written by Todd DePastino

President Richard Nixon on January 23, 1973, giving his Peace with Honor speach

On January 23, 1973, President Richard Nixon announced that America’s war in Vietnam was over. A peace treaty had been signed in Paris that day, he said, which would bring “Peace with Honor” and ensure South Vietnam’s independence from North Vietnam and the United States’ military withdrawal from that troubled land.

It’s not a memorable address. It came remarkably late at night, 10:00pm ET, and lasted only nine-minutes-and-thirty-seconds. Nixon uses the key phrase “Peace with Honor” three times. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that the peace wasn’t a victory, but it wasn’t a defeat either. It was something in-between that shouldn’t cause America to hang its head in shame.

Like all instances of peace, the back story to this one is complicated and worth telling.

It begins at a low point in the war for the United States, after the Tet Offensive in 1968, when US public opinion turned sharply against Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson, whose sudden unpopularity forced him to withdraw from his re-election campaign, opened peace talks with North Vietnam. The first meeting of the two sides in Paris was on May 12, 1968.

The Nixon administration, under the direction of special National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, took over negotiations the following year. They went nowhere.

Two reciprocal and intractable obstacles bogged things down: 1) North Vietnam’s refusal to recognize the South Vietnamese government 2)  South Vietnam’s refusal to recognize the National Liberation Front—the Viet Cong—which was the political insurgency looking to replace South Vietnam’s government.

But the real obstacle was the lack of incentive to change the status quo. All sides found hanging on one more day preferable to risking an unfavorable end to the fighting.

The breakthrough came not in Vietnam, but in China.

Nixon and Kissinger saw that the geopolitical rivalry between Red China and the Soviet Union had escalated to outright hostility. They took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to improve US relations with both sides, thus giving the US more leverage on the world stage.

In February 1972 came Nixon’s famous trip to the People’s Republic of China, which broke decades of diplomatic isolation and established relations between the two countries.

The Soviet Union then hosted the President for a first-ever visit to Moscow in May, a welcome made possible by the threat of Nixon’s overtures to Mao Zedong.

This “triangular diplomacy”—playing one side off the other—gave both Nixon and North Vietnam the incentives they needed to negotiate in earnest.

Nixon and Kissinger wanted out of Vietnam, but they didn’t want to be seen as losing it. With the newly opened doors in Moscow and Beijing, the President could lean on Russia and China—  North Vietnam’s main weapons suppliers— to pressure, in turn, North Vietnam to seek some kind of ceasefire with the US.

Kissinger called it “linkage”—every move the US made in the Vietnam War would be strategically linked to the triangular diplomacy.

US prosecution of the Vietnam War became little more than a pawn in the larger geopolitical chess game of the Cold War. An escalation in Vietnam would send a message to Moscow about arms control talks. A concession or bombing halt would send a different message. Vietnam was as much a signal board as a flesh-and-blood battleground.

Nixon used Vietnam to negotiate concessions from the Soviet Union and China, and he offered trade-offs of his own—in the arms race and commerce—for help in achieving “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam.

But what did Nixon mean by “Peace with Honor”?

In narrow terms, it meant that the US had won 1) a ceasefire in Vietnam 2) the release of all US POWs in Hanoi 3) and the withdrawal of all US forces from the South.

That was the “Peace” part.

The “Honor” was that South Vietnam would remain an independent country with its current government in tact. North Vietnam pledged not to invade it, and the National Liberation Front promised not to overthrow it.

Instead, South Vietnam would negotiate its future with its enemies through a vaguely-defined  “National Council of Reconciliation and Concord.”

This was shaky Honor, at best.

Cynics claim “Peace with Honor” meant that the US would slip out of Vietnam without the taint of inevitable defeat.

And the cynics have an excellent point.

We now know that Nixon never believed the Vietnam War could be won, nor that South Vietnam would be able to maintain its independence. As early as 1969, Nixon told Kissinger over the phone, “In Saigon the tendency is to fight the war to victory . . . but you and I know it won’t happen—it is impossible.”

Kissinger believed the goal of the Paris Peace Treaty was to carve out a “decent interval” between the removal of US troops and the Fall of Saigon. Eighteen months, he figured, was what was needed to make it appear the US didn’t lose the war by pulling out. After 18 months, South Vietnam would fall, but that would be on them, not the United States.

The South Vietnamese government, of course, recognized exactly what the US was doing and resisted signing the Paris Peace Treaty until the very end. President Nguyen Van Thieu suspected he was signing his country’s death warrant.

“Peace with Honor,” then, was something of a sleight of hand, a magic trick: pulling the rabbit of Honor out of the hat of a military debacle.

So, read Nixon’s words below and view his address with an understanding of its tortured context: a long, unpopular war, a thaw in Soviet relations, and a treaty Nixon had to force upon on an unwilling ally, South Vietnam.

January 23, 1973: Address to the Nation Announcing an Agreement on Ending the War in Vietnam

Good evening:

I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that we today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.

