By Dr. Trong Q. Phan
Paper presented at “1969: Vietnamization and the Year of Transition in the Vietnam War” Conference. Vietnam Center Texas Tech University April 25-27, 2019
Vietnamization and diplomacy combined with military operation were the two pivotal strategies that President Nixon pursued to achieve his presidential campaign promise to end the Vietnam War. Although President Nixon achieved his goal with a peace treaty, the outcome severely impacted our international reputation in many fronts: the degradation of our national ideals on the world stage, loss of one of the most faithful friends and allies – the Republic of Vietnam, and leveraging advantages for Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. This author believes if communicating effectively a long-term worldview to the American public, winning the bipartisan support in Congress, respecting the self determination of South Vietnam, and investing proper time and resources in the Vietnamization strategy, President Nixon and his administration could have ended the war with true honor and provided advantages for America and Vietnam. This paper assesses the effectiveness of the Vietnamization strategy and its implementation in these areas: exploring the events leading to the policy creation, how it was executed and how effective was it carried out. In conclusion, the paper extracts lessons learned from the Vietnamization strategy for our current challenges.
1969 was the turning point in Vietnam War; Richard Nixon assumed the United States (U.S.) presidency and marked a significant change in the direction of the war with his plan for peace. In his memoir, Nixon explained his plan: “The (Nixon) Doctrine was not a formula for getting American out of Asia, but one that provided the only sound basis for America’s staying in and continuing to play a responsible role in helping the non-communist nations and neutrals as well as our Asian allies to defend their independence”(Nixon, 1978, p. 395). The underlying objectives of the Doctrine for Vietnam were to equip, train, and transfer the primary operations and responsibility of the defense of South Vietnam to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) through the so-called Vietnamization strategy. At the same time, the Nixon administration focused on negotiation efforts with all the players: Saigon, Hanoi and their allies to settle for a peace agreement ending the Vietnam War. This paper aims to understand the Vietnamization and its results for involved parties. The author revisits conditions and events leading to the creation of the strategy, its purpose and development process, the effectiveness of its implementation, and lessons drawn from this significant period.
Conditions and Events Leading to the Creation of Vietnamization strategy
When assuming the presidency from Kennedy, there were a number of reasons that forced Johnson to escalate the war effort in Vietnam. Johnson, as a Democrat, feared the right-wing backlash at home if letting the communist advancement in Indochina. He also concerned that open debate on the long and costly military commitment in Vietnam may impact his ambitious domestic programs. The belief drove him to expedite the war. From the world stage purview, Johnson recognized the U.S. credibility with its allies around the globe was proportional with his support of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Thus, his determination to resolve the commitment in Vietnam was very strong at the beginning of his presidency (Logevall, Choosing War, p. 77). Johnson told Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to RVN, “I will not lose in Vietnam” on his first week in the Oval Office. However, his determination to beat Hanoi’s aggressiveness was receding with time.
In 1966, Johnson confided in Senator McCarthy “I know we ought not to be there, but I can’t get out” (Conversation, WH 6602-01-9602). Near the end of 1967, the war in Vietnam started to take a toll on Johnson. The pressure was so heavy, that Johnson announced not to run for the U.S. presidency right after the turmoil of the “Tet Offensive”. Reading the transcript of his conversation in this period, one can feel his extreme frustration over the decision to continue or abandon the U.S. efforts in Vietnam! Both decisions were equally agonizing for Johnson so which he decided not to settle the question on his watch. Johnson thought he ran out of options when told Senator Russell, “…there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.” (Conversation WH6503-02-7026). That was the presidential legacy Nixon received when assuming the power transferred from Johnson. As a keen observer, Nixon knew the public demanded an answer for Johnson’s dilemma. Nixon ran on a campaign that promised to restore law and order to the nation’s cities and provide new leadership in the Vietnam War. During the campaign, Nixon once implied he had a secret plan to end the war; he surely got the public and press attention (Kimball, 1998, p. 41). The promised plan that probably took him to the White House in 1969!
