The target of U. S. and South Vietnamese bombing and clandestine raids since 1965, the Ho Chi Minh Trail network had nevertheless thrived and expanded. As this map shows, by 1971 it had developed into a strategic rear service area with an oil pipeline, sophisticated jungle base camps, and several NVA Main Force divisions poised to strike at South Vietnam.
The decision to support a Laotian operation, however, rested on more than proving the tenability of Vietnamization. For Nixon, a military offensive could demonstrate, in dramatic fashion, his continuing control over events. By giving “the NVN a bang,” the president could advance his objective of “an enduring Vietnam, namely, one that can stand up in the future.” Moreover, the operation “provided insurance for next year when our force levels would be down.” Critics worried about “slipping into a wide-ranging air war that could last almost indefinitely,” but Nixon thought the benefits far outweighed the risks. His cabinet even pointed to the Nixon Doctrine as a justification for widening the war once more. To the Senate Armed Services Committee in early February, Secretary of Defense Laird defended the use of “sea and air resources to supplement the efforts and the armed forces of our friends and allies who are determined to resist aggression, as the Cambodians are valiantly trying to do.”
Yet below the surface of Nixon’s Laotian decision-making lurked crucial inconsistencies. With no guarantees of battlefield victory, a setback might very well undermine the goals of highlighting Vietnamization’s progress and the president’s leverage over Hanoi. The Laos proposal also disclosed that long-held assumptions on North Vietnam being the source of communist aggression still held sway over many military planners. For years, senior MACV officers campaigned for a cross-border offensive to slash the Ho Chi Minh Trail and isolate the South Vietnamese battlefield. Cut off from its external supply bases, they claimed, the insurgency would wither on the vine. Former congressman Walter Judd agreed, writing to Ambassador Bunker just as the operation commenced that if Hanoi failed to secure its logistical lines, “then it seems fairly clear that it will simply have to call off its aggression and return its forces to North Vietnam with real hope for a good future for Southeast Asia.” Of course, the lines between northern aggression and southern revolution were never so neatly drawn.
Furthermore, MACV’s operational plans proved to be wholly transitory—hit the enemy, temporarily cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and depart. As one senior American official noted, a new incursion “should give the South Vietnamese another year’s grace.” This compared to Hanoi’s more existential objective of remaining in Laos to safeguard their bases from which they could launch future military offensives aimed at terminating the South Vietnamese regime. MACV’s logic thus entailed a crucial flaw. To prove Vietnamization’s worth, overcome the insurgency inside South Vietnam, and build political bonds between Saigon and the rural population required more than just a brief raid into Laos. Neither Abrams nor his senior staff ever articulated how an improved ARVN, one capable of a fleeting cross-border incursion, would facilitate the growth of a southern political community that voluntarily supported Thieu’s vision of the future. Secure borders might be a necessary component of building that community, but nowhere near sufficient alone for its inception and expansion.
Thus, it seems most important to place the Laotian invasion of 1971 within the context of how well the government of South Vietnam, rather than the ARVN, was progressing. Some high-ranking officials did express concerns that the South Vietnamese armed forces needed additional time to mature. Army Chief of Staff Westmoreland shared with Kissinger his support for an alternative plan in which the ARVN conducted smaller raids rather than a frontal assault into Laos. Admiral Moorer, though, affirmed the plan would proceed “exactly like Gen Abrams wants to do it and no other way.” In April, after critics roundly denounced the miscarried operation, Kissinger quietly called Westmoreland to express his regret for not following the army chief of staff’s advice.
These discussions about the size of ARVN’s planned raid concentrated more on the American withdrawal than on South Vietnamese political loyalties. Abrams called the Laos campaign “critical” to the US pullout, while Nixon publicly claimed its purpose to “save American lives, to guarantee the continued withdrawal of our own forces, and to increase the ability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves without our help.” In March, Kissinger told the president that “we’ve got to get enough time to get out” and ensure that North Vietnam did not “knock the whole place over.” Even South Vietnamese generals, citing high morale after the prior year’s Cambodian campaign, tended to think of a Laotian incursion in narrow terms of border security and cutting Hanoi’s supply routes. Without question, these were important objectives. But such failures in linking military operations to political progress would haunt MACV planners for the remainder of their war in Vietnam.
