cells flying lockstep to those ahead of them. Gone too were 90 to 100 plane raids. World War II tactics did not work in the modern environment of SAM missiles, sophisticated ground radar, and MiG interceptors.’ See Gary Joyner, and Ashley E. Dean, ‘Operation Linebacker II: A Retrospective,’ Report of the LSU Shreveport Unit for the SAC Symposium, 2 December 2, 2017, p. 22.

[8] Earl H. Tilford, SETUP: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why (Maxwell AFB:  Air University Press, 1991), p. 248.