The following statement is being issued at this moment in Washington and Hanoi:

At 12:30 Paris time today, January 23, 1973, the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was initialed by Dr. Henry Kissinger on behalf of the United States, and Special Adviser Le Duc Tho on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The agreement will be formally signed by the parties participating in the Paris Conference on Vietnam on January 27, 1973, at the International Conference Center in Paris.

The cease-fire will take effect at 2400 Greenwich Mean Time, January 27, 1973. The United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam express the hope that this agreement will insure stable peace in Vietnam and contribute to the preservation of lasting peace in Indochina and Southeast Asia.

That concludes the formal statement. Throughout the years of negotiations, we have insisted on peace with honor. In my addresses to the Nation from this room of January 25 and May 8 [1972], I set forth the goals that we considered essential for peace with honor.

In the settlement that has now been agreed to, all the conditions that I laid down then have been met:

A cease-fire, internationally supervised, will begin at 7 p.m., this Saturday, January 27, Washington time.

Within 60 days from this Saturday, all Americans held prisoners of war throughout Indochina will be released. There will be the fullest possible accounting for all of those who are missing in action.

During the same 60-day period, all American forces will be withdrawn from South Vietnam.

The people of South Vietnam have been guaranteed the right to determine their own future, without outside interference.

By joint agreement, the full text of the agreement and the protocol to carry it out will be issued tomorrow.

Throughout these negotiations we have been in the closest consultation with President Thieu and other representatives of the Republic of Vietnam. This settlement meets the goals and has the full support of President Thieu and the Government of the Republic of Vietnam, as well as that of our other allies who are affected.

The United States will continue to recognize the Government of the Republic of Vietnam as the sole legitimate government of South Vietnam.

We shall continue to aid South Vietnam within the terms of the agreement, and we shall support efforts by the people of South Vietnam to settle their problems peacefully among themselves.

We must recognize that ending the war is only the first step toward building the peace. All parties must now see to it that this is a peace that lasts, and also a peace that heals—and a peace that not only ends the war in Southeast Asia but contributes to the prospects of peace in the whole world.

This will mean that the terms of the agreement must be scrupulously adhered to. We shall do everything the agreement requires of us, and we shall expect the other parties to do everything it requires of them. We shall also expect other interested nations to help insure that the agreement is carried out and peace is maintained.

As this long and very difficult war ends, I would like to address a few special words to each of those who have been parties in the conflict.

First, to the people and Government of South Vietnam: By your courage, by your sacrifice, you have won the precious right to determine your own future, and you have developed the strength to defend that right. We look forward to working with you in the future—friends in peace as we have been allies in war.

To the leaders of North Vietnam: As we have ended the war through negotiations, let us now build a peace of reconciliation. For our part, we are prepared to make a major effort to help achieve that goal. But just as reciprocity was needed to end the war, so too will it be needed to build and strengthen the peace.

To the other major powers that have been involved even indirectly: Now is the time for mutual restraint so that the peace we have achieved can last.

And finally, to all of you who are listening, the American people: Your steadfastness in supporting our insistence on peace with honor has made peace with honor possible. I know that you would not have wanted that peace jeopardized. With our secret negotiations at the sensitive stage they were in during this recent period, for me to have discussed publicly our efforts to secure peace would not only have violated our understanding with North Vietnam, it would have seriously harmed and possibly destroyed the chances for peace. Therefore, I know that you now can understand why, during these past several weeks, I have not made any public statements about those efforts.

The important thing was not to talk about peace, but to get peace—and to get the right kind of peace. This we have done.

Now that we have achieved an honorable agreement, let us be proud that America did not settle for a peace that would have betrayed our allies, that would have abandoned our prisoners of war, or that would have ended the war for us but would have continued the war for the 50 million people of Indochina. Let us be proud of the 2 1/2 million young Americans who served in Vietnam, who served with honor and distinction in one of the most selfless enterprises in the history of nations.

And let us be proud of those who sacrificed, who gave their lives so that the people of South Vietnam might live in freedom and so that the world might live in peace.

In particular, I would like to say a word to some of the bravest people I have ever met—the wives, the children, the families of our prisoners of war and the missing in action.

When others called on us to settle on any terms, you had the courage to stand for the right kind of peace so that those who died and those who suffered would not have died and suffered in vain, and so that where this generation knew war, the next generation would know peace. Nothing means more to me at this moment than the fact that your long vigil is coming to an end.

Just yesterday, a great American, who once occupied this office, died. In his life, President Johnson endured the vilification of those who sought to portray him as a man of war. But there was nothing he cared about more deeply than achieving a lasting peace in the world.

I remember the last time I talked with him. It was just the day after New Year’s. He spoke then of his concern with bringing peace, with making it the right kind of peace, and I was grateful that he once again expressed his support for my efforts to gain such a peace. No one would have welcomed this peace more than he.

And I know he would join me in asking—for those who died and for those who live—let us consecrate this moment by resolving together to make the peace we have achieved a peace that will last.

Thank you and good evening.