114. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon 1


  • Vietnamizing the War (NSSM 36)

In response to National Security Study Memorandum 36 (NSSM 36),2 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) have prepared a plan (Enclosure 1) to Vietnamize the war.3 In addition to the Joint Staff, Pacific Command, and MACV inputs, the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency contributed to portions of the study.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have developed four alternative timetables for withdrawing about half of the American forces in Vietnam over 18, 24, 30, and 42 months. The JCS recommends that until the enemy threat declines, at least 267,500 U.S. troops should remain in South Vietnam. That residual force would:

Include a ground combat force of 2⅔ divisions (out of a 10⅔ division pre-Vietnamization force). These 57,000 men would provide for emergency reinforcement of the RVNAF and safeguard U.S. base areas.

Provide artillery, tactical air, airlift, logistic, and advisory support to the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF). This complement would total about 210,500 men.

The JCS recommend, and I concur, that planning for Vietnamization should remain flexible and subject to periodic reassessments. The size, composition, and specific timing of each redeployment increment should be based on a careful evaluation of the existing situation and the reactions to previous redeployments. The JCS, in their report, contend the 42 month schedule for reducing U.S. troop presence to the 267,500 level is preferable from a military standpoint. They also believe the 30 month schedule can be accomplished with acceptable risks. Subsequent to submitting the report, the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me he believed the 24 month schedule would be acceptable, in his judgment, for planning purposes.

I, too, believe the 24 month schedule has merit. I recommend such a schedule for planning purposes. It would allow us to maintain a steady momentum towards Vietnamization, with the apparent political [Page 359] and economic dividends to the United States, while allaying to some extent the risks that a mood of despair and defeat might be engendered among the South Vietnamese people. The 24 month schedule would also provide time for a more orderly redeployment process for United States forces. If the 18 month schedule were followed, for example, nearly 200,000 U.S. troops would have to be redeployed in CY 1970. While I believe such a substantial redeployment could be accomplished in one year, the extra 6 months would provide the time required for more systematic and efficient planning and movement.

The Secretary of State agrees (Enclosure 2)4 with my emphasis on flexibility and periodic reassessment, but believes on balance, the 18 month timetable should be our target. He, of course, agrees the nature and timing of Vietnamization should be subject to change if events so indicate.

In essence, then, I am recommending the adoption of the 24 month Vietnamization schedule for planning purposes. The follow-on planning can, and I believe should, stay flexible and be couched in terms of goals. While avoiding the impression of being married to a rigid timetable, we should avoid, on the other hand, any impression we are drifting. There are many uncertainties with which we must deal in considering (1) the impact of Vietnamization, (2) U.S. redeployment schedules, (3) U.S. residual force levels, (4) redeployment of air and naval forces, (5) budget implications, and (6) continuing Vietnamization planning. I should like to treat briefly each of these topics, in turn, and attempt to lay out the key factors involved, the uncertainties, and the options available to us.

Impact of Vietnamization

The impact of the Vietnamization program to date is uncertain. It will take many months for changes in the attitudes and activities of the Vietnamese Government and military forces to be evident. Likewise the impact of the Vietnamization program on pacification and ground combat is not yet discernible.

Some preliminary observations, however, can be made:

  • • The impact in South Vietnam appears on balance to be positive. There has been little or no panic, and some efforts by the government to increase its effectiveness are discernible. Nonetheless, the Vietnamization process has caused, in CIA’s judgment, considerable uneasiness among the South Vietnamese. There is little doubt that Saigon’s primary interest is with holding back the process as long as possible.
  • Hanoi’s reaction is still clouded. We frankly do not know what it is. Most of the evidence now available suggests the Communists have chosen to fight the war in other ways than in the recent past and are making efforts to be in a position to capitalize on whatever opportunities Vietnamization may offer in the future.
  • Elsewhere in Asia, it has become clear the troop-contributing countries want to participate more actively in troop-redeployment planning. I see no reason why satisfactory arrangements cannot be made for such planning. I believe we should not exclude, in that process, the possibility of trying to exact more support of various kinds for South Vietnam from other Asian nations rather than considering only the phase-down of troop-contributing country efforts.
  • Within the United States, vocal opposition to the war has appeared to diminish; but I believe this may be an illusory phenomenon. The actual and potential antipathy for the war is, in my judgment, significant and increasing. We need demonstrable progress, and the prospect for continued progress, in Vietnamization to elicit continuing domestic support across a broad front. We need a positive and understandable program, even if its dimensions are not fully defined and are subject to change, which will appeal to the U.S. people.

