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“We Americans are a do-it-yourself people.… Instead of teaching someone else to do a job, we like to do it ourselves. And this trait has been carried over into our foreign policy,” President Richard Nixon told the nation in a televised address on November 3, 1969, explaining that the United States would no longer take the lead in the fight against the North Vietnamese. Instead, US forces would train the South Vietnamese military to handle the conflict on its own.

“In the previous administration,” Nixon said into the camera, “we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace.”

Nixon with US Army 1st Infantry Division troops during a visit to Dian, South Vietnam, July 30, 1969.

This strategy—dubbed “Vietnamization” by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and the “Nixon Doctrine” by the press—was best captured, Nixon said, by a leader of another Asian country who once told him: “When you are trying to assist another nation defend its freedom, US policy should be to help them fight the war but not to fight the war for them.”

In addition to a withdrawal of US forces, Nixon pledged an increase in the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese military, as well as an adherence to all treaty commitments. “This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness,” he asserted. “As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.”

Nixon and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu met at Midway Island in the Pacific, June 8, 1969, where the US president announced withdrawal of 25,000 troops by the end of August—to be replaced by South Vietnamese forces.

Referencing the massive antiwar protests on the home front, Nixon asked those who were not protesting—the “great silent majority of my fellow Americans”—for their support of his withdrawal plan. It was a winning one-liner with longevity, as this televised address (below) is widely referred to as Nixon’s “silent majority” speech.

Nixon's handwritten notes preparing for his "silent majority" speech.


Nixon used visual aids to explain to the American people the importance of bombing sites in Cambodia.

In his first year, Nixon attempted to settle the war on favorable terms. But when negotiators failed to make progress through the public peace talks being held in Paris, Nixon turned to more clandestine channels. Through secret negotiations between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese, the president warned that if major progress were not made by November 1, 1969, he would be “compelled—with great reluctance—to take measures of the greatest consequences.”

None of it worked. The North Vietnamese did not yield. Nixon did not carry out his threats the war continued. Bringing the conflict to a successful resolution proved elusive.

Publicly, Nixon said his strategy was a combination of negotiating and Vietnamization. In fact, he began the withdrawals even before he issued his secret ultimatum to the Communists, and continued to announce partial troop withdrawals throughout his first term.

But Vietnamization could work only if American withdrawal was offset by improvement in Saigon’s fighting capacity. And with Communist forces continuing to move down the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia and on into South Vietnam, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would remain continually under siege.

By the spring of 1970, developments in the region seemed to offer a way not only to take the heat off the South Vietnamese, but to deal the Communists a more punishing blow.

A Cambodian coup in March 1970 had replaced neutralist leader Prince Sihanouk with a pro-American military government, albeit of dubious survivability. American officials also believed they had located in Cambodia the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN)—the headquarters for Communist operations below the 17th parallel. Seeking to bolster the fledgling force in Cambodia and to strike at COSVN, as well as to buy time for ARVN’s improvement, Nixon ordered a temporary invasion of Cambodia—the administration called it an incursion—by a combined force of American and South Vietnamese troops.

On April 28, 1970, the president authorized a preemptive strike in Cambodia, sending US troops across the border from South Vietnam in order to destroy Viet Cong base camps that were providing support to the Communists fighting in South Vietnam.

Two days later, Nixon took to the airwaves again, to explain to the American people that the US military, along with the South Vietnamese People’s Army, were invading Cambodia in order to intensify the destruction of Viet Cong base camps and to impede North Vietnamese supply lines.

Several years later, looking back on the bombing and incursion in Cambodia, Nixon revealed in the recording below how those actions destabilized the Southeast Asian nation. Nixon told Treasury Secretary John B. Connally that it was a mistake for him not to retaliate militarily against North Korea after it shot down an American EC-121 reconnaissance plane in April 1969, shortly after he became president. He recalled the great popularity of his “silent majority” speech, then revealed to Connally for the first time that in 1969 he had secretly ordered American B-52s to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the border area of Cambodia. The code name was Operation Menu, with individual rounds of bombing named Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Supper, and Snack.

The assault had an unintended consequence: It drove the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia, destabilizing the neutralist government. Read the transcript here.


Nixon has an impromptu meeting with Vietnam War protestors at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Cambodian incursion energized lawmakers on Capitol Hill to claw back some of the power it had ceded to the executive during the course of the war. Not only did it generate proposals to limit the powers of the president it sparked bipartisan legislation to limit US military action in Cambodia and to end the American war in Vietnam.

The Cambodian operation also provoked the largest round of antiwar rallies in American history. In response to the protests specifically at universities, according to the New York Times, Nixon told Pentagon civilian employees on May 1, 1970: “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue. You name it. Get rid of the war there will be another one.

Hard hats presented to Nixon after riots on May 8, 1970, as construction workers protested New York City Mayor John Lindsay's decision to fly the American flag at half-mast after the Kent State shootings. The construction workers rioted in the city on May 7 and 8, prompting Nixon to thank them for their public demonstration of support. (National Archives, Nixon Library)

“Then out there we have kids who are just doing their duty. They stand tall and they are proud. I am sure they are scared. I was when I was there. But when it really comes down to it, they stand up and, boy, you have to talk up to those men. They are going to do fine and we have to stand in back of them.”

It was during these campus demonstrations in May 1970 that National Guardsmen fired at rock-throwing protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four. Two weeks later, police fired on students at Jackson State University in Mississippi, leaving two more dead.


White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman's detailed records are housed at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and include seven handwritten diaries, 36 dictated diaries as sound recordings, and two handwritten audio cassette tape subject logs.

By the end of 1970, Nixon had planned to wrap up the American military withdrawal from Vietnam within 18 months. But Kissinger talked him out of it. Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, documented a discussion about the president's plans in his diary on December 21, 1970:

"Henry was in for a while and the president discussed a possible trip for next year. He's thinking about going to Vietnam in April [1971] or whenever we decide to make the basic end-of-the-war announcement. His idea would be to tour around the country, build up [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu and so forth, and then make the announcement right afterwards. Henry argues against a commitment that early to withdraw all combat troops because he feels that if we pull them out by the end of '71, trouble can start mounting in '72 that we won't be able to deal with, and which we'll have to answer for at the elections. He prefers instead a commitment to have them all out by the end of '72 so that we won't have to deliver finally until after the [US presidential] elections [in November 1972] and therefore can keep our flanks protected. This would certainly seem to make more sense, and the president seemed to agree in general, but he wants Henry to work up plans on it."


Communist supply lines running along the Ho Chi Minh trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and south to Cambodia were a logical target for interdicting the North’s operation. But American troops were not able to take part in ground combat operations in either Laos or Cambodia because of the Cooper-Church Amendment, passed by Congress in late 1970, prohibiting such action on the ground.

US troops could, however, assist from the air. So on February 8, 1971, South Vietnamese ground forces, with American air support, took part in Lamson 719, an offensive in Laos intended to sever the Ho Chi Minh trail. Lamson was considered at least a partial test of the success of Vietnamization. It went badly, but did manage to disrupt Communist supply lines long enough to aid the war effort.

In this recording from March 11, 1971, Nixon and Kissinger discussed the timing of the South Vietnamese military’s departure from Laos as it concluded Lamson 719. Read the transcript here.


On the eve of mass antiwar demonstrations in April and May of 1971, the president’s pollsters found just 28 percent in favor of the protests and 65 percent opposed. President Nixon smelled opportunity, telling Haldeman to “make a note there: Take on the f**king demonstrators.”

But in April 1971 when the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) arrived in the nation’s capital with plans for a weeklong protest, Nixon responded more gingerly. The Interior Department had denied the VVAW permission to encamp overnight on the National Mall, but the group set up anyway, filing appeals that they ultimately took to the Supreme Court. Recalling the public outcry when President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to evict the Bonus Expeditionary Force—a large group of WWI veterans demanding cash payments during the depths of the Great Depression—Nixon instructed White House special counsel John W. Dean that no one, including DC police, should touch the Vietnam veterans.

Two days later, in this Oval Office conversation, Nixon and his advisors discussed the recent press coverage of VVAW. They were particularly impressed by the performance of John F. Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the previous day.

