How the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive Tested Nixon’s War Strategy


On March 30, 1972, some 30,000-40,000 North Vietnamese Military regulars streamed southward throughout the Demilitarized Zone and eastward from Laos in a strike towards the not too long ago fashioned third Infantry Division of the Military of the Republic of Vietnam. Over the following month this power in northern South Vietnam would contain three divisions and two dozen impartial regiments supported by 200 tanks, long-range 130 mm artillery weapons and air protection models. About 60 miles to the south, one other North Vietnamese division headed towards Hue.

The March 30 assault marked the opening of the North Vietnamese Spring-Summer season Offensive of 1972 (Chien dich Xuan he 1972). The offensive consisted of a three-pronged assault that hit South Vietnam in its northern, central and southern areas. The objective was to destroy as many ARVN forces as potential, which might allow the North Vietnamese to occupy key cities and put communist troops in place to threaten Saigon and President Nguyen Van Thieu’s authorities, in response to captured paperwork and data from NVA prisoners after the invasion.

Inside two weeks of the preliminary assault throughout the DMZ, massive battles had been being fought on all three main fronts. Earlier than the offensive was over, greater than 14 NVA divisions and 26 regiments—totaling greater than 130,000 troops and roughly 1,200 tanks and different armored automobiles—had been dedicated to the struggle. The North Vietnamese additionally introduced superior weaponry not utilized in earlier communist offensives.

By this time, President Richard Nixon had instituted a “Vietnamization” program to show the conduct of the battle over to the South Vietnamese. This program, introduced in 1969, was developed to extend ARVN capabilities and bolster Thieu’s authorities so the South Vietnamese might stand on their very own towards communist forces. Strengthening ARVN capabilities would allow the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Vietnam.

Army Help Command, Vietnam, the senior U.S. headquarters for fight operations, elevated the variety of army advisers assigned to ARVN forces to enhance their high quality, a important operate of the Vietnamization program. Though MACV advisers had labored with South Vietnamese models since 1955, the significance of the advisory program elevated because the variety of American fight models dwindled.

The billowing smoke of a B-52 bomber strike on a North Vietnamese tank column is a welcome sight
to South Vietnamese troopers underneath assault close to Dong Ha
within the northern a part of the nation on April 11, 1972. That spring communist forces launched the most important offensive of the battle, hoping
it could result in the collapse of the Saigon authorities. (AP Photograph/Nick Ut)

By the start of 1972, most U.S. floor fight forces had been withdrawn, leaving 136,500 troops on Jan. 31. By the tip of March, the quantity had dropped to 95,500. On April 30, it was solely 68,100. Except for just a few remaining infantry battalions, the one People on the bottom in fight roles had been advisers serving with ARVN operations and South Vietnamese marine troops.

U.S. advisers assisted the ARVN on the corps, division and regimental ranges. In South Vietnam’s elite airborne, ranger and marine models, American advisers additionally served with every battalion. Moreover, there have been advisers in all 44 South Vietnamese provinces as a part of the Civil Operations and Rural Improvement Assist program, shortened to CORDS, which labored to achieve the help of South Vietnamese dwelling within the countryside. The ARVN forces had been backed up by U.S. Military helicopter models, in addition to plane from the Air Drive, Navy and Marine Corps. American forces continued to keep up a big presence in logistical operations to help the South Vietnamese forces.

In spring 1972, ARVN models had been nonetheless recovering from the battles in February and March 1971 once they had made a restricted incursion into Laos as a part of Operation Lam Son 719, directed at NVA bases and provide depots. Each side suffered heavy casualties. South Vietnam’s forces continued to be suffering from corruption, poor management and politicization of senior officers. They relied closely on U.S. help and firepower. It was clear that the South Vietnamese armed forces had been a piece in progress, and the Nixon administration realized their preventing capabilities needed to be improved earlier than the U.S. disengaged fully.

In the meantime, in Hanoi, Communist Occasion First Secretary Le Duan and his right-hand man, Le Duc Tho, determined the time was ripe for a large-scale offensive to ship a knockout blow that will finish the battle on the North’s phrases.

They didn’t assume the People had sufficient troops left in Vietnam to vary the result as soon as the offensive was launched and believed public disenchantment with the battle within the U.S. wouldn’t allow Nixon to commit new troops or fight help to help the ARVN.

