Analysis of Nixon’s Expansion of Military Operations During Vietnam War

The fight for freedom from Communist aggression in the South had become the fight of the United States and the Thieu government.


In article II, section 2. of the United States’ Constitution, provisions were made for the President of the United States to be Commander in Chief. The text of the Constitution states:

Section 2. The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States;…

Richard Nixon, stretched this title to its very limits and beyond. Under the umbrella of the title of Commander in Chief, he deceived the citizens of the United States during the Vietnam War.  While the public thought that the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War was diminishing and American troops were coming home, Nixon was ordering bombings and incursions into neutral Cambodia, Laos, and the continued bombing of North Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, there had been controversy about whether the interruption of the supplies that the North Vietnamese were getting to their troops in the south, by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, should be more vigorous.  The trail passed through parts of Laos and the bases in Cambodia were seen as possible targets for disruption of line of communication from the north to the south.  Supplies also reached this area through the Cambodian harbor at Sihanoukville. 

Military Assistance Command Vietnam had been arguing that the seaborne supply line should be cut by blockade or action against the base areas (Prados, 236).  Even though the amount of supplies that flowed from this harbor and from the bases was in dispute, there was a strategical need to decrease the load of supplies from getting to the enemy forces in the South. Nixon responded to the drumbeat of MACV requests to do something about the Cambodian base areas, at first secretly with B-52 bombings begun in the spring of 1969 (Prados, 236). 

In early 1970 he (Nixon) allowed MACV to provide logistic support for a series of small cross-border raids launched by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (Prados, 237).  Nixon intended to keep the North wondering what he would do next.  Extension of the war into neighboring Cambodia was the first and most important example of Nixon’s determination to employ the “big play” tactic (Hess, 119).  Operation Menu was viewed as a far more resourceful use of American power as opposed to the gradual escalation of the Johnson era.

The large-scale, cross-border operation would disrupt the North Vietnam war effort and buy time for the Vietnamization campaign to be implemented (Hess, 122).  Finally, it would appear that the U.S. would take the offensive with the enemy rather than the wait to see where the Viet Cong and NVA would strike next.

Many from the ARVN and MACV regarded the Lon Nol coup as an opportunity to act against the base areas, with the NVA/VC intervention providing the rationale (Prados, 237).  The North had received intelligence that the ARVN incursion into Cambodia was going to take place.  Due to the fact that the NVA knew the incursion was coming, the phantom COSNV was not found and the gains were minimal when compared to the expenditure of money and continued loss of life. Prados states:

Documents captured farther to the north later in May and dated in March spoke of a U.S./South Vietnamese intention to attack the sanctuaries.  In addition, an authoritative account by the former minister of justice in the VC’s Provisional Revolutionary Government describes in detail the movement of COSNV and associated VC leadership to Kratie in the Cambodian interior, a movement made in March only days after the overthrow of Siohanouk.  In the Fish Hook there was no COSVN to capture. (Prados, 241-242)

Whether the assaults into Cambodia had any major deleterious affect on the North is very speculative.  There were no major NVA offensives after the one into Cambodia during 1970, but documents captured during the operation indicated that the North Vietnamese had no intention of conducting any offensives that year (Prados, 246).  Levels of supplies to the South were altered, but recovered fairly rapidly. Whether the incursions into

Cambodia decreased American casualties is also up for debate.  The American forces were spending less time in the field as Vietnamization of the ARVN troops was taking place.  Less American troops in the field would lead to fewer casualties.  The truth is, no one really knows how effective the Cambodian invasion was. The one real fact is that the conflict subsequently engulfed Cambodia.  The Vietnam War became the Indochina War (Prados, 247).

A critical factor of Operation Menu was that it was kept as a secret from the home front that thought that the U.S. ground forces were winding down their involvement in Vietnam. Operation Menu had several results and these were that it forced the North Vietnamese troops further into the interior of Cambodia, caused the Communists of the North to begin to openly work with the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. acquired another county which relied on it for assistance, and rioting in America closed many college campuses and brought a sense to the U.S. public that it had been deceived (class notes).

In 1971, Nixon called for the raid into Laos to destroy North Vietnamese bases, located adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to disrupt the southerly flow of supplies and troops, and to again gain time for Vietnamization to work. Laotian sovereignty had long been violated by the North Vietnamese and the United States, as both sought to control that country (Hess, 124).  This campaign had mixed results.  However, one may evaluate its results, the Laotian invasion of February and March 1971 proved a watershed of the Vietnam War: it was the last major offensive operation involving American troops (Prados, 249).  This operation would demonstrate whether the Vietnamization had worked for the South Vietnamese troops.  Disillusioned Vietnam veterans (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) gathered in Washington to publicly denounce the war (Hess, 126).