Kerry's testimony included sharp accusations of war crimes being committed on a daily basis by US troops, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

The protests continued. On May 3, 1971, police clashed with the self-described “Mayday Tribe”—antiwar protesters who demonstrated for three days in DC. They tried blocking traffic and courting mass arrest in an attempt to bring the city to a halt—and with it, the war.

They succeeded in getting arrested, making people late for work, and providing the president with the political opportunity to take a popular hard line against disruptive protest. They did not, however, succeed in shortening the war.

The president hoped to bring the last American troops home from Vietnam sometime between July 1972 and January 1973, when enough US troops remained in South Vietnam to prevent the fall of Saigon before Election Day 1972. In the meantime, he relished the opportunity to score political points off the unpopular demonstrations, as this conversation indicates. Read the transcript here.


When work was completed on what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers on January 15, 1969, the team of 36 military personnel, historians, and defense analysts from the RAND Corporation and the Washington Institute for Defense Analysis had produced 47 volumes and 7,000 pages.

A defense analyst specializing in nuclear weapons strategy and counterinsurgency theory, Dr. Daniel Ellsberg was a member of the Vietnam Study Task Force created in 1967 to study the history of America’s role in Vietnam. His brief stint with the task force confirmed what he had already come to suspect: The US government’s involvement in Vietnam was one of deception. Ellsberg became increasingly frustrated with the Nixon administration, believing that its conduct in Vietnam was merely a continuation of his predecessors’ patterns of deception and escalation. As his frustration grew, Ellsberg began to contemplate leaking the study so that its contents and its lessons could be made public.

Over the course of several weeks in the fall of 1969, Ellsberg managed to secretly photocopy the study. With these copies in his possession, Ellsberg turned to members of Congress such as Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AK), Senator Charles Mathias Jr. (R-MD), Senator George McGovern (D-SD), and Congressman Paul (Pete) McCloskey Jr. (R-CA), all in the hope that one of them would be willing to enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. Despite his pleas, all four declined. But Senator McGovern suggested that he provide his copies to the press. So in March 1971, Ellsberg decided to show the study to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

Sheehan and the Times understood how big of a story they had. On June 10, word reached Sheehan that against the advice of the paper’s attorneys, the management of the Times had decided that the need to reveal the history of deception outweighed the danger of possible criminal prosecution. The New York Times published its first Pentagon Papers article on Sunday, June 13, 1971. It was, the Times announced, part one of a series.

Taking legal action against the Times was not Nixon’s first reaction. In a June 13, 1971, conversation with Kissinger, the president recognized that in some ways the publication of the Pentagon Papers helped him politically, since the study reminded readers that the Vietnam War was more the product of his predecessors’ mistakes than his own. Nixon and Kissinger both assumed, mistakenly, that the release of the study was timed to affect an upcoming vote on the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would require the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. To be sure, Nixon denounced the publication as “unconscionable” and worse, but the lesson he drew from it was that the administration should just plow ahead and make sure to “clean house” of disloyal people who might partake in such a “treasonable” act.


In response to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, the president met in the Oval Office on June 17, 1971, with his closest aides. Haldeman suggested blackmailing Nixon’s predecessor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on the Vietnam issue that nearly cost Nixon the 1968 presidential election: the “bombing halt." Less than a week before the election, Johnson had ordered a complete halt to American bombing of North Vietnam in exchange for secret military concessions by Hanoi and the start of new peace talks between North and South Vietnam. Republicans charged that Johnson had stopped the bombing to bolster the presidential campaign of Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president. (The declassified record shows otherwise.)

Nixon’s reaction to Haldeman’s suggestion stunned his aides. He told them to implement the Huston Plan, which called for using illegal break-ins, wiretaps, and mail-opening against domestic terrorists. But instead of terrorists, Nixon wanted to use the plan against former Johnson administration officials who (the president mistakenly believed) had a secret file on the bombing halt in a classified safe at Brookings. Read the transcript here.


Nixon and Kissinger, standing in front of a window in the Oval Office on February 10, 1971. Nixon with Vice President Spiro Agnew at the 1972 Republican National Convention on August 23, 1972.

Nixon and Kissinger’s worst fears were realized when the North Vietnamese regular army poured into the South in March 1972. Nixon responded by implementing some of the plans he had considered in 1969. He mined Haiphong Harbor and used B-52s to bomb the North. The combined power of the American and South Vietnamese military ultimately stopped the offensive, though not before the Communists had more territory under their control.

The North Vietnamese were eager to reach a settlement before the American presidential election, after which Nixon would no longer have to face the electorate at the ballot box. Hanoi made a breakthrough proposal in October 1972 and reached agreement with Kissinger rapidly. The South Vietnamese government balked, however, chiefly because the agreement preserved North Vietnamese control of all the territory Hanoi currently held. To turn up the political pressure on Nixon, the North Vietnamese began broadcasting provisions of the agreement. Kissinger held a press conference announcing that “Peace is at hand,” without giving away too many details.

After Nixon's re-election, he told South Vietnamese president Thieu that if he did not agree to the settlement, Congress would cut off aid to his government—and that conservatives who had supported South Vietnam would lead the way. He promised that the United States would retaliate militarily if the North violated the agreement.

To coax Saigon into signing the agreement, and to bring Hanoi back to the conference table, Nixon launched the "Christmas Bombings" of 1972. Both parties responded as Nixon desired, and peace seemed imminent. Negotiations resumed in January to resolve the few outstanding issues that remained.

Secretary of State William Rogers signs the peace agreement to end the US involvement in the Vietnam War on January 27, 1973.

In this recorded conversation from January 23, 1973, Nixon laments the news coverage of him finally ending this unpopular war. "You'd think, you know, that even at this time, even those a**holes would say, 'Well, you know. maybe it's good news.' But no!" Nixon told Kissinger. Four days later, the Paris Peace Accords went into effect, bringing an end to the American war in Vietnam.

In his last statement as defense secretary in 1973, Laird said, “Vietnamization…today is virtually completed. The South Vietnamese people today, in my view, are fully capable of providing for their own in-country security against the North Vietnamese.”

That statement would prove incorrect within two years. On April 30, 1975, the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam captured Saigon, thus eliminating the dividing line at the 17th parallel and reunifying North and South under a Communist regime. America's ally South Vietnam had lost the war.


Nixon, Vietnam, and the politics of polarization

By Ken Hughes [excerpted from an article originally published on Salon.com]

“I want them to break those windows up at the Capitol, I think,” said the president of the United States. Richard Nixon had been elected in 1968 on a law-and-order platform, and he was talking about demonstrators coming to protest him and the Vietnam War, but he privately welcomed the violence. It was more unpopular than the war, so Nixon could use it to his political advantage — for example, to tar peaceful antiwar protestors with the crimes of the violent. When his chief of staff read him a poll on the protests (28 percent in favor, 65 percent opposed), Nixon said, “Make a note there: Take on the fucking demonstrators.”

Vietnam, Nixon, and Kent State

Miller Center scholar Marc Selverstone explains the political climate in America at the time of the shooting of unarmed protestors at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

The "Smoking Gun" Tape

In Nixon's eyes, the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed that there existed, throughout the government and media, a radical, left-wing conspiracy whose purpose it was to topple his administration and undermine his authority. Faced with this embarrassing security breach, Nixon eventually concluded that he would have to fight back against the “conspiracy” with every tool at his disposal, even if that meant breaking the law.

Six days after the Watergate break-in, Nixon's chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, proposes using the CIA to tell the FBI to impede the investigation of the crime. "We’re set up beautifully to do it," he says. After getting some details on the operation, Nixon agrees to the plan, taking the fateful step in the Watergate cover-up that will ultimately cost him the presidency.

Topics: The Failure of Vietnamization by Any Name

Vietnamization, like the proverbial cat, seems to have at least nine lives, about five of which have already been lived. Vietnamization was tried first by the French nearly 20 years ago. On May 10, 1970, General Henri Navarre, formerly commander of the French forces in Indochina, said: “Vietnamization is an old idea. It was the basis of my own plan when I was sent to Indochina in 1952.”