From the start of the escalation period in the Johnson administration until the war’s end in 1975, a large movement in opposition to the war became a memorable force and vivid aspect of the Vietnam War time era. The impact of this movement on public opinion, political elections, and policy-making were growing and at times may have changed the tactical courses of elections and policies. The movement in fact did not impact greatly public opinion but had some influence on presidential elections. Ironically, the movement may have been twice instrumental in electing Richard Nixon by choosing to humiliate and defeat Humphrey and 4 years later with another Nixon’s competitor (Braestrup, p. 151). However, the movement became more organized during the Nixon administration and was influential in getting Nixon to expedite troop withdrawals and causing the administration to call off the Cambodian incursion earlier than planned. Both memoirs of Nixon and Kissinger, his national security advisor, showed a considerable preoccupation with the movement. It was reported at times that Nixon had even chosen the timing of North Vietnam bombings while the U.S. college campuses were on break.
The Tet Offensive launched by Vietnamese communist forces on the first day of the lunar year of 1968 was a proven tactical failure: There was no single uprising in Southern Vietnam as expected by Hanoi, RVN forces were caught by surprise at first but quickly overcame and gained control of occupied territories, and Viet Cong infrastructure that has been built in the South for many years was exposed and mostly eradicated. Communist troops were killed over 10-fold the numbers of American and South Vietnamese losses. While Hanoi violated the truce during a Vietnamese sacred holiday and suffered great losses of lives and organizations, the impact of The Tet Offensive on public opinion in the United States was surprisingly significant. Thanks to the liberal media and foreign war reporters in Vietnam! Even a well-known newsman like Walter Cronkite altered his view about the Tet Offensive when he was back to the U.S. Although the RVN surely showed their ability to counter surprise attacks and quickly reversed Hanoi’s offending course, the Tet Offensive coverage on television and newspaper led many Americans believe the war was unwinnable. Public opinion in the U.S. turned against the Johnson administration and even drove Johnson to withdraw his plan to run for the presidency. The lopsided media coverage of the Tet Offensive obviously influenced the Nixon doctrine which had been introduced in his presidential campaign (Editors, History.com, 2009).
Nixon had wanted to normalize the relationship with China even before occupying the White House. He wrote in Foreign Affairs in October 1967: “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Lord, A National Security Council planning member and later an Ambassador to China, said Nixon had three goals when approaching China: (1) luring China away from the Communist bloc to deal with her separately from Russia and the Eastern Europe Bloc, (2) “catch Russia’s attention and get more leverage on them.”, and (3) “wanted to get (China’s) help in resolving the Vietnam War” by convincing China to cut her military aid to North Vietnam (Lord, 2018). But according to Lord’s July 29, 1971 record of the Kissinger-Zhou secret meeting was released on April 5, 2001. Nixon, listened to Kissinger’s advice, was willing to give China its demand of “One China” policy even when they were not willing to cease helping North Vietnam. Sadly, not South Vietnam survival nor the welfare of American troops in Vietnam was ranked higher in priority on the Nixon’s will than realigning the world’s balance of power by pulling China closer to the U.S. (Gerard, 2018). In hindsight, the outcome of Nixon’s deal with China in late 1972 was a strategic failure; Taiwan, other China’s neighboring countries, especially South Vietnam, were caught on the path of China’s territorial ambition and have paid dearly for Nixon’s miscalculation.
The last but not least event that may contribute to the decision to end the war in Vietnam was the U.S. and Russia’s strategic arms treaty. Nixon intended to change the relation of the U.S. and Soviet Union from confrontation to negotiation and wishfully reached an agreement on the nuclear arms control. He initiated two major strategic arms programs: Deployment of Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system to defend the U.S. from Russian nuclear attacks and initiating the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) to limit the growth of nuclear proliferation from both sides. Nixon successfully got the attention he needed from the Soviet Union to cool off the Cold War and he hoped to leverage this relationship to pressure North Vietnam to end the war or at least to interrupt it with a settlement (Hughes, 2017). Soviet Union never handed Nixon his second wish. The 1972 Summit in Moscow like the deal with Beijing later reflected this failure; the Communist powers continued their material and moral support for Hanoi to invade South Vietnam at all costs (Department of State, 1969). Both negotiations with China and Soviet Union yielded results for the major powers, but the war in Indochina. Nixon now had limited choice but to implement the Vietnamization strategy and downplay the American presence in Vietnam. The ending of Vietnam War was inevitable and its outcome was tragical for South Vietnam and its poor citizens.
