This episode of the podcast covers the war in Vietnam, also called the Second Indochina War, during 1972. North Vietnam launches a major offensive that is eventually defeated, thanks to American air power, but they are able to grab ten percent of South Vietnam’s territory, and keep their soldiers in it afterwards. Meanwhile, the peace talks continue. The United States and North Vietnam finally reach an agreement, but the talks are interrupted by two major US bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, leading many to think that peace was forced upon the North Vietnamese. What will that mean when the cease-fire is signed in the following year?
This episode is dedicated to Brian E., and Michael S. W., both of whom made donations to the podcast recently. Unfortunately, Brian’s donation arrived on the day when the previous episode went online, so I couldn’t mention it until now. I also remember that Brian made a donation last year, so on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, he now has the coveted water buffalo icon next to his name! Now in the real world, we are entering the dog days of August, one of the dullest times of the year. With all of the quote-unquote “interesting” events that have happened recently, I will turn the famous Chinese curse into a blessing – may you live in uninteresting times. Okay, are we all ready for today’s show? Roll the music, then!
Episode 94: The Second Indochina War, Part 21
or, The Easter Offensive
Greetings, dear listeners! As I record this, it is the middle of summer in 2020, and whoever is in charge of this world hasn’t run out of ideas to make this a crazy year. One of the latest schemes was to send clouds of dust from the Sahara Desert across the Atlantic, to the United States, and because that didn’t mess up anything, now I’m hearing about a coin shortage; what caused THAT? Fortunately we can still temporarily escape the troubles of today by reading a book, watching a TV show or movie, or – you guessed it – listening to a podcast. Lately this podcast has been covering the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War, so you won’t be going to a happier time if you keep on listening to this episode. You may even conclude that life was worse during the war years than it is today! Oh well, we can’t talk about golden ages all the time; in human history they are few and far between. In the case of Vietnam, the golden age had to happen before the French invaded the country, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Or maybe the golden age is still to come, with the current economic growth going on in Ho Chi Minh City.
Anyway, today we are going to look at events of the war in Vietnam, during 1972. These are events I remember; I was a teenager at the time. I also remember that 1972 was an exceptionally busy year. Besides Vietnam, we had the Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions, the last two manned flights to the moon so far, a presidential election, the Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan, and the Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany; the latter were marred by the murder of Israeli athletes by terrorists. And if you were there like me, you will remember more; how about the great music from that year, for example?
I have to keep saying this, because there are probably first-time listeners every time a new episode goes online. If this is your first time with us, note that this is the twenty-first episode in our series on the Second Indochina War. Unless you were there in 1972, you will need to listen to the other episodes to understand what is going on in this one. Those are Episodes 71 through 93, except for 76, 77, and 85. And you might want to listen to the five episodes on the First Indochina War, 64 to 68, to learn how the stage was set for the war the Americans got involved in. Or maybe you will want to learn how the French got involved in Vietnam first: Episodes 19, 25, 26, 34 and 35. Oh heck, just go to the oldest episodes in the podcast and start listening there, if you haven’t already. Now I’m sounding like a podcaster who has been asked to explain what caused World War I:
“It all started in 1914 . . . you see, in 1908 . . . wait, in 1882 . . . hold on, in 1867 . . . no, but first, back in 1815 . . . actually, let’s start with Napoleon.”
Okay, if you haven’t listened to the other episodes in this series, you know your assignment. Hit the pause button now, and go take care of that. The rest of you, let’s move on with the show.
As 1972 began, the Nixon administration had diplomacy on its mind. On January 25, President Richard Nixon announced an eight point peace plan for Vietnam, and also revealed that his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, had been secretly negotiating with the North Vietnamese. While Saigon approved of the plan, Hanoi rejected it. Then in February, Nixon made his historic trip to China, meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and opening up diplomatic relations between the Americans and communist Chinese. This was followed up with a trip to Moscow in May, where Nixon met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and began talks to limit the number of missiles the United States and Soviet Union could have.
