In 1968 Nixon campaigned for the presidency under the slogan that he would end the war in Vietnam and bring “peace with honor.” The war had pretty much chewed up the Democrats by then and Nixon was elected largely on his promise of de-escalation. However, no such plan really existed, Nixon actually escalated the war by taking the fight to Cambodia, and the American commitment tragically continued for years.
The center piece of the tactic was a program known as “Vietnamization” wherein the American public was told that military fortunes were improving, that victory was achievable, it was only a matter of showing patience. The war managers told us our troops needed more time to gradually build up the strength of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), to re-equip them with modern weapons so that they could defend their nation on their own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called “Nixon Doctrine.” When the US troops finally began to withdraw in 1973, after training and arming the South Vietnamese for over a decade, ARVN fell like a house of cards to the Peoples Army of Viet-Nam (PAVN)—the North Vietnamese launched their third general offensive (the Ho Chi Minh Campaign) in 1975, and toppled the Saigon government in crushing fashion.
So, why did the South Vietnamese army fail so miserably when left to stand alone? After so many years of training, and in possession of superior American-made firepower, how is it that they appeared to have never stood a chance? History reveals that the South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces may have contained the seeds of their own demise– they were probably doomed from the start, way back in 1955.
Here is what the noted scholar of Indochinese history, Bernard Fall, had to say in his definitive analysis of the Vietnam conflicts:
“It is not impossible that one of the causes of the relatively low combativity of the present-day South Vietnamese troops can be traced to the fact that their seniors, who fought with the French at Dien Bien Phu, had been depicted to them (in Communist propaganda) for eight years as “valets and mercenaries of the colonialists”—while, for example, the Indian, Pakistani, or Moroccan national armies look back with great pride upon the traditions of military valor which their fighting men acquired while dying for Britain or France. That pride in past achievements is alive in their uniforms and insignia, in the battle streamers of their unit flags, and in the traditions of their regiments.”
“The South Vietnamese army, in contrast, was deliberately made to turn its back on eighty years of military association with France, in the course of which Vietnamese performed heroically as air aces, won the Legion of Honor at Verdun, and valiantly served on battlefields of three continents. It is this rightful part of its history that the Saigon regime voluntarily forfeited. Yet it is an important, and perhaps a vital, part of its troops’ psychological armament, and one no amount of modern armor or aircraft can replace. Instead its traditions begin with the birth of the Vietnamese Republic in 1955, and its only visible tie to its earlier military past is the red beret of the paratroops. That, unfortunately, is not enough to instill esprit de corps into a whole army, and the price for that error is now being paid throughout south Viet-Nam. Money can provide helicopters; it cannot provide fighting spirit.”
“At least the Communist Viet-Minh forces can look back upon twenty years (as of 1964) of successful achievements, including several major military victories over a powerful enemy (Japan and France). The Vietnamese Communist forces have seen to it that all their military exploits became part of their own military tradition, which thus stretches back to the first Communist guerrilla groups in Tongking in 1944; and they connected their own military operations to Viet-Nam’s earlier military past by giving their offensives the names of heroes of Vietnamese history.” —
“Not that the achievements of the nationalist regimes have not been real; they have been and are still notable. But they have never been of the kind that will make the average citizen tear up the pavements to make barricades and rise in defense of his government. It is one thing to have one’s chest seared with napalm while leading a bayonet charge against a French position at Dien Bien Phu, and another to endure peptic ulcers induced by six years of diplomatic dinners while negotiating with French officials in eighteenth-century chateauxs…“