The Purpose and Development of Vietnamization Strategy
Near the end of his administration, some observed that Johnson seemed to accept a possibility of reducing the bombing, even plan an initiative for peace negotiation, and consider a gradual withdrawal of US forces in Vietnam. Johnson’s new thinking for force reduction at this time was almost similar to the Vietnamization strategy Nixon introduced a year later with much fanfare (Herring, 1996, p. 217). Nixon in his 4,569-words speech delivered on 3 November 1969 laid out carefully the background, reasoning, and high-level objectives for the Vietnamization strategy (Nixon, 1969). In this speech, Nixon worked hard to convince the American public that he had done everything possible to search for peace in Vietnam and Vietnamization was the most reasonable strategy to end the war in term honorable to the U.S. The great question to Nixon was how the U.S. win “America’s peace”? He inferred Johnson’s decision in sending American combat forces to South Vietnam was a bad decision, but admitted a precipitate reversal of this decision is disastrous to South Vietnam and degrades American leadership in the world stage. Nixon argued the precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam didn’t just damage the confidence in U.S. leadership; it encouraged bad actors to invade weaker states and impacted the fragile peace around the world. In the context of the Cold War, Nixon had grounds to be concerned about protecting the U.S. leadership position and the independence of small allies.
In this “Vietnamization Speech”, Nixon claimed a detailed peace proposal was presented to Hanoi and they refused to discuss the offer unless the U.S. unconditionally were to withdraw her forces (from Vietnam). Nixon stated clearly his intent was to pass the U.S. fighting role to the RVN: “the defense of freedom should be the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened”. For the first time, Nixon informed the Vietnamization plan was implemented following Secretary Laird’s visit to Vietnam in March 1969 by substantially increasing the training and equipment for South Vietnamese forces so they can defend their “threatened freedom” (Nixon, 1969). He confirmed Gen. Abrams’ order was changed to align with the Vietnamization objectives. Nixon’s vision was that the role of the US in the Third World would be transformed from one of direct participation to one of serving as trainer and supplier to indigenous forces (Krepinevich, 1988, p. 251) and Vietnam will be a test case of this new intervention model. Regarding the withdrawal timeline, Nixon in his speech stated he did not want to release a timetable for Vietnamization strategy fearing Hanoi will seek opportunities to invade the RVN. He said the rate of Vietnamization depended on the progress of the Peace Talk in Paris, the level of Hanoi activity, and the progress of training and readiness for RVN forces (Nixon, 1969). It is obvious the progress and performance of Vietnamization were not measured singularly on the RVN readiness. In reality, the outcome of Paris Peace Talk tipped the scale on the rate of Vietnamization.
The architect of Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy and focal point of its implementation was Melvin Laird. Laird was the Secretary of Defense in Nixon’s first term. Laird’s orders in this strategy were to transfer most American combat roles to RVN military forces while reducing the number of US troops on the ground. In other words, his jobs were to expand, equip, and train RVN combat forces while reducing American responsibilities and numbers in the war. Laird oversaw the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces; went from 550,000 troops in 1969 down to 69,000 by 1972. Why was Laird so motivated to withdraw American forces from Vietnam? When he succeeded Clark Clifford, Laird already was a dominant figure in the U.S. Congress. He believed the long and costly war and significant U.S. armed forces involvement in Vietnam weakened the military might and thereby degraded its deterrent ability against the Soviet Union in Europe (Hunt, 2015, p. x). The belief drove Laird’s motivation in withdrawing the forces from Vietnam.