Jean Lacouture, in “Vietnam: Between Two Truces,” published in 1965, wrote that the policy of “yellowing” (jaunissement) the war was the subject of debate “throughout the entire Indochinese war and particularly after the assumption of command by General de Lattre in 1951‐52.”

The French leaders who pressed for Vietnamization argued that if the Vietnamese Army could be trained and equipped to take over the job of pacifying and defending French‐held territories, French troops would be freed to end the war by defeating General Giap's Vietminh Army. The French were able to take the offensive—and went on to defeat at Dienbienphu.

After the United States under President Eisenhower took over from the French in 1955, our first program of Vietnamization through training and equipping the South Vietnamese Army was initiated. By 1966, when military assistance to Vietnam had grown so large that it was removed from the foreign aid budget and incorporated into the Defense Department budget, the United States had spent over $1.6 billion on the South Vietnamese Army.

Under President Kennedy, new policies of “counter‐insurgency” and “pacification” were announced. Major Robert K. G. Thompson, the British antiguerrilla “expert,” was brought in as an adviser. Although 16,000 troops were sent to Vietnam by President Kennedy, he insisted on the Vietnamization of the war. In one of his last comments on the situation, he said: “It is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. ”

During the 1964 campaign, President Johnson promised the American people that he would not send American boys to do the job that Asian boys should be doing. Toward the end of the Johnson Administration, the training of South Vietnamese to secure “pacified” areas was emphasized. American combat troops were to be free for search ‐and ‐destroy missions against the North Vietnamese main force units. Almost to the letter, this was a restatement of the Navarre strategy of 1953.

When President Nixon took office, there were a half million American troops in South Vietnam. Within the first year of his Administration, he too announced a new policy of Vietnamization although the definition of “Vietnamization” was slightly changed. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, in speech given on Oct. 1, 1969, explained the difference.

Under the Johnson Administration, according to Secretary Laird, “Vietnamization” meant “de‐Americanizing” the war. In the Nixon Administration, he said, “Vietnamization” would mean “Vietnamizing” the war. There is, he said, “an enormous difference between these two policies.” He did not explain these differences nor have they become clear in the ten months since that speech was given.

Vietnamization Is being presented to us in a new form by the Nixon Administration. It is no longer limited to Vietnam itself but is being extended into Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Vietnamese are now killing Vietnamese and Cambodians. Cambodians are killing Vietnamese and Cambodians. Thais, we assume, are, or will be, killing both Vietnamese and Cambodians and, in return, we must assume that some Thais will be killed by Vietnamese or by Cambodians.

It was, after all, the inability of the South Vietnamese Army to fight effectively, even after more than ten years of training and equipment by the United States, that prompted the dispatch of combat troops in 1965. Even if through a resurgence of morale the South Vietnamese Army could be made into an effective military force—and the objective stated by one American general of changing the color of the corpses was achieved—there would still be the question of whether Vietnamization is desirable or defensible.

Asians would be killing Asians with American arms. Defoliation and destruction of crops would continue villages be destroyed refugees be “generated" casualties continue.

The United States would still have moral responsibility for the war, for continuing the war and sustaining it. We would have made of the Vietnamese Army essentially a mercenary army, if we accept the Rust and Nixon statements, fighting to protect the interests of the free world.

One must ask how many times we will announce and attempt new policies of Vietnamization before we acknowledge failure and attempt a genuine political settlement by negotiating an end to the war in Vietnam.

U.S. Marines in Vietnam: 1973-1975 The Bitter End

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1954-1964, The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1977

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965, The landing and the Buildup, 1978

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, An Expanding War, 1982

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1967, Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1984

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1969, High Mobility and Standdown, 1988

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970-1971, Vietnamization and Redeployment, 1986

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968 U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1971-1973

Functional Histories Series

Chaplains with Marines in Vietnam, 1962-1971, 1985 Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by fire, 1989

Anthology and Bibliography

The Marines in Vietnam, 1934-1973, An Anthology and Annotated Bibliography, 1974, reprinted 1983 revised second edition, 1985


Major George R. Dunham U.S. Marine Corps

Colonel David A. Quinlan U.S. Marine Corps





U.S. Marines In Vietnam

The Bitter End

1973 -1975

Volumes in the Marine Corps Vietnam Series

Operational Histories Series

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1954-1964, The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1977

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965, The landing and the Buildup, 1978

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966, An Expanding War, 1982

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1967, Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1984

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1969, High Mobility and Standdown, 1988

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970-1971, Vietnamization and Redeployment, 1986

In Preparation

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968 U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1971-1973

Functional Histories Series

Chaplains with Marines in Vietnam, 1962-1971, 1985 Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by fire, 1989

Anthology and Bibliography

The Marines in Vietnam, 1934-1973, An Anthology and Annotated Bibliography, 1974, reprinted 1983 revised second edition, 1985

Library of Congress Card No. 77-604776 PCN 190-003110-00

For use by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. 20402

This is the ninth volume in a nine-volume operational and chronological historical series covering the Marine Corps' participation in the Vietnam War. A separate functional series complements the operational histories. This volume details the final chapter in the Corps' involvement in Southeast Asia, including chapters on Cambodia, the refugees, and the recovery of the container ship SS Mayaguez.

In January 1973, the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords setting the stage for democracy in Southeast Asia to test its resolve in Cambodia and South Vietnam. The result was not a rewarding experience for America nor its allies. By March 1975, democracy was on the retreat in Southeast Asia and the U.S. was preparing for the worst, the simultaneous evacuation of Americans and key officials from Cambodia and South Vietnam. With Operation Eagle Pull and Operation Frequent Wind, the United States accomplished that task in April 1975 using Navy ships, Marine Corps helicopters, and the Marines of the III Marine Amphibious Force. When the last helicopter touched down on the deck of the USS Okinawa at 0825 on the morning of 30 April, the U.S. Marine Corps' involvement in South Vietnam ended, but one more encounter with the Communists in Southeast Asia remained. After the seizure of the SS Mayaguez on 12 May 1975, the United States decided to recover that vessel using armed force. Senior commanders in the Western Pacific chose the Marine Corps to act as the security force for the recovery. Marines of 2d Battalion, 9th Marines and 1st Battalion, 4th Marines played a key role in the events of 15 May 1975 when America regained control of the ship and recovered its crew, concluding American combat in Indochina and this volume's history.

Although largely written from the perspective of the III Marine Amphibious Force, this volume also describes the roles of the two joint commands operating in the region: the Defense Attache Office, Saigon, and the United States Support Activities Group, Thailand. Thus, while the volume emphasizes the Marine Corps' role in the events of the period, significant attention also is given to the overall contribution of these commands in executing U.S. policy in Southeast Asia from 1973 to 1975. Additionally, a chapter is devoted to the Marine Corps' role in assisting thousands of refugees who fled South Vietnam in the final weeks of that nation's existence.

The authors, Major George Ross Dunham and Colonel David A. Quinlan, individually worked on this volume while assigned to the History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps. Colonel Quinlan, who is now retired and resides in Hartford, Connecticut, began the book in 1976. Major Dunham, who recently retired and resides in Dunkirk, Maryland, inherited his co-author's work and completed the majority of the volume during his tour from 1985 to 1990. Both authors are graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and have advanced degrees. Colonel Quinlan, who was an infantry officer, has a juris doctor degree from George Washington University (1979) and Major Dunham, who was an aviator, has a master of arts degree in history from Pepperdine University (1976).


Brigadier General, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) Director of Marine Corps History and Museums

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address 20 January 1961

U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Bitter End, 1973-1975 is a story about commitment, sacrifice, and the price America and its ally, South Vietnam, paid. It answers no questions, places no blame, and offers no prophetic judgement, but provides an historical account of the end of a state and the beginning of new lives for those fortunate enough to escape that upheaval. This description of the United States Marine Corps' involvement at the bitter end of America's military presence in Southeast Asia also traces the effects of uncontrolled fear on a society fighting for its survival.

