Vietnamization and the Advisory Crisis

A key element of the United States’ endgame during the Vietnam War entailed leaving the Republic of Vietnam in a position of self-reliance. Called Vietnamization, the process focused on shifting the responsibility for security squarely onto the shoulders of the South Vietnamese, permitting the return of American personnel to the U.S. What transpired in Phu Yen during 1970 proved Vietnamization impervious to indicators of an unready South Vietnamese state. Largely forgotten since the Vietnam War, the Advisory Crisis, as it became known, damaged the partnership between American and South Vietnamese forces.

Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird points to a chart showing the administration's Vietnamization record during a news conference, Oct. 11, 1972, in Washington. (AP Photo)

The Advisory Crisis received considerable attention in two of America’s more influential newspapers: The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Investigative reporting helped turned a province issue into a national embarrassment, while raising questions about America’s strategy for extricating itself from a war it no longer wanted to fight. The Advisory Crisis unmasked Vietnamization as little more than the inevitable abandonment of an ally.

“The Vietcong have reappeared with a vengeance in central Vietnam’s Phu Yen Province,” Robert G. Kaiser informed readers of The Washington Post.[1] In his 18 March 1970 article, the journalist added “The Communists’ sudden revival has been simple, inexpensive and dramatic. Some Americans here think they may be experimenting with a new form of protracted war in Phu Yen.”[2] Within a few days, Sunday, on 22 March 1970, George McArthur of the Los Angeles Times further revealed the happenings in Phu Yen to the American public. A bastion of the Viet Minh during the war with France that now resisted South Vietnamese government efforts to pacify it during the Vietnam War, McArthur addressed the abductions that troubled Phu Yen. The staggering number of abductions made Phu Yen “one of three or four of the worst provinces in South Vietnam.”[3] The article touched on a vital point, “the abductions indicate that the war is going badly in Phu Yen province, a test area for the ‘Vietnamization’ process where the confrontation is largely between old-fashioned Communist guerrilla forces and militia of the Saigon government.”[4] McArthur further noted the U.S. government anticipated problems with Vietnamization, and events in Phu Yen could not be understood as a complete reversal of pacification.[5] But the ability of the enemy to mount attacks against the Regional and Popular Forces (RF/PF)—as demonstrated by two successful People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) assaults against hilltop positions of the Regional and Popular Forces in which the Communists killed thirty militiamen—in addition to province officials hiding the unprecedented rash of abductions from American advisors, placed Phu Yen under intense scrutiny.[6] While other provinces experienced less enemy activity in 1970, a sharp uptick occurred in Phu Yen. There the PLAF abducted abducted 550 of Phu Yen’s inhabitants between the beginning of February and the end of March.[7]

Between the late night hours and the morning darkness of 31 March and 1 April, a PLAF unit attacked a hilltop just outside of Tuy Hoa City. On that hill sat the 112th Regional Force Company and a seven-man advisory team from the 173d Airborne Brigade from Task Force Talon. In the face of the enemy attack, the Regional Force company fled and five American paratroopers perished.[8] This hilltop disaster, combined with the abductions, resulted in The Advisory Crisis. The Tuy Hoa District abductions had surprised James B. Engle, the Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Support’s (CORDS) Province Senior Advisor in Phu Yen, and his Advisory Team 28 because Province Chief Colonel Nguyen Ba and other province officials had kept the scale of problems befalling the district to themselves.

"I can’t imagine a way in which things could be much worse.”

“I can’t imagine a way in which things could be much worse,” a CORDS official reported.[9] Between 1 June 1969 and 31 January 1970, the PLAF abducted 115 individuals. From 1 February to 30 March 1970, the PLAF abducted another 550 South Vietnamese. Most of those targeted during this period were the “families of [Government of Vietnam] officials and relatives of [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] and [Regional Force/Popular Force/People Self Defense Force] personnel.”[10] Those taken experienced “two to five days of political indoctrination and proselytizing instructions. Political indoctrination stressed that the US is withdrawing its troops after military defeat and the people of South Vietnam must now move to [Viet Cong] areas.”[11] After these indoctrination sessions, the PLAF released most abductees, save for “some of the younger abductees” whom were kept for use as laborers and additional indoctrination.[12] By the end of March, the abduction rate noticeably decreased as the PLAF completed its campaign, the arrival of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam’s response to the crisis in Task Force Talon, the return of Republic of Korea Army soldiers, and “termination of reporting of abductions by [Government of Vietnam] officials.”[13] Arguably, the PLAF themselves played a central role in both starting and ending the Advisory Crisis. Only the sleuthing of an American advisor exposed the true calamity that was the abduction crisis. In doing so, he revealed the status-quo in the province–that the provincial government was fine with co-existing with the PLAF–and forever changed the errant perception of Phu Yen as a pacified province.

The report also emphasized the absence of sound leadership from the Government of Vietnam and the perceived uselessness of South Vietnamese forces operating in the province. On 1 April, personnel from Advisory Team 28 in Tuy Hoa District counted a total of 950 individuals from Saigon’s Rural Development cadre, Regional Force, Popular Force, and People Self Defense Force as they entered Tuy Hoa City before nightfall. Successful PLAF attacks against Regional Force positions, including that of 1 April, greatly diminished the will of Saigon’s security forces to fight. The following night, 2 April, CORDS counted 887 personnel from the aforementioned outfits entering Tuy Hoa City. Between 7,000 and 9,000 South Vietnamese—village officials and civilians—vacated Tuy Hoa District for the safety of the province capital every night as they, too, did not want to encounter the PLAF.[14] No one wanted to deal with the PLAF at night.

