Vietnamisation was the term used by Richard Nixon to describe US policy towards South Vietnam in the later stages of the Vietnam War. Vietnamisation was Nixon’s desired policy to enable South Vietnam to take a greater responsibility for the war while America started a planned withdrawal, while at the same time supporting the government in Saigon in its fight against the NLF. In June 1969, Nixon announced the first reduction in troop numbers – 25,000 US troops were to be withdrawn. However, this still left 515,000 US troops in South Vietnam. In December 1969, Nixon announced a further 60,000 men were to leave South Vietnam.
Parallel to this reduction in troop levels, America met the North Vietnamese government in Paris to discuss a peace settlement. Here the Americans used the Madman Theory in an attempt to scare to Hanoi government into accepting peace terms with due speed. The Madman Theory was simple – it was an attempt to convince the government in Hanoi that Nixon so hated communism and was so taken in by the Domino Theory, that he was planning to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam if the war continued. Clearly such a ploy did not upset the North Vietnamese representatives as the Paris talks went on for some time.
Nixon also authorised the Phoenix Programme. This was an attempt by US sympathisers to infiltrate villages thought to be sympathetic to the NLF, find out who the local NLF leaders were and kill them. Nearly 41,000 members of the NLF were killed as a result of Phoenix. However, the NLF quickly replaced their losses and the impact of Phoenix was only short term and had no lasting impact on the ability of the NLF to fight its war. As a result of this, Nixon knew that he needed to order, as commander-in-chief, a new way of fighting the Vietnam War.
Therefore in 1969, President Nixon announced a new policy – Vietnamisation. Vietnamisation had two parts to it. The first part was the withdrawal of US troops from South Vietnam and the second was the further funding of the South Vietnamese Army (SVA) so that it could assume even greater responsibility for fighting the war against the North. There is little doubt that Nixon made his policy statement in response to the political situation in America. Few could have believed that the SVA by itself was capable of withstanding an all-out assault by the forces that fought for the North. The SVA had always been seen as a secondary fighting force after US Marines landed in South Vietnam in 1965. Even senior US military commanders in South Vietnam believed that the SVA would, at best, only be able to contain the forces of the North once US military support had been withdrawn. Few, if any senior US commander, believed that the SVA had offensive capabilities. It was generally assumed that the US would have to provide the SVA with very large quantities of equipment but even this could not guarantee against the increasing problem faced by the SVA – desertion. The Americans suggested that men in the SVA should be stationed as near to their homes as was possible so that they might feel a sense of pride in defending their territory against an invader.
In March 1969, Melvin Laird, US Secretary of Defence, ordered an acceleration in the processes whereby the US military handed over to the South Vietnamese the handling of the war. Laird ensured that his demand was carried out with due speed. The policy was given the term Vietnamisation”. On April 10th, 1969, Dr Henry Kissenger, Nixon’s special assistant on national security, told Laird to prepare a specific timetable for the withdrawal of US forces in South Vietnam. Those US troops that remained during the withdrawal were to have an advisory and support capacity to the South Vietnamese government and military.
US troop withdrawal started on July 1st 1969. Laird had provided three completion dates – December 1970, June 1971 and December 1972. The decision to remove US troops from South Vietnam may have been odd from a military point of view. All US senior military commanders near enough agreed that the SVA would be incapable of defending South Vietnam against a combined NLF-Viet Cong attack and that the end result would be an expansion of communism in south-east Asia – exactly what the US had all along fought against since the mid-1950’s. However, from a political point of view, Vietnamisation was very understandable. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular in America and Nixon’s standing, as President, would have been greatly elevated as the man who pulled America out of the Vietnam War. Vietnamisation also ensured, from Nixon’s point of view that the SVA would be left with more than sufficient support for its survival. Though he needed to pull out US troops for good political reasons, Nixon did not want to be known as the president who left the SVA high and dry against a foe like the NLF.
By the end of 1971, 66% of US combat troops had left South Vietnam. The reduction in advisors though was only 22%. The main priority for the Americans in 1972 was to provide the South Vietnamese military with enough modern equipment to fight the North Vietnamese. Between October and December 1972, 105,000 pieces of military hardware were landed in South Vietnam. The SVA received new M48 tanks, 175mm self-propelled artillery guns and anti-tank weapons. The South Vietnamese Air Force received aeroplanes for five squadrons of F5 fighter jets, three squadrons of A37 fighter-bombers and two squadrons of CH-47 heavy transport planes.
The ceasefire between North and South Vietnam on January 23rd 1973 marked the end of Vietnamisation. The ceasefire stipulated that all US military forces of whatever description had to leave South Vietnam and that America had to stop giving military aid to the South. In return the North would uphold the ceasefire, return US POW’s and end its infiltration into the South. On March 29th, the US military headquarters in South Vietnam was shutdown.