Although Laird was convinced that the U.S. government should use her military strength to push back Communist influence, Laird was critical of military assistance for Third World countries. He was in favor of withdrawing U.S. forces from Third World countries and realigning the forces to more strategic locations. As a congressman served on the Defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Laird also saw the substantial growth in Soviet strategic arms while the U.S. invested heavily in Vietnam in the first half of the 60s. This past experience explained why in his four years leading the U.S. Department of Defense, the goal of ending the Vietnam War and expediting the Vietnamization timetable occupied most of Laird’s time and energy. In addition, Laird believed the war in Vietnam tarnished the military’s reputation, led to the reduction in the defense budget and deferred the Pentagon plan of defense modernization. Laird believed the answer to these problems depended on how fast the Vietnamization strategy could be implemented (Hunt, 2015, p. 8). Laird’s visit to Vietnam in March 1969 and his advocacy for RVN’s abilities that obviously motivated Nixon to embrace the Vietnamization strategy (Nixon, 1979, p. 392) especially when the negotiation effort and military operation didn’t provide the results he expected.
It is evident that Laird had mixed observations about the future of Vietnam after Vietnamization. He believed Thieu, President of RVN, had a broad and popular mandate to govern, but Laird was also distressed with reported corruption in some senior RVN officials and was afraid Thieu, concerned about his power, surrounded himself with incapable but loyal government officials and generals (Hunt, 2015, p. 10). These mixed feelings didn’t slow down Laird’s dedication to Vietnamization strategy. To monitor the progress, Laird formed a Vietnam Task Force. The task force included deputy assistant secretaries from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF), a representative from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and observers from the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This task force met biweekly to monitor the Vietnamization progress and resolved any high-level issues on planning, policy-making, etc. Laird dedicated plenty of time and effort to disengage the American forces from Vietnam; he spent a couple of hours every day with his Vietnam advisors to keep up with the development, progress, and take necessary actions to move the strategy forward. At the end of his SECDEF tenure in 1973, Laird believed the Vietnamization was successfully carried out and the RVN was capable to “defend their threatened freedom” (Cronk, 2016)!
Besides Laird, Kissinger was the important figure that helped implement and set goals for Vietnamization. Kissinger played a major role in using the Vietnamization strategy and military operation as ways to complement his negotiation objectives. Kissinger assumed the Secretary of State position phasing out Rogers in September 1973 and became Nixon’s most trusted advisor on foreign affairs. From a national security advisor to become the Secretary of State and most trusted advisor to Nixon, Kissinger was the key policy makers in all three strategic focus of Nixon (i.e. military operation, diplomacy, and Vietnamization effort) that decided the fate of South Vietnam.
The Effectiveness of Vietnamization Strategy
The first threat to the success of Vietnamization was North Vietnam. At the beginning of his administration, both Nixon and Kissinger understood that Hanoi would not negotiate for a peace deal without a real threat (Wright, 2017, p. 289). In his first year, Nixon ordered Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to plan a major military operation called the Operation Duck Hook. This operation restarted the massive bombing of North Vietnam with more than 500 sorties a day as well as mined ports in Cambodia and North Vietnam. Not sure of the integrity of his determination, Nixon even threatened to use nuclear power or even start a major ground offensive across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The White House made clear to Hanoi that they were ready for a serious and decisive assault. However, the strategic air campaign only works in an industrialized country that has a military industrial complex to support a conventional warfare. North Vietnam was not an industrial country; all of its military weapons were imported. Nixon learned later from Johnson’s experience that the air campaign was costly and could only be effective for short-term objectives. Nixon applied this knowledge in the Linebacker II air campaign to successfully bring Hanoi back to the negotiation table in 1972 when he unleashed the U.S. air force to hit strategic targets in North Vietnam and ceased the military aid channels via Vietnam – China border and Hai Phong’s ports (Phan, 2002).