The effect of fear on the fighting man on the battlefield was no different in 1975 in South Vietnam than it was more than 2,400 years earlier, when the Athenians fought to defend their beloved city. In preparing his Marines and sailors for battle in the Peloponnesian War of 429 B.C., and anticipating their fear of death, Phormio of Athens told them:

Fear makes men forget, and skill which cannot fight is useless.

The South Vietnamese Armed Forces in the spring of 1975 were rendered useless as a fighting force. No level of training or skill, no program of Vietnamization, no amount of money could have reversed the rampant spread of fear that engulfed all of South Vietnam in March and April of 1975. Incredible acts of courage temporarily checked the nation's slide into oblivion, at places like Xuan Loc and Bien Hoa, but fear ruled the day. Its only antidote, courageous leadership at the highest levels, rapidly disappeared as the NVA war machine gained momentum. As one senior leader after another opted to use his helicopter to evacuate rather than to direct and control the defensive battle, strategic retreats turned into routs and armies turned into mobs of armed deserters. Amidst all this chaos, the U.S. Marine Corps aided its country in the final chapter of the Vietnam War, the evacuation of American citizens, third-country nationals, and as many South Vietnamese as conditions permitted.

To describe those events accurately, the authors used, for the most part, original sources, including interviews of many of the participants. A debt of gratitude is owed to many people for the compilation and collation of that material. In particular, we thank the other Services and their respective historical agencies for their contributions, with a special note of appreciation due to Dr. Wayne W. Thompson and Mr. Bernard C. Nalty, both of the Office of Air Force History, and Dr. Edward J. Marolda of the Naval Historical Center. A large portion of the available source material was provided by the staff of the Marine Corps Historical Center and for that contribution we are very appreciative. In particular, we thank the Historical Center librarian, Miss Evelyn A. Englander, and archivist, Mrs. Joyce Bonnett, and their staffs the Reference Section (Mr. Danny J. Craw-ford and staff) the Oral History Section (Mr. Benis M. Frank and Mrs. Meredith P. Hart-

ley) and the Publications Production Section (Mr. Robert E. Struder, Mrs. Catherine A. Kerns, Mr. W. Stephen Hill, and Corporal Andre L. Owens III). Of course, history cannot be read until it has been written, and rewritten, and for that demanding task of editing, we thank the Chief Historian, Mr. Henry I. "Bud" Shaw, Jr. the head of the Vietnam Histories Section, Mr. Jack Shulimson and our colleagues in the section who had to read our work in its most primitive state (Lieutenant Colonel Gary D. Solis, Major Charles D. Melson, and Mr. Charles R. "Rich" Smith). To those whose names are too many to mention here, we extend our sincerest gratitude for loyalty and special acts of assistance in this project, and for those who reviewed our manuscript and contributed comments and pictures, we offer you a book bearing your imprint, and our thanks. The authors, however, are responsible for the content of the text, including opinions expressed and any errors in fact.

We would like to salute every Marine and American who served in Vietnam and dedicate this book to those who paid the ultimate price for the "survival and success of liberty." In particular, we commend the sacrifice of the four Marines who died in South Vietnam on 29 April 1975: Lance Corporal Darwin D. Judge Corporal Charles McMahon, Jr. First Lieutenant Michael J. Shea and Captain William C. Nystul and ask that the fourteen Marines who lost their lives on Koh Tang in Cambodia, on 15 May 1975, also not be forgotten.


Foreword iii Preface v Table of Contents. vii List of Maps x PART I THE UNITED STATES PRESENCE IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC 1 Chapter 1 The War Goes On 2 Paris Peace Accords 2 The NVA Marshals in the South 7 A Division of Marines 16 Chapter 2 The United States Presence in Southeast Asia 22 The Forces in Thailand 22 The Forces Afloat 27 The III Marine Amphibious Force 29 Americans Ashore 36 37 Chapter 3 Contingency Planning 40 The Plan for Cambodia 42 Vietnam 52 Chapter 4 The Fleet Marines are Readied 55 The Air Contingency BLTs 55 The Eagle Pull Command Element 57 The 31st MAU 60 The Other Contingency 65 PART II SOUTH VIETNAM 67

Chapter 5 The North Vietnamese Winter-Spring Offensive, 1974-75: The Mortal Blow

68 The Collapse of the Central Highlands 68 Defeat in Military Region 1 76 A Wasted Division. 79 Chapter 6 The Evacuation of South Vietnam's Northern Provinces 85 The Amphibious Evacuation RVN Support Group Initial Operations in Vietnamese Waters PART III OPERATION EAGLE PULL 99 Chapter 7 The Evacuation of Phnom Penh The Khmer Communists' Last Dry Season Offensive PART IV Marine Security Guard Detachment, Da Nang The Restructured 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. DAO Planning: The SPG and Project Alamo OPERATION FREQUENT WIND AND A NEW BEGINNING A Link to Freedom: The Exodus and a New Beginning. Preparations: 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and the Task Force Evacuation and Passage: Frequent Wind and the AESF's Final Chapter. A. Command and Staff List, Southeast Asia, 1973-1975. B. Command Staff, BIT 2/4, 29-30 April 1975

C. U.S. Marine Officers Serving in Billets in South Vietnam and USSAG, Thailand, 1973-1975.

D. Company C, Marine Security Guard Battalion, January-April 1975 E. Mayaguez Rescue Force (BLTs 2/9 and 1/4), 12-15 May 1975. G. Chronology of Significant Events, 1973-1975 I. 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Detachments, 3-11 April 1975 K. Helicopter Flow Table for Frequent Wind.

The Battle of Phuoc Long, December 1974-January 1975 Military Region 1, VNMC Division AO, 1 January-15 March 1975 Military Region 1, VNMC Division AO, 15-31 March 1975 USS Okinawa and 31st MAU, 1200-2000, 12 April 1975 USS Okinawa and Task Force 76, 29-30 April 1975

Failed American policies rise from the grave in Iraq war

Through a scrim of red, dry-season dust, the sign appeared like an apparition hanging low over the no-man's land of the South Vietnamese-Lao border: "Warning! No US Personnel Beyond This Point." Its big, white expanse was already festooned with grunt graffiti, both American and Vietnamese. It was February 1971, the afternoon before the invasion of Laos, and the sign but the latest bizarre development in the Pentagon's campaign to "Vietnamize" the war in Vietnam. The journalists who had hoofed it all the way to the border found the sign so grimly funny that we lined up for a group photo in front of it.

President Richard Nixon announced the first withdrawal of American soldiers from South Vietnam in late 1969 and their replacement by South Vietnamese troops. The new policy was dubbed Vietnamization by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and hailed as the beginning of the end of America's war in that land. But the North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi wasn't fooled for a minute. The communists believed Vietnamization was intended only to de-Americanize the war, not to end it.

Hanoi was right, more right than anybody at the time could have imagined. In the five-plus years of war after Nixon's first inauguration in January 1969, more than 20,000 American soldiers would die Nixon would actually widen the war by invading both Cambodia and Laos and brutal American bombing campaigns would kill more than a million more Indochinese. In fact, more Indochinese and Americans would be killed or wounded during the Vietnamization years than in the war before 1970.

Comparisons to Vietnam and terms from that era like "quagmire," "hearts and minds" and "body counts" swamped the media the moment the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, but Vietnamization didn't make it into the mix until November. Then, the White House, which initially shied off anything linked to Vietnam, started a media campaign to roll out what it was calling "Iraqification," perhaps as an answer to critics who doubted the "mission" had actually been "accomplished" and feared there was no "light at the end of the (Iraqi) tunnel." But the term was quickly dropped. Perhaps it resurrected too many Baby Boomer memories of Vietnamese clinging to the skids of choppers fleeing the fruits of Vietnamization.

It seems, however, that there is no way of keeping failed Washington policies in their graves once the dead of night strikes. I was amazed when, in 2005, in Foreign Affairs magazine, Melvin Laird resurrected a claim that his Vietnamization policy had actually worked and plugged for Iraqification of the war there.

When Gen. George William Casey Jr. -- whose father, a major general, died in Vietnam in July 1970 -- announced in June that the Pentagon might soon begin the first American troop withdrawals from Iraq, I couldn't help wondering where the Iraqi version of that sign might eventually go up. In the desert? On the Iranian or the Syrian border? (The withdrawals were rescinded before even being put into effect in the face of an all-out civil war in Baghdad.)

