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Ty Klippenstein Dr.

Haywood 3rd Paper

The Strengths and Limitations of Vietnamization, 1968-1975 The Tet Offensive in 1968 marked an important crossroads in the minds of American policymakers at the time. Lyndon Johnson had already replaced Secretary of Defense McNamara with his close companion Clark Clifford and Johnson was agonizing about every policy decision. In this tense political climate, the Tet Offensive provided a shock both to the Johnson administration as well as the American people. Still within months the American military had successfully fended off the Viet Cong incursions, dealing them their largest military defeat to date. General Westmoreland was asking for more troopsanother 200,000 mento keep up the momentum. Ultimately, Johnson, surveying American public opinion, opted to not give Westmoreland the troopsand the latitude to extend the war that came along with the additional troopsthat he requested. Shortly after this, Johnson announced that he would not run for a second presidential term. With Robert Kennedy assassinated in June of 1968 and the Democratic Party in turmoil, Nixon won the election by a large electoral majority. Thus a new president and administration was tasked with dealing with the Vietnam War, and with them came a change in objectives and policy, revolving around the concept of Vietnamization, which in essence would be the process in which the American military equipped the South Vietnamese to properly fight the Communist infiltration of the South. It remains today a contentious topic of discussion as it is wrapped up heavily in how the U.S. ultimately left Vietnam. While it did prove to be more successful than previous military policy under Westmoreland, both policies were still subject to the same basic problem: the ineffectual South Vietnamese government, especially in contrast to its northern nemesis. In most recent analyses, the Tet Offensive is virtually always described as a significant military defeat and a significant political victory for the North Vietnamese. Within a matter of weeks, Communist forces were driven back incurring heavy losses, with perhaps 32,000 to 58,000 killed (Wilbanks). Yet, as noted above, it put the Johnson administration at a crossroads: escalate the war by acceding to Westmorelands request for 200,000 more troops or begin the process of withdrawal. Increasing troop levels would mean extension of the draft and greater costs coming at a time where the public was disillusioned by the perceived effectiveness of the Viet Cong in executing the Tet Offensive, especially in light of Westmorelands frequent positive reviews beforehand. Tet shattered the optimistic

veneer that Westmorelands reports created. Ultimately, Johnson agreed with the consensus opinion of his advisors and chose the route of drawing down American involvement. According to Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy, this decision represented a conclusion that there was not a military solution that was possible within the political capacity of the United States and the American public to carry through (Bundy quoted in MaClear, 219). Yet it would be five years and over 30,000 American, as well as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese deaths, before a cease fire would be signed (National archives). Even before the Tet Offensive a study was sponsored by Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson called A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam, or PROVN for short. In this study was a stinging criticism of Westmorelands Search and Destroy strategy that sought to wage a war of attrition against the Communists hoping that they would eventually be worn down. Despite Westmorelands claims to the contrary, this strategy could never work because the North Vietnamese could essentially control the level of casualties by choosing whether or not to engage American force. Instead of this policy, the survey recommended a similar course that was advocated in December of 1967 by prominent American strategists: The emphasis should not be on the military destruction of Communist forces in South but on the protection of the people of South Vietnam and the stabilization of the situation at a politically tolerable level. Tactically, this would involve a shift in emphasis from search-and-destroy to clear-and-hold operations (Gibbons quoted in Sorley, 7). After Westmoreland was removed from his position in Vietnam, his replacement Creighton Abrams sought to carry out those recommendations. This change in policy on the ground fit in nicely with the political considerations that were dogging the new administration under Nixon at that time. Nixon had campaigned on getting the U.S. out of the war, hoping to achieve peace with honor. The process of pacification or clear-and-hold would not require so many troops on the ground and Nixon was anxious to appease the American public by announcing troop withdrawals, thus buying him time to implement his own diplomatic strategy. In the words of Scott Sigmund Gartner, *Vietnamization+ allowed Nixon to continue an unpopular war and achieve a landslide reelection in 1972 (Gartner, 245). In addition to its political benefits, it would also be a relatively seamless transition on the ground in Vietnam. In fact, as was alluded to above, by the time Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird conceptualized the Vietnamization strategy, it was already in part being executed on the ground through Abrams pacification scheme. As James Wilbanks states, By the time that Nixon, Laird, and Kissinger had formulated their new strategy for ending the war, the strategic ingredients were already in place and the process was ongoing (Wilbanks, 20).

