Vietnamization: In Theory and In Reality

The “Secret Plan” of Nixon

After the stunning Tet Offensive, American public, who was already cautious about the war in Vietnam, now changed their views even more dramatically against it. Anti-war protests and demonstrations increased rapidly in numbers and size throughout the nation. American people now demanded for peace more than ever before. As a result, a peace solution for Vietnam apparently became a key issue in the next presidential election occurring soon at the end of the year.

Republican Party presidential candidate Richard Nixon understood and acknowledged that if he was to win the election he had to show that he had a viable plan to bring out peace and he did. In a public speech on 5 March 1968, Nixon implied that he already had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, which succeeded in attracting public’s attention1. Since then, he continued to carry his “secret plan” with the slogan of “peace with honor” throughout his campaign until he finally got elected in one of the nation’s tightest Presidential race.

Even though some claimed that the “secret” plan that Nixon implied never actually existed2, early in his administration, he did come up with a new policy to secure the existence of South Vietnam and the withdrawal of the U.S. forces at the same time. This policy was later known as the “Vietnamization” which was coined in a broadcast speech in November, 19693.

Vietnamization in Theory…

Vietnamization policy had two major purposes: first, to gradually withdraw U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam; second, to train and strengthen the South Vietnamese military so they can defend themselves against the North Communists.  In theory, the subsequent withdrawal of the U.S. forces would depend on the improvements of South Vietnamese military capabilities and the level of combat activities. That process, according to most U.S. senior advisors in Vietnam, could take no less than five years4.

To put Vietnamization into practice, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), directed by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, prepared a two phases plan for American withdrawal. In Phase I, American continued to participate in the war at the current level while enlarging, improving, and modernizing South Vietnamese forces. In Phase II, the burden of the war was gradually shifted to the ARVN until they was capable of dealing with the combined Viet Cong and NVA threat5. Although the Vietnamization policy did make sense in theory, many military officers still doubted whether the inexperienced South Vietnamese Army, who was relegated to a second-class role for too long, could be able to cope with the skilful NVA before the U.S. total withdrawal.

… and in Reality

The U.S. withdrawal began when 814 soldiers of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division left Saigon on July 7, 1969. Following them was more than 24,000 troops who withdrew in the first stage of the U.S. disengagement6. In December 1969, a further 60,000 men were scheduled to leave South Vietnam. In parallel, the U.S. also began their essential efforts to strengthen the ARVN. At first, they attempted to develop and expand South Vietnam’s military schools of advanced military training. In fact, the curriculum from junior officers at Da Lat Military Academy was expanded to four years7. In March 1971, the numbers of ARVN soldiers impressively increased to more than 1,000,000 men armed with modern US M-16 guns8. At the beginning of 1972, the ARVN had about 120 infantry battalions supported by 58 artillery battalions and 19 battalion-size armored units9. Moreover, with more than 2,000 aircraft supported by the U.S., the Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) grown to the fourth largest Air Force in the world10.

After a year of implementation, the U.S. decided to give Vietnamization its first test. In mid-1970, the U.S. and the ARVN cooperatively launched a military campaign to wipe out communist troops ensconced in Cambodian borders. In this first campaign where the ARVN took a major role, they achieved initial success. On the surface, it appeared that South Vietnamese forces had performed well in the incursion. President Nixon and many allied leaders saw the campaign as an encouraging sign of the policy success11.

However, a later study conducted by Major Jeff Hacket pointed out a different view. In this incursion, the ARVN had used their best-trained units to face an enemy who was more concerned about their self-preservation rather than fighting. Moreover, they also relied heavily on U.S. air and artillery support to inflict the enemy. Thus, the ARVN in the Cambodia incursion seemed to be portrayed more capable than they actually were12. As a matter of fact, the later events indicated that Hacket was right.

The weakness of the ARVN was quickly highlighted in its second test, Operation Lam Son 719. Conducted in southern of Laos, the U.S. ground forces and advisors this time were legally prohibited to participate in the operation due to the Cooper-Church amendment passed in December 1970. For the first time, the ARVN conducted a large operation without major U.S. supports. Unfortunately, Lam Son 719 soon turned out to be a disaster.