However it feels to anyone else, it's distinctly been flashback city for me ever since. One of the great, failed, unspeakably cynical, blood-drenched policies of the Vietnam era, whose carnage I witnessed as a reporter in Cambodia and Vietnam, was being dusted off for our latest disaster of an imperial war. Some kind of brutal regression was upon us. It was the return of the repressed or reverse evolution. It was enough to drive a war-worn journalist to new depths of despair.

One night back in 1971 on the Lao border, not far from that big, white sign, I was to witness Vietnamization in action in its starkest terms. Two photographers, another reporter and I were camped out with South Vietnamese troops who were to lead the next morning's invasion of Laos. (As it happened, the Vietnam War lacked a speech-writerly slogan like President Bush's, "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," but the policy was the same.) What I heard then was three sharp cracks, the sound -- we figured later -- of cluster bombs hitting the ground no more than 20 feet from us, mistakenly dropped by an American Navy bomber. A hurricane clatter of shrapnel fanned out toward us. It felt like sharing the same foxhole with a machine gun drawn dead on you. As the universe exploded in flames, our brains were blasted blank.

We thrashed for cover in what seemed like slow motion. Minutes later, with the plane long gone, the slopes around us were drenched in blood and strewn with the broken bodies, shredded or pockmarked with shrapnel, of hundreds of young Vietnamese soldiers. Helping drag the wounded to the medics, I left my tape recorder running. For me, the screams recorded on that tape have remained forever the sound of Vietnamization.

With the announcement that more American troops were being rushed to Baghdad to put a brake on the fast-developing civil war in the capital, we may be seeing a new twist on the old theme of Vietnamization -- Americans may increase the use of air power in Anbar province and elsewhere in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency as a substitute for troops reassigned to Baghdad. As I saw in Indochina, however, air operations rarely succeed anywhere as a substitute for crack ground troops. They can kill enormous numbers of people without significantly tipping the military balance.

Key to whatever new strategy does exist is the Bush administration's stumbling, fumbling, already bloody Iraqification policy intended to stand up a national army. Our media dutifully passes on the administration's impressive stats on new troops and police trained. Critics insist those troops are ill-equipped and badly trained.

I remember identical glowing reports on American-trained troops in South Vietnam in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, deeper questions about the effectiveness of proxy armies are almost never explored. How do you really get them to do your bidding? How do you even make them believe that what they are doing is for them and not for you?

Now the United States finds itself fighting various Iraqi militias as well as the insurgents. American troops have battled the Mahdi army on more than one occasion, have demanded the disbanding of Shiite militias and death squads to no avail, and are now being drawn into a Sunni/Shiite civil war, which is now killing an estimated 100 Iraqi civilians a day.

As George Orwell wrote in his famed essay, "Shooting an Elephant," about his days as a British colonial policeman in the Burma of the 1920s, pesky locals always seem to manage to muck up the best laid plans of foreign occupiers, no matter how good those plans may look on paper or sound on the lips of high officials.

By 1970, a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake. Almost exactly the same percentage now feels the same about Iraq. Back then, the White House clung for dear life to Vietnamization while Congress dithered. Now, the same holds true. Even the language -- "Cut and Run," "Stay the Course" -- remains largely the same, as the repetitive bankruptcy of the enterprise deadens even our linguistic life. As then, so now, the complications on the ground in Iraq seem insurmountable from the point of view of an administration and a Congress intent on maintaining what in the Vietnam era was called "credibility" and now has no name at all. Orwell would have grasped what our politicians are going through: "My whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at" is how he summed up his Burmese days.

Every now and then, as yet another grim Vietnam déjà vu rockets by me, I think back to Sen. George Aiken, the flinty moderate Republican from Vermont (the John Murtha of that time), who, tiring in 1966 of endless hand-wringing from his colleagues about how to get out of Vietnam, told the assembled solons one day that it wasn't hard. All we had to do was declare victory, Aiken said, and fly the troops home. That would have been real Vietnamization.

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In seeking to terminate its combat role in Vietnam, the United States must choose between negotiations and Vietnamization. Serious negotiations would require a liberalized regime in Saigon, in preparation for eventual political competition with the Communists. Vietnamization would require a strong GVN capable of continuing to fight without American combat support. As negotiations cannot succeed, regardless of American wishes, because the interests of the two Vietnamese sides are irreconcilable, all efforts should be directed toward the success of Vietnamization. The goal is realistic because the balance of military, political, and economic forces is shifting in favor of the GVN. An adequate level of military and economic assistance will be required from the Americans. From the GVN, successful Vietnamization will depend on avoiding excessive political harassment of the population on socioeconomic policies benefiting the masses, especially the military and their dependents and on a military strategy that will keep the balance of forces against the Communists favorable without seeking excessively ambitious goals, which the American people may not wish to support.

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Vietnamization was a coverage of the Richard Nixon administration to finish U.S. involvement within the Vietnam War by means of a program to “broaden, equip, and prepare South Vietnamese forces and assign to them an ever-increasing fight position, on the identical time steadily decreasing the variety of U.S. fight troops”. [1] Brought on by the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive, the coverage referred to U.S. fight troops particularly within the floor fight position, however didn’t reject fight by the U.S. Air Force, in addition to the help to South Vietnam, in step with the insurance policies of U.S. international army help organizations. U.S. residents’ distrust of their authorities that had begun after the offensive worsened with the discharge of reports about U.S. troopers massacring civilians at My Lai (1968), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (1971).

Under the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s chief adviser, requested the Rand Corporation to supply an inventory of coverage choices, ready by Daniel Ellsberg. On receiving the report, Kissinger and Schelling requested Ellsberg concerning the obvious absence of a victory choice Ellsberg mentioned “I do not consider there’s a win choice in Vietnam.” While Ellsberg finally did ship a withdrawal choice, Kissinger wouldn’t flow into one thing that could possibly be perceived as defeat. [8]

The departure of Lyndon B Johnson didn’t finish the warfare quite, it unfold all through Southeast Asia. The Tet Offensive (1968) was a political and media catastrophe. Newsman Walter Cronkite introduced that he noticed a stalemate as the perfect case situation for the Tet Offensive. Other members of the press added to the decision to retrench (scale back prices and spending). [ citation needed ] President Johnson’s reputation plummeted and he introduced a bombing halt on March 31, concurrently saying he wouldn’t run for re-election. [7] Though he had low expectations, on May 10, 1968, Johnson started peace talks between U.S. and North Vietnamese in Paris. The warfare, nevertheless, continued.

After discussing the matter with Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a message was despatched. Ho mentioned he could be keen to barter if the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam underneath Operation Rolling Thunder ceased. Mai Van Bo, Hanoi’s diplomatic consultant in Paris, was named some extent of contact. Since Hanoi wouldn’t talk with an American official with no bombing halt, Kissinger served as an middleman. Johnson made a speech in San Antonio on September 29, providing the opportunity of talks. They had been rejected, though introduced up once more in 1967. [6]

Lyndon Johnson’s main political pursuits had been home the warfare interfered along with his home focus, and he was keen to finish the warfare in a manner that he thought-about politically acceptable. In 1967, Kissinger attended a Pugwash Conference of scientists taken with nuclear disarmament. Two members approached Kissinger and supplied a disavowable technique of communication between the U.S. and the communist management. In specific, Raymond Aubrac, an official of the World Health Organization, knew Ho Chi Minh and agreed to hold a message.