    In addition to looking at the impact of Vietnamization on the nations directly involved, it is also instructive to review the impact from a functional standpoint. Specifically, I would like to review briefly (a) the military effects and (b) the effect on the pacification program:

  • We expect continued improvements in the combat capability of the RVNAF . There are a number of unknowns, however, affecting the rate and absolute level of this improvement. In my initial report of 2 June 1969 on Vietnamizing the War, I noted that, “These unknowns include, inter alia, the quality of leadership, the motivation of the armed forces, the psychological reaction of the South Vietnamese to U.S. redeployments, and the ability of the South Vietnamese to find a stronger organizational structure. These unknowns, collectively, can be at least as important to the overall situation in South Vietnam as the more tangible and measurable elements. With such unknowns, we must recognize the possibility that even with additional training, improved equipment, and increased combat support, the RVNAF will not be able soon to stand alone against the current North Vietnamese and Viet Cong force levels.” Despite continuing RVNAF improvement, I believe this assessment remains valid.

The RVNAF Improvement and Modernization Program was originally intended to prepare the RVNAF to meet the residual VC insurgency threat after the North Vietnamese troops had been withdrawn. That residual VC threat, however, has been declining. This diminishing VC threat, coupled with RVNAF improvement, must lead us to reorient [Page 361] our thinking on the Vietnamization goals. We are now considering the feasibility of expanding the program to prepare the RVNAF to meet a combined VC/NVA threat. I now have under review actions to:

  • —Improve RVNAF leadership and esprit.
  • —Reduce desertion rates.
  • —Increase combined operations and planning.
  • —Improve RVNAF logistics and intelligence capabilities.
  • —Determine optimum RVNAF force structure.
  • —Develop strategy and tactics best suited to RVNAF capabilities.

We must bear in mind, however, that RVNAF progress will be particularly sensitive to the size and timing of U.S. redeployments. Despite the decline in overall allied military strength as U.S. troops withdraw, four important factors will govern the total combat capability of the allied forces remaining in Vietnam:

  • The numerical size of the RVNAF is increasing significantly. The regular, popular and regional forces grew by 250,000 during the past 18 months to a total of about 896,000, and further expansion is planned.
  • Modern arms and equipment of about $1.2 billion in value are being turned over to the Vietnamese.
  • U.S. artillery, tactical aircraft, and logistical personnel remaining in the Residual Support Force will provide the RVNAF with greatly improved firepower and mobility.
  • Virtually all of the programs aimed at quantitative improvement and expansion of the South Vietnamese ground forces will be completed by December 1970. The Navy and Air Force programs extend to June 1972 but are small. Provided qualitative improvement in RVNAF keeps pace, allied forces should be able to prevent serious military setbacks and enable the GVN to continue its pacification and nation-building programs.

The effect of Vietnamization on the pacification program is uncertain. Local security is closely related to the size and effectiveness of the paramilitary forces, such as the Regional Forces (RF), Popular Forces (PF), and Revolutionary Development (RD) cadre. However, security scores in the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES) undoubtedly reflect the large-scale presence of U.S. troops. A VC/NVA offensive against areas recently vacated by U.S. troops could cause serious erosion of pacification gains. These gains have been substantial during the past year, at least statistically. The latest assessment indicates that approximately 87% of the population is rated relatively secure. However, gains made under the accelerated pacification program are fragile. The areas remaining to be pacified may present more difficult problems than did earlier ones. Future progress is likely to be slow and sporadic, particularly if the enemy decides to contest the pacification effort directly.

In summary, I feel Vietnamization has been successful so far. There are uncertainties and risks, mainly incident to the timing, in proceeding with Vietnamization. There are graver risks involved, in my judgment, in not proceeding. There is ample reason to believe the [Page 362] Vietnamization program can be continued, even at an accelerated pace.

United States Redeployment Schedules

The JCS plan provides four alternative timetables to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam. The timetables for reducing our force levels to 267,500 men include 18 month, 24 month, 30 month, and 42 month programs. Using July 1, 1969 as a starting point, these programs would terminate, respectively, on December 31, 1970; June 30, 1971; December 31, 1971; and December 31, 1972.

These schedules provide examples of possible alternatives and I believe we should consider these four plans as examples rather than as rigid alternatives. As the JCS recommend, we need to periodically reassess the impact and the enemy reaction as we reduce our forces.

The advantages of the slower 30 and 42 month Vietnamization program involve mainly the added military assurances that U.S. presence gives. It is clear the South Vietnamese leadership, for the most part, would view the slower programs as a stabilizing influence for them. The main disadvantages of the slower programs would be the impact on the United States people. It could be reasonably expected that such drawn-out programs would not be accepted by substantial segments of the United States public as enough positive momentum in attaining our objectives in Southeast Asia.

The advantages of the faster 18 and 24 month Vietnamization programs hinge mainly on the public support such positive movement should elicit. The disadvantages, of course, are the added military risks involved and the prospect, especially, with the 18 month program of a destabilizing effect on the South Vietnamese society and a less-efficient redeployment process on our part.