Back in Vietnam, Nixon’s trips caused great concern in both Saigon and Hanoi. Nguyen Van Thieu said South Vietnam was like a mistress that had grown old and ugly in the eyes of the Americans, and now that the Americans had discovered China, they wanted a new Asian mistress. North Vietnam depended on the Soviets for up-to-date weapons and on China for rice; now they feared that their wartime allies might agree to an unfavorable settlement of the war, in order to improve relations with the United States. Sure enough, the Soviets and the Chinese now began telling Hanoi that it was time to end the war.
Instead, the North Vietnamese military commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, launched an all-out attempt to conquer as much South Vietnamese territory as possible. This offensive began on March 30, 1972, Easter weekend on Western calendars, so it is now called the Easter Offensive by Americans. Giap felt the time to act was now, because if he waited, Soviet and Chinese military aid would be reduced, and South Vietnam would get stronger.
Whereas the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a guerrilla campaign, with the Viet Cong attacking more than a hundred targets at the same time, this time the North Vietnamese were waging a purely conventional war, committing 120,000 soldiers (mostly North Vietnamese regulars, plus what remained of the Viet Cong), accompanied by heavy artillery and more than three hundred tanks. In the words of author Michael Herr, quote, “People’s Army, my ass.” Unquote. Those soldiers were organized into fourteen divisions, and they went after three targets. Six divisions crossed the Demilitarized Zone first, into Quang Tri Province. By May 1 they had taken Quang Tri, the northernmost provincial capital, and began to threaten Hue, Vietnam’s nineteenth-century capital. Next, three divisions sneaked across the Cambodian border to take the town of Loc Ninh, and attack An Loc, a provincial capital just 60 miles north-northwest of Saigon. A communist victory here would threaten the South Vietnamese capital for sure. For the third target, three more divisions invaded the Central Highlands, and attacked the city of Kontum. Nearby, in the coastal province of Binh Dinh, the North Vietnamese seized three district capitals, after the local ARVN general didn’t try very hard to defend them. There were forty thousand South Koreans stationed in Binh Dinh, but instead of showing their usual ferocity, they had been ordered to stay out of the fight, because the war was winding down. If the rest of the province had been taken, South Vietnam would have been cut in two. Finally, two divisions entered the Mekong delta from Cambodia; although they did not take part in any battles, they captured much of that fertile, rice-growing land. South Vietnam would call the offensive “the summer of flames.”
The Americans and South Vietnamese had been expecting a North Vietnamese offensive in 1972, but did not know where it would take place, or the size of the force involved. US and South Vietnamese commanders had not paid attention to intelligence that could have told them more, so when the offensive began, they were taken by surprise. In that way they failed to follow one of the most important rules of warfare – "never underestimate your enemy."
You will remember that most of the battles in the Tet Offensive were won quickly by American and South Vietnamese troops fighting together. That wouldn’t happen now, because there weren’t enough Americans left to fight. Of the 70,000 Americans left in Vietnam, only 6,000 were combat troops. Nor would more any more troops go to Vietnam. The demonstrations in American cities made sure of that, and Congress would be reluctant to send military aid after the rest of the troops came home. Remember what I said in a previous episode, about how the Americans won every battle in Vietnam, while they lost the war in the United States. ARVN was now on its own.
Except in the air. Air power had always been the most important advantage the Americans had in Indochina. With the pullout of American soldiers from Vietnam, aircraft had been pulled out as well, so in early 1972 there were eight hundred combat aircraft left; most of them were based in South Vietnam and Thailand, plus two US Navy carrier air wings. Now in response to the new crisis, Washington sent four more carriers to the waters around Vietnam by the end of May; with them went four hundred Air Force fighters, and most importantly, more than two hundred B-52s.
As early as April 2, the US 7th Fleet began targeting North Vietnamese troops massed around the Demilitarized Zone with air strikes and naval gunfire. Then on April 4, President Nixon authorized a massive bombing campaign targeting all North Vietnamese troops invading South Vietnam, along with the first B-52 air strikes against North Vietnam since 1968. Nixon was privately heard saying, quote, "The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to bombed this time." Unquote. The US Army used AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships, equipped with new TOW wire-guided antitank missiles and 2.75-inch rockets, to blast North Vietnamese tanks and troops at An Loc and at Kontum. The US Navy and Air Force sent B-52s, A-6s, A-7s, F-4s, and A-37s against enemy forces outside An Loc, and A-1s from the South Vietnamese Air Force struck them as well. The North Vietnamese troops and tanks attacked in the type of massed formations that had worked so well in World War II, but without control of the air, massed formations are easy targets. Through April and May, An Loc remained under siege sustained by constant air support and aerial resupply, which enabled the defenders to repulse one North Vietnamese assault after another. The American commander at An Loc, Brigadier General James Hollingsworth, refused to consider a proposal by the Red Cross that the two sides should declare a temporary cease-fire at An Loc to treat the wounded, and when speaking to reporters about the enemy, he said he intended to, quote, "kill them all before they get back to Cambodia." Unquote. By the end of May, after suffering an estimated twenty-five thousand casualties, the North Vietnamese called off their attempt to take the city.