In the end, Nixon and Kissinger settled for a narrow military offensive to accomplish three primary objectives: to demonstrate the headway being made in Vietnamization, to limit domestic blowback against a widened war, and to buy time for the GVN. Behind closed doors, the president had already determined that US troop withdrawals would continue regardless of the ARVN’s performance in Laos. In truth, then, the White House, not MACV headquarters, was now fully directing strategy inside South Vietnam. This civilian domination of military affairs certainly rankled professional officers who deemed Nixon’s inner circle as far overstepping their bounds. As one senior US Army general recalled, the military assessments of Kissinger’s NSC staff, in particular those of Alexander Haig, “were given more weight that the judgments of General Abrams, other responsible commanders in the field, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Of course, MACV still had a role to play. Abrams’s planners rushed to conceive an operation that provided logistical and air support to the ARVN while achieving “maximum feasible disruption of the enemy timetable and destruction of stockpiles.” As with the Cambodian operation, though, top secret planning once more excluded the South Vietnamese until the last moment. And astoundingly, despite American officers’ long-standing desire to expand the war into Laos, no detailed contingency plans had been developed by Abrams’s planning staff. The first weeks of December 1970 thus became a flurry of activity inside MACV headquarters. On the 13th, Haig arrived in Saigon and, accompanied by Abrams and Ambassador Bunker, met with President Thieu and Chairman of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff Cao Van Vien to present the outlines of what would soon be code-named Operation Lam Son 719.
The primary objective of MACV’s four-phased plan aimed to “cut and disrupt” the Ho Chi Minh Trail system in Laos. American forces would first secure lines of communication along the South Vietnamese-Laotian border while establishing logistical and fire support bases. Next, the ARVN 1st Division would attack into Tchepone, establish a base there, and in the third stage commence probes to cut the enemy’s supply routes. The final phase, “dependent on developments,” foresaw an optional attack southwest from Tchepone to clear out enemy base areas and supply caches. A recently passed Cooper-Church Amendment forbade American ground troops from accompanying the ARVN outside of South Vietnam’s borders. The South Vietnamese consequently would be on their own, save US air and artillery support, throughout much of the operation.
Even before Lam Son 719 kicked off, however, signs appeared that trouble lay ahead. In late January 1971, MACV intelligence reported that the North Vietnamese army had been alerted to the impending offensive. CIA estimates that same week anticipated “that if the ARVN operation is marginally effective, it will encourage the Communists to continue their present course.”49 Senior US officials, with the benefit of hindsight, put into question why Lam Son 719 went forward in the first place. General Bruce Palmer Jr. recalled that “in cold objectivity, it did look very much like sending a boy to do a man’s job in an extremely hostile environment.” Kissinger, for his part, believed the operation “was a splendid project on paper. Its chief drawback, as events showed, was that it in no way accorded with Vietnamese realities.”
Despite the warning signs, Lam Son 719 proceeded as planned. On 30 January, US mechanized infantry units moved to secure the Khe Sanh area in preparation for the ARVN assault on 8 February. The shift of American forces into Quang Tri province, however, alerted the North Vietnamese, who quickly reinforced Tchepone. Already in these early stages, Abrams seemed off balance. Two days before the ARVN crossed into Laos, the general lamented that Washington officials did not understand that the outcome would be totally in his subordinates’ hands. “There isn’t anything I can tell them, or anybody else.” The NVA leadership, in comparison, apparently had no such management problems in reacting to the allied incursion. As MACV reported, “Communist resistance stiffened as ARVN forces penetrated deeper into Laos. Tanks often fought tanks, and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Communist AA [anti-aircraft] fire took its toll of helicopters and TACAIR. The enemy often organized coordinated counter-attacks, and in one instance completely overran an RVN support base.”
By mid-February, the shaky wheels of the Lam Son operation started to come loose. Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, commanding the South Vietnamese armed forces in Laos, had never led such a large-scale campaign. Throughout, he seemed incapable of managing the complexities of a major offensive in bad weather, the petty rivalries of his subordinate commanders, and the agile response from the defending communists. Worse, as Lam’s forces clawed their way toward Tchepone, they presented “an excellent target for NVA gunners and ‘human assault waves.’ ” Despite encouraging reports from Abrams—ARVN performance was “very good and professional”—the White House worried Lam Son had bogged down in just under three weeks of fighting. To Admiral Moorer, Kissinger divulged that “I do not understand what Abrams is doing.” Worse, the national security advisor failed to glimpse “anything aggressive” along Highway 9 on the route toward Tchepone. Lam Son 719 looked to be floundering.
News from the front only worsened when the White House discovered that President Thieu had decided to abandon the operation and withdraw his forces from Laos earlier than expected. If highlighting ARVN fighting abilities interested Nixon most, the premature extraction of South Vietnamese troops threatened to publicly expose the deficiencies still attenuating Vietnamization. Thieu, though, saw little political gain by remaining in Laos as NVA reinforcements poured onto the scene. Abrams might view Lam Son 719 as “maybe the only decisive battle of the war,” but South Vietnam’s president thought otherwise. The withdrawal decision threw White House leaders into a fit of rage. Kissinger shot off a message to Ambassador Bunker on 9 March, fuming that they had “not gone through all this agony just for the favorable headlines.” Two days later, at a White House briefing, the national security advisor castigated the South Vietnamese as “sons of bitches” for “bugging out.”