After a number of years of the First Indochina War, French commanders adopted a coverage they known as “yellowing” (jaunissement), expressly to reduce white casualties. US critics of the warfare in contrast Vietnamization to jaunissement. [5]

The coverage of Vietnamization, regardless of its profitable execution, was in the end a failure because the improved ARVN forces and the diminished American and allied part had been unable to forestall the autumn of Saigon and the next merger of the north and south, to type the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Nixon mentioned Vietnamization had two parts. The first was “strengthening the armed power of the South Vietnamese in numbers, tools, management and fight expertise”, whereas the second was “the extension of the pacification program [i.e. military aid to civilians] in South Vietnam.” To obtain the primary aim, U.S. helicopters would fly in help nevertheless, helicopter operations had been an excessive amount of a part of floor operations to contain U.S. personnel. [ clarification needed ] Thus, ARVN candidates had been enrolled in U.S. helicopter faculties to take over the operations. As noticed by Lieutenant General Dave Palmer, to qualify an ARVN candidate for U.S. helicopter faculty, he first wanted to study English this, along with the months-long coaching and apply within the subject, made including new capabilities to the ARVN take not less than two years. [4] Palmer didn’t disagree that the primary part, given time and assets, was achievable. However: “Pacification, the second part, offered the true problem…it was benevolent authorities motion in areas the place the federal government ought to all the time have been benevolently energetic…doing each was obligatory if Vietnamization had been to work.”

Vietnamization match into the broader détente coverage of the Nixon administration, through which the United States not regarded its basic technique because the containment of communism however as a cooperative world order, through which Nixon and his chief adviser Henry Kissinger had been centered on the broader constellation of forces [ clarification needed ] and the larger world powers. [3] Nixon had ordered Kissinger to barter diplomatic insurance policies with Soviet statesman Anatoly Dobrynin. Nixon additionally opened high-level contact with China. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China had been of upper precedence than South Vietnam.

The identify “Vietnamization” happened by accident. At a January 28, 1969, assembly of the National Security Council, General Andrew Goodpaster, deputy to General Creighton Abrams and commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, said that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had been steadily enhancing, and the purpose at which the warfare could possibly be “de-Americanized” was shut. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird agreed with the purpose, however not with the language: “What we’d like is a time period like ‘Vietnamizing’ to place the emphasis on the proper points.” Nixon instantly favored Laird’s phrase. [2]

Why was there a movement called Vietnamization? It was an idea to have the people fight their own war It was a way to fight behind the scenes in Vietnam It was a plan to expand resources for the Vietnamese It was the first step for an independent Vietnam

There is a movement called Vietnamization because of the fact that this is the policy in ending the United States to be associated or to be involved in the war of Vietnam by means of producing a program that will train, expand, and equip the forces of the south Vietnamese.

c) the invasion of the shang

the big stick policy was to still look powerful, and be nice at the same time. the big stick policy was also to countries who were at war, find peace with eachother.

the dollar diplomacy was to expand american business and get it to latin america, for that would be good for the economy.

The Vietnamization Of The American Revolution

We have in recent years been greatly interested in finding historical parallels between our own Revolution and the post-1945 wars of national liberation in the Third World, those anticolonial movements in Algeria, Angola, Indochina, and elsewhere. Unable to stand up to imperial forces in open combat, modern revolutionists have turned to guerrilla warfare—engaging in small-unit operations, raiding outposts and ambushing supply columns, taking advantage of familiar foliage and terrain, living off the countryside, and relying on native farmers and villagers for support.

One hardly can deny the pervasiveness or the success of guerrillas—or partisans, as they also are called. As the French sociologist Raymond Aron has observed, “In our time, the war of partisans has changed the map of the world more than the classical or destructive machines…partisan warfare has given the coup de grace to European overseas empires.”

Was George Washington a guerrilla chieftain? And did his forces, in liquidating Britain’s colonial holdings in what became the United States, achieve the triumph of the first war of national liberation? Such a claim is commonly heard, although more often than not it comes from journalists and popularizers of history rather than from serious scholars. Assuredly colonial Americans were experienced in irregular forms of conflict: they had been fighting Indians and Frenchmen in a rough, forested wilderness environment for a century and a half before Lexington and Concord. But we also should point out that eighteenth-century British soldiers had some familiarity with guerrilla tactics in the Low Countries and Scotland and in the Seven Years War, the climactic Anglo-French duel for North America. Accordingly, one might conclude that both sides in the American Revolution engaged in a guerrilla confrontation, given their previous experiences with irregular operations and the rugged nature of the American countryside.

Interestingly, American writers, hooked on what we might call the Vietnam syndrome, have been far more inclined to see the military parallels between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries than have revolutionary leaders in the Third World. The latter’s military treatises—the most widely publicized primers are by China’s Mao Tse-tung and North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap—ignore the American War of Independence and call for guerrilla activities along Marxist-Leninist concepts of revolutionary conflict. Even Marxist revolutionists in Africa and Asia, however, have frequently found inspiration in the American Revolution but it has been the humanitarianism and idealism of the American experience that they have deemed attractive, not Washington’s methods of overturning foreign rule.

The truth is that both the British and their American adversaries opted for orthodox warfare during our Revolution, with guerrillas consigned an auxiliary status, supporting rather than replacing regular armies. As for the British, they, like the soldiers of European nations, continued to follow time-tested military science until the Napoleonic era saw the birth of flexible units equally skilled in raids and patrols and line fire. The Americans, on the other hand, had their own unique reasons for turning their backs on the kind of bushwhacking conflicts they knew best. As early as the Stamp Act crisis, a decade before the Revolution, Americans had resolved to exercise restraint in opposing unpopular British imperial laws and policies. Violence and physical intimidation, rarely employed, usually were confined to specific targets and conducted without bloodshed.

A guerrilla war that might achieve independence but wreck the institutions of society in the process would be a hollow victory Americans had no wish to win the war and lose the peace. And indeed they had much to lose, for theirs was a society rapidly growing in maturity, sophistication, and material affluence—becoming more English rather than less so with each passing decade. Here we may note one of the most striking differences between our struggle for independence and those since 1945. Only in the American case do we find colonies closely tied to the imperial state by culture, language, and direct descent. Those intimate links explain the reluctance of the Americans to cut loose from their British moorings and their rejection of terrorism. Terrorists hate everything their opponents stand for, and nothing generates guerrilla warfare like terrorism we have only to hear the latest bulletins from Northern Ireland and Lebanon for confirmation of that tragic truth.

Consequently, the revolutionists continued to pursue a goal of restraint after hostilities began, one best accomplished by a central army under the Continental Congress, an army—commanded by Washington—that performed rather like that of its British counterpart. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, could thus confidently inform the House of Lords in 1777 that the armed rebels were not “wild and lawless banditti.”

Even so, circumstances and events just might have generated the terrorism and guerrilla conflict so opposed in principle by our forefathers. What if before 1775 British authorities had imprisoned rioters, had shipped patriot leaders like Samuel Adams to England to be tried for treason, and directed royal troops to enforce obnoxious Parliamentary acts with bayonets? In short, what if Britain had treated her dissident colonies in the New World the way she treated Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—with arbitrary arrests, treason trials, land confiscations, and so on? Doubtless there would have been violence and atrocities just as there were in Ireland. Americans, in contrast, had primarily constitutional complaints, which they voiced in speeches and petitions without fear of reprisals. They did so without apprehension because Britain’s physical hold on faroff America was weak and also because they possessed (unlike Ireland) legal and political institutions that could effectively cripple London’s ambitious imperial schemes.

In short, the American colonists knew their British cousins very well, knew what they could get away with. Two centuries later Mohandas Gandhi likewise understood the British and the methods his Indian people could use against them. Gandhi’s millions of peasants were weaponless and could scarcely be regimented militarily in any case. His scheme was to beat the British with the overriding quality that the multitudes had in abundance, their immutable inertia. If they regularly did nothing at home, he would have them do nothing in the streets—obstructing docks, trolleys, cars, and so on. Such a strategy would not have worked in all times and all places. But the Indians in the nineteen thirties and forties were not the Irish of an earlier day and the British were not Hitler’s Nazis, who would have thought nothing of machine-gunning thousands of obstructionists. (In fact, to jump back to the eighteenth century, we should remember that the unplanned shooting of a few riffraff in Boston in 1770 by thoroughly provoked regulars—the so-called Boston Massacre—so embarrassed British authorities that they withdrew their soldiers from the city.)

