The Nixon Doctrine redefined the US commitment to Communist containment abroad by focusing on empowering threatened countries with materiel and equipment rather than shouldering the war with a primary source of manpower[i]. This doctrine would influence the Vietnam War through “Vietnamization,” a new tactic in which US forces would slowly be extracted from the country as ARVN forces were issued increased training, logistical support and equipment upgrades, the objective being a complete assumption of operational responsibility and the final withdrawal of all US ground forces. General Creighton Abrams who would replace Westmoreland as theatre commander after the disastrous Tet Offensive appropriately modified ground strategy to meet the new Washington doctrine, focusing on clear and hold rather than search and destroy operations, restrained use of firepower, focused training and implementation of ARVN forces, and utilized small unit tactics to destroy VC logistics in the countryside, all the while expanding and granting increased command responsibility to South Vietnamese forces. Following the Tet Offensive the CIA also engineered the Phoenix Program in order to locate and neutralize VC countryside logistics, using counter-insurgency tactics to systematically destroy Communist operatives.
While this new strategy may have proved successful given time and with the support of the US forces already in country, the Vietnamization doctrine called for withdrawal, and thus paralyzed any substantial progress Abrams could have made. In this fashion Vietnamization was essentially an expensive international and public relations scheme, allowing for Washington planners to appear strong against Communism while in truth they had already deemed the Vietnam adventure a failure and had already decided to abandon the country they, by initially supporting the irrevocable corruption of the puppet Diem, had plunged into war.
Nixon utilized Vietnamization to establish a “decent interval” in which it would appear as if a restored South Vietnam had met defeat on its own terms by failure of its own virtue, diverting the international shame from the presidency to the South Vietnamese people, while also crafting an effective propaganda campaign for purposes of his own ambitions, creating the illusion that he was both strong on containing Communism while also interested in a final and honorable peace. In the end Vietnamization proved to be a sham, not better illuminated than in the secret words of Henry Kissinger: “And while we cannot bring a communist government to power, if, as a result of historical evolution it should happen over a period of time, if we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina.[ii]”
While the Nixon administration had decided that Vietnam was a hopeless cause and sought to control the damage its fall to Communism might have caused to the American prestige through Vietnamization, the change of strategy actually proved to be initially successful against Communist forces before being sabotaged by premature troop withdrawal. In the Easter Offensive of 1972 the new ARVN army, completely reconstituted by Abrams, and with support of US ground, air and naval forces, were able to hinder the largest Communist offensive yet and the fortunes of the war seemed to be at a turning point. The ARVN forces had not faltered in the face of a massive Communist offensive, as they had in the past, had engaged, halted and counterattacked enemy positions, without losing order, all the while effectively utilizing the technological advantages afforded to them by the Americans. The ARVN, which had once been considered a second-rate army and which was suspect by many American servicemen as untrained and unmotivated, was now capable of resisting the Communist aggression.
Rather than commit the forces necessary to finally turn the tide of the conflict, Nixon opted, in adherence with an ongoing trend, to withdraw the great bulk of US forces still remaining in theatre, leaving only small groups of advisors behind. In this fashion Abrams was unable to consolidate his progress, and shortly after the Easter Offensive, in the face of mounting public disapproval and consternation, was removed from the theatre by the high command. Abrams’ ARVN army would be tested again in the future by an even grander operation, the Ho Chi Minh offensive. In this latter and decisive encounter the South Vietnamese forces, without US support, would be utterly defeated and Saigon would be captured by the enemy.
Taking the decisions of the Nixon administration into consideration it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of Vietnamization. As a tool isolated in itself to resist Communist aggression, it was a failure, or rather, was insufficient in procuring an eventual victory for the Saigon government. The byproducts of Vietnamization however, the change in tactics as employed by Abrams in order to bring about the new doctrine, seemed to have been more effective than the strategies utilized during the oblivious and destructive Westmoreland command. If US forces had remained in country and worked with a restructured and empowered ARVN, utilizing similar small unit tactics, the effects of Vietnamization may have actually been judged as critical in changing the fortunes of the war.
Vietnamization would instead sound as a death knell to the South Vietnamese Republic, as the outnumbered ARVN forces were unable to defeat the PAVN forces, now bolstered by tanks, heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles, free to operate with abandon, unrestricted by the absence of American forces. While the Saigon government was barely able to hold onto to its territory while the Americans were in country, albeit operating ineffectively through interdiction and search and destroy, it did not face an immediate threat from Northern conventional offensives, as the Americans were capable of defeating the PAVN decisively in the field by virtue of their immense air and naval superiority. With this trump card now increasingly absent from the Saigon government’s force pool the ARVN forces were unable, even with shipments of US war materiel, to resist the Ho Chi Minh Offensive. If tactics were changed in conjunction with support of US forces, victory may have been possible.
[i] Address to the Nation on the War in Vietnam November 3, 1969
[ii] Memorandum of Conversation with Zhou Enlai, 20 June 1972, 2:05- p.m., Top Secret/Sensitive/Exclusively Eyes Only.