Second Indochina War II

The Tet Offensive began in full force on January 31 and ended on February 24, 1968. Poor communication and coordination plagued Hanoi’s plans. Attacks against several provinces and cities in the northern part of South Vietnam occurred a day early, alerting the U. S. command. The following night, Communist forces mounted simultaneous attacks against 40 cities and province capitals throughout South Vietnam, including the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon. Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital, was especially hard hit. Fighting there lasted for three weeks and destroyed half the city.

Hanoi’s plan failed. ARVN forces generally fought well, and the people of South Vietnam did not support the attackers. In Hue the Communists executed 3,000 people, and news of this caused many South Vietnamese to rally to the South Vietnamese government. Half of the 85,000 VC and PAVN soldiers who took part in the offensive were killed or captured. It was the worst military setback for North Vietnam in the war.

Paradoxically, the Tet Offensive was also North Vietnam’s most resounding victory, in part because the Johnson administration and Westmoreland had trumpeted prior allied successes. The intensity of the fighting came as a profound shock to the American people. Disillusioned and despite the victory, they turned against the war. At the end of March, Johnson announced a partial cessation of bombing and withdrew from the November presidential election.

Hanoi persisted, however. In the first six months of 1968, Communist forces sustained more than 100,000 casualties, and the VC was virtually wiped out. In the same period, 20,000 allied troops died. All sides now opted for talks in Paris in an effort to negotiate an end to the war.

American disillusionment with the war was a key factor in Republican Richard Nixon’s razor-thin victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the November 1968 presidential election. With no plan of his own, Nixon embraced Vietnamization, actually begun under Johnson. This turned over more of the war to the ARVN, and U. S. troop withdrawals began. Peak U. S. strength of 543,400 men occurred in April 1969. There were 475,000 men by the end of the year, 335,000 by the end of 1970, and 157,000 at the end of 1971. Massive amounts of equipment were turned over to the ARVN, including 1 million M-16 rifles and sufficient aircraft to make the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF, South Vietnamese Air Force) the world’s fourth largest. Extensive retraining of the ARVN was begun, and training schools were established. The controversial counterinsurgency Phoenix Program also operated against the VC infrastructure, reducing the insurgency by 67,000 people between 1968 and 1971, but PAVN forces remained secure in sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.

Nixon’s policy was to limit outside assistance to Hanoi and pressure the North Vietnamese government to end the war. For years, American and South Vietnamese military leaders had sought approval to attack the sanctuaries. In March 1970 a coup in Cambodia ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk. General Lon Nol replaced him, and President Nixon ordered U. S.-ARVN combined operations against the PAVN Cambodian sanctuaries. Over a two-month span there were 12 cross-border operations, collectively known as the Cambodian Incursion. Despite widespread opposition in the United States to the widened war, the incursions raised the allies’ morale, allowed U. S. withdrawals to continue on schedule, and purchased additional time for Vietnamization. PAVN forces now concentrated on bases in southern Laos and on enlarging the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In the spring of 1971 ARVN forces mounted a major invasion into southern Laos, known as Operation LAM SON 719. There were no U. S. advisers, and ARVN units took heavy casualties. The operation may have set back Hanoi’s plans to invade South Vietnam but took a great toll on the ARVN’s younger officers and pointed out serious command weaknesses. Shrugging off its own losses, the PAVN was encouraged by the performance of its main-force troops against some of ARVN’s finest fighting units and massive U. S. air support, and this helped to solidify PAVN plans for an all-out offensive the following year.

By 1972 PAVN forces had recovered and had been substantially strengthened with new weapons, including heavy artillery and tanks, from the Soviet Union. The PAVN now mounted a major conventional invasion of South Vietnam. Hanoi believed that the United States would not be able to reintervene with ground troops and that PAVN forces were capable of destroying ARVN in a headto-head battle. PAVN general Vo Nguyen Giap had 15 divisions. He left only 1 in North Vietnam and 2 in Laos and committed the remaining 12 to the invasion.

The attack began on Good Friday, March 30, 1972. Known as the Spring Offensive or the Easter Offensive, it began with a direct armor strike southward across the DMZ at the 17th Parallel, surprising the South Vietnamese, whose defenses were oriented against an attack from the west, out of Laos, and who had assigned a newly formed and inexperienced division to man their critical northern defense line. Allied intelligence misread the invasion’s scale and its precise timing. Giap risked catastrophic losses but hoped for a quick victory before ARVN forces could recover. At first it appeared that the PAVN would be successful. Quang Tri fell after a month of fighting, and bad weather initially limited the effectiveness of airpower. However, at Kontum and An Loc, the South Vietnamese forces held out against repeated PAVN attacks.