Le Duan and Le Duc Tho reasoned {that a} resounding North Vietnamese army victory would humiliate the president, power his administration to barter a peace settlement favorable to communist forces and maybe even derail the Republican president’s reelection bid in November 1972, placing a Democratic opponent of the battle within the White Home. If an entire victory couldn’t be achieved, the North Vietnamese believed they could not less than seize sufficient territory to strengthen their place on the Paris peace negotiations.

Protection Minister Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, maybe remembering the army defeat of the 1968 Tet Offensive, urged warning, believing that the time was not proper for one more main offensive. Nevertheless, Le Duan opted for a extra aggressive technique. Operational planning for the brand new offensive was led by Gen. Van Tien Dung.

All through the latter half of 1971, Hanoi requested and obtained massive portions of contemporary weapons from the Soviet Union and Communist China. These included MiG-21 jets, SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, Soviet T-54 (and Chinese language variant Kind-59) tanks, 130 mm weapons, 160 mm mortars, 57 mm anti-aircraft weapons and heat-seeking, shoulder-fired Strela anti-aircraft missiles. Battle provides resembling spare elements, ammunition, vans and gasoline had been shipped to North Vietnam in unprecedented portions.

Architect of the Easter Offensive: Le Duan (pronounced lay zwan), born in 1907, joined Ho Chi Minh’s Revolutionary Youth League in 1928 and maneuvered via the ranks of the communist motion to turn out to be in 1960 the primary secretary of the Vietnamese Staff (Communist) Occasion, a place Ho had occupied since 1956. Ho remained occasion chairman, the next place he had held since 1951, however Ho’s failing well being enabled Le Duan to extend his energy, made full with Ho’s dying in 1969. Le Duan died in workplace in 1986. (Sovfoto/Common Photographs Group by way of Getty Photographs)

The North Vietnamese planners thought the preliminary strikes south of the DMZ— together with assaults on Hue and Da Nang, accompanied with strain on South Vietnamese forces within the A Shau Valley to the west—would power Thieu to ship his reserves to guard the northernmost provinces. The second assault, from Cambodia into Binh Lengthy province, northwest of Saigon, would straight threaten the capital metropolis. Then the assault within the Central Highlands would take Kontum and Binh Dinh provinces, splitting South Vietnam in two and doubtlessly inflicting the collapse of the regime in Saigon.

U.S. forces anticipated some form of assault after the primary of the 12 months, maybe through the Tet vacation in February 1972. Nevertheless, Tet handed quietly. Intelligence indicated that an offensive was nonetheless within the making, but there have been few indications that it could contain the most important focus of communist standard forces assembled up to now.

Within the March 30 assault, the newly fashioned ARVN third Division assigned to defend Quang Tri was overwhelmed. Many models fled in panic. By April 2, Easter Sunday, the ARVN 56th Regiment and the majority of the supporting long-range artillery models at Camp Carroll had surrendered to the NVA 308th Division. The remainder of the ARVN third Division fell again to the Mieu Giang River, simply south of the DMZ.

South Vietnamese marines and a number of other new M48A3 tanks arrange a hurried defensive position south of the Cua Viet River at Dong Ha, additionally close to the DMZ. The marines initially held again the North Vietnamese making an attempt to cross a bridge from the north facet of the river, however finally the order was given to destroy it. U.S. Marine adviser Capt. John Ripley and a bunch of ARVN engineers blew the bridge, forcing the enemy to cross farther west. The delayed NVA crossing offered some respiratory room for the defenders at Quang Tri metropolis, however it was a short respite. The NVA 304th Division and the connected 203rd Tank Regiment crossed the Mieu Giang River at Cam Lo and continued towards Quang Tri, rolling up the South Vietnamese western flank and pushing eastward towards the coast.

Brig. Gen. Vu Van Giai, the ARVN third Division commander, used what was left of his unit plus reinforcements from a Vietnamese marine brigade and 9 ARVN ranger battalions to determine a defensive position paralleling Freeway 1 from Dong Ha south to Quang Tri. By April 8, this power had repulsed a number of assaults, however poor flying climate precluded much-needed air help.

