Vietnam War - Vietnamization 1969 - 1972
Severe communist losses during the Tet Offensive allowed U.S. President Richard
M. Nixon to begin troop withdrawals. His plan, called the Nixon Doctrine, was to
build up the ARVN, so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam.
The policy became known as "Vietnamization". Vietnamization had much in
common with the policies of the Kennedy administration. One important
difference, however, remained. While Kennedy insisted that the South Vietnamese
fight the war themselves, he attempted to limit the scope of the conflict.
Nixon said in an announcement, "I am tonight announcing plans for the
withdrawal of an additional 150,000 American troops to be completed during the
spring of next year. This will bring a total reduction of 265,500 men in our
armed forces in Vietnam below the level that existed when we took office 15
Nixon also pursued negotiations. Theater commander Creighton Abrams shifted
to smaller operations, aimed at communist logistics, with better use of
firepower and more cooperation with the ARVN. Nixon also began to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with the
People's Republic of China. This policy helped to decrease global tensions.
Détente led to nuclear arms reduction on the part of both superpowers. But Nixon was
disappointed that the PRC and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North
Vietnamese with aid. In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at age
The anti-war movement was gaining strength in the United States. Nixon
appealed to the "silent
majority" of Americans to support the war. But revelations of the My Lai Massacre, in
which a U.S. Army platoon went on a rampage and raped
and killed civilians, and the 1969 "Green Beret
Affair" where eight Special Forces soldiers, including the 5th Special
Forces Group Commander were arrested for the murder of a suspected
double agent provoked
national and international outrage.
The civilian cost of the war was again questioned when the U.S. concluded
operation Speedy Express with a claimed
bodycount of 10,889 Communist guerillas with only 40 U.S. losses; Kevin Buckley
writing in Newsweek estimated
that perhaps 5,000 of the Vietnamese dead were civilians.
Beginning in 1970 American troops were being taken away from border areas
where much more killing took place and instead put along the coast and interior
which is one reason why casualties in 1970 were less than half of 1969's totals
Sihanouk had proclaimed Cambodia neutral since 1955, but the
communists used Cambodian soil as a base and Sihanouk tolerated their presence,
because he wished to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under
pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. The
Vietnamese communists were no longer welcome. President Nixon took the
opportunity to launch a massive secret bombing campaign, called Operation Menu, against
their sanctuaries along the Cambodia/Vietnam border.
This violated a long succession of pronouncements from Washington supporting
Cambodian neutrality. Richard Nixon wrote to Prince Sihanouk in April 1969
assuring him that the United States respected "the sovereignty, neutrality and
territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia..." In 1970, Prince
Sihanouk was deposed by his pro-American
prime minister Lon Nol. The
country's borders were closed, and the U.S. and ARVN launched incursions into Cambodia to attack VPA/NLF
bases and buy time for South Vietnam.
The invasion of Cambodia sparked nationwide U.S. protests. Four students
were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University during a protest in
Ohio, which provoked public outrage in the
United States. The reaction to the incident by the Nixon administration was seen
as callous and indifferent, providing additional impetus for the anti-war
In 1971 the Pentagon
Papers were leaked to The New York Times. The top-secret
history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by the Department of
Defense, detailed a long series of public deceptions. The Supreme Court ruled that its
publication was legal.
The ARVN launched Operation Lam Son 719 in February 1971,
aimed at cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The offensive was a clear
violation of Laotian neutrality, which
neither side respected in any event. Laos had long been the scene of a Secret War.
After meeting resistance, ARVN forces retreated in a confused rout. They fled
along roads littered with their own dead. When they ran out of fuel, soldiers
abandoned their vehicles and attempted to barge their way on to American
helicopters sent to evacuate the wounded. Many ARVN soldiers clung to helicopter
skids in a desperate attempt to save themselves. U.S. aircraft had to destroy
abandoned equipment, including tanks, to prevent them from falling into enemy
hands. Half of the invading ARVN troops were either captured or killed. The
operation was a fiasco and represented a clear failure of Vietnamization. As
Karnow noted "the blunders were monumental... The (South Vietnamese)
government's top officers had been tutored by the Americans for ten or fifteen
years, many at training schools in the United States, yet they had learned
In 1971 Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers. The U.S. troop
count was further reduced to 196,700, with a deadline to remove another 45,000
troops by February 1972. As peace protests spread across the United States,
disillusionment grew in the ranks. Drug use increased, race relations grew tense
and the number of soldiers disobeying officers rose. Fragging, or the murder
of unpopular officers with fragmentation grenades, increased.
Vietnamization was again tested by the Easter Offensive of 1972, a massive
conventional invasion of South Vietnam. The VPA and NLF quickly overran the
northern provinces and in coordination with other forces attacked from Cambodia,
threatening to cut the country in half. U.S. troop withdrawals continued. But
American airpower came to the rescue with Operation Linebacker, and the offensive
was halted. However, it became clear that without American airpower South
Vietnam could not survive. The last remaining American ground troops were
withdrawn in August.
The war was the central issue of the 1972 presidential
election. Nixon's opponent, George McGovern, campaigned on a platform of
withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger,
continued secret negotiations with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho. In October 1972, they
reached an agreement.
However, South Vietnamese President Thieu demanded massive changes to the
peace accord. When North Vietnam went public with the agreement's details, the
Nixon administration claimed that the North was attempting to embarrass the
President. The negotiations became deadlocked. Hanoi demanded new changes.
To show his support for South Vietnam and force Hanoi back to the negotiating
table, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, a massive
bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. The offensive destroyed much of the remaining
economic and industrial capacity of North Vietnam. Simultaneously Nixon
pressured Thieu to accept the terms of the agreement, threatening to conclude a
bilateral peace deal and cut off American aid.
On 15 January 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action
against North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords on "Ending the War and
Restoring Peace in Vietnam" were signed on 27 January 1973, officially ending
direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was declared across
North and South Vietnam. U.S. POWs were released. The agreement guaranteed the
territorial integrity of Vietnam and,
like the Geneva
Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and South.
The Paris Peace Accords stipulated a sixty-day period for the total withdrawal
of U.S. forces. "This article," noted Peter Church, "proved... to be the only
one of the Paris Agreements which was fully carried out