How did the Vietnam War end?

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The Tet Offensive in 1968 marked a major turning point in the Vietnam War for North and South Vietnam as well as the U.S. in particular. Soon after Tet, the 3-year long aerial bombing campaign against North Vietnam was halted; peace talks began in Paris while Nixon carried out the so-called ‘Vietnamization’ to steadily reduce the number of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam.

Together with the Tet Offensive, the news of U.S. soldiers massacring hundreds civilians at My Lai in 1969 in the name of fighting the Viet Cong, then the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and the leak of Pentagon Papers in 1971 had made the war in Vietnam become more and more unpopular among American people. Massive anti-war protests were held throughout the country against the nation’s war effort in Vietnam . In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords (PPAs) were eventually signed to restore peace and end direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, the treaty did not stop the fighting in South Vietnam as both South and especially North Vietnam flagrantly violated the ceasefire in an attempt to gain control of as much territory as possible. Although the PPAs allowed the Viet Cong to stay in South Vietnam, thereby threatening its independence and stability, South Vietnamese President Thieu did not take it seriously as he still believed in Nixon’s promise of taking severe retaliatory actions against North Vietnam if they would seriously violate the accords. He also assumed that American military and financial support to South Vietnam would continue at previous levels.

However, on July 1, 1973, the U.S. Congress passed legislation prohibiting any direct or indirect U.S. combat activities in Indochina including Vietnam, which was vetoed by Nixon. Nonetheless, Nixon’s secret bombings of Cambodia in 1970 urged the Congress to pass the War Powers Resolution which limits the president’s power to commit armed forces abroad without its consent and overrode the presidential veto.

South Vietnam had still received $2.2 billion aid from the U.S. one year before the PPAs. Nevertheless, the number was slashed more than half to only $965 million in just a year after that. The problem was compounded by the resignation of Nixon on August 9 following Watergate scandal. These severe cutbacks adversely affected Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) ‘s performances while the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was quickly recovering and began to gain strength from the 1972 Easter Offensive losses under strong support from the Soviet and Chinese. North Vietnamese leadership were, nonetheless, rather reluctant to launch a new offensive as they were still doubtful whether it would provoke the U.S. to resume its bombings in the North or intervene in the South once again.

Under the circumstances, the PAVN decided to launch a “test” attack in Phuoc Long province in December 1974 to see how well the ARVN would perform, and more importantly, how the U.S. would react. It was unsurprising that the ARVN could only hold Phuoc Long until January 6, 1975 before it became the first provincial capital permanently seized by the PAVN since 1954. What more important to the communists was the complete indifference of the U.S. regarding this loss. They then took full advantage of that indifference to proceed with a major offensive in the Central Highlands.

North Vietnamese aggressive movement and rapid success led to Thieu’s decision to retreat and regroup his forces to defend only strategically important cities and areas. However, this attempt resulted in a mass civilian exodus, making coherent military movements much more difficult. Besides, confusing orders, lack of command and control, leaderless and exhausting troops contributed to the debacle in the Central Highlands and then the fatal losses of Hue and Da Nang. The country was now in complete chaos.

South Vietnamese rapid collapse prompted Communist leaders to launch a final offensive to conquer the country. The so-called “Ho Chi Minh campaign” was conducted with the goal of capturing Saigon in time to celebrate their leader’s birthday. A defense line was quickly established around Saigon; Thieu also resigned but it did not help. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam War.

How South Vietnam Fell (March – April 1975)

During its monthly meetings on October, 1974 and January, 1975, Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam decided to liberate South Vietnam.

January 6, 1975 : PAVN occupied Phuoc Long – the first South Vietnamese province completely seized by the Viet Cong since 1954. The U.S. did not respond .

March 10: The town of Ban Me Thuot was attacked and fell after 2 days.

March 14: President Thieu ordered a disorderly and costly retreat from Kontum and Pleiku. The country was in chaos.

March 19: ARVN withdrew from Quang Tri.  Five days later, the PAVN captured Tam Ky and Quang Ngai, and therefore, isolated Danang – the largest military bases in the central of South Vietnam.

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March 26: Hue City and the entire province of Thua Thien fell.

March 29: Da Nang fell. South Vietnam lost Phu Yen and Binh Dinh province on April 1. South Vietnam only left perimeter defenses of Saigon at Khanh Hoa – Phan Rang – Binh Thuan.

April 2: Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay were liberated.

April 4: Operation Eagle Pull began evacuating Americans out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

April 9: Xuan Loc – the eastern gate of Saigon and the center of South Vietnam’s resistance, was attacked. ARVN poured all of its last military units to stall the advance of the PAVN’s 4th Corp.

April 20: ARVN withdrew from Xuan Loc to Bien Hoa.

April 21: The town of Xuan Loc was captured by the PAVN. President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned; Vice President Tran Van Huong took office.

April 26: The final offensive to occupy Saigon began.

April 28: President Tran Van Huong resigned; Duong Van Minh assumed power.

April 29: U.S. Marines launched Operation Frequent Wind to evacuate American civilians and “at-risk” South Vietnamese by helicopter from Saigon.

April 30: North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon. President Duong Van Minh surrendered unconditionally. Saigon and South Vietnam fell.

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