Because the ARVN troopers and Vietnamese marines held on tenuously within the north, the NVA attacked Binh Lengthy province. Following a feint towards Tay Ninh on April 5, the Viet Cong fifth Division, supported by two firms from the 203rd Tank Regiment struck Loc Ninh, 12 miles from the Cambodian border. Defended solely by one infantry regiment from the ARVN fifth Division and a squadron from the first Armored Regiment, Loc Ninh was shortly surrounded and pummeled by heavy artillery. Regardless of the efforts of shut air help and U.S. Air Drive AC-130 Spectre gunships, town fell the following day, giving the enemy a direct route down Freeway 13 via An Loc and Lai Khe to Saigon, simply 65 miles south.

After the autumn of Loc Ninh, the VC-NVA fifth, seventh and ninth divisions moved south quickly. Though the fifth and ninth divisions had been designated “VC,” they had been manned by NVA regulars. The communists shortly overran a two-battalion process power between Loc Ninh and An Loc, then unexplainably paused earlier than shifting towards An Loc, which offered time for town’s defenders to organize. When the North Vietnamese resumed their advance, they quickly surrounded An Loc and blocked Freeway 13 south of town, successfully chopping off the ARVN defenders from floor reinforcement and resupply. Thieu radioed senior ARVN commanders in An Loc that town can be “defended to the dying.”

Within the early morning on April 13, NVA gunners started shelling An Loc with mortars, rockets and heavy artillery. Shortly after dawn, the bombardment was adopted by a large infantry assault supported by T-54 and PT-76 tanks. South Vietnamese forces in An Loc, underneath the command of the ARVN fifth Division, fought the attackers in shut city fight.

Bell AH-1G Cobra assault helicopters from a bolstered third Brigade of the first Cavalry Division (Airmobile) took on the tanks in An Loc. Extra assist got here from U.S. Air Drive, Navy and Marine fighter-bombers, in addition to AC-130 gunships. Shored up by air help, the ARVN defenders held their floor towards the assault—simply barely. They’d been pushed into an space lower than a sq. mile. In the meantime, waves of Air Drive B-52 bomber strikes took a heavy toll on the attackers and prevented them from massing all their forces towards the defenders.

Because the assault in Binh Lengthy province unfolded, the North Vietnamese launched the third prong of their offensive.

In early April, ARVN firebases and outposts north of Kontum within the Central Highlands had come underneath a number of probing assaults. In response, B-52s struck suspected staging areas alongside the Cambodian and Laotian borders. No main assaults within the Highlands materialized, however on April 5 the North Vietnamese struck the 2 northernmost districts of Binh Dinh province to the east of Kontum province. The defending fortieth Regiment of the ARVN twenty second Division fell again within the face of the onslaught.

Lt. Gen. Ngo Dzu, the highest ARVN commander in central Vietnam, and his U.S. adviser, civilian John Paul Vann, had a call to make: Ship troops from Kontum to strengthen Binh Dinh or maintain them in protection of Kontum. On April 12, whereas they had been making an attempt to determine, the NVA attacked Kontum metropolis with a rocket and artillery barrage.

Then a tank-supported infantry assault by the NVA 320th Division hit outposts stretching from Kontum to Tan Canh, northwest of town. The defenders from the ARVN 2nd Airborne Brigade and a number of other ranger battalions had been in a determined state of affairs, however B-52 strikes enabled them to carry on towards repeated floor assaults.

In an April 26, 1972 tv deal with, proven right here, President Richard Nixon stated South Vietnam’s efficiency in fight demonstrated that “we will proceed our program of withdrawing American forces.” (AP Photograph/Charles Tasnadi)

Elsewhere within the Central Highlands, on April 19, the NVA 2nd Division supported by the 203rd Tank Regiment struck the ARVN twenty second Division at Tan Canh and close by Dak To. South Vietnam’s U.S.-made M-41 gentle tanks proved no match for the heavier Soviet-supplied T-54s. When the North Vietnamese despatched in reinforcements, each Tan Canh and Dak To fell. The highway south to Kontum was clear. The NVA, as at An Loc, didn’t press its benefit, once more for unknown causes. Kontum’s defenders had time to organize for the following spherical.

With most U.S. fight troops already departed, Nixon knew the one main U.S. asset obtainable to fulfill the North Vietnamese offensive was air energy. Formidable numbers of fight plane had been already stationed in South Vietnam, at bases in Thailand and on carriers within the Gulf of Tonkin. Nixon buttressed these numbers on April 9 when he ordered Operation Fixed Guard, which despatched the equal of 15 squadrons of strike plane to South Vietnam. He finally elevated the variety of carriers within the South China Sea from two to 6, which successfully doubled the provision of shut air help plane. Nixon additionally ordered further B-52s to Guam and Thailand for potential use in Vietnam.