When the military reminded Nixon that it had proven difficult to harm North Vietnam with bombing campaigns alone, Kissinger refused to believe a “fourth-rate power like North Vietnam” didn’t have a breaking point (Schmitz, 2014, p. 62). Hanoi with nonstop military aids from Soviet Union and China was more resilient than Nixon and Kissinger anticipated. Nixon tried the tough act initially and near the end of 1969 changed to the path of de-escalation in response to Laird’s warning. Laird warned that the Congress and anti-war movement with massive pushback would stifle Nixon’s ability to accomplish other goals of his doctrine. Throughout the Vietnamization phase, Hanoi skillfully changed its tactic to derail the Vietnamization process for its benefits.
Another obstacle for Nixon’s administration to freely implement his strategy was the U.S. Congress. Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 to begin his presidency in which the Democrats in control of both Houses in Congress. When Laird was back from a visit to Vietnam in March 1969, he was able to convince Nixon that Vietnamization would allow the war to end successfully. Laird painted an appealing outlook that South Vietnam would be able to fend for themselves, that American casualties would end and Hanoi would agree to talk again. Nixon thought it was a win-win situation and decided to back off from the Operation Duck Hook in October 1969. Another attractive outlook of Vietnamization to Nixon was the ability to drawdown U.S. forces in Vietnam which he knew the U.S. Congress and American voters would embrace.
A month after the conclusion of Operation Duck Hook, Nixon delivered his famous Vietnamization speech in November 1969. Laird had been tasked to pen the Vietnamization roadmap back in April and troop withdrawals were to begin the first week of July 1969! Right from the beginning, Vietnamization was not a well thought out plan. The plan was based on Laird’s assessment of the RVN readiness and its attractiveness to gain congressional support. It answered Nixon’s urgent need to have a complementary solution to his diplomacy effort and military operation. Kissinger fought against it initially and argued the troop withdrawal would result in an empty threat to Hanoi (Wright, 2017, p. 289). The Vietnamization plan was not properly constructed, but its withdrawal aggressiveness caught the support of democrat dominated congress.
The Vietnamization strategy was to cover all aspects of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from military, para-military and government agencies to all civilian activities and equipment. In this original plan, there was no discussion of an expansion of the RVN armed forces nor the retreat of North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. The focus was on developing a phased withdrawal of the U.S. troops from all activities except leaving behind a small American military presence for support and advisory functions only. By this time, the American war machine in Vietnam consisted of a huge web of divergent U.S. agencies involved in the conflict; shutting down these critical and mutually dependent resources without a supportive replacement would greatly deteriorate the defense of South Vietnam. Regardless of unanimous concerns from these agencies over the RVN ability to withstand combined Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military forces, Kissinger since April 1969, on behalf of Nixon, directed Laird to develop a chronological roadmap of Vietnamization and come up with plans to turn over almost the entire ground war to the RVN (Clark, 1988).
One positive note in term of logistical planning, the U.S. sent over to the RVN large quantities of the newest weapons in the early part of the Vietnamization phase (Herring, 1996, p. 253). During 1972, both General Abrams and his successor, General Wayand, were responsible to transfer large material supplies to the RVN to make up for its heavy combat losses or complete the on-going modernization. More than 100,000 major items of equipment were sent to South Vietnam (MacDonald et al, 1972). However, the large and sophisticated combat equipment and technology could not make up for the experienced manpower that would take time to build up.
The original plan of Vietnamization was to equip, train, and transfer the American forces’ roles and responsibilities to the RVN forces then gradually withdraw the American boots on the ground based on the RVN readiness and North Vietnamese behavior. In the actual implementation of Vietnamization, the prior order was reversed. To Nixon’s credit, he didn’t start with the intention to withdraw the entire U.S. forces at least during his presidency. He made a campaign promise to bring the U.S. Prisoners of War (POWs) home and eventually withdraw the US forces after the RVN forces were properly trained, equipped, and able to handle the war on their own. In addition, Nixon promised to the RVN the air support and naval artillery to prevent Communist extreme hostilities. He was able to keep this promise following the peace treaty and reduce gradually this support until his impeachment. In an interview with Spiegel, a German magazine in 1979, Thieu admitted that he was not comfortable with the U.S. reduction in forces but never thought that it would be an entire withdrawal as Nixon and his team had planned (Engel, 1979). It was obvious that the RVN didn’t completely know the card dealt for them from Nixon.