On the Central Highlands front, the North Vietnamese got off to a good start, taking the South Vietnamese bases at Tan Canh and Dak To by April 25. Kontum was the next target, and again US airplanes and attack helicopters flew in to save the day. Here the battle lasted from May 13 to June 9, before the North Vietnamese called off their attack. Because most of the American ground troops were gone from this sector, a retired lieutenant colonel, John Paul Vann, who was working here as an advisor, became a civilian commander for US forces in the battle. However, at the end of the battle, Vann was killed when his helicopter crashed into a hillside; later the North Vietnamese claimed to have shot him down. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
But wait! There’s more! In mid-April another round of protests erupted in the United States, this time against the bombing of North Vietnam, and on May 9, US planes began Operation Linebacker I by dropping mines in Haiphong harbor, to prevent the delivery of supplies to North Vietnam by Soviet ships. US warplanes also struck railroad bridges, rail yards, oil tanks and munitions dumps. This hampered North Vietnam’s ability to supply the troops engaged in the Easter Offensive; on June 1, Hanoi admitted Operation Linebacker I was causing severe disruptions. And as if to make that point, South Vietnamese troops began a counter-offensive on June 28 to retake Quang Tri Province, aided by more US Navy gunfire and B-52 bombardments. This was followed up with a major counter-offensive on July 19, to take back the Communist-held part of Binh Dinh Province. Finally, on September 16, 1972, Quang Tri City was recovered by South Vietnamese troops, ending the offensive.
One more time, North Vietnam had suffered the most casualties. Estimates of the North Vietnamese dead usually put the figure at 100,000, with 60,000 wounded and anywhere from 250 to 700 tanks and armored personnel carriers destroyed. The Viet Cong General Tran Van Tra, writing about the offensive ten years later, stated, quote: "Our troops were exhausted and their units in disarray. We had not been able to make up losses. We were short of manpower as well as food and ammunition." End quote. Before the offensive, North Vietnamese forces had not really controlled any South Vietnamese territory; now after the offensive, they held 10 percent of South Vietnam’s countryside, in the four northernmost provinces, the Central Highlands, and the Mekong delta. This would give North Vietnam a position of strength at the peace talks in Paris. Even so, North Vietnam considered the campaign a defeat, and replaced its commander. Although Vo Nguyen Giap would remain defense minister, another general, Van Tien Dung, would act as the actual leader of the army for the rest of the war. For the South Vietnamese, around 10,000 were killed, 33,000 were wounded, and 3,500 were missing. 300 Americans were killed, and 134 planes were shot down, meaning that more Americans would join the prisoners of war being held in North Vietnam.
The Easter Offensive showed that South Vietnamese troops could fight – but only to a point. By 1972, thanks to US aid, ARVN was one of the best-equipped armies in the world. But could they continue to make a stand, without the Americans? At the end of June, President Nixon recalled the MACV commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, replacing him with Abrams’ deputy general, Frederick Weyand. Weyand would be the last American commander in Vietnam. And on August 23, 1972, the last US combat troops departed from Vietnam. For those keeping track, 759 Americans had been killed in Vietnam in 1972. The only Americans left were Army advisors and administrators, to assist South Vietnam’s armed forces, and of course, the prisoners of war. The next time North Vietnam attacked, ARVN would not have anyone to help them.