He instructed Air Drive Gen. John W. Vogt, newly appointed commander of the seventh Air Drive: “I would like you to get down there [Saigon] and use no matter air it is advisable to flip this factor round…cease this offensive.”

This huge air armada pounded the North Vietnamese attackers at An Loc, Kontum and Quang Tri. To stem the move of reinforcements and provides to North Vietnamese forces within the South, American plane attacked provide strains, logistics amenities and supporting army infrastructure from the DMZ to the twentieth parallel, which dominated out strikes on Hanoi and the port at Haiphong, above that line. On April 16, Nixon authorized a one-day assault on key logistics nodes within the Hanoi and Haiphong areas.

Even with the extra air help, the state of affairs in northern South Vietnam deteriorated. On April 14, Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, the ARVN commander in that area, ordered Giai, the ARVN third Division commander, to retake Cam Lo, Camp Carroll and Mai Loc, close to Camp Carroll, to reestablish a defensive position within the north. The South Vietnamese troops had been worn out, and the counterattack was poorly deliberate and executed. By April 17, it had failed after advancing lower than half a mile.

The North Vietnamese continued to hammer Quang Tri from three sides. On April 27, cloud cowl once more precluded efficient shut air help, and the NVA 304th Division elevated the depth of its assault. 1000’s of South Vietnamese refugees flooded Freeway 1, speeding towards Hue. NVA gunners killed lots of these fleeing south alongside what grew to become generally known as the “Freeway of Demise.” On Could 1, town of Quang Tri fell. The remainder of Quang Tri province got here underneath NVA management two days later. The NVA offensive stalled, and the preventing in northern provinces degenerated right into a bloody stalemate.

To the south, the preventing continued at An Loc and Kontum. Involved about North Vietnamese forces inching nearer to Saigon, Thieu ordered the ARVN twenty first Division within the Mekong Delta to alleviate the besieged defenders in An Loc. By this time, the NVA seventh Division was entrenched throughout the freeway south of the city. The ARVN aid column shortly slowed down. An Loc suffered repeated floor assaults and around-the-clock shelling. The ARVN defenders, bolstered with the South Vietnamese 1st Airborne Brigade and aided by their U.S. advisers and U.S. air energy, held their floor towards overwhelming odds however suffered heavy casualties. Throughout the battle for An Loc, B-52s flew 252 missions. There have been additionally 9,023 tactical airstrikes, together with assaults by AC-130 Spectre gunships.
Within the Central Highlands, hard-pressed South Vietnamese forces additionally held out towards the NVA juggernaut. As at An Loc, air energy proved to be decisive. Throughout a three-week interval, there have been 300 B-52 strikes in help of the Central Highlands’ defenders.

With Quang Tri misplaced and An Loc and Kontum nonetheless besieged, Nixon and the Joint Chiefs of Employees eliminated all restrictions on bombing North Vietnam. On Could 8, the president ordered the graduation of Operation Linebacker. In a few of the most intense bombing of your entire battle, B-52s and fighter-bombers pounded Hanoi and Haiphong. Concurrently, A-7 Corsair II and A-6 Intruder assault planes from USS Coral Sea dropped into Haiphong Harbor 36 Mark 52 1,000-pound electromagnetic aerial mines—which explode when the hull of a steel ship passes over them—in an try to chop off provides arriving by sea. Extra plane dropped mines on the smaller ports of Cam Pha and Hoi Gai north of Haiphong, in addition to the river estuaries at Thanh Hoa, Vinh, Qung Khe and Dong Hoi.

On the similar time that plane had been hanging the Hanoi-Haiphong space, seventh Air Drive commander Vogt initiated what he described as “essentially the most intensive in-country interdiction marketing campaign of the battle” towards North Vietnamese provide strains and base areas within the south.

The continual pounding of North Vietnam, the blockade of its main ports and the interdiction marketing campaign hampered the power of the communist forces in South Vietnam to maintain their offensive. The strengthened air help within the South eliminated some strain from the ARVN floor forces. But intense preventing continued all through summer season throughout South Vietnam because the NVA continued its floor assaults whereas pulverizing the defenders with heavy artillery, rockets and mortars. It was clear, nevertheless, that the relentless fireplace of assault helicopters, strike plane, AC-130 gunships and B-52s was taking a heavy toll on the North Vietnamese troops. Issues started to lookup for the South Vietnamese at An Loc and Kontum.