I know of no effective way to measure precisely these various elements. I do believe, however, the necessity for support by the U.S. people is the overriding factor involved. I believe it would also be desirable to keep our military leadership in tune with the Vietnamization program, not only as an assignment but also as a matter of conviction. General Wheeler’s personal agreement that the 24 month schedule would be agreeable for planning purposes is therefore a significant step. In my judgment, the 24 month schedule, which terminates June 30, 1971 (the end of FY 1971), represents the most attractive basis for continued planning.

United States Residual Force Levels

The size of the U.S. residual force is one of the main issues discussed in the JCS final report. I am convinced that we must tailor the force to the overall situation as it develops in South Vietnam. I firmly believe that decisions on the size of the residual force and on the redeployment [Page 363] rate used in getting down to the residual force should be developed within the framework of your three criteria now so well publicized at home and abroad. To illustrate:

  • • If, as summed for NSSM 36, current VC/NVA force levels remain constant, the JCS-recommended U.S. residual force package would range from 267,500 to 285,000 men. This force would be designed to support the RVNAF, protect American units, and provide an emergency reinforcement capability.
  • • It may be possible to reduce the size of the JCS residual force while maintaining essentially the same capability. A review by my staff indicated that approximately 42,000 people (from 267,500 to 225,000) could be eliminated without significantly degrading support to the RVNAF and allied forces remaining in Vietnam and without assuming a decline in the enemy threat. The JCS addressed this point and disagreed the 225,000 man force could be achieved without degrading combat capability. We shall continue to address the issue, however.
  • • If the enemy threat declines from current levels, we could accept a reduced combat capability and withdraw additional forces. We will periodically reassess the need for a force of this size as Vietnamization moves ahead. I see no need to make any firm decision on the size of the residual force at this time. It is advisable, however, to delineate some tentative goals for planning purposes. We are ahead of schedule in redeploying the initial increments from South Vietnam. I believe we can continue to seek acceleration in redeployments, whatever our program for planning may be.

As an added point, I believe we should consider reducing the magnitude of the U.S. combat support to RVNAF. With few exceptions, RVNAF units today receive only a small fraction of the support provided to comparable American units. Under the JCS plans to Vietnamize the war, RVNAF forces will receive as much artillery, tactical air, airlift, and logistic support as U.S. combat units. This many-fold increase in support may not be needed. While we should provide the Vietnamese with the assistance they need, we should not necessarily endeavor to create an RVNAF as a mirror image of U.S. forces in organization, tactics and operations. I will continue to evaluate this problem.

Redeployment of Air and Naval Forces

A key point at issue in Vietnamization is whether reductions in U.S. out-of-country/offshore forces are feasible. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that such forces should not be within the terms of reference for Vietnamizing the war. I consider that additional reductions in out-of-country/offshore forces should be feasible in the coming months.

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More specifically at issue is the question of redeploying tactical aircraft. The JCS believe that tactical aircraft withdrawals beyond those they propose (17% of the present force) would pose serious risks to our forces in Southeast Asia. I appreciate their concern, but believe that we can gradually reduce the magnitude of our tactical air operations in South Vietnam without appreciably affecting the course of the war.

I also believe that we should begin reducing the numbers of our tactical air units and their supporting forces based in Thailand. After the bombing halt in North Vietnam, the effort of these tactical air elements was shifted to Laos. Part of this effort has gone to support the Royal Lao Government and interdict routes into northern Laos. I would recommend against any reduction in the level of that support at this time. The remainder of this effort, however, has been concentrated largely on infiltration routes through the Panhandle. The cost of this effort is high and its net value, at least at current operating levels, uncertain.

The JCS plan indicates that the interdiction campaign in the Lao Panhandle has effectively reduced the level of enemy activity in South Vietnam. While this bombing has undoubtedly inflicted damage to the enemy’s logistic system network and created significant resupply problems, the Central Intelligence Agency indicates that throughout the dry season the enemy was able to supply his forces in South Vietnam at a rate sufficient to sustain operations and replenish stockpiles. Supply shortages did occur in South Vietnam during the past year, but they were localized and temporary. The CIA has no information which would suggest that the enemy was forced to alter any major military operation for want of logistical support at any time during the period of intensive U.S. bombing of enemy supply lines. Consequently, we may be able to maintain an acceptable level of results using fewer resources. We shall continue to study this problem.

Budgetary Impact

The overall budgetary impact of the proposed force reductions is less than you may have hoped for. Using the JCS redeployment schedules, the total savings, after the withdrawals are completed, amount to approximately $5 billion annually. This compares to a total current incremental cost of the war to the U.S. of about $17 billion annually. Of the remaining cost, $10 billion is required to maintain the sizable residual forces (including $3 billion to operate the extensive tactical air support forces) and about $2 billion represents our costs to supply and maintain the expanded RVNAF operations. This conflict will continue to require sizable resources as long as we provide air, artillery and other support on about the same scale as our forces now receive.

