The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Vietnamization: Vietnam War

Vietnamization is an American term used to describe the process of progressively turning primary responsibility for conduct of the Vietnam War back over to the South Vietnamese. In his book Lost Victory, Ambassador William Colby, who led American support for pacification during the critical period, defined Vietnamization broadly as the "practical consequences of the Nixon Doctrine, that is, withdrawal of American troops and reinforcement of South Vietnamese forces to withstand the North Vietnamese." Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird is often credited with coining the term "Vietnamization" in the spring of 1969, although General Creighton Abrams had almost a year earlier told a White House meeting that he was training the South Vietnamese army for the purpose of "Vietnamizing" the war.

Whatever the program's origins, Colby's definition is comprehensive enough to include the many elements essential if Vietnamization were to succeed: improving and modernizing the armed forces, providing pacification of the rural areas, strengthening the political apparatus, delivering essential services to the populace, nurturing a viable economy, and, most important of all, ensuring security for the people. From these goals derived a host of subsidiary tasks: from expanding and improving the police and territorial forces to land reform, from control of inflation to hamlet and village elections, and from rooting out the Viet Cong infrastructure to increasing the rice harvest. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker noted in a reporting cable that South Vietnam's plan for community defense and local development had "three overall objectives: self-defense, self-government, and self-development, which explains why the Vietnamese refer to 'Vietnamization' as 'the three selfs.'"

George Jacobson, a longtime American official serving in the U.S. Embassy, used to tell visitors that opinions varied as to whether security for the people was 10 percent of the pacification process or 90 percent, but everyone agreed that it was the first 10 percent or the first 90 percent. In other words, without security, nothing else could proceed. Perhaps even more important than the regular armed forces, therefore, were the territorial forces and the People's Self-Defense Force. The latter, sponsored by President Nguyen Van Thieu when all his advisors were cautioning against it, resulted in half a million weapons being issued to ordinary citizens.

Neutralizing the Viet Cong infrastructure was another crucially important task. The enemy needed guerrilla forces and the cadre in the South Vietnamese hamlets and villages, General Abrams stressed. "If anything," he said, "they're more important to him than the caches, or more important to him than the actual strength of his rifle battalions."

Dealing with the enemy infrastructure was, in Abrams's view, the way to get off the treadmill that U.S. forces had been on in Vietnam. Ambassador Bunker agreed. "It seemed to me we started late in training the Vietnamese and that we had a lot to make up," he said in an oral history interview. "In the beginning, I think we had misjudged the war and thought it would be a short-term proposition, that we could finish it ourselves." In due course, the remarkable combination of Bunker, Abrams, and Colby was in place, and the "making up" began in earnest.

In No More Vietnams, Richard Nixon recalled of Vietnamization that "our whole strategy depended on whether this program succeeded." Thus, "our principal objectives shifted to protecting the South Vietnamese at the village level, reestablishing the local political process, and winning the loyalty of the peasants by involving them in the government and providing them with economic opportunity. General Creighton Abrams had initiated this shift in strategy when he took command of our forces in Vietnam in 1968," Nixon acknowledged.

Of course, the Americans could only help and, as Abrams once observed, they could only help so much. The rest was up to the Vietnamese. Ambassador Bunker admired what they were able to achieve in the midst of so much conflict. "I think his posture was remarkably enlightened," he said of President Thieu. "Considering that the country was at war, I think it was quite remarkable how well the government functioned."

That aspect of Vietnamization was at least equal in importance to progress in building up military forces that could maintain security as American forces progressively withdrew. Among the many indicators of effective government functioning was skillful handling of refugees. Land reform was another. "The record will show that the GVN did quite a remarkable job on land distribution, one of their major achievements," said Bunker. Resurgence of the agricultural sector was yet another. In 1969, for example, South Vietnam had its best rice crop since 1964, an achievement made all the more impressive by the impediments of an ongoing war and labor shortages induced by simultaneous expansion of the armed forces, territorial forces, and police. "It certainly brought prosperity in the Delta and the South," said Bunker. "I can recall going down there later in my tour and seeing farmers and people riding motorcycles where they used to ride bicycles, and seeing antennae over the houses in the villages, seeing people using tractors where they had used oxen before to plow."

In one of his reporting cables, Ambassador Bunker remarked that "pacification is tough to measure—it's something that one judges by feel, like politics." By the time the Paris peace agreement was signed, he later recalled, that feeling was unmistakable. "The country was quiet," he said. "One could travel anywhere in Vietnam."

Soon the last American forces had been withdrawn, and the South Vietnamese were left to cope with the continued war as best they might, eventually without major financial or material assistance from their former American allies, much less the swift retribution that had been promised in the event the DRV violated the agreement. Thus, the accomplishments of Vietnamization were squandered.

Lewis Sorley


Further Reading
Bunker, Ellsworth. The Bunker Papers: Reports to the President from Vietnam, 1967–1973. Edited by Douglas Pike. 3 vols. Berkeley, CA: Institute for East Asian Studies, 1990.; Clarke, Jeffrey J. Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965–1973. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1988.; Colby, William, with James McCargar. Lost Victory. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.; Nguyên Duy Hinh. Vietnamization and the Cease-Fire. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980.; Thompson, Robert. No Exit from Vietnam. New York: D. McKay, 1969.
 

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