On November 3, Nixon spelled out his Vietnamization policy to the American public in a landmark speech that famously asked for the support of the great silent majority. As George Herring explains, *Nixon+ seems to have reasoned that if he could mobilize American opinion behind him, persuade Hanoi that he would not abandon Thieu (leader of South Vietnam), and intensify the buildup of South Vietnamese military strength, the North Vietnamese might conclude that it would be better to negotiate with the United States now than with South Vietnam later, and he could extract from the them the concessions necessary to secure peace with honor (Herring, 282). This would involve opening up talks with China and the Soviet Union playing one off the other to undercut their support for North Vietnam. On the ground, there were signs of success under the leadership of General Abrams. One of the early indicators of success was the resettling of refugees to their home villages. In 1968 250,000 refugees were returned out of the 1.5 million total refugees at that time. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker noted in response to this positive development, I think thats one of the best indications that you could have, a feeling of assurance on the part of the people (Bunker quoted in Sorley, 77). In addition, hamlets, previously lost to Viet Cong were steadily being brought back under control as initial goals to bring 1,000 hamlets to secure status in ninety days was done with time to spare (Sorley, 65). Along with these gains were political and economic reforms that included village elections, which restored autonomy that was lost under President Ngo Dinh Diem, civic responsibility training, as well as local building projects aimed at improving roads, bridges, and the establishing of schools and hospitals. Whats more, the government implemented an ambitious land redistribution program that ultimately redistributed one million hectares of land. As George Herring notes, Most observers agreed that significant gains had been made. Almost overnight the South Vietnamese Army had become one of the largest and best-equipped in the world. When properly led, moreover, ARVN units fought well. . . . Their performance improved noticeably as U.S. support units were withdrawn. . . . American spoiling tactics, along with North Vietnams decision to go on the defensive, left the countryside more secure than at any other time since the war began. These successes made it more difficult for the Viet Cong to recruit and it made it tougher for them to be supplied from the North. Another part of the pacification program was the controversial Phoenix program. The program was designed to train South Vietnamese military, police, and civilian officials to penetrate the peasant population, uproot communist cadres, and gather information. Its critics called it an assassination