With the state of affairs considerably stabilized within the central and southern areas, Thieu’s high precedence was the misplaced territory within the northern area. The South Vietnamese president changed Lam, the commander within the north, with Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong. Among the finest ARVN generals, Truong energized his males and started getting ready a counteroffensive to retake Quang Tri and different enemy-held positions in that space.

Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, exterior his headquarters at Hue, changed an ineffectual commander within the northern area. (AP Photograph/Richard Blystone)

The brand new offensive, Lam Son 72, started June 28 with a two-pronged assault throughout the My Chanh River. The South Vietnamese Airborne Division attacked Quang Tri from the south paralleling Freeway 1, whereas the marines, supported by the first Ranger Group and the seventh Armored Cavalry, moved northward to strike from the southeast. On the similar time, Truong ordered the first Division to safe Hue and his rear space whereas the 2nd Division carried out operations in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai provinces to the south.

Backed with air help, Truong’s forces made sluggish however regular progress. On July 7, the 2nd Airborne Brigade reached the outskirts of Quang Tri, however the North Vietnamese stiffened their defenses with reinforcements. Truong requested further air help. U.S. plane flew practically 7,500 sorties in July. Regardless of heavy casualties from the airstrikes, North Vietnamese troopers doggedly held the territory they’d taken. The battle for Quang Tri and surrounding areas grew to become a bloody slugfest. Coated by huge air help, Truong realigned his forces and directed the marines to make the principle assault. By Sept. 16, after a number of weeks of intense city preventing, the marines retook town and raised the South Vietnamese flag over the closely broken Quang Tri citadel.

The recapture of Quang Tri successfully signaled the tip of the Easter Offensive. The South Vietnamese forces had additionally prevailed in An Loc and Kontum. Estimates positioned North Vietnamese casualties at greater than 100,000 killed. North Vietnam additionally misplaced not less than half of its large-caliber artillery and tanks. South Vietnamese casualties had been roughly 10,000 killed and 33,000 wounded. There have been 759 People killed in Vietnam through the 12 months 1972.

The South Vietnamese celebrated an amazing victory. They’d withstood every thing the communists threw towards them in a few of the heaviest preventing of the battle.

That victory, nevertheless, was achieved with huge quantities of U.S. air help, and the battles had been shut. Many ARVN troopers had fought valiantly towards overwhelming odds, however some South Vietnamese army leaders and models had not performed effectively. Ultimately, the NVA managed extra territory in South Vietnam than earlier than, and Hanoi believed itself in a stronger place on the Paris negotiations.

In a TV deal with on April 26, effectively earlier than the result was sure, Nixon had forecast that when the preventing was over “the South Vietnamese will then have demonstrated their capability to defend themselves on the bottom towards future enemy assaults.” He added, “Vietnamization has proved itself sufficiently that we will proceed our program of withdrawing American forces with out detriment to our total objective of guaranteeing South Vietnam’s survival as an impartial nation.” He introduced that over the following two months 20,000 extra American troops can be withdrawn.

The South Vietnamese victory grew to become one of many rationales for full U.S. withdrawal and Nixon’s “peace with honor.” The Paris negotiations produced an settlement for ending the battle in January 1973. On March 29, 1973, MACV cased its colours, and the final American troops departed South Vietnam. Nixon promised Thieu that the USA would help South Vietnam if Hanoi launched new offensives.

The South Vietnamese fought on alone, performing effectively in 1973 in renewed preventing. By the tip of 1974, nevertheless, the North Vietnamese had rebuilt their forces within the South. Because the North Vietnamese grew to become stronger, the South Vietnamese grew to become weaker, missing the help promised by Nixon, pressured to resign in August 1974 through the Watergate scandal. When the NVA launched an offensive the following spring, South Vietnamese forces succumbed in 55 days. Saigon surrendered unconditionally on April 30, 1975.

James H. Willbanks is a retired Military lieutenant colonel and adorned Vietnam veteran. He’s the creator or editor of 21 books on the Vietnam Battle and different elements of army historical past. Throughout the 1972 Easter Offensive, Willbanks, then a captain, was an adviser with a South Vietnamese infantry unit at An Loc. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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