In April, President Nixon authorized B-52 bomber strikes on Hanoi and North Vietnam’s principal port of Haiphong, and in early May he approved the mining of Haiphong’s harbor. This new air campaign was dubbed LINEBACKER I and involved the use of new precision-guided munitions (so-called smart bombs). The bombing cut off much of the supplies for the invading PAVN forces. Allied aircraft also destroyed 400-500 PAVN tanks. In June and July the ARVN counterattacked. The invasion cost Hanoi half its force-some 100,000 men reportedly died-while ARVN losses were only 25,000.

With both Soviet and Chinese leaders anxious for better relations with the United States in order to obtain Western technology and with their forces on the front lines beginning to lose the territory that they had taken during the early days of the invasion, Hanoi gave way and switched to negotiations. Finally in October an agreement was hammered out in Paris, but South Vietnamese president Thieu balked and refused to sign, whereupon Hanoi made the agreements public. A furious Nixon blamed both Hanoi and Saigon for the impasse. In December he ordered a resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam and at the same time issued a stern warning to Thieu to drop his opposition to the peace agreement. The bombing of North Vietnam, the principal element of which was the use of concentrated B-52 strikes against Hanoi, Haiphong, and other key targets in the Red River Delta, was dubbed LINEBACKER II but was also known as the December Bombings and the Christmas Bombings. Although 15 B-52s were lost during the two-week campaign, by the end Hanoi had fired away virtually its entire stock of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and now agreed to resume talks.

After a few cosmetic changes, an agreement was signed on January 23, 1973, with Nixon forcing Thieu to agree or risk the end of all U. S. aid. The United States recovered its prisoners of war and departed Vietnam, leaving the South Vietnamese alone to face the PAVN. Following the signing of the peace agreement and especially as the growing Watergate crisis weakened President Nixon’s hand, the U. S. Congress steadily reduced the budget for aid to South Vietnam. Tanks and planes were not replaced on the promised onefor-one basis as they were lost, and ammunition, spare parts, and fuel were all in short supply. All of this had a devastating effect on ARVN morale.

In South Vietnam both sides violated the cease-fire and fighting steadily increased in intensity. In January 1975 Communist forces attacked and quickly seized Phuoc Long Province on the Cambodian border north of Saigon. Washington took no action. In March the Communists took Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands, and in mid-March President Thieu decided to try to preserve his forces by abandoning much of the northern half of South Vietnam. Thieu issued his order to his top generals in total secrecy without informing the United States and with no prior planning or preparation. Confusion led to disorder and then disaster; six weeks later PAVN forces controlled all of South Vietnam. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam was now reunited but under a Communist government. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese-soldiers and civilians-had died in the struggle. Much of the country was devastated by the fighting, the economies of both North Vietnam and South Vietnam were in shambles, and Vietnam suffered from the effects of the widespread use of chemical defoliants.

The effects were also profound in the United States. The American military was shattered by the war and had to be rebuilt. Inflation was rampant from the failure to face up to the true costs of the war. Many questioned U. S. willingness to embark on such a crusade again, at least to go it alone. In this sense, the war forced Washington into a more realistic appraisal of U. S. power.

Aftermath – Third Indochina War

Saigon’s effort to regain lost territory and the passage of the Case-Church Amendment that ended funding for U. S. forces in Southeast Asia prompted the Twenty-First Plenum of the Central Committee in October 1973 to approve “strategic raids” on isolated ARVN bases in order to clear their “logistics corridor,” cut key communication with Saigon, regain lost territory, and begin preparation for a culminating offensive to win the war. Critical to PAVN’s success was the movement of troops and matériel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the construction of an oil pipeline, and a paved highway from Quang Tri in the north through the Central Highlands to Loc Ninh in the south. Also important was the aggressive initiative of theater commander General Tran Van Tra, who persuaded Le Duan to back his plan for attacking Phuoc Long Province despite concerns over the level of war matériels and the U. S. reaction.

When the United States did not react to the seizing of Phuoc Long Province in December 1974, the North Vietnamese government, confident that the Gerald Ford administration would not send in airpower, pushed ahead with an all-out invasion of South Vietnam (the Ho Chi Minh Campaign), which they anticipated would take two years to complete. But South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu’s precipitous abandonment of the Central Highlands was the beginning of a rout as PAVN forces, led by General Van Tien Dung and reequipped with modern Soviet tanks and weapons, completed the conquest of South Vietnam ahead of schedule. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. The North Vietnamese government also celebrated the victories of its allies in Cambodia and in Laos, where PAVN divisions were instrumental in the Pathet Lao victory.

Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces General Viktor Kulikov had hurried to Hanoi after the capture of Phuoc Long Province to offer an estimated 400 percent increase in military aid to complete the destruction of South Vietnam. Communist Chinese, who had assumed the aid burden for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, also provided critical military aid. During the war years they provided about 500,000 tons of grain per year to help feed the urban population of North Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Event Date: April 1975

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign culminated in the April 1975 attack on Saigon, which gave the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) the decisive victory over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) that North Vietnam had fought so long to achieve. Encouraged by the collapse of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) in early 1975 in Military Regions I and II, the Hanoi Politburo revised its timetable, deciding late in March that Saigon should be taken before the beginning of the 1975 rainy season rather than the following year. The plan was to achieve victory in what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Campaign before their dead leader’s birthday (May 19).