program, but supporters noted that a minority of those alleged Viet Cong that were neutralized were actually killed. According to Mark Moyar, out of a total of 81,740 neutralized, 26,369 were killed, 33,358 were captured, and 22,013 were rallied to the Southern governments side (Moyar, 236). Initially skeptical of its reported progress by CIA chief in Saigon William Colby, journalist Stanley Karnows perspective changed after the war when top Communist figures in Vietnam confirmed Colby assessment (Karnow, 617). It was described by these figures variously as very dangerous, devious and cruel, and extremely destructive (Karnow, 617). Clearly, with fewer resources and in the midst of a hostile political climate at home, Abrams tactics were proving to be far more effective than his predecessors. Abrams had been given a thankless role. Henry Kissinger described it as one of the most thankless tasks ever assigned an American general (Kissinger quoted in Wilbanks, 21). Yet, as noted above, progress was being made both with respect to weakening the enemy and putting South Vietnam in a better position to fend off its enemies. Lewis Sorley went so far as to say that they had won the war: There came a time when the war was won. The fighting wasnt over, but the war was won. This achievement can probably best be dated in late 1970, after the Cambodian incursion in the spring of the year (Sorley, 217). The evidence for this is the significant gains listed above, but it can be summarized by stating that the South Vietnamese were now in a position to defend themselves against their northern foes. There was one important caveat to Sorleys bold claim: the U.S. would still need to provide a nominal supporting role. This gets to the weakness of Sorleys claim as well as others who argue that the war was winnable were it not for the skittish Congress and a likewise skittish American public. He frequently speaks of the American abandonment of Vietnam and the betrayal of its promises of support for their cause. True enough, America did betray South Vietnam. But it must be remembered that the U.S. had given significant support to the South Vietnamese since 1954. Yet on more than one occasion Sorley calls the U.S. a sometimes ally of South Vietnam (Sorley, 380, 382). This was especially in contrast to North Vietnams uninterrupted support from China and Russia. This view is problematic for two main reasons: one, on more than one occasion China undercut North Vietnamese political demands, namely when they called for and achieved a divided Vietnam in 1954 at Geneva. Secondly, while the U.S. ceased its support for South Vietnam after the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement, it still on the whole provided far more aid to South Vietnam than did China and the Soviet Union to North Vietnam. That at one time, over 550,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam and during the Vietnamization process the South Vietnamese had the 4th largest air force in the world is proof enough.

Sorley frequently exaggerates the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese government led by Nguyen Van Thieu. This was the same person and government who have so often proven to be incompetent and corrupt, unable to gain strong support from the South Vietnamese people. In 1974, as Karnow explains, corruption was rampant: Corruption was now exceeding all bounds as commanders robbed payrolls and embezzled other funds (Karnow, 675). Officers often squeezed local villagers to pay quartermaster units who demanded bribes for supplies like rice, ammunition, and gasoline. Emblematic of the fact that corruption made it all the way to the top, when Thieu fled the country in 1975, he did so with all of South Vietnams gold reserves in tow. Foreign Service officer John Graham details the effect of this corruption stating, Corruption and incompetence kept any of the governments we supported in Saigon from gaining the minimal popular allegiance needed to make them viable. When I left Vietnam in 1972, the regime of Nguyen van Thieu was a house of cards, held together by a pervasive cronyism that put incompetents in key positions at every level, where many of them skimmed a good living off US aid funds (Graham). No matter how successful Vietnamization was, it could not end the corruption in the South Vietnamese government. In spite of its success, Vietnamization did not lead to a stable South Vietnam nor did it give the American government peace with honor. The South Vietnamese military was well-equipped and fighting more effectively than ever, but if it was not readily apparent in 1973 that it still was heavily dependent upon U.S. aid, the rapidity with which North Vietnam conquered the South in 1975 made that fact quite clear. One may wonder what the fate of South Vietnam could have been had the clear and hold strategy been implemented in 1965. While that can never be answered, it is clear that since Vietminh ousted the French from Indochina the northern governmental apparatus far exceeded the stability of its southern counterpart. Because of that as well as the toxic political climate at home, Vietnamization would always be limited in its objective to create a stable and strong South Vietnam.

Works Cited Appy, Christian G. Patriots: the Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. New York: Viking, 2003. Print. "A Better War, but Good Enough?" The Economist. Web. 01 July 2011. < d_enou>. Duiker, William J. Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995. Print. Gartner, Scott S. Differing Evaluations of Vietnamization. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 29.2 (1998): 243-62. Web. 1 July 2011. <>. Graham, John. "Afghanistan -- Winning Lessons from Vietnam." Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. Web. 01 July 2011. <>. Herring, George C. America's Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print. Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam, A History. New York, NY: Penguin, 1997. Print. Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam 1945-1975. New York: St. Martin's, 1981. Print. Moyar, Mark. Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: The CIAs Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997. Print Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harcourt, 2000. Print. "Statistical Information about Casualties of the Vietnam War." National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 01 July 2011. <>.

Willbanks, James H. Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War. Lawrence, Kan: University of Kansas, 2008. Print.