More than 25 years after the last helicopter lifted from the United States embassy in Saigon, the Vietnam War continues to cast a shadow on American history. Whether the preservation of South Vietnam was worth the human and financial costs to both the Americans and Vietnamese continues to be the subject of contentious debate.
The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1975 was a blow to the collective American psyche that had, until then, yet to experience such a failure. By then, the United States had spent an estimated $150 billion on the Vietnam War, wreaking havoc on its economy in the process. It had dropped seven million tons of bombs in both North and South Vietnam. The war had served as a divisive force, causing tense civil unrest throughout the country.
More importantly, of the 2.7 million American men and women who served in Vietnam, there were 300,000 wounded. An estimated 58,000 more were killed (Dudley 17).
This paper examines how the U.S. military policy of Vietnamization contributed significantly to the chaos and collapse of democratic and military structures and the eventual loss in the Vietnam War.
The first part of this paper examines the roots of American involvement in South Vietnam, as well as the American objectives in maintaining two separate Vietnamese nations. In the next part, the paper examines the origins of the policy of Vietnamization, tracing how this policy evolved through the terms of President Johnson to President Nixon. In this section, the paper also looks at how Vietnamization was enacted. The next section details how these Vietnamization policies ultimately proved insufficient in light of the North Vietnamese offensives from 1972 to the final offensive in 1975.
In the last part, the paper concludes that Vietnamization failed not as a policy per se, but because Vietnamization failed to meet its own goals. The South Vietnamese armed forces was not yet equipped or trained to stave off their North Vietnamese opponents. This weakness was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnamization was enacted at the very time when the North Vietnamese armed forces were gaining strength in the countryside.
I. American Involvement in South Vietnam
The entire country of Vietnam fell under French colonial rule in 1883, a little more than three decades after France began a military campaign, ostensibly to protect the lives of its Roman Catholic missionaries. Despite sporadic attempts at national independence, the French easily remained in control of Vietnam until World War II (Dudley 24).
With the Second World War, however, France itself fell under German control, while its Indochinese territories were occupied by Japan. This presented the Vietnamese forces with an unprecedented chance to win their independence. The strongest of these factions were the Communist Viet Minh, based in the North, headed by Ho Chi Minh (Bowman 15).
By the 1950s, the Communist Viet Minh had established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North. In the south, on the other hand, the non-Communist factions of Ngo Dihn Diem established the Republic of Vietnam. The two states established themselves as separate, distinct states.
Faced with this dichotomy, the United States government under then-President Eisenhower threw his support behind Ngo Dihn Diem's factions. This decision, forged in the prevailing conditions of the Cold War, was more a decision against Ho Chi Minh, who was, in Eisenhower's words, "indoctrinated in Moscow...an associate of the Russian Borodin" (38).
United States involvement was premised on the "domino theory," the idea that if Vietnam falls to Communism, other satellite countries would follow. The United States, Eisenhower insisted, could not afford the possibility of a "dictatorship that is inimical to the free world" (Eisenhower 39).
The United States extended military aid through the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), headed by Lt. General John W. O'Daniel. Their mandate was to shore up the weakening South Vietnamese government and to preserve a separate, non-Communist South Vietnam.
The MAAG was charged with creating a national South Vietnamese armed forces capable of repelling Communist aggressors and maintaining the integrity of the demilitarized zone that marked as separate North and South Vietnam. Towards this, the United States sent an initial force of 150,000 troops, incorporating the lessons learned from the Korean War.
By 1968, South Vietnam had an armed forces composed of 250,000 troops. Patterned after the United States forces, the South Vietnamese troops were divided into an armed forces, navy, air force and marine corps. Through U.S. military aid, these forces were also furnished with equipment like artillery, tanks, ships and airplanes (Herring 57).
In addition to these forces, the South Vietnamese military was also aided by the Territorial forces, which were smaller, militia-like organizations. These Territorial forces were dispatched throughout the countryside and were provided with training, as well as equipment like jeeps, radios and small arms (Herring 59).
In comparison to the joint United States and South Vietnamese forces, the Viet Cong armed forces seemed small and weak. The armed forces of 80,000 guerillas, in addition to 80,000 North Vietnamese troops, were further hampered by their fragile supply lines. Despite these disadvantages, however, the Viet Cong score important victories over their more numerous opponents. These include an early 1963 victory in the battle of Ap Bac and a later, more massive and coordinated attacks during the Tet Offensive in January 1969 (Dudley, 263-265).
By 1969, then President Nixon recognized the changing public perceptions regarding the war in Vietnam. By this time, the Senate was already holding hearings to investigate the background and make recommendations for the future of the Vietnam War. All over the country, people agitated for peace or, at the very least, for an end to the United States involvement in Vietnam.
In light of the growing public and Congressional discontent, Nixon authorized the secret bombing of known Viet Cong strongholds in Vietnam. The number of American troops stationed in Vietnam reached its peak of 543,000 in 1969, under the Nixon administration (Dudley 266).
However, even Nixon recognized that increasing or just maintaining American presence in Vietnam was no longer a politically defensible cause. On June 8, 1969, Nixon set the policy of Vietnamization in play by announcing the initial withdrawal of 25,000 American troops. The American troops were to be replaced by South Vietnamese soldiers (Bowman 229).
Before discussing the effects of Vietnamization, it is useful to define the policy of Vietnamization itself.
The policy of Vietnamization was composed of two elements. The first, immediate factor was the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam. The second component was the transfer of military responsibilities to the South Vietnamese troops (Herring 198-199).
Thus, aside from removing American troops from battle, the larger goal of Vietnamization was, as historian Guy Paulker writes, "the consolidation of the emerging politico-military system in South Vietnam" (cited in Schultz 55). In other words, the task of winning the war and running the country would be assumed the South Vietnamese government and military.
A. Johnson's Americanization
The Vietnamization approach was a marked contrast to the strategy adopted by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had presided over the peak of American involvement in the Vietnam War. It was under Johnson's presidency that the Vietnam War emerged from an obscure conflict halfway around the world into the American consciousness. By sending American troops to complement the South Vietnamese armed forces, Johnson embarked on an approach that could be described as the "Americanization" period of the Vietnam conflict.
Johnson assumed the presidency a few weeks after Ngo Dinh Diem was killed during a military coup, with the tacit approval of the American ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Though initially supportive of the Diem administration, the United States had become increasingly concerned with the South Vietnamese president's inability to defeat the Northern Communist forces (source, Dudley 95).
Though Johnson initially pledged not to send "American boys...to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," (Johnson, cited in Dudley 95) he also stated that his administration would not abandon the commitments made by the United States towards South Vietnam.
Just a few weeks after winning the election in November 1964, Johnson initiated several policies that served to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War.
First, following an attack on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin by Vietnamese gunboats, Johnson authorized retaliatory air strikes. Furthermore, Johnson also appeared in front of Congress, asking for authority to use "all necessary steps, including the use of armed force" in Vietnam (Bowman 86).
After an American soldier was killed during a Vietcong shell attack in 1965, Johnson authorized air strikes against military targets in North Vietnam. This was followed by a sustained bombing campaign in North Vietnam and, eventually, by the arrival of the first ground troops in South Vietnam. By the end of 1965, Johnson had dispatched 180,000 troops to South Vietnam.
By 1967, the number of troops had increased to 485,000 (Mann 530).
Throughout the fighting, periodic ceasefires were announced to pave the way for…