Week of April 28
At the end of April 1969—just over four years after U.S. combat units deployed to Vietnam—the number of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia reached its peak. That month, approximately 549,500 Americans were stationed in the region. The vast majority of them served in South Vietnam, but American men and women also served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and aboard Navy vessels off the Vietnamese coast. In the same month, President Richard M. Nixon finalized his administration’s policy of incrementally bringing U.S. troops home while instituting a “Vietnamization” plan. Vietnamization’s goal was to gradually hand over responsibility for the fighting to South Vietnam by turning over U.S. equipment, supplies, bases, facilities, and operations to the South Vietnamese armed forces. Thus, April 1969 became a major turning point in America’s war in Vietnam.
How did over one-half million Americans end up in Southeast Asia? In early 1965, before then-President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Marines to go ashore at Đà Nẵng, there were just 23,000 U.S. personnel in South Vietnam. Almost all of them were there as advisers to train and guide South Vietnam’s military in its fight with a Communist insurgency. From then on, the number of American troops rapidly escalated. By the end of 1965, 184,000 Americans were serving in Southeast Asia. By 1966, that number had more than doubled, to 385,000. The year 1967 saw the number increase to 486,000, and it reached well over 500,000 Americans in 1968. The majority of troops served one-year tours in Vietnam. Relatively short tours led to a constant turnover of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen arriving and heading home, though some served multiple tours. This meant that literally millions of American men and women served during the course of the war. Not every American served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, but nearly every American knew someone who did.
By 1968, American public opinion had largely turned against the war, with polls showing that a majority of the public did not believe the United States was making progress in Vietnam. Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency that year on the promise to bring the war to an end with an honorable peace. After he entered office in early 1969, his administration unveiled their plan to do so by “Vietnamizing” the war—gradually withdrawing U.S. troops while expanding and strengthening the South Vietnamese military.
The notion of eventually handing responsibility for conduct of the war over to the South Vietnamese was first conceived under President Johnson, and the idea’s origin extended back to the Kennedy administration. But Nixon—along with input from Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and other leaders in the Department of Defense and the CIA—formalized Vietnamization as official policy. The main U.S. goal was to significantly expand and train the South Vietnamese military. The plan also proposed to greatly improve security for the rural population in order to curtail Việt Cộng activities in the countryside and give the South Vietnamese government the time and space to institute needed reforms.
Two months later, in June 1969, President Nixon publically announced the first U.S. troop withdrawals of the war, stating that 25,000 would come home in August. Further withdrawals followed, with a total of about 60,000 leaving Vietnam by the end of 1969. Within three years, just 24,000 U.S. forces remained in Vietnam and the United States had handed the bulk of its equipment, bases, facilities, and fighting responsibilities over to the South Vietnamese. While Nixon attempted to use increased air strikes against Communist forces to assist with South Vietnam’s ground war, the performance of the South Vietnamese armed forces remained spotty, at best, and the North Vietnamese Army largely overwhelmed them by the early part of 1975.1
1George C. Herring, America’s Longest War (4th edition), 239–40, 257–58, 281–88. Nguyen Anh Tuan, America Coming to Terms: The Vietnam Legacy (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2009), 148–49; Graham A. Cosmas, United States Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Withdrawal, 1968–1973 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2006), 17–18, 141, 144, 148–54, 176–77 (regarding Nixon formalizing Johnson’s plan as policy, see p. 144). Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 182, 847, 1288–89. John G. Keilers, “Nixon Doctrine and Vietnamization,” June 29, 2007, http://www.army.mil/article/3867/Nixon_Doctrine_and_Vietnamization/ (accessed 4/15/14) states that Nixon did not publically announced the plan until 7/25/69.