36. Editorial Note

Henry Kissinger sent a memorandum to President Nixon on September 10, 1969, in which he expressed his reservations about prospects for “Vietnamization” of the conflict in Vietnam:

“Three elements on the Vietnam front must be considered—(1) our efforts to ‘win the war’ through military operations and pacification, (2) ‘Vietnamization,’ and (3) the political position of the GVN.

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  • “(1) I do not believe that with our current plans we can win the war within two years, although our success or failure in hurting the enemy remains very important.
  • “(2) ‘Vietnamization’ must be considered both with regard to its prospects for allowing us to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, and with regard to its effect on Hanoi and U.S. public opinion. I am not optimistic about the ability of the South Vietnamese armed forces to assume a larger part of the burden than current MACV plans allow. These plans, however, call for a thirty-month period in which to turn the burden of the war over to the GVN. I do not believe we have this much time.

    “In addition, ‘Vietnamization’ will run into increasingly serious problems as we proceed down its path.

    • “—Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: The more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded. This could eventually result, in effect, in demands for unilateral withdrawal—perhaps within a year.
    • “—The more troops are withdrawn, the more Hanoi will be encouraged—they are the last people we will be able to fool about the ability of the South Vietnamese to take over from us. They have the option of attacking GVN forces to embarrass us throughout the process or of waiting until we have largely withdrawn before doing so (probably after a period of higher infiltration).
    • “—Each U.S. soldier that is withdrawn will be relatively more important to the effort in the south, as he will represent a higher percentage of U.S. forces than did his predecessor. (We need not, of course, continue to withdraw combat troops but can emphasize support troops in the next increments withdrawn. Sooner or later, however, we must be getting at the guts of our operations there.)
    • “—It will become harder and harder to maintain the morale of those who remain, not to speak of their mothers.
    • “—‘Vietnamization’ may not lead to reduction in U.S. casualties until its final stages, as our casualty rate may be unrelated to the total number of American troops in South Vietnam. To kill about 150 U.S. soldiers a week, the enemy needs to attack only a small portion of our forces.
    • “—‘Vietnamization’ depends on broadening the GVN, and Thieu’s new government is not significantly broader than the old (see below). The best way to broaden the GVN would be to create the impression that the Saigon government is winning or at least permanent. The more uncertainty there is about the outcome of the war, the less the prospect for ‘Vietnamization.’

  • “(3) We face a dilemma with the GVN: The present GVN cannot go much farther towards a political settlement without seriously endangering its own existence; but at the same time, it has not gone far enough to make such a settlement likely.

“Thieu’s failure to ‘broaden’ his government is disturbing, but not because he failed to include a greater variety of Saigon’s Tea House politicians. It is disturbing because the politicians clearly do not believe that Thieu and his government represent much hope for future power, and because the new government does not offer much of a bridge to neutralist figures who could play a role in future settlement. This is not to mention his general failure to build up political strength in non-Catholic villages. In addition, as U.S. troops are withdrawn, Thieu becomes more dependent on the political support of the South Vietnamese military.” (National Security Council, Special NSC Meeting Folder, 9/12/69 Vietnam)

The full text of the memorandum is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, Vietnam, 1969–1970. It is also printed in Kissinger, White House Years, pages 1480-1482.