In the aftermath of the Cambodian invasion, Congress had enacted legislation that prohibited U.S. ground forces from entering Cambodia or Laos (Hess, 125).  U.S. support would be in air power with the troops from the South doing the ground fighting when the incursion into Laos took place. As stated in Prados:

The Nixon administration tried to project that the Lam Son 719 Operation was strictly a South Vietnamese affair.  The only “decision” taken in Washington, supposedly, was to support the Vietnamese.  But evidence shows that the United States was active at every stage in the evolution of the Laos invasion plan and decision. (Prados, 250)

Nixon made the incursion appear to be the plan of the Pentagon to avoid any backlash that might fall on the White House for an invasion that the American public would not have supported.  In doing this, the typical chain of command of the military was bypassed.  The plan to bomb and invade Laos was that of the U.S.  As for the South Vietnamese government, there was no planning there, not even after the Haig trip, until Abrams issued a MACV directive on January 7, 1971, authorizing joint planning for certain operations (Prados, 250).  The South had picked up one aspect of the U.S. tactics.  Kissinger said that the clearest success of Vietnamization seems to have been transferring to ARVN the American’s facility for clever briefing (Prados, 252).  This would not be nearly enough to insure their success after the Americans pulled out.

Even though the incursion into Laos would be the second “play” of Nixon’s “big game,” it would never be as bold as he had hoped.  Nixon…but then at every planning session watered down the operation to preserve consensus among his advisers.  This conveyed hesitation to those down the chain of command and eventually consumed the plan (Prados, 252).  Nixon sought out the approval of his “yes” men who really knew little of what was actually happening in Vietnam. Nixon signed the draft national security decision memorandum authorizing U.S. participation in Laos.  He was more concerned about his political image than the fact that the North had obtained intelligence of the plans for the operation.

The U.S. military performance was more than adequate and sustained heavy loss due to intense anti-aircraft fire.  True losses were not reported as a means to keep the American public further in the dark about the situation in Laos.  ARVN troops panicked and fled in terror.

Cowardly acts were not uncommon in the ARVN troops and officers.  A U.S. officer at one point had to make tactical decisions for a Vietnamese Marine division when their commander disappeared from his command post and had to be coaxed to come back (Prados, 259).  To add more fuel to the fire of this fiasco, the assault to NVA supplies going down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was less than the Cambodian results.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole Laotian operation, other than it was done behind the U. S. public’s back, was the fact that Nixon said that he would have still called for the operation even if he had known what the outcome would have been before hand.  Now the anti-war demonstrators added protests against Vietnamization to their general anti-war feelings.  The North were given a boost to their morale and the people of the South had even more of a sense of foreboding of the time when the U. S. would pull out entirely.

The central element of United States’ strategy throughout the Vietnam War was to isolate the adversary in South Vietnam from his sources of supplies and materiel in the north (Prados, 261).  It was thought that the mining of Haiphong harbor would put a large dent into the products that the North received from China and the Soviet Union.

Kissinger, in talking with the Soviet Union and China, gathered information that convinced him that whatever happened in Vietnam was not of major importance to either country.  The Easter Offensive of 1972 showed that the North still packed enough power to be a threat to the South. The North was confident because they knew that the pull out of U.S. troops would not be reversed because the Americans at home would not allow it, that they (the North) could make significant political gains which Nixon would be forced to accept due to political pressures, and the South was vulnerable due to their losses in Laos (Hess, 127).

Nixon was looking toward his next presidential election, opening of relations with China, a summit in Moscow, and arms-control agreement with the Soviets.  He was not going to let the NVA put a cog in his political wheel.  With the apparent lack of regard that the Soviets and Chinese had toward what was happening in Vietnam, Nixon felt the time was right for the mining of the harbor at Haiphong.  This mining would be the next play in Nixon’s big game.

Kissinger framed the policy response to the Easter Offensive, personally conducted the secret negotiations with Hanoi, and simultaneously managed the National Security Council staff with jurisdiction over the defense and foreign policy matters (Prados, 264).  These were all done to give credence to Nixon’s actions.  Nixon saw the military planners as the problem and he wanted no options to the mining of the harbor.  Nixon dictated, “I have determined that we should go for broke…we must punish the enemy…I will stop at nothing to bring the enemy to his knees (Prados, 269).

It seemed that still the most important concerns were that the Nixon administration would survive for another presidential term.  Out of these concerns came a secret political program that spent thousands of dollars in campaign money to produce a supposedly spontaneous outpouring of public supporters (Prados, 269).  Deliberate actions were taken to make it seem that the public supported the bombings in the North and the mining of Haiphong harbor.

As always, the timing of the new phase of action in Vietnam went hand in hand with a speech to state how important the new action was to the nation.  “There’s only one way to stop the killing,” Nixon intoned.  “That is to keep the weapons of war out of the hands of the international outlaws of North Vietnam” (Prados, 272).  Problems did occur in Washington.  There the problem was whether the mining would be taken as a blockade (illegal without a formal declarations of war) (Prados, 273).

Certainly, shipments of supplies did get through to the North.  Analysts’ interpretations of the effectiveness of the blockade/mining ran the gamut from it had little affect on the North to the possibility that the supplies could have been decreased by as much as 60 percent.  The North Vietnamese realized that neither the Soviet Union nor China could not be counted on to come to their aid. The South realized that they were still very dependent on U.S. for air power and the fighting created a greater sense of war weariness in the South (class notes).  Vietnamization was a failure and Nixon was basically concerned about his political future and not the future of South Vietnam.