The president’s fury, however, soon turned on Abrams. As February drew to a close, Kissinger, already questioning whether MACV’s commander understood the true objective of Lam Son 719, shared Nixon’s dissatisfaction over the operation’s progress with Ambassador Bunker. Reports that Abrams had failed to leave his headquarters during the campaign only heightened White House concerns. Frustrated, in Kissinger’s words, by being “constantly outstripped by events,” an enraged Nixon considered sending Haig to Saigon to replace the now embattled MACV commander. Cooler heads—and Melvin Laird’s faithful support of Abrams—prevailed. Nixon postponed a Haig-led fact-finding mission until mid-March. The damage to Abrams’s reputation, however, had been done. H. R. Haldeman recorded on 23 March that both the president and Kissinger felt “they were misled by Abrams on the original evaluation of what might be accomplished” and “concluded they should pull Abrams out.” With military operations in Laos winding down though, Nixon demurred, arguing it would not make much difference anyway.
But the incursion had made a difference. Lam Son 719 shattered Nixon and Kissinger’s faith in Creighton Abrams. In early June, Kissinger admitted to the president that he “wouldn’t believe a word Abrams says anymore.” Nixon concurred. “You’ve got to go to the local commanders from now on.” Then in September, after Abrams reportedly leaked to the press his reservations about the timetable for withdrawal of US troops, an infuriated Nixon once more considered “withdrawing the son-of-a-bitch.” Kissinger agreed that Abrams was “no longer on top of this,” prompting Nixon to insist on a deputy commander who would keep the senior general “from drinking too much and talking too much.” The exchange over Abrams’s alcohol problems would not be the last. Nor would the Laotian campaign be the low point of American civil-military relations in these final years.
For the time being, Abrams’s near relief remained private, but Nixon now had to confront the public assessments of Lam Son 719. Even before the ARVN’s early departure from Laos, Nixon proclaimed success, arguing the offensive had “very seriously damaged” the communists’ fighting capacity and that the US troop withdrawal schedule would “go forward at least at the present rate.” Abrams, even if out of favor at the White House, loyally supported his president’s case to the press. At a 21 March press background briefing, the general predicted the ARVN would “come out of this with higher confidence.” Though some weaker units withdrew in the face of enemy pressure, the majority “performed well and did not retreat.” Most importantly, Abrams argued, “Lam Son 719 has succeeded in disrupting vital portions of the enemy’s logistical system, capturing or destroying significant quantities of supplies and inflicting considerable damage on enemy units within the area of operation.” By such accounts, the campaign looked to be the most decisive military engagement since Tet.
Yet akin to the 1970 Cambodian incursion, assessments of Lam Son 719 varied widely. MACV reported the enemy lost some 13,000 dead, but the ARVN had equally suffered, losing 8,000 casualties—approximately 45 percent of the total forces earmarked for the campaign. In addition, the enemy downed more than 100 US helicopters supporting ARVN ground troops. Nor did Hanoi’s supply problems seem all that grave. According to Haig, by 7 April, “American pilots reported that NVA truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail appeared to be back to normal.” One week later, Lieutenant General Michael S. Davison, the II Field Force commander, reported to Abrams that in Military Region 3 “the enemy continues to sustain himself without major reliance on external sources of supply.” Kissinger hoped the disruption of the Ho Chi Minh Trail would aggravate Hanoi’s supply shortages and limit enemy options in 1972, but evaluations of the North Vietnamese resupply system being “severely hurt” appeared optimistic given the temporary nature of the Laos raid.
Such nuances tended to get lost in White House declarations of success. Still, talking points on enemy kill ratios, numbers of trucks destroyed, or individual weapons captured only persuaded so much. By late March and early April, journalists were writing of a new “credibility gap” and of an “ignominious and disorderly retreat” from Laos. According to the New York Times, Hanoi “won at least a propaganda victory” by blunting the South Vietnamese offensive. Privately, Nixon grudgingly acquiesced to these views even as he lashed out against the press. On 21 April, the president told Kissinger that the war was presenting “a very serious problem. You see, the war has eroded America’s confidence up to this point.” Though he still believed that abandoning “our friends . . . would abandon ourselves,” the president rearticulated the end-state of his Southeast Asian policy. As he imparted to Kissinger on the 23rd, “Winning the war simply means . . . letting South Vietnam survive. That’s all.”
Six days later, the US 1st Cavalry Division, having served for more than five and half years in South Vietnam, wrapped up its guidons and headed home to Fort Hood, Texas. One officer, packing up the division’s last items of gear, worried about getting mortared during the departure ceremonies. “We got hit a few days ago,” he quipped, “and we thought they just might be zeroed in on our parade ground out there. That would have spoiled the party.”