Most South Vietnamese commanders proved themselves ineffective and unable to coordinate air and artillery support in a large conventional operation13. At the end of the operation, at least 5,000 ARVN troops were killed and wounded but no major objective was achieved14. At that time, the numbers of U.S. military personnel continued to decline. There were only 160,000 U.S. troops remained by late 197015. By early 1972, the U.S. had roughly 40,000 troops in South Vietnam, only 5% of them were combatant16.

On 30 March 1972, the NVA conducted a massive military campaign, known as the Easter Offensive, in three major tactical zones in South Vietnam. The offensive was conducted in the belief that it could possibly influence the 1972 U.S. presidential election by increasing anti-war sentiment among the public as well as improved their bargaining position at the peace talks in Paris17. Moreover, with the constant U.S. troop withdrawals, Hanoi believed that the ARVN could be easily defeated. And they might be right.

The major weakness in defence of the ARVN was once again brought to the surface. In fact, without massive U.S. air support, the ARVN could hardly have held An Loc, defend Kon Tum, or reoccupied Quang Tri18.  Despite the poor performance of the ARVN in the Easter, the U.S. continued to withdraw their troops from South Vietnam and left the main objective of Vietnamization, which was to build a new and capable South Vietnamese forces, unresolved.

Conclusion

Through the Vietnamization program, Nixon had done what he had promised American people, the U.S. combat troops had completely withdrawn from South Vietnam. However, it was the only goal Vietnamization could achieve. The other goal which was to mould the ARVN into a viable fighting force turned out to be a failure. Even though South Vietnamese army was equipped with the latest U.S. weapons and technology, they still lacked leadership, training, and morale. In fact, with only four short years, the U.S. had overestimated the ability of the ARVN to match up to the experienced and well-trained NVA. Last but not least, the Congress decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam after the resignation of Nixon in 1974 eventually brought Vietnamization to its ultimate fate.

References:

1.    Jeffrey, K. (1998), “Nixon’s Vietnam War”, p.40.

2.    Wells, W., “The ‘secret plan’ ploy”, Retrieved April 5, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/20/opinion/20iht-edwells.3229758.html

3.    Nixon, Richard M., “Vietnamization Speech”, Retrieved February 22, 2014 from http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/richard-milhous-nixon/vietnamization-speech-1969.php.

4.    “Vietnamization: Lasting Effects on South Vietnam”, Retrieved February 22, 2014 from http://www.studyworld.com/Vietnamization.htm, para.4.

5.    “Vietnam Studies: The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army”, p.88.

6.    Anderson, D. L., “The Military and Diplomatic Course of the Vietnam War”, Retrieved February 22, 2014 from http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/anderson.htm .

7.    Clarke, Jeffrey J. (1988), “Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973”, p.318.

8.    Pauker, Guy J. (1971), “An essay on Vietnamization”, p. 47.

9.    “Vietnam Studies: The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army”, p.91.

10.  Wetterhahn, Ralph (Jan. 1997), “Escape to U Taphao”, Air & Space Magazine. Retrieved February 22, 2014 from http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/escape-to-u-taphao-112/.

11.  Shaw, J. M. (2005), “The Cambodian Campaign: The 1970 Offensive and America’s Vietnam War”, Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, p.153.

12.  Hacket, J. (2008), “The Cambodian Incursion: Tactical and Operation Success and its Effects on Vietnamization”, p.19.

13.  Prados, J., “Vietnamization: Success or Failure?”, Retrieved February 22, 2014 from http://www.vva.org/veteran/1207/vietnamization.html

14.  Tucker, Spencer C. (2011), “The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War – 2nd Edition”, p. 619.

15.  “The United States Pulls Out of Vietnam”, Retrieved February 22, 2014 from http://ows.edb.utexas.edu/site/ritas-site/united-states-pulls-out-vietnam.

16.  Bruce, Palmer J. (2002), “The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam”, p. 120.

17.  Palmer, D. R. (1978), “Summons of the Trumpet: The History of the Vietnam War from a Military Man’s Viewpoint”, p.310-311.

18.  “Vietnam, The End 1975”, p.21, Retrieved February 22, 2014 fromhttp://ehistory.osu.edu/vietnam/essays/theend/0021.cfm

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