My blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 will focus on Vietnamization. Vietnamization was a strategy that President Richard Nixon pursued in the Vietnam War. Its goal was for the South Vietnamese to take on more of the responsibility for fighting the Vietnam War, as American troops would take on less responsibility and would withdraw over time.
I first read about Vietnamization in an Opposing Viewpoints book about the Vietnam War. The way that Opposing Viewpoints books are set up, you have an article that defends a particular point, and that’s followed by an article that argues the opposite. For the article that defended Vietnamization, the book presented a speech by President Nixon explaining the strategy. For the article that criticized it, the book had a speech (I think that’s what it was) by Senator George McGovern, who would run against Nixon in the 1972 Presidential election.
I was just a kid when I read this book, so there was much that I did not know about the Vietnam War. Consequently, when I read Nixon’s speech explaining Vietnamization, it made a lot of sense to me. Sure, let’s get South Vietnam to the place where it can defend itself, and then we won’t have to have American troops defending it! Makes sense! Then I read the article by Senator McGovern, and McGovern essentially argued that General Thieu of South Vietnam did not want us to leave, and so it would be futile for us to expect for South Vietnam to take up the slack in fighting the war. I didn’t entirely understand McGovern’s argument at the time. Now, years later, I understand it a little better, especially after reading Ambrose. Of course, General Thieu would want the powerful Americans to protect his country, and his government!
Nixon talks about Vietnamization in volume 1 of his memoirs, on pages 617-618. Nixon narrates that war supplies were coming to the Communists in Vietnam through the country of Laos. Nixon, therefore, planned to attack the enemy in Laos. But the Americans would not be the main ones attacking, under this plan. Rather, the South Vietnameze ARVN would do the attacking, while the U.S. role would include such things as providing air cover and support for artillery, using helicopters to transport troops and supplies, giving “gunship support”, and raiding with B-52s.
5,000 ARVN troops entered into Laos, and the Communists resisted fiercely. Meanwhile, caught off guard by the intensity of the combat, the U.S. military failed to augment its air cover for the ARVN. There were thus many casualties for the ARVN, but Nixon narrates that “they continued to fight courageously.” Nixon goes on to say that the ARVN proceeded to make significant gains:
“The South Vietnamese forces quickly recovered from these initial setbacks, and most of the military purposes of Lam Son [(the name of the operation)] were achieved within the first few weeks as the Communists were deprived of the capacity to launch an offensive against our forces in South Vietnam in 1971.”
But then Nixon narrates that the ARVN chose to leave early. One reason was that it assumed that the operation had been a success, which (according to Nixon) it was. Another reason was that it had reason to think that the Communists were planning “a major counteroffensive” (page 618). The ARVN was withdrawing, but, again, U.S. air cover was not adequate, and so the enemy was really pounding ARVN soldiers, causing a panic. On page 618, Nixon says: “It took only a few televised films of ARVN soldiers clinging to the skids of our evacuation helicopters to reinforce the widespread misconception of the ARVN forces as incompetent and cowardly.” Nixon’s overall point, I think, is that Vietnamization was a good idea and actually was successful, for the South Vietnamese fought bravely and accomplished the goal of the operation. And yet, Nixon acknowledges that the operation was a public relations disaster for Vietnamization.
Jerry Voorhis, who ran against Nixon for the U.S. Congress in 1946, criticizes Nixon’s application of Vietnamization to the invasion of Cambodia in his (meaning Voorhis’) book, The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon. I talk about that in my post here. Essentially, Voorhis argues that using South Vietnamese forces to attack Cambodia (in this case, alongside American troops) was a bad idea. For one, there was a history of hostility between Cambodia and Vietnam. And, second, the South Vietnamese committed atrocities against Cambodian civilians.
But let’s turn now to what Ambrose says about Vietnamization! Ambrose discusses this topic on pages 324-325 (and he may discuss it elsewhere, but here I’ll focus on those two pages). Ambrose says that Nixon had the Korean War in mind when he was pursuing Vietnamization. During the Korean War, the South Korean army was quite strong and formidable, and that allowed President Dwight Eisenhower to threaten the Chinese and thus bring about an armistice. Nixon as President hoped that the South Vietnamese ARVN could be an effective force like the South Korean army in the 1950’s. But, according to Ambrose, the ARVN had problems, notwithstanding Nixon’s public relations campaign about its alleged progress: “The ARVN officer corps was rife with corruption, the GVN [which was the government of South Vietnam] had no real interest either in reform or in ending the war, and South Vietnam was not remotely ready to defend itself.”
Ambrose goes on to narrate that American soldiers coming back from Vietnam did not speak all that highly of the ARVN. Many of these veterans said that the Vietnamese were not able to fight, but then they would turn right around and express admiration for the Vietnamese Communists’ fighting abilities. Ambrose asks, “How come the NVA fought so well and the ARVN so badly?” Ambrose’s answer was that the problem was the GVN, the government of South Vietnam, and that it needed to be changed. But, Ambrose appears to lament, Nixon had no plan for that, since the war was being fought to “preserve the GVN” (Ambrose’s words).
The Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces were probably superior in terms of their fighting on account of their passion: their commitment to Communism, their desire for Americans to leave, and their discipline. The same situation has arguably existed over the past decade, with radical Islam: radical Islam is passionate. But the question many have asked is whether the U.S. can train Iraqis and Afghans to be effective fighters who can keep radical Islam in check, perhaps even defeat it.