Vietnam War: Escalation and Withdrawal Through Rare Photographs, 1968-1975

Unveiling the Pivotal Moments and Controversies of a Turbulent Era

In the annals of modern history, the Vietnam War stands as a chapter marked by tragedy, controversy, and an unwavering quest for resolution. As we delve into this tumultuous period through rare photographs, the years 1968 to 1975 emerge as a crucible of escalation, devastation, and eventual withdrawal.

A young South Vietnamese woman covers her mouth as she stares into a mass grave where victims of a reported Viet Cong massacre were being exhumed near Dien Bai village, east of Hue, in April of 1969. The woman’s husband, father, and brother had been missing since the Tet Offensive and were feared to be among those killed by Communist forces.

1968: The Tet Offensive and Khe Sanh Siege

The year 1968 bore witness to seismic shifts in the Vietnam War. In the early hours of January 30, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive, a coordinated assault across South Vietnam’s major urban areas and military installations. Their aim: to incite a popular uprising against the Saigon regime and its American backers. Three weeks of heavy fighting ensued, with some of the most brutal clashes occurring in the ancient city of Hué.

General Westmoreland claimed victory, asserting that no cities had fallen, and that thousands of casualties had been inflicted upon the attackers. However, the Tet Offensive’s strategic impact favored North Vietnam. U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) losses were significant, and the ensuing chaos generated a wave of refugees that further destabilized the South.

As a result of the surprise attack and the compelling images emerging from Saigon, the U.S. press and public began to question the Johnson administration’s assurances of success and the value of this increasingly costly war. Simultaneously, the siege of Khe Sanh exemplified the perception of an endless, costly, and seemingly futile struggle. From January 20 to April 14, 1968, 30,000 to 40,000 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) forces encircled 6,000 U.S. Marines and ARVN troops at the remote hilltop outpost of Khe Sanh in northwest South Vietnam. The United States eventually broke the siege with artillery and airpower, but in June, the Marines abandoned the base, leaving observers to ponder the tangible results of this major engagement.

Marine Lance Corporal Roland Ball of Tacoma, Washington, wearing his flak vest, starts the day off with a shave in a trench at the Khe Sanh Base in Vietnam on March 5, 1968, which was surrounded by North Vietnamese regulars. Ball uses a helmet as a sink and a rear-view mirror taken from a military vehicle.

In March 1968, President Johnson realized that the U.S. commitment to Vietnam had reached its limit. Despite calls for 206,000 additional troops from General Westmoreland and General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Johnson, under advice from a group of elder statesmen known as the “Wise Men,” opted for a limited increase of 13,500 soldiers. He simultaneously announced a restriction on bombing North Vietnam and a shift toward a negotiated settlement.

The Nixon Era and the Path to Withdrawal

When Richard M. Nixon assumed the presidency in 1969, the war effort remained massive, but the decision to de-escalate had already been made. Nixon sought a way to end the war, gradually withdrawing U.S. troops while supporting “Vietnamization,” the process of training ARVN to assume a more significant role in combat.

Publicly, Nixon announced troop withdrawals, but the reality on the ground was far more complex. Secret bombings in Cambodia expanded the air war, and public dissatisfaction grew as the Vietnamization process struggled to gain momentum. Incidents of insubordination, drug use, and racial tensions within U.S. forces escalated.

In April 1970, Nixon sent U.S. troops into Cambodia to target Vietcong and NVA forces, sparking controversy and anti-war demonstrations. U.S. troop reductions continued, and by the end of 1970, only 334,600 U.S. troops remained in the South.

The following year saw further troop reductions, and by December 1971, only 156,000 U.S. troops remained. U.S. air attacks against Communist supply lines persisted in Laos and Cambodia. However, Lam Son 719, a major ARVN operation in Laos, ended in retreat, casting doubt on the effectiveness of Vietnamization.

Vietnamese women on the streets of Saigon, April 1968.

In 1972, Nixon intensified air campaigns against North Vietnam, both directly and by mining Haiphong Harbor. The ground war saw the ARVN saved by massive B-52 bombings in various battles. Despite these efforts, the war dragged on.

The Path to Peace and the Collapse of South Vietnam

In October 1972, a ceasefire agreement was reached, temporarily preserving President Thieu’s government. However, the situation remained tense. The U.S. resumed bombing North Vietnam in December, known as the Christmas Bombing.

On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, marking the official end of U.S. involvement in the war. By April, U.S. forces had withdrawn from Vietnam, but the country’s political future remained unresolved.

The spring of 1975 saw an NVA offensive leading to the collapse of ARVN defenses. On April 30, the last remaining Americans evacuated the U.S. embassy in Saigon as NVA and Vietcong forces entered the city.

Smoke rises from the southwestern part of Saigon on May 7, 1968, as residents stream across the bridge leaving into the capital to escape heavy fighting between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese soldiers.

The Vietnam War posed profound questions: Should the U.S. have intervened? Did the U.S. fight the war correctly? While the answers remain debated, the war’s legacy endures, reminding us of the complex interplay of politics, strategy, and human sacrifice during this era.

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