The name "Vietnamization" came about accidentally. At a January 28, 1969 meeting of the National Security Council, General Andrew Goodpaster, deputy to General Creighton Abrams and commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, stated that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had been steadily improving, and the point at which the war could be "de-Americanized" was close. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird 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 détente policy of the Nixon administration, in which the United States no longer regarded its fundamental strategy as the containment of communism but as a cooperative world order, in which Nixon and his chief adviser Henry Kissinger were focused on the broader constellation of forces and the bigger world powers. Nixon had ordered Kissinger to negotiate diplomatic policies with Soviet statesman Anatoly Dobrynin. Nixon also opened high-level contact with China. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China were of higher priority than South Vietnam.
Nixon said Vietnamization had two components. The first was "strengthening the armed force of the South Vietnamese in numbers, equipment, leadership and combat skills", while the second was "the extension of the pacification program in South Vietnam." To achieve the first goal, U.S. helicopters would fly in support; however, helicopter operations were too much part of ground operations to involve U.S. personnel. Thus, ARVN candidates were enrolled in U.S. helicopter schools to take over the operations. As observed by Lieutenant Dave Palmer, to qualify an ARVN candidate for U.S. helicopter school, he first needed to learn English; this, in addition to the months-long training and practice in the field, made adding new capabilities to the ARVN take at least two years. Palmer did not disagree that the first component, given time and resources, was achievable. However: "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."
Lyndon Johnson's major political interests were domestic; the war interfered with his domestic focus, and he was eager to end the war in a way that he considered politically acceptable. In 1967, Kissinger attended a Pugwash Conference of scientists interested in nuclear disarmament. Two participants approached Kissinger and offered a disavowable means of communication between the U.S. and the communist leadership. In particular, Raymond Aubrac, an official of the World Health Organization, knew Ho Chi Minh and agreed to carry a message.
After discussing the matter with Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a message was sent. Ho said he would be willing to negotiate if the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam under Operation Rolling Thunder ceased. Mai Van Bo, Hanoi's diplomatic representative in Paris, was named a point of contact. Since Hanoi would not communicate with an American official without a bombing halt, Kissinger served as an intermediary. Johnson made a speech in San Antonio on September 29, offering the possibility of talks. They were rejected, although brought up again in 1967.