President Nixon & "Vietnamization"

A look at Nixon's plan for easing the United States out of the Vietnam War

Nixon in a TV presentation in front of a map of Vietnam
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Campaigning under the slogan “Peace with Honor,” Richard M. Nixon won the 1968 presidential election. His plan called for the “Vietnamization” of the war which was defined as the systematic build-up of ARVN forces to the point that they could prosecute the war without American aid. As part of this plan, American troops would slowly be removed. Nixon complemented this approach with efforts to ease global tensions by reaching out diplomatically to the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.

In Vietnam, the war shifted to smaller operations geared towards attacking North Vietnamese logistics.  Overseen by General Creighton Abrams, who replaced General William Westmoreland in June 1968, American forces shifted from a search-and-destroy approach to one more focused on defending South Vietnamese villages and working with the local population.  In doing so, extensive efforts were made to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people.  These tactics proved successful and guerrilla attacks began to subside.

Advancing Nixon's Vietnamization scheme, Abrams worked extensively to expand, equip, and train ARVN forces.  This proved critical as the war became an increasingly conventional conflict and American troop strength continued to be reduced.  Despite these efforts, ARVN performance continued to be erratic and often relied on American support to achieve positive results.

Trouble on the Home Front

While the antiwar movement in the US was pleased with Nixon’s efforts at détente with communist nations, it was inflamed in 1969, when news broke about a massacre of 347 South Vietnamese civilians by US soldiers at My Lai (March 18, 1968). Tension grew further when, following a change in stance by Cambodia, the US began bombing North Vietnamese bases over the border. This was followed in 1970, with ground forces attacking into Cambodia. Though intended to enhance South Vietnamese security by eliminating a threat across the border, and thus in line with the Vietnamization policy, it was publicly viewed as expanding the war rather than winding it down.

Public opinion sunk lower in 1971 with the release of the Pentagon Papers. A top-secret report, the ​Pentagon Papers detailed American mistakes in Vietnam since 1945, as well as exposed lies about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, detailed US involvement in deposing Diem, and revealed secret American bombing of Laos. The papers also painted a bleak outlook for American prospects of victory.

First Cracks

Despite the incursion into Cambodia, Nixon had begun the systematic withdrawal of US forces, lowering troop strength to 156,800 in 1971. That same year, the ARVN commenced Operation Lam Son 719 with the goal of severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. In what was seen as a dramatic failure for Vietnamization, ARVN forces were routed and driven back across the border. Further cracks were revealed in 1972, when the North Vietnamese launched a conventional invasion of the South, attacking into the northern provinces and from Cambodia. The offensive was only defeated with the support of US airpower and saw intense fighting around Quang Tri, An Loc, and Kontum.  Counterattacking and supported by American aircraft (Operation Linebacker), ARVN force reclaimed the lost territory that summer but sustained heavy casualties.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "President Nixon & "Vietnamization"." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). President Nixon & "Vietnamization". Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "President Nixon & "Vietnamization"." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 21, 2021).

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