An early 1969 memorandum written by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to President Nixon assesses the situation in Vietnam as it stood at the dawn of Richard Nixon’s presidency. In these 17 pages Kissinger outlined a new strategy for an old and tired war; substituting diplomacy, politics, and negotiation for the worn out strategy of pacification and a purely military victory. This approach would become the basis for Nixonian policy in Vietnam.

For the past seven years, America’s military operation in Vietnam had produced no real results, and there was no prospect for victory in the foreseeable future. Previous strategy had devolved into search and destroy, pacification, and attrition with no clear definition of victory.  On the military front, the conflict was only escalating, and in the cities all attempts at building a stable governmental structure that could bring political and economic stability to South Vietnam proved futile.

When Kissinger traveled to South Vietnam in 1965 and in 1966 at the invitation of Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, he recognized that the war in Vietnam could not be won by military means. Yet the war raged on, and in 1968  the number of committed U.S. troops reached half a million. That same year the United States suffered more war casualties than all preceding years of the conflict. Vietnam was drifting toward failure and without a change in strategy it would never become a victory.

In 1969, as National Security Advisor to President Nixon, Kissinger examined the Indochina situation in terms of what could be achieved through alternative means; such as negotiation and diplomacy. Taking this new approach, he was able to focus American objectives and develop what would be a prototype to Nixon’s Vietnam policy:

“1) Our general objective in Vietnam is the achievement of a set of circumstances and conditions – whether by agreement or by other means – that give the South Vietnamese people the opportunity to determine their own political future without outside interference.

2) In Paris we are seeking to negotiate a mutual withdrawal while encouraging the GVN (Government of Vietnam) to talk to the NLF (National Liberation Front) about political accommodation.

3) In South Vietnam, we wish to move towards a Vietnamization of the war which would permit U.S. troop withdrawals and a reduction of U.S. casualties. The pace and scope of this Vietnamization has yet to be determined beyond the first move.”

A questionnaire circulated among all Vietnam intelligence departments  lends insight into this new shift in policy. The resulting consensus from the questionnaire held that the Government of South Vietnam, and the overall allied position, had been strengthened politically and militarily since General Creighton Abrams took command in the summer of 1968, but that the enemy still had the means to militarily pursue their essential objectives. The reasons, identified in the report, are multi-faceted:

-The GVN and allied position in Vietnam has been strengthened recently in many respects.

-The RVNAF alone cannot now stand up to both the VC and current North Vietnamese forces.

-Though improved, the GVN remains weakest, and the VC/NLF strongest, in rural areas.

-We are not attriting enemy forces faster than they can recruit or infiltrate with Soviet and Chinese assistance.

-The VC/NVA control both sides’ casualty rates.

-The enemy is in Paris from the realization that a military victory is not attainable as long as U.S. forces remain in SVN, but a political victory is very possible.

-Hanoi is attempting to chart its course independent of Moscow and Peking.

The questionnaire confirmed an inauspicious fact; “I believe that this consensus can be summed up as indication that a U.S. military victory is certainly not attainable within a year or two and may not be attainable at any time in the future,” Kissinger writes flatly.  

“There is, in short, no light at the end of the tunnel, given the current strategy.”

With this Kissinger determined that if the United States continued its strategy of pacification, the costs of the war might very well stretch beyond what the American nation was willing to give.

Kissinger concluded that the only conceivable possibility for a worthwhile settlement in Vietnam  would entail a rapid Vietnamization program, bold leadership, and a vigorous exploration of a political agreement.   

This plan and its implementation would be a very delicate task. It was impossible to assume that the U.S. or North Vietnamese would agree to a mutual withdrawal in the absence of a political settlement. Indeed, it would require some grit from the Nixon administration to convince the South Vietnamese government to make the compromises necessary to include the National Liberation Front (Hanoi’s South Vietnamese political arm) in the peaceful competition for political power.

The only way to ensure Saigon’s willingness to politically compromise would be to decisively Vietnamize the war by strengthening the South Vietnamese Army. In this way, Kissinger recommended the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawals which, he contended, would embolden the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to carry a larger share of the combat burden. Only then could the United States begin to work towards a plan for lasting peace in Vietnam.