President Johnson and American military leaders had long insisted that the Vietnam War was going well, and that they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in February 1968, when the Communists were able to initiate coordinated attacks on all the regional capitals throughout Vietnam, even in the American compound in Saigon itself, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford issued a report to the President in mid-March that the United States could not win the war. Johnson was stunned, and he in turn stunned a nationwide audience on March 31,1968, announcing he would cease bombing north of the 20th parallel, initiate peace talks to end the war, and not seek renomination or reelection in 1968. The peace talks commenced in Paris on May 10, 1968, with W. Averill Harriman leading the U.S. delegation.
From the outset, the talks were fraught with difficulties. The U.S. insisted on mutual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese forces, which would leave the Saigon government in control. The North Vietnamese refused to negotiate anything until all bombing of North Vietnam was halted. When the U.S. finally agreed to that condition, the Johnson administration was unable to persuade, cajole, or coerce South Vietnam and its leader President Thieu to participate unless it was recognized as a legitimate party by its foes. It was alleged at the time that both candidates in the 1968 election were using the talks as a political football, with Hubert Humphrey seeking to appeal to pro-peace voters by insisting that the South Vietnamese participate, and more germanely, with Nixon leading the South Vietnamese to understand that his administration would give them a better deal if they would continue to delay. Formal negotiations would not begin until January 18, 1969, two days before Nixon took office.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1968 election, it seems that Lodge was Nixon’s foremost advisor on Vietnam. He urged Nixon to appoint a man of stature to negotiate in Paris, and warned him away from a trip to Saigon for strategic reasons. Nixon adopted these suggestions. In fact, on January 5, 1969, fifteen days before his inauguration, President-elect Nixon named Lodge himself to succeed Harriman as chief U.S. negotiator at the Paris talks. This signaled that Nixon was likely to take a hard line in the talks, considering Lodge’s background as a proponent of American policy in Vietnam as promulgated by President Johnson and his chief military commander, Gen. William Westmoreland.
Document Signed as President, Washington, January 22, 1969, just two days after his inauguration, being the original appointment of “Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts” as “Ambassador to head the United States Delegation at the Paris Meetings on Vietnam.” The wording here is highly politically indicative, showing that Nixon avoided using the terms “peace,” “talks,” “negotiations,” or “war.” These were simply “Meetings on Vietnam,” nothing more to be implied. The document is countersigned by Secretary of State William P. Rogers.
On January 25, the first fully attended meeting of the formal Paris peace talks was held. Ambassador Lodge urged an immediate restoration of a genuine Demilitarized Zone as the first "practical move toward peace." He also suggested a mutual withdrawal of "external" military forces and an early release of prisoners of war. Tran Buu Kiem and Xuan Thuy, heads of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese delegations respectively, refused Lodge's proposals and condemned American "aggression."
Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, developed a two-track policy whereunder the Paris negotiators would discuss military matters, while the real political decisions would be made privately, out of the public eye, by the leadership in Washington and Hanoi directly. This would avoid public pressure from all directions, while also preventing the junior partners on either side, South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, from exercising power to preclude a deal from happening. Nixon liked the idea, and determined that political negotiations would emanate from the White House. So as Lodge continued treating with the North Vietnamese in Paris, starting in early August, Kissinger was secretly meeting with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho. As the summer turned to fall, however, Kissinger’s approaches to Hanoi failed to elicit an acceptable response, and Nixon adopted a get tough policy to force an accommodation on his terms. In early October the President told Lodge to break off the talks by staging a walk-out at the October 23 plenary session. On the appointed day, Lodge insisted that the talks be adjourned, which they were immediately. Lodge himself had not favored this action, and he suggested that the President use him as a personal intermediary to Hanoi’s leaders who were frequently in Paris. Nixon declined.
The only official, public negotiations to end the Vietnam War were over, never to resume. Nixon went directly to Camp David to work on a foreign policy address to the nation which he delivered on November 3. Dubbed the Silent Majority speech, in it he asked the American people to support his decision to continue the war until the North Vietnamese would accept “honorable” peace terms. On November 20, 1969, seeing no role remaining for a peace negotiator, Lodge resigned. The war did not end until January 23, 1973, four years and one day after Nixon had appointed Lodge to help end the conflict.