In Paris, the crucial breakthrough in the peace talks came on October 8, 1972. Previously, the North Vietnamese had insisted that any end to the fighting must come with the removal of South Vietnamese President Thieu from office, and the dismantling of his government. But they had also been hoping to defeat the Americans in a big showdown battle, the way they had beaten the French at Dienbienphu. Now they realized that battle wasn’t going to happen, so getting rid of the Americans peacefully had become more important than getting rid of Thieu. Therefore, Le Duc Tho dropped the demands regarding South Vietnam. In return, Kissinger agreed that North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam could remain there, after the fighting stopped. Kissinger’s staff members privately expressed concerns over allowing North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South, and Kissinger replied, quote, "I want to end this war before the election." Unquote. To one member of his staff, John Negroponte, Kissinger asked, quote, “What do you want us to do? Stay there forever?” Unquote. It was less than a month before the 1972 US presidential election, and Nixon was running against South Dakota Senator George McGovern, who campaigned on a promise to end the war immediately. Although the polls showed Nixon well ahead of McGovern, Nixon would welcome all the help he could get.
Because of the progress at the conference table, Operation Linebacker I ended on October 22. US warplanes had flown 40,000 sorties and dropped more than 125,000 tons of bombs during the campaign. On the same day, Kissinger visited President Thieu in Saigon to discuss the peace proposal. Thieu didn’t like it. There was nothing in the peace proposal for him; he could only lose if it went into effect. He publicly denounced it, and an angry Kissinger reported this to President Nixon, who then threatened Thieu with a total cut-off of all American aid, but Thieu did not back down.
Podcast footnote: I remember a cartoon in my local newspaper at that time, which showed a dove representing peace, perched on a windowsill, while Kissinger and Thieu are standing just inside the window. Kissinger is offering the dove birdseed, and Thieu is trying to scare the dove away with a broom. End footnote.
Radio Hanoi revealed the terms of the peace proposal on October 26, and accused the U.S. of attempting to sabotage the settlement. Washington didn’t care what the North Vietnamese said. At the White House on the same day, Henry Kissinger held a press briefing and declared, quote, "We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is in sight." Unquote. The news that the Vietnam War was about to end, guaranteed Nixon would be re-elected. Election Day came a week and a half later, and Nixon won by a landslide, securing 61 percent of the popular vote, and carrying every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
But there were more bumps ahead, on the road to peace. Now that the Americans and North Vietnamese had reached an agreement, they needed to bring in the South Vietnamese. Accordingly, President Nixon sent a letter to President Thieu on November 14, secretly pledging "to take swift and severe retaliatory action" if North Vietnam violates the proposed peace treaty. Thieu replied with a list of 69 changes to the agreement, which Kissinger passed on to Le Duc Tho. Of course the North Vietnamese did not find all of the changes on the list acceptable; the Paris peace talks broke down in mid-December, and Le Duc Tho returned to Hanoi to consult his bosses. Nixon sent an ultimatum to North Vietnam, demanding that serious negotiations must resume within 72 hours – or else. Hanoi did not respond, so Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, eleven days and nights of maximum force bombing against military targets in North Vietnam by B-52 bombers.
Operation Linebacker II began on December 18, and ended on December 29; although the bombers took Christmas Day off, Americans still called these raids “Christmas bombings.” This turned out to be the most intensive bombing campaign of the entire war, with over 100,000 bombs dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong. Needless to say, the bombings were widely denounced by American politicians, the media, and various world leaders, including the Pope. North Vietnam reported 1,318 civilian deaths in Hanoi, and 305 in Haiphong, and released filmed footage of civilian casualties; that added fuel to the outrage. In addition, by launching 1,200 SAM missiles, North Vietnam shot down fifteen of the 121 B-52s participating, and the North Vietnamese had a few downed B-52 pilots make public statements against the bombing. In the middle of it all, on December 26, North Vietnam agreed to resume peace negotiations within five days after an end to the bombing. As John Negroponte later put it, quote, “We bombed them into accepting our concessions.” Unquote. When the bombing ended, it was mainly because the Americans had run out of targets to hit and the North Vietnamese had run out of missiles.
All right, that brings us to the end of 1972, so we are at a good point to break off for today. At this point, we are on the verge of a peace agreement in Vietnam. Back in Episode 79, I told you that in 1973, cease-fires went into effect for both Vietnam and Laos. How well will they work? Join me next time to find out!
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