In the final weeks of 1969, President Richard Nixon announced the withdrawal of 50,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam. This planned withdrawal, together with other troop reductions earlier in the year, was part of Nixon’s complicated plan to end the Vietnam War.
By the time Nixon became president in January 1969, 31,000 American soldiers had already died in Vietnam. Over 540,000 soldiers were still stationed there, and over $80 billion had been spent on the war; yet the North Vietnamese showed no interest in reaching a settlement to the conflict that was acceptable to the United States. Domestic unrest over the war had become rampant, and many formerly staunch supporters of America’s involvement had become disillusioned. Like Lyndon Johnson before him, Nixon did not want to be the first American president to lose a war. Unlike Johnson in 1963, however, Nixon entered office with few options available to prevent American defeat in Vietnam.
Nixon believed his best option was to withdraw American troops while shoring up the South Vietnamese military so that it could defend itself against the incessant North Vietnamese insurgence. The problem with this strategy, as Stanley Karnow notes in Vietnam, A History, was that Nixon had to withdraw troops “without any guarantee that the South Vietnamese army could improve rapidly enough to compensate for the departing U.S. troops. As the size of the American force shrank, moreover, the United States would inevitably lose leverage in its bargaining with North Vietnam.”1
Nixon was committed to leaving Vietnam with the South having a solid chance at survival, and boosted efforts for Vietnamization, a term which meant the gradual shifting of combat responsibilities to the South Vietnamese. He noted, “If they do not assume the majority of the burden in their own defense, they cannot be saved.”2 A massive aid buildup began, with large amounts of supplies and military equipment being sent to the South so that it could defend itself after America’s exit.
The push for Vietnamization meant that U.S. troop withdrawals had to coincide with the buildup of the South’s forces in order to maintain a large enough counterbalance to the North Vietnamese Army. On June 8, 1969, Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island in the Pacific to inform him of America’s impending withdrawal from South Vietnam. A phased troop withdrawal began soon after, with 115,000 U.S. soldiers pulled out by the end of 1969. Troop levels would be reduced to 334,000 by the end of 1970, and down to 156,000 by the end of 1971. By November 30, 1972, only 16,000 advisers remained, the same level of personnel America had in Vietnam in 1963. As Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger notes in White House Years, after 1969, “we would be in a race between the decline of our combat capability and the improvement of South Vietnamese forces—a race whose outcome was at best uncertain.”3
The unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops weakened the American bargaining position with the North Vietnamese because it met one of their key demands without asking for anything in return. Nixon was looking to placate his domestic critics with this move, however, and was hoping for a smooth transition from American control of the military situation to South Vietnamese control. As Nixon’s second Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger noted later, though, “…the strength, resiliency, and steadfastness of the Saigon forces were more highly valued than they should have been.”4
An example of the relative lack of capability of the South Vietnamese forces was Operation Lam Son 719, which was executed on January 30, 1971. Supported by U.S. air strikes, South Vietnamese forces entered Laos in an attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They reached their early objectives with skill, but when the NVA regrouped, they were routed and pulled back in a panicked and confused retreat. Such actions had a negative effect on the morale of the South’s troops.
Similarly, American forces began suffering severe morale problems. With fewer troops in Vietnam, those still fighting faced the NVA with less support. The draftees, who were less skilled and less motivated to fight, made up a large portion of those left in the country, and were more likely to turn to drugs and be insubordinate. Veteran reporter Neil Sheehan noted the morale situation:
[It was an] Army in which men escaped into marijuana and heroin and other men died because their comrades were stoned on these drugs that profited the Chinese traffickers and the Saigon generals. It was an army whose units in the field were on the edge of mutiny, whose soldiers rebelled against the senselessness of their sacrifice by assassinating officers…in ‘accidental’ shootings and ‘fragging’ with grenades.5
Stories like Sheehan’s caused a further erosion of support for the war in the U.S. While the phased withdrawal was at first interpreted as good news, many were now calling for the troops to be returned home as quickly as possible. Demonstrations against and outrage over Nixon’s handling of the war became even more rampant after the bombing of Cambodian became public.
But that is another story.
Material for this post is excerpted from my book, America’s Failure in Vietnam, available on Amazon.
- ^Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, A History. New York: Penguin Books, 1997, p. 641.
- ^Quoted in Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon: Triumph of a Politician – 1962-1972. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 146.
- ^Henry Kissinger, White House Years. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1979, p 272.
- ^Quoted in Brig. Gen. Douglas Kinnard (Ret.), The War Managers. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1977, p. 4.
- ^Quoted in Edward P. Morgan, The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, p. 161-2.