After the meeting with Thieu on Midway Island on June 8th, 1969. Nixon announced the repatriation of twenty-five thousand Americans and he added another forty thousand to the redeployment schedule in three months (Karnow, 1983, p. 595). The initial withdrawal had nothing to do with the Vietnamization plan; it was purely political for Nixon to engage the American public trust. Thieu had no choice, but reluctantly complied. Kissinger in his memoir accounted for the RVN fear and frustration, but often blamed it on Thieu’s lack of cooperation (Kissinger, 2003). Thieu recalled that Nixon in his visit to Vietnam in July 1969 promised to Thieu the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces based on three conditions: the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces would parallel with the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam, South Vietnam’s defense ability, and also the continuity of American military aid to the South (Engel, 1979). None of these three conditions were met for the Vietnamization.
In mid-1969, the order from Nixon and Laird to General Abrams, Commander of MACV, was to support as quickly as possible for the enlargement, enhancement and modernization of the RVN armed forces (Collins, 2015). In the cited study by Department of the Army and directed by General Collins, the RVN had asked to increase the ARVN force level to over 800,000 regular and popular forces. Even with the ability to increase in ARVN strength and to better equip its forces, there were many challenges to prepare the RVN forces ready for the takeover. First was the capacity to train the RVN forces to take advantage of the latest military technology. Second was the effort to maintain the ARVN morale in the departure of the U.S. armed forces. Next was the ability to form a joint U.S. – Vietnamese promotion board and development plan to generate sufficient qualified RVN officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO). General Abrams protested of the lack of experienced and completely-trained ARVN that could take over the job at such a rapid pace; however, the withdrawals were too popular at home to allow a slowdown (Spector, 2019). Due to Nixon and Laird’s aggressive withdrawal timetable, the reduction of U.S. forces marched on while the South Vietnamese struggled with great cost for their survival. Laird claimed success for the Vietnamization; Nixon had kept his promise to the American people. In fact, the training of the RVN forces to utilize all high-tech weapons supplied by the U.S. and the plan to enhance the ARVN officer and NCO corps were still unfinished!
Nixon didn’t reveal the forces drawdown timetable in public fearing the North Vietnam would manipulate and change the offensive tactics for their own gain. After announcing the drawdown, Nixon initially ordered in private that the withdrawal should be completed within 18 months by 1971. On the contrary, Kissinger would prefer to retain a strong U.S. military presence to support his negotiation effort. He attempted to reason with Nixon that an aggressive withdrawal would negatively impact Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972 if anything were to go wrong. Nixon agreed to extend the withdrawal timetable to lessen its impact on his reelection (Vietnamization, 2017). The decision of Nixon and Kissinger about the withdrawal timetable proved that the RVN defense ability or the North Vietnamese presence in South Vietnam had little influence on the Vietnamization. The schedule was determined by the White House based mostly on the administration’s political agenda, not on the RVN readiness measurement (Phan, 2019, p. 50). Thieu demanded that Nixon enforce the withdrawal of the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam as one of the key requirements for the peace treaty. There were “many days of harsh argument” between Kissinger and Thieu. Kissinger, according to Spiegel magazine interview with Thieu, claimed the Soviet Union forcefully rejected this critical mandate (Engel, 1979). Thieu was outraged that Kissinger allowed the North to keep their forces in the South while the U.S. withdrew.