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There are other factors involved in the cost picture. For example:

—The 350,000 military personnel assumed to leave the force structure represent 44 percent of the force increase of 800,000 which has occurred since 1965 to support our efforts in Southeast Asia. The remaining 450,000 military personnel include some specific units programmed for Southeast Asia and the CONUS training and support base required to sustain U.S. forces remaining there. The actual manpower reduction which might occur is also dependent upon factors such as rotation policies, retention rates, and reserve considerations. We shall want to continue an intensive study of our manpower policies to see that savings may realistically be made.

On the other side of the ledger, there may be some calls for added U.S. budgetary support of the South Vietnamese economy. There are significant inflationary pressures in that economy and the provision of U.S. resources may be one alternative to consider in alleviating such pressures. This is an area, too, that will require more study; but the trend will surely be to call on more U.S. resources, not less, in tackling South Vietnamese economic problems.

Continued Vietnamization Planning

The four alternative timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam should be considered as examples rather than as rigid schedules. Choosing among the timetables is, at best, an imprecise business. There are dangers in moving too fast. On the other hand, moving too slowly may give incorrect signals to friend and foe alike. Consistent with an emphasis on flexibility, I believe we should not tie ourselves inextricably to any of the four timetables.

However, I strongly support the JCS position that future troop-deployment planning must be coordinated in advance with the GVN. Experience now substantiates the need for combined consideration of such practical matters as transfer of areas of responsibility, bases, facilities, and the disposition of equipment. Furthermore, to the extent practicable, the governments of the troop-contributing countries should be consulted in order to elicit their cooperation. To accomplish this coordination, we must resort to some timetable as a rough planning guide.

Without question, some elements of the Government of Vietnam, and of other troop-contributing countries, would consider the 18 month and perhaps even the 24 month timetable as too fast. They undoubtedly would prefer one of the longer timetables as a planning guide. On the other hand, if appropriate stress is placed on the strength and purpose of the residual force, and on a clear acceptance of, say, the 24 month timetable as only a tentative target subject to change as required, then agreement should be possible. The 24 month timetable would require the redeployment of about 200,000 U.S. troops by the end of FY [Page 366] 1971. This would place heavy pressure on the GVN and RVNAF, but should cause them to extend themselves in a manner which could have salutary effects. We should remain alert, however, for signs that the pressure is too heavy. Explicit joint US/GVN formulation of an RVNAF replacement plan, coupled with a U.S. residual force plan, should make the pressure bearable.

Confident acceptance by the GVN and other troop-contributing countries of the 18 month timetable with a strong U.S. residual force could also have a salutary effect on Hanoi. If they come to believe that the U.S. expects to maintain a substantial combat support and logistical capability for an indefinite period, they could develop serious doubts about their chances of success in the foreseeable future. If they were thus persuaded to pull back, or even to refrain from expanding infiltration, we could then consider reductions in the residual forces as outlined above.

Just as important as the schedules and timing involved from a military standpoint is the concept of Vietnamization in the broader context. For us to achieve our objectives in South Vietnam, it will be necessary for the South Vietnamese to show more stature and stability in the political, economic, social, and technological areas. As we continue to study the Vietnamization process, as I believe we must, we should expand the scope of the effort to include the broader context of Vietnamization.

I believe, too, that we must try to get a firmer grip on the many areas of uncertainty, and, at a minimum, outline for you in a more definitive way the options available in the areas incident to Vietnamization, the benefits to be expected in pursuing the options, and the costs and risks involved.


We should continue to give the highest priority to Vietnamizing the war, exerting maximum effort to expand, equip, train, and modernize the RVNAF and do whatever else may be required to transfer progressively to the Republic of Vietnam greatly increased responsibility for all aspects of the war.
We should proceed, for planning purposes, on the 24 month redeployment schedule outlined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This schedule appears to offer the best balance among the advantages and disadvantages incident to Vietnamization.
Future troop redeployment planning should be coordinated with the Government of Vietnam and with the other troop-contributing countries.
Planning should stay as flexible as possible. Recognizing we are now ahead of the redeployment schedule proposed for the 24 month [Page 367] timetable, we should continue to look for ways to accelerate the Vietnamization program.
We should keep the Vietnamization study effort actively in process. Not only should the concept of Vietnamization be broadened to include non-military areas, but the options in the military field on force levels, force composition, and potential budgetary savings incident to all our operations in Southeast Asia should also be vigorously examined.
Mel Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 91, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnamization, Vol. 1A. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Document 58.
  3. The JCS plan is in an appendix to Enclosure 1, a memorandum from Wheeler to Laird, JCSM–522–1–69, August 29; attached but not printed.
  4. Enclosure 2 is a September 3 memorandum from Rogers to Nixon; attached but not printed.