While parallels between the American War of Independence and the Vietnam War have been exaggerated, some are valid. Britain in 1776 and America in the 1960’s were the superpowers of their day, each convinced it could not lose a war. Both American rebels and Vietnamese insurgents obtained military support from other nations. Both superpowers received lusty criticism at home from dissenting groups. The Johnson administration and George Ill’s ministers prolonged their respective wars because of their belief in a domino theory—for Britain this meant that the loss of the Thirteen Colonies would lead to secessionist movements in other parts of the empire for the Johnson team it meant that communism eventually would prevail throughout Southeast Asia. Both Britain and America were fighting logistically arduous wars amid heavy foliage and rugged terrain in remote regions of the globe.

There are fewer comparisons, however, between the insurgency of the American rebels and the Vietcong and their allies. This is true in part because, as we have indicated, our independence struggle was not primarily a guerrilla war. (But it did have its irregular features. Local people often came forth to assist in repelling the invaders, especially in the South between 1780 and 1782, where even the American ranking general, Nathanael Greene, temporarily played the role of a partisan owing to the smallness of his command.)

Moreover, Americans intervened in an ongoing Vietnamese civil war. Our Revolution only became a civil war after fighting broke out between British regulars and American Whigs only then did fence-straddlers and royalists have to show their real colors. In America the rebels began with most of the politically active people on their side. Therefore, the Vietcong had a much greater task in that it had to win a sizable part of the civilian population and build an underground political organization. The American rebels had in their colonial militias and provincial congresses a valuable revolutionary infrastructure from the opening clash of arms.

Why has the idea of the American Revolution as a guerrilla war taken such a hold on the public mind? Our recent concerns over the Vietcong and other wars of national liberation clearly provide us with much if not all of the answer. This ahistorical Vietnamization of the American Revolution should serve as a warning. Correctly viewed, the present is the product of the past the past is not the product of the present.


It was a strange war that Richard M. Nixon inherited when he began his presidency in 1969. His predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, had given up on winning, called off the air campaign against North Vietnam, and opened negotiations with the enemy.

North Vietnam, encouraged and emboldened, was not interested in a peace settlement unless all of its war aims were met—in effect, the unconditional withdrawal of US forces and surrender of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon.

To make matters worse, former members of the Johnson administration demanded that Nixon move promptly to extricate the United States from Vietnam. Nixon had no desire to continue the war. The question was how to get out of it with what he called “peace with honor.”

As Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry A. Kissinger, explained later, “America, the bulwark of free people everywhere, could not, because it was weary, simply walk away from a small ally, the commitments of a decade, 45,000 casualties, and the anguish of their families whose sacrifices would be retroactively rendered meaningless.”

The solution was seen to be “Vietnamization.” If South Vietnam could be enabled to take over the war and persuaded to do so, US forces could pull out and go home.

Credit for the “Vietnamization” term is usually given to Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, who proposed it as an improvement on “de-Americanization,” suggested previously.

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu took exception to the term because, he said, it implied that up to then, the US had done all of the fighting alone. The Pentagon kept using the word anyway on the basis that it referred only to “the assumption by the Vietnamese of that portion of the war effort carried on previously by the United States.”

The Big Switch

The Vietnamization policy was decided upon at a National Security Council meeting in March 1969. The timetable set by the White House called for the program to start in July with a completion date sometime between December 1970 and December 1972.

In the first phase, South Vietnam would take over responsibility for the ground war. Phase two would include a buildup of the South Vietnamese air force. In the final phase, US presence would be reduced to a military advisory mission.

Over the next four years, Laird would be the strongest advocate for Vietnamization. In May 1969, he informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Vietnamizing the war was the highest priority of the Department of Defense.

In August, Laird rewrote the mission statement for US forces in Southeast Asia. Previously, the objective had been to defeat the enemy. The new mission, as Kissinger explained it, “focused on providing ‘maximum assistance’ to the South Vietnamese to strengthen their forces, supporting pacification efforts, and reducing the flow of supplies to the enemy.”

In a speech in November, Nixon declared, “In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam in this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace. … Under the plan, I ordered first a substantial increase in the training and equipment of South Vietnamese forces. … We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all US combat ground forces, and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces.”

The first US troop withdrawal—800 men from the 9th Infantry Division—was on July 8, 1969.

Nixon’s intention was for the mutual withdrawal of US and North Vietnamese forces, but Hanoi refused to cooperate. “The demand for mutual withdrawal grew hollow as unilateral withdrawal accelerated,” Kissinger said.

“Withdrawals would become like salted peanuts to the American public,” Kissinger added. “The more troops we withdrew, the more would be expected.

The US Drawdown

US troop strength in Vietnam peaked at 543,000 in April 1969. By the end of the year, a net reduction of about 7,000 had been achieved. Units not yet withdrawn continued to receive new arrivals as replacements for troops rotating home at the end of their one-year tours.

Nearly all of the early reductions were ground forces. Airpower was drawn down more slowly and assumed a greater share of the American involvement in the war. The level of US Air Force presence in country did not change much. In fact, the aggregate number of US aircraft in South Vietnam increased by 40 in 1969.

Ever since the Rolling Thunder air campaign against North Vietnam ended in 1968, aircraft from USAF units in South Vietnam and Thailand and from Navy carriers offshore had been available for operations in the South and for interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

Some of the older USAF aircraft were pulled out or transferred to the Vietnamese but the principal fighter and attack platforms in South Vietnam—F-4s, F-100Ds, and A-37s—took on a stronger role than before. B-52 bombers flying from bases in Guam, Thailand, and Okinawa provided an exceptionally lethal form of close air support.

The nature of the drawdown created a unique resource problem for the Air Force. “The other services were cutting back on their SEA [Southeast Asia] commitments drastically and could devote their money and efforts to neglected future force planning,” said USAF historian Elizabeth H. Hartsook. “But Air Force commitments continued to increase.”

The Army had a different problem in the drawdown: the breakdown of morale and discipline among troops who were reluctant to engage in combat to buy time for the South Vietnamese in a war the US was no longer trying to win. The most extreme manifestation of this was “fragging” attacks on those perceived as overzealous to fight. In 1970, there were 209 instances of “fragging” with 45 killed, mostly officers and NCOs.

Laird reminded commanders that “the chief mission of our forces in South Vietnam continues to be to [ensure] the success of Vietnamization.”

The South Vietnamese Buildup

Between 1968 and 1972, the personnel strength of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the “Ruff Puffs”—the Regional Forces and Popular Forces territorial militia—increased by about 75 percent.

The United States transferred large numbers of weapons, 44,000 radio sets, and 1,800 tanks to the South Vietnamese ground forces. The Ruff Puffs were able to replace their World War II vintage M-1 Garands and Thompson submachine guns with M-16 assault rifles.

Buildup of the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) was more complicated. Prior to 1965, the VNAF was an all-propeller force, mainly flying T-28 and A-1 fighter-bombers and attack aircraft and C-47 transports. VNAF was a limited capability force, configured to deliver limited firepower in support of ground troops against a lightly armed enemy.

The South Vietnamese obtained jets—A-37 attack aircraft and F-5 fighters, both modifications of US Air Force trainers—between 1966 and 1968 but did not possess them in significant numbers until Vietnamization began. UH-1 Huey helicopters replaced the older H-34s. AC-47 and AC-119 gunships were added as well.

VNAF was built strictly to defend South Vietnam. It did not have the capability to strike North Vietnam on its own or to conduct interdiction missions in high-threat areas like Laos. “In the time remaining, we’re not going to create a force that will take the place of the force that’s here now,” Air Force Gen. George S. Brown, who was the deputy commander for air ops at Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), said in 1970.

Thieu asked for high-performance F-4 fighters but he did not get them. Among other considerations, F-4s were “grossly beyond current VNAF maintenance capabilities,” historian Hartsook said.

VNAF coped reasonably well with the changes and in 1971, flew 63 percent of the combat air sorties in South Vietnam.

Airfields and base facilities were transferred as well. By November 1972, USAF had turned over to the South Vietnamese all installations except for Tan Son Nhut in Saigon, where 7th Air Force and MACV were headquartered.

The strength of the South Vietnamese forces peaked in 1972 at just over a million, close to the 1.1 million calculated by US planners as the limit the South Vietnamese population and economy could support.

