‘The Seventies’: Time magazine’s take on the end of the Vietnam War

As the ’60s turned to the ’70s, America had already been at war in Vietnam for almost eight years. By then, the majority of Americans wanted out, Richard Nixon was trying not to become first U.S. president to lose a war while the troops just wanted to come home alive.

CNN’s original series “The Seventies” looks back on this chapter in American history in the episode, “Peace With Honor.” But how did the media see these events as they were happening? We looked through Time magazine’s vault to discover how “history’s first draft” read in the pages of that stories publication.

Kent State

The opposition to the Vietnam War grew steadily through the ’60s, but Nixon was able to rally support for the war from the “Great Silent Majority” of the middle class. On May 4, 1970, however, support for the war took a decisive turn when four Kent State students were killed by Ohio National Guardsman.

Time’s article “Nation: At War with War” from May 18, 1970, noted the temperature of the nation right after Kent State:

With an almost manic abruptness, the nation seemed, as Yeats once wrote, “all changed, changed utterly.” With the killing of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen last week, dissent against the U.S. venture into Cambodia suddenly coalesced into a nationwide student strike. Across the country 441 colleges and universities were affected, many of them shut down entirely.

Antiwar fever, which President Richard Nixon had skillfully reduced to a tolerable level last fall, surged upward again to a point unequaled since Lyndon Johnson was driven from the White House. The military advantage to be gained in Cambodia seemed more and more dubious, and Nixon found that he had probably sacrificed what he himself once claimed was crucial to achieving an acceptable settlement: wide domestic support, or at least acquiescence, for his policies. Now it is the opposition that has gained strength.

The Pentagon Papers

The Kent State killings lead to greater opposition to the war among the American public, but it was the release of the Pentagon Papers that helped fuel the speculation that U.S. government was misleading the public about Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, a U.S. military analyst, turned against the war and released thousands of top-secret Pentagon files about the war.

The papers revealed that top U.S. officials were told in advance how long, costly and improbable a victory would be in Vietnam. The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, leaving the Nixon administration scrabbling to block the paper’s publication. As Time’s article “The Nation: Pentagon Papers: The Secret War” from June 28, 1971, notices, that ended up putting a bigger spotlight on the papers:

The dramatic collision between the Nixon Administration and first the New York Times, then the Washington Post, raised in a new and spectacular form the unresolved constitutional questions about the Government’s right to keep its planning papers secret and the conflicting right of a free press to inform the public how its Government has functioned.

Yet, even more fundamental, the legal battle focused national attention on the records that the Government was fighting so fiercely to protect. Those records afforded a rare insight into how high officials make decisions affecting the lives of millions as well as the fate of nations …

The campaign of 1972

With the war continuing to lose support of Americans and Nixon up for re-election in November, both North Vietnam and America stepped up negotiations in an effort to reach peace. Nixon’s administration thought a peace deal would ensure his re-election where the North Vietnamese (and many anti-war Americans) were unsure what actions a newly re-elected Nixon would take.

Time’s article “THE WAR: At Last, The Shape of a Settlement” from October 30, 1972, reads:

Clearly, the U.S. election has played a powerful role — on both sides. … If Nixon were to win a second term, Kissinger argued, the Administration offer could well harden. In September, by the reckoning of intelligence analysts in Washington, the polls began to convince the Hanoi Politburo that a victory by McGovern, who has proposed that the U.S. should “break free of Thieu” with a unilateral withdrawal, was a poor gamble.

Just days before the election, Henry Kissinger announced that “Peace is at hand,” but it was South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu who rejected the deal. Thieu felt the U.S. would be leaving South Vietnam to fend off North Vietnam by itself. On Election Day, the fears of the North Vietnamese and U.S. liberals came true. Nixon won in a landslide.

Time’s article “THE PRESIDENCY: What Will He Do the Next Four Years?” from November 20, 1972, reads:

The fact that Richard Nixon need no longer worry about appealing to masses of voters was either scary or hopeful, depending upon the angle of view. Radicals and some liberals professed to have nightmares of an “unleashed” Nixon, finally free to throw dissenters into jails and to nuke Hanoi if it did not knuckle under.

‘The Christmas Bombing’

Time’s words proved to be an eerie premonition, less than a month after it was published, Nixon launched the largest bombing campaign of the war. After peace talks failed once again, on December 18, 1972, American bombers began dropping over 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam until they agreed to return to the negotiation table. The two-week assault known as “The Christmas Bombing” was a prime example of the extreme shifts between war and peace that had come to characterize the Vietnam War.

TIME’s article “THE WAR: Nixon’s Blitz Leads Back to the Table” on January 8, 1973, reads:

In its swift swings between lull and violence, hope and despair, the Viet Nam War has often had a manic character to it. Never more so than in the latest extraordinary episode in which, within the space of 40 days, the world moved from a sense of peace at last at hand, to the most brutal U.S. bombing of the war, to Washington’s declaration late last week that the secret Paris peace talks would begin again on Jan. 8. …

Rarely if ever before had a major power so openly used overwhelming force to extract concessions at the conference table, or moved so swiftly from diplomacy to war and back; the episode almost evoked the end of the Thirty Years’ War, when fighting and negotiating accompanied each other in a dizzying blur. The news of the bombing halt was as puzzling as it was welcome.

This is the end

While the actual end of the Vietnam War didn’t come until April 1975 when the North Vietnamese took control of Saigon, a cease-fire was agreed upon on January 23, 1973, which marked the end of American military involvement in the war.

Unlike wars in the past, there was no ticker tape parade celebrating the end of the war. American prisoners of war were celebrated on their arrival home but as the Time essay “Postwar US.: The Scapegoat is Gone” from February 5, 1973, points out, they were coming home to a country full of our own problems. Unfortunately, these are problems that we are still facing today:

After ten years, the Viet Nam War has become more than a national curse. It was also a national excuse. The proliferation of drug abuse, crime in the streets, lack of respect for authority, racism — all these were conveniently stenciled “made in Viet Nam.” The war’s impact, goes the conventional wisdom, went against the American grain and splintered the country into discrete and angry factions. … But the war is over now, and soon the scapegoat will be led away. Then it will no longer be possible to see all domestic evils as the orphans of war. As partisan historians have taken pains to show, violence is in, not against, the American grain.

Watch Episode 3 of CNN’s series “The Seventies” at 9 p.m. Thursday for an in-depth look at the end of the Vietnam War.

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