Ideally the President of the United States is surrounded by experts in any field that he may encounter during the years of his presidency.  Whether he heeds the advice of these advisers is up to the individual president.  Nixon chose to play the war in Vietnam the way that it would best work for him politically.  In the case of Cambodia, Nixon, instead of exposing himself to a candid discussion among even his closest colleagues, seems to have withdrawn into solitude and springs his unilateral decision on them as well as on the world (Kimball, 207).  Nixon displayed a disregard for Constitutional law.  …He did not ask the State Department lawyers to prepare the legal case for the invasion of Cambodia until four days after it began (Kimball, 207).

When the security of the United States is at risk the President may have to act quickly to ensure that safety measures are deployed.  At such a time, delay in waiting for approval of Congress may cause greater harm to America.  Nixon used this premise to explain his actions even though the United States’ security was not in jeopardy. It was not a case of hot pursuit; nor could Rehnquist cite any previous occasion when a President ordered a massive attack on a neutral country (Cambodia) to protect American troops in a third country (Kimball, 208). American troops were less at risk in this time frame than they had ever been.

Schlesinger’s argument that Nixon abused his presidential power is very convincing. Nixon interpreted his own power as Command in Chief as he went along.  Schlesinger states: He thereby equipped himself with so expansive a theory of the power of the Commander in Chief and so elastic a theory of defensive war that he could freely, on his own initiative, without a national emergency, without reference to Congress, as a routine employment of unilateral executive authority, go to war against any country containing any troops that might in any conceivable circumstances be used in an attack on American forces. (Kimball, 208)

Nixon legitimized his actions in the neutral countries of Cambodia and Laos by claiming that the nation was potentially threatened.  Schlesinger further states: Johnson and Nixon had surpassed all their predecessors in claiming that inherent and exclusive presidential authority, unaccompanied by emergencies threatening  the life of the nation, unaccompanied by the authorization of Congress or the blessing of an international organization, permitted a President to order troops into battle at his unilateral pleasure. (Kimball, 209)

The post World War II presidents had become more independent of Congress when dealing with foreign affairs.  The postwar Presidents, though Eisenhower and Kennedy markedly less than Truman, Johnson, and Nixon, almost came to see the sharing of power with Congress in foreign policy as a derogation of the Presidency (Kimball, 213).  Nixon had by passed the Constitutional provision that only Congress could declare war.

It is a dangerous situation when one person can make a decision that can directly affect the lives of a nation.  It is better to have representation from all states to determine the necessity of declaring war against another country.  With more voices also comes more brains and more thoughts and ideas.  The rational can interact with the irrational and find a common middle ground that had the best interests of the country in mind.

A president of integrity, with the welfare of the nation as his supreme job, would not abuse the power of putting the U.S. at war.  Herndon had written to Lincoln that, if it should become necessary to repel invasion, the President could cross the line and invade a neighboring country, and that the President was the sole judge of the necessity.  Lincoln’s response to this statement was, “Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose” (Kimball, 208).  When one person, in the name of the Commander in Chief of the United States, can single-handedly make the decision of going to war, the nation can find itself twisting in the air at the whim of a politically hungry, self serving individual.  Unfortunately, this nation is not often faced with the likes of Lincoln or Washington as presidential candidates.

Nixon’s invasions into neutral countries were without Constitutional backup.  The Nixon argument that the invasion was for the defense of America and America’s forces was weak at best.  The United States’ national security was not threatened by an emergency and any threat that the North Vietnamese forces were to American forces had greatly diminished as U.S. troop strength had diminished.

This writer feels that Nixon’s leadership strove to accomplish one end and that was to put him into a favorable political light. The U.S. troops did eventually leave Vietnam, but in doing so abandoned the South Vietnamese.  Vietnamization had not worked and quite possibly would have never worked even if the U.S. had spent more time instituting it. Money, armaments, and materials could not take the place of the will to win. The fight for freedom from Communist aggression in the South had become the fight of the United States and the Thieu government. 

The government in the South did not share the views of the South Vietnamese peasantry, who simply wanted an end to the war.  A South Vietnamese officer told an American at the time, “If this were truly a patriotic war, everybody would be willing to fight. But we do not want to kill other Vietnamese.  We do not want victory.  We want only peace” (Hess, 130).  Historian George Herring observed that the furious campaigns of the summer of 1972 only raised the stalemate to a new level of violence (Hess, 130).

Nixon brought the American troops home to satisfy the home front, but this was done in such a way that troops who remained till their “turn” in the rotation felt abandonment. During the incursions, the American forces suffered additional casualties.  American POWs and MIAs were denied since they were in an area where they were not “authorized” to fight. Four more years of secret fighting was not worth the additional loss of lives.  The same result could have been accomplished four years previously and many Vietnamese and American lives would have been spared.


Hess, Gary. Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War.
Kimball, Jeffrey P.Nixon’s Vietnam War, 1998.
Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War 1945-1975. (Modern War Studies.


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