In early April, People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) units engaged ARVN forces around Saigon, blocking roads and shelling Bien Hoa Air Base. While cadres moved into the city to augment their already significant organization there, sappers positioned themselves to interrupt river transportation and attack Bien Hoa. At Xuan Loc, some 35 miles northeast of Saigon, a hard-fought battle began on April 8, the same day that a Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF, South Vietnamese Air Force) pilot attacked the presidential palace and then defected.

The U. S. evacuation of Cambodia on April 12 further reinforced the North Vietnamese assessment that Washington would do nothing to prevent the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, although some members of the Saigon government could not bring themselves to believe that they would be abandoned. Even after the fall of Military Regions I and II, U. S. officials in Vietnam and visitors from Washington continued to act as if the Saigon government could successfully defend itself or, at worst, achieve some kind of negotiated settlement. Among South Vietnamese, however, opposition to President Nguyen Van Thieu was growing, and talk of a coup was widespread.

As PAVN forces cut Route 1 to the east and prepared to prevent reinforcement from the Mekong Delta by blocking Route 4 and from Vung Tau by interdicting Route 15 and the Long Tau River, the ARVN engaged in some maneuvering of its own. On April 21 President Thieu resigned in favor of Vice President Tran Van Huong, but all attempts by Washington to support the Saigon regime with increased aid failed in Congress.

Thieu’s resignation did nothing to stall the PAVN offensive or buoy South Vietnamese morale. While some ARVN units fought on, leaders such as Thieu began sending personal goods and money out of the country. Banks and foreign embassies began closing, and a steady stream of foreign nationals, including many Americans, left the country, often with their Vietnamese employees.

Xuan Loc fell on April 21, and by April 25 ARVN forces around Saigon were under pressure from all sides. The PAVN attack on Saigon proper began on April 26 with artillery bombardments and a ground assault in the east, where troops had to move early to be in position to coordinate their final assault with units attacking from other directions. PAVN forces also occupied Nhon Trach, southeast of Saigon, enabling them to bring 130-millimeter artillery to bear on the Tan Son Nhut airport. On April 27 they cut Route 4, but ARVN forces fought back, counterattacking sappers who had seized bridges and putting up stiff resistance, particularly against PAVN units attacking from the east.

As an increasing number of ARVN military and civilian officials abandoned their posts, on April 28 President Huong resigned in favor of Duong Van Minh. That same day a flight of captured Cessna A-37 Dragonfly aircraft struck the Tan Son Nhut airfield, and the Communists pushed forward their attack, positioning units for the final assault and successfully attacking ARVN units in bases surrounding the city. U. S. ambassador Graham Martin delayed beginning a full evacuation, fearing its negative impact on morale. When the evacuation did begin on April 29, the final U. S. pullout was chaotic, a poorly organized swirl of vehicles and crowds trying to connect with helicopters, ships, and planes. In the confusion the Americans left many Vietnamese employees behind, and as few as a third of the individuals and families deemed to be at risk were evacuated or managed to escape.

Units around the Saigon perimeter came under heavy attack on April 29. While some PAVN units held outlying ARVN garrisons in check, other elements of General Van Tien Dung’s large force moved toward the center of the city and key targets, including the presidential palace. Although some ARVN units continued to resist, they could not slow the PAVN advance. On April 30 President Minh ordered ARVN forces to cease fighting. The Ho Chi Minh Campaign had achieved its goal.

The Vietnam War ended just as students of revolutionary warfare theory had expected. Drawing upon the power developed in their North Vietnamese base area, the Communists combined five corps-sized regular army units with southern guerrillas and cadres in a final offensive that grew in strength as it piled victory upon victory against a demoralized opposition. PAVN forces could sustain their momentum in part because they did not have to detach a significant portion of their strength to administer conquered areas. That task could be left to local forces and the political infrastructure already in place before the final offensive began. Against such a strong opponent, the Saigon government proved incapable of continued resistance without active U. S. support.

References Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2nd rev. and updated ed. New York: Penguin, 1997. Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam, 1945-1975. New York: St. Martin’s, 1981. O’Ballance, Edgar. The Wars in Vietnam, 1954-1980. Rev. ed. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1981. Palmer, General Bruce, Jr. The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984. Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Dougan, Clark, and David Fulghum. The Fall of the South. The Vietnam Experience Series. Boston: Boston Publishing, 1984. Hosmer, Stephen T., Konrad Kellen, and Brian M. Jenkins. The Fall of South Vietnam: Statements by Vietnamese Military and Civilian Leaders. New York: Crane, Russak, 1980. Isaacs, Arnold R. Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Le Gro, William E. Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation. Washington, DC: U. S. Army Center of Military History, 1981. Van Tien Dung. Our Great Spring Victory. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.

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