Vietnamization was a policy of the Richard M. Nixon administration, as a result of Tet, to "expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops." This referred to U.S. combat troops specifically in the ground combat role, but did not reject combat by U.S. air forces, as well as the support to South Vietnam, consistent with the policies of U.S. foreign military assistance organizations. The mistrust of the government that had begun after Tet and worsened with the release of news about US soldiers massacring civilians at My Lai (1969), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (1971). After Nixon's election in 1968, this became the policy of the United States. While it was a deliberate policy, the name was rather accidental. At a January 28, 1969, meeting of the National Security Council, GEN Andrew Goodpaster, deputy to GEN Creighton Abrams, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, said the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) had been steadily improving, and the point at which the war could be "de-Americanized" was close. Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defense, agreed with the point, but not with the language: "what we need is a term like 'Vietnamizing' to put the emphasis on the right issues." Nixon immediately liked Laird's word.
Vietnamization fit into the broader Nixon Administration detente policy, in which the United States no longer regarded its fundamental strategy as containment of Communism, but a cooperative world order in which Nixon and his chief adviser Henry Kissinger were basically "realists" in world affairs, interested in the broader constellation of forces, and the biggest powers. Nixon had ordered Kissinger to negotiate basic U.S.-Soviet policy between the heads of state via Kissinger and Dobrynin, with the agreements then transferred to diplomats for implementation. In like manner, Nixon opened high-level contact with China. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China were seen as far more important than the fate of South Vietnam, which certainly did not preclude South Vietnam maintaining its own independence.
Nixon said Vietnamization had two components. The first was "strengthening the armed force of the South Vietnamese in numbers, equipment, leadership and combat skills. The second component is the extension of the pacification program in South Vietnam." The first was achievable, but it would take time. For the U.S., it was trivial to have a U.S. helicopter pilot fly in support, but helicopter operations were too much part of ground operations to involve U.S. personnel. As observed by LTG Dave Palmer, to qualify an ARVN candidate for U.S. helicopter school, he first needed months of English language training to be able to follow the months-long training, and then additional field time to become proficient. In other words, adding new capabilities to the ARVN would often take two or more years. Palmer did not disagree that the first component, given time and resources, was achievable. "Pacification, the second component, presented the real challenge...it was benevolent government action in areas where the government should always have been benevolently active...doing both was necessary if Vietnamization were to work."