Richard Nixon assumed the Presidency in January of 1969 with a declared Vietnam policy of peace with honor and, so his campaign speeches had advertised, a secret plan to end the war. If the contents of that plan were obscure by definition, certain realities that he faced were abundantly clear. The most basic of these was that the American people would not tolerate a major U.S. presence on the ground in Vietnam for much longer: Lyndon Johnson's agony in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive had made that abundantly clear. The second was that the economic consequences - accelerating hi idfiet deficits and rising inflation - of Lvndon Johnson's guns and butter policy would have to be addressed. Judging from his actions, Nixon's plan had three basic elements. Firstly, American ground combat units would be progressively withdrawn from Vietnam and the burden of the ground war turned over to the ARVN who, by way of compensation, would receive an injection of funds and equipment. Termed Vietnamization, this was the hard core of Nixon's policy. Secondly, Nixon intended to pursue negotiations with the communists, both to defuse critics at home in the short term and to secure an end to U.S. military involvement on acceptable terms in the long term. The key to the plan was its third element: the American withdrawal was to be covered by a series of sharp military escalations. Militarily, these were intended to keep the communists off balance and to give the ARVN experience in large-scale operations. They were also intended as an inducement to the communists to negotiate.
The first and most notorious of these escalations was the May 1970 incursion into Cambodia to clear out communist staging areas and support bases along the border. It had the intended effect of giving ARVN and U.S. forces along the Cambodian border breathing space while the withdrawal proceeded, but inspired a renewed wave of anti-war protests in America, which culminated in the Kent State incident, when Ohio National Guardsmen assailed by rock-throwing demonstrators panicked and opened fire on the crowd, killing four. The second such escalation was an ARVN operation in February 1971 that was intended to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail at Tchepone by means of a westward drive into Laos from Khe Sanh. Called Lam Son 719, the operation was backed by U.S. fixed-wing air power and helicopter sand promised to inflict serious harm on the North Vietnamese. However, in part through the incompetence of the South Vietnamese commander, General Hoang Xuan Lam, it turned into a major ARVN setback. Although most units fought well, the North Vietnamese response was swift and effective and the South Vietnamese were soon forced to withdraw with U.S. helicopter losses mounting alarmingly as Army aviators ran up against the AAA defenses of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The ARVN briefly occupied Tchepone, but the communist lines of communication were never effectively cut and the final stages of the withdrawal approached a rout.
On the whole, however, Vietnamization worked better than the critics - both hawks and doves - had predicted. Forced to assume the burden of their defense, the ARVN showed a marked improvement in combat effectiveness. Elite ARVN units had always been good, but now even ordinary units were showing considerable competence. As the American withdrawal proceeded, the military situation in the south actually improved. This was in large part attributable to political considerations. The bulk of the South Vietnamese populace, who had sat on the fence until 1968, had seen the callous
abandon with which the communist leadership had squandered the lives of southern guerrillas and had now chosen sides. Given a choice, they would prefer the corruption and inefficiency of the Thieu government to the brutality and arbitrary executions of the communists. Throughout most of the populous regions of South Vietnam, the decimation of Viet Cong cadres in the spring of 1968 had given them that choice.
The withdrawal of American ground combat units came just in time, as incomprehension about the aims of the war effort and disillusionment about the means was taking hold among the young draftees on whom Lyndon Johnson's policies had placed the burden of combat. During 1970, the incidence of fraggings - the assassination of unpopular officers and NCOs using fragmentation grenade - rose sharply from the year before. Racial friction became a major problem, particularly in base camp, and in 1972 the Air Force air passenger terminal at Travis AFB, California, experienced a full-scale race riot. The ultimate manifestation of the problem came in the
aftermath of Tet, on 16 March, 1968, when a platoon of the American Division under Lt William L. Galley, Jr., seized the hamlet of My Lai in Quang Ngai Province, rounded up the villagers and shot down as many as 400 in cold blood. Though guerrilla wars are notorious for spawning atrocities and although prisoners were undoubtedly beaten, shot in cold blood or thrown from helicopters on occasion, My Lai was nevertheless an isolated incident. Unlike the execution and burial in mass graves of some 3-5,000 civilians in Hue by communist authorities during the Tet Offensive, My Lai was not a deliberate act of policy. The most shocking aspect of the incident was that no immediate action was taken against Galley and the other perpetrators, though itwas common knowledge in the division. When word leaked out a year later, in the form of a letter from a young combat veteran to President Nixon and several Congressmen, a new wave of disillusionment set in which Galley's trial and conviction by court-martial did little to alleviate, for though the division commander was reduced in rank and forced to retire, only one other officer was tried - and he was acquitted.