Nguyen Van Thieu (U.S. Government Photo)

The articles by Robert W. Kaiser and George McArthur had an effect, as the Advisory Crisis was the topic of conversation in Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem’s office on Saturday, 11 April. Attendees posited the two pieces as indicators of the growing outside interest in the tumultuous events befalling Phu Yen. Indeed, “The situation will be placed inevitably in the context of Vietnamization with the clear implication that the Vietnamese can’t go it alone.”[15] Moreover, “the worst of it all is that the stories are all true.”[16] Those two statements succinctly encapsulated the failure of Vietnamization. The matter eventually reached President Nguyen Van Thieu, resulting in the removal of the Province Chief in exchange for the departure of the American advisor who initially uncovered the abductions. Throughout the ordeal, American officials defended the American advisor, and for exposing the lack of South Vietnamese report, CORDS tasked the advisor with inspecting other advisory teams throughout the Republic of Vietnam.

For all the scrutiny and changes in personnel, the status-quo prevailed in Phu Yen. The Advisory Crisis demonstrated that pacification was not working there, and the solutions amounted to a facade. Indeed, security conditions barely changed between March and 12 May. The PLAF alone dictated the events in Tuy Hao District and having achieved its goals there, ended the campaign of abductions. Resolving the discord between Advisory Team 28 and local province officials had not slowed the activities of the PLAF and reduction in the incidence of abductions was “by no means to be taken as an indication of strengthened GVN authority in the Valley. The security of Tuy Hoa District is much more dependent on what the [Viet Cong] choose to do or not do than what the local forces can prevent.”[17]

Fighting an enemy, while your ally displays signs of disinterest, hardly makes for a winning mixture.

In the end, Vietnamization continued. Despite all the uproar and admission that Vietnamization simply did not work, the Advisory Crisis faded in contemporary thought. But the Advisory Crisis signaled looming turbulence for the fledgling Republic of Vietnam. Although the attention brought upon Phu Yen by U.S. journalists intensified CORDS resolve to get Americans and South Vietnamese working together again, the policy of Vietnamization remained unaffected. Nevertheless, investigative journalism has the potential to affect strategy. Lessons of better cooperation meant little as the South Vietnamese knew in the near future only themselves and North Vietnamese forces would remain in Phu Yen. Such sentiment is likely harbored by officials in other countries where the U.S. role of direct, on the ground American military assistance is dwindling. Fighting an enemy, while your ally displays signs of disinterest, hardly makes for a winning mixture.

Robert J. Thompson recently completed his PhD in U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he is a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge. His dissertation is titled "More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972."

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Header Image: Local Vietnamese civilians flee their village as Republic of Korea marines enter village during "Operation Van Buren", searching for the Viet Cong. This is near Tuy Hoa, RVN. (SP4 Robert S. Lafoon)


[1] Robert G. Kaiser, “New VC Tactics Turn Optimism to Bitterness in Phuyen,” The Washington Post, 18 March 1970, A14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Advisory Team 28, Newspaper Article, George McArthur, “Reds Making Inroads In ‘Secure’ Viet Province,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday March 22, 1970, p.1, RG 472 / A1 690 / Box 285 / Folder: Advisory Crisis in Tuy Hoa District, NARA II.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] U.S. Embassy Saigon, Report, Theodore G. Shackley to General Creighton W. Abrams, “Situation in Phu Yen Province,” 6 April 1970, p.2, CORDS Historical Working Group Files, 1967-1973, RG 472 / A1 462 / Box 14 / Folder: Memos & Messages / Mr. Jacobson / Visits, NARA II.

[8] Ibid., 5-6; “Visit to Phu Yen of MG Quang, DCG II Corps - 20 April 1970,” 22 April 1970, pp.1-2, Folder: 10 Phu Yen, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

[9] Advisory Team 28, “COL Ba, Province Chief, Phu Yen, and the situation in Tuy Hoa District,” Advisory Crisis in Tuy Hoa District, pp.1-2, RG 472 / A1 690 / Box 285 / Folder: Advisory Crisis in Tuy Hoa District, NARA II.

[10] U.S. Embassy Saigon, Report, Theodore G. Shackley to General Creighton W. Abrams, “Situation in Phu Yen Province,” 6 April 1970, pp.1-2, CORDS Historical Working Group Files, 1967-1973, RG 472 / A1 462 / Box 14 / Folder: Memos & Messages / Mr. Jacobson / Visits, NARA II.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] MACCORDS, Memo, “Meeting between Mr. Jacobson and Mr. McManaway and the Prime Minister,” 12 April 1970, p.1, CORDS Historical Working Group Files, 1967-1973, RG 472 / A1 462 / Box 14 / Folder: Memos & Messages / Mr. Jacobson / Visits, NARA II.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Advisory Team 28, District Report, “Tuy Hoa District Bi-Weekly Report, 25 April to 12 May,” p.1, NARA II.