After the initial military operation proved unsuccessful, Nixon fell back to the other alternatives. Vietnamization was one of them. The second initiative was to negotiate directly and secretly with the North Vietnamese (Karnow, 1983, p. 593). These two alternatives were managed by separate organizations in Nixon’s administration; in some cases, they were not coordinated, especially when the negotiation was secret. For this reason, these efforts were at times incompatible and to some extent contradictory. In addition, this secret negotiation was not coordinated honestly with the RVN leadership. One can imagine the fear and mistrust the RVN government had of her greatest ally. The RVN’s fear was grounded by the fact that any secret agreement with Hanoi would undermine its defensive effort. During the withdrawal process, the mistrust grew immensely at the leadership level as well as the tactical level. Many MACV advisors supporting the RVN units complained they were not informed by their counterparts of detailed battle plans. They were only called upon when the RVN commanders needed air strikes or naval artillery. Similarly, the RVN commanders demonstrated a contempt for their U.S. advisors (Howard, 2017).
All these warriors had fought side-by-side for a long time; what had driven them to this bitter end? One can only point a finger at the lack of transparency in Vietnamization at the operational level. Thieu, in the cited interview earlier, accused that Kissinger only shared selected Hanoi negotiation details. Like the first draft of the Paris Agreement, Kissinger worked on the draft with Hanoi and only shared with Thieu four (4) days prior to the trip in October 1972. Thieu fought hard to acquire the North Vietnamese version from Kissinger; the version was translated by a Hanoi team and an American linguist. Thieu pointed out that the version was full of traps which Hanoi had skillfully inserted due to the translator’s lack of knowledge (Engel, 1979). The mistrust surely degraded the effort to transfer the knowledge and sophisticated equipment to the RVN armed forces and could only make it harder for the RVN to assume the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. armed forces.
Many capable and experienced RVN commanders faced daunting difficulties beyond their capabilities to overcome when assuming U.S. forces responsibilities, territories, and technical challenges. This author can recount several cases in research for this topic, but one situation was typical across the RVN units. In August 1969, Major General Nguyen Van Hieu was appointed commander of the ARVN 5th infantry; he was highly regarded as an ethical and able RVN military leader. In his new appointment, General Hieu took over the responsibilities of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Division; with his existing forces in severe shortage of men and resources, it was impossible to cover the vast area vacated by the American Divisions (Nguyen, 2002). In a bigger picture, Mr. Nguyen in the cited article observed the over-worked, over-extended ARVN forces had to replace seven(7) U.S. Divisions and four(4) U.S. Brigades that used to have abundant resources and sufficient supporting units. The huge gap in soldiers and resources between the RVN and North Vietnam continued to expand until the end of the war as confirmed by the last U.S. Commander-in-Chief in Vietnam, General Weyand (Nguyen, 2002).
General Abrams who replaced General Westmoreland after the Tet Offensive appropriately implemented a new set of tactical changes. He focused on ‘clear and hold’ rather than ‘search and destroy’ and chose selected use of firepower. He also continued support of the development of the ARVN and provided command opportunities for them, while targeting Viet Cong logistical routes. At the same time the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered the Phoenix Program to neutralize VC logistics and countered insurgencies to destroy communist operatives. All these tactics could have been more successful by retaining the U.S. presence at this critical moment (Sorley, 2008). General Abrams’ progress was sabotaged by the aggressive withdrawal of U.S. ground forces. He was surprised by the hasty decision of the White House and had warned the administration that the RVN was not ready to fill the gap.
The ARVN was formed shortly after the Geneva convention on 19 June 1955. It only turned 14 years old in the summer of 1969 when the withdrawal began. Unfortunately, the liberal media and many American military observers have labeled the ARVN as a second-rate army. In the Easter Offensive of 1972 within the midst of major U.S. ground force reduction, this second-rate Army hindered and defeated the largest Communist offensive in the war with the U.S. air and naval support (Grandolini, 2015). Although the U.S. airpower was the major contributing factor, it was unfair to downgrade the ARVN performance. The Army was once suspect by many American servicemen as unmotivated and corrupt, yet it was capable of resisting the largest Communist onslaught. Nixon should have committed the forces necessary or at least reconsidered the aggressive withdrawal schedule in order to reinforce this motivated Army. On the contrary, General Abrams was ordered to change his strategy to support the Nixon Doctrine. If the U.S. forces could have continued to apply General Abrams’ initiatives and the drawdown had been at the right pace, South Vietnam would have had a chance to survive.
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