At the onset of 1969, the Nixon administration had yet to form a definitive plan to bring peace to Vietnam, largely as a result of the North Vietnamese’s continued intransigence and a time period occupied by necessary fact gathering and policy option studies. This period was quickly disrupted by developments in Vietnam. In a deliberate test of the new American administration, the North Vietnamese launched a countryside offensive of South Vietnam in February of 1969, a blatant violation of the bombing halt understanding achieved by President Lyndon Johnson 3 months prior. The smaller scale but equally savage offensive inflicted high casualties among American combat forces. President Nixon, unwilling to fall prey to North Vietnamese tactics of manipulation and opportunism, seized the initiative and ordered the covert bombing of Cambodian sanctuaries in March, signaling a shift in American policy to one that would bring them to the negotiating table at or above a position of equality.
For President Nixon, the time had come to initiate the architecture that would eventually bring an honorable end to the war.
A declassified memo dictated by General Creighton Abrams, commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam, which was submitted to national security advisor Henry Kissinger on April 12 1969, elaborates on the country’s military and political situation. It also lends staunch support to President Nixon’s yet announced program of Vietnamization, whilst urging bold leadership amidst a prevalent threshold in Vietnamese policy. After weathering yet another North Vietnamese offensive, the time had come for the United States to accelerate the delicate process of peace negotiations. The memo outlines several factors that needed to be considered if a successful withdrawal from Vietnam and a settlement were to be achieved.
In the memo, General Abrams states that a negotiated settlement, on the grounds that total withdrawal of U.S. or North Vietnamese forces occured, could only be made possible if a political settlement in the South were reached.
In the likely event that a settlement would not be agreed upon within the next few months, General Abrams judged that the U.S. should continue and decisively Vietnamize the war in a condensed period of time. However, General Abrams opined that modernizing and equipping the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) should not be the primary concern as was highlighted in 1969 CIA “Situation in Vietnam” report (link), rather suggesting that building ARVN morale and cohesiveness be the foremost goal. The ARVN, General Abrams stated, was already more well equipped than their Viet Cong counterparts and “will develop the will to fight only when it is clear that the alternative is defeat and not U.S. military operations.”
General Abrams recommended that the U.S. proceed with private talks with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) focused on mutual withdrawal, knowing well that Hanoi would reject the notion and only capitulate on the grounds of unconditional U.S. withdrawal. General Abrams suggested that while these talks coalesced, the U.S. should push the Saigon government in making a number of political accommodations to the South Vietnamese communist faction.
For matters to improve in Vietnam, Saigon would need to bring the National Liberation Front, the official party of the South Vietnamese communist apparatus, to the fore of governmental representation and elections–a sort of precondition to possible North Vietnamese cooperation. President of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu expressed that he was willing to recognize the NLF. All the while in Washington, General Abrams recommended that the Nixon administration prepare a detailed timetable for Vietnamizing the war including the initial withdrawal of U.S. forces.
In early June of 1969, after meeting with President Thieu on the historic island of Midway, President Nixon announced to the nation his intention to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. With or without action from Hanoi, the United States and South Vietnam would take matters into their own hands.
We believe this is the time for them to act. We have acted and acted in good faith. And if they fail to act in one direction or the other, they must bear the responsibility for blocking the road to peace and not walking through that door which we have opened.