The US dumped resources and responsibilities on the South Vietnamese faster than they could absorb them. With the possibility of a peace agreement suddenly looming in 1972, almost 700 additional airplanes—including improved model F-5E fighters—were delivered within a few months, anticipating that a cease-fire would impose restrictions on military assistance and the further provision of equipment.

“This force, although stretched by the expansion, was considered to be capable of providing close air support in an effective manner,” said USAF Gen. William W. Momyer in a postwar analysis. “It was not considered, however, that VNAF would be able to provide the highly sophisticated support that … USAF repeatedly did when there was a major engagement.”

Training and Other Issues

The rapid expansion of the South Vietnamese forces created a huge new training requirement, of which instruction for aircrews and technicians was the most difficult part.

Through 1975, VNAF continued to send several hundred officers a year to the United States for undergraduate pilot training. At the same time, South Vietnam began to develop an aircrew training program of its own. After primary training in the T-41D Mescalero at Nha Trang, fledgling airmen went to Phan Rang and the T-37 trainer for transition to F-5s and A-37s.

Training for mechanics and other technical specialists was conducted in English. This left instruction open only to those who were proficient in English, but the practice was kept for several reasons.

“The Vietnamese language, reflecting its society, had not developed words for sophisticated technology,” said journalist David Fulghum. “The language could come no closer to the M-48 tank’s ‘ballistic computer,’ for example, than to render it as an ‘adding machine.’ As late as May 1971, almost 6,000 pages of helicopter maintenance and repair manuals had yet to be translated.”

Poor maintenance was a continuing deficiency, especially on the Huey helicopters, which were the most numerous aircraft in the VNAF fleet and which required extensive service. At times in the 1970s, half of the Hueys were grounded with mechanical failures.

Yet another kind of problem was created by service politics. Thieu was an army general and the army was his power base. He effectively sidelined and isolated others, such as his rival, Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, and put his own people in positions of authority.

“What counted for Mr. Thieu was personal loyalty, so generals in the South Vietnamese army and provincial chiefs in the South Vietnamese government tended to be promoted on the basis of their allegiance to Mr. Thieu rather than merit,” said Fox Butterfield of The New York Times. “It was an old-fashioned, Confucian system, often greased by corruption.”

Estimates of Progress

Opinions were divided about the progress of Vietnamization. Gen. Creighton W. Abrams of MACV and Adm. John S. McCain, commander of US Pacific Command, said the program was working. Laird, returning from a visit to Saigon in 1971, said Vietnamization was “on schedule or ahead of schedule in all respects.”

Seventh Air Force historian Kenneth Sams, writing in Air Force Magazine in April 1971, reported that USAF generals regarded South Vietnamese pilots as “the elite of their nation’s armed forces” and “among the most professional flyers in the world.” Their experience was measured in years rather than months and some of them had logged as many as 4,000 combat missions.

The assessment was considerably more negative from junior officers and NCOs engaged in training the ground forces. Some ARVN units and leaders were good, but too many soldiers were deficient in everything from marksmanship to tactics and taking care of their equipment. “Vietnamization is a word for the politicians,” one major told The New York Times.

There were also reservations about the combat effectiveness of Vietnamese airmen. As shoulder-fired SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles became more prevalent, VNAF pilots were reluctant to go below 10,000 feet to launch close air support strikes. Accuracy was not possible from such altitudes.

On balance, Hartsook said, “The South Vietnamese were not improving as fast as the US forces were withdrawing.”

Declaring Success

Further evaluation of Vietnamization was based on South Vietnamese participation in three broader military operations during the transition period: the incursions into Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971, and the “Easter invasion” from North Vietnam in 1972.

In Cambodia, ARVN performed effectively alongside US ground forces in the destruction of enemy sanctuaries and supply bases. In Laos, the search-and-destroy ground operation against the Ho Chi Minh Trail was conducted by the South Vietnamese army—the use of US ground forces in Laos having been specifically forbidden by an act of Congress—supported by American airpower and logistics. Some units did well others did not.

The more critical test came in March 1972 with a three-pronged invasion by the North Vietnamese across the Demilitarized Zone and eastward out of Laos and Cambodia.

Most of the US ground forces were already gone, so it was up to the South Vietnamese and US airpower to repel the attack. They succeeded in doing so but the key factor was clearly airpower.

“From the Easter offensive of 1972, it was apparent that the ARVN couldn’t stand up to the North Vietnamese without continuous and massive air support,” Momyer said. “ARVN was most dependent upon airpower and generally would not initiate major attacks unless airpower was assured.”

The last US Army combat troops left Vietnam in August 1972 and most of the remaining US Air Force contingent in Southeast Asia was in Thailand.

In November, seeking to persuade Thieu to support a peace agreement, Nixon gave him “absolute assurance” that “if Hanoi fails to abide by the terms of the agreement, it is my intention to take swift and severe retaliatory action.”

Operation Linebacker II, the massive air strikes on Hanoi and Haiphong in December, helped persuade the North Vietnamese to negotiate in earnest.

In congressional testimony Jan. 8, Laird said that “the Vietnamization program has been completed” and that the South Vietnamese armed forces were “fully capable” of providing security against North Vietnam within the borders of South Vietnam, making possible “the complete termination of American involvement in the war,” even if the peace talks failed.

The peace accords were signed Jan. 27, 1973, and the cease-fire went into effect Jan. 28. By June, the American military presence in South Vietnam had dwindled to a few dozen.

South Vietnam Alone

In a March 29 speech, Nixon said, “We have prevented the imposition of a Communist government on South Vietnam.” It was a bold claim, but Nixon was no longer in a position to influence events in Vietnam.

He was already engulfed by the Watergate scandal that would eventually drive him from the presidency in August 1974, and now that the United States was out of Vietnam, Congress was determined to make sure it stayed out.

In July, Congress denied funding to finance “directly or indirectly” combat operations by US forces “in or over or from the shores” of Vietnam or anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Congress also reduced assistance for South Vietnam from $2.1 billion in 1973 to $700 million in 1975.

In his memoirs, Nixon faulted Congress for withholding “the means to enforce the Paris agreement at a time when the North Vietnamese were openly violating it” and “cutting back on military aid for South Vietnam at a time when the Soviets were increasing their aid to North Vietnam.”

South Vietnam had a large army and air force but the logistics system was dismally inadequate. Aircraft and helicopters often stood idle for lack of maintenance or spare parts. After the cease-fire, there were no more replacements for aircraft lost to combat or accidents.

The effectiveness of VNAF was further diminished by the South Vietnamese style of command and control, which divided the air force up into smaller segments that were assigned to corps commanders, who were always soldiers. These army officers exercised control over all of the air and ground forces within their territory and employed them with a limited, local perspective. Without US aid, South Vietnam could not sustain or support a force of the previous size. ARVN numbers fell sharply, with high casualty and desertion rates contributing further to the decline.

The Fall of the South

The North Vietnamese began the final campaign of the war March 10, 1975, attacking with a force that included 18 army divisions—more than twice as many as they employed in the Easter invasion of 1972—as well as armor and artillery in large numbers.

North Vietnam made no effort to establish air superiority but the army was accompanied by so many radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns and SAM-7 missiles that VNAF’s slow-moving helicopters and attack aircraft were seldom able to operate in the battle areas.

ARVN, spread thin and poorly led, could not hold, so Thieu decided to abandon the highlands region and two northern provinces and make a stand farther south. The situation soon deteriorated into a disorganized rout. Hundreds of aircraft and huge stores of supplies were left behind and fell into enemy hands.

In some places, the South Vietnamese soldiers did well elsewhere they broke and ran. “VNAF as a whole fought better than any other element of the RVNAF [Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces],” Momyer said.

Thieu resigned April 23 and flew into exile. Most of the remaining VNAF aircraft fled to Thailand on April 29 to avoid capture.

VNAF’s last combat sortie was by A-37s against North Vietnam columns moving toward the capital on April 30. Saigon fell later that day, bringing the long war in Vietnam to an end.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent articles, “Airpower at the Bay of Pigs” and “Eisenhower and the Eight Warlords” appeared in the July issue.

Watch the video: Vietnamization (May 2022).