A buzzer sounds in my head every time I use the term ‘Vietnam war’. That terrible forty-year
conflict savaged almost every part of Southeast Asia and many in the military refer to it as SEA or the ‘Southeast Asia war’. In my youth I received a graphic correction to my misconception and I have been stuck with the buzzer that results in the conscious use of the term ‘Vietnam war’. The Easter Offensive is definitely a Vietnam war story.
A General Giáp special, the Easter Offensive caught both the South Vietnamese and the American commands unprepared. The plan very nearly worked. John Malch, an historian, archivist of this era, and in-country during the offensive, writes that a military officer told him “had it not been for the vast number of
U.S. Military combat troops and the massive capability of strategic bombing by air assets from Guam and Thailand, the battle would have turned in favor for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).” The troop strength in April 1972 was 158,000; many, many boots on the ground.
Võ Nguyên Giáp was an old-style Communist revolutionary and the best NVA general of the
Vietnam war era. General Giáp was colorful, engaging and effective. His campaigns drove France out of Vietnam. For good measure, he fought the United States to a stalemate before ousting it as well. Giáp was a merciless, albeit respected, adversary willing to take huge losses of life to achieve his objectives. When he died in October 2013, the New York Times pointed out that in spite of his 102 years, “…he had not faded away. He was regarded as an elder statesman whose hard-line views had softened with the cessation of the war that unified Vietnam. He supported economic reform and closer relations with the United States while publicly warning of the spread of Chinese influence and the environmental costs of industrialization.” Never forget that no matter how harmless the old man looked, General Giáp was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of American service personnel and millions of Vietnamese.
The South Vietnamese military appeared weak and incompetent. Does this sound familiar? A year earlier, in March 1971, the South Vietnamese had invaded southeastern Laos in Operation Lam Son 719, a failed effort to cut the Truong Son Road to North Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh Trail). In addition to the usual secret boots on the ground disavowed by all, the United States provided sideline military support to Operation Lam Son 719. As payback, the North Vietnamese government decided to launch an offensive in spring 1972. After much arguing, the North Vietnamese finally found the common ground they needed to go forward with the Offensive. The winning point of the internal North Vietnamese debate appears to have been that success of the Offensive might, just possibly influence the 1972 U.S. presidential election and an improved bargaining seat at the Paris peace talks for North Vietnam.
It was actually a very simple plan as battle plans go. Get in quick, hit hard, break the
enemies’ wills and backs. As usual, the staging area for the North Vietnamese was the A Shau Valley just west of the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, Huế. In earlier times, Huế was also the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty. The NVA planned to engage the ARVN’s premier 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam, ARVN. By applying military pressure to Huế and the firebases to the west of Huế, the North Vietnamese could preclude relief for ARVN’s 1st Army arriving from the north. Timing was important and Good Friday was the date selected by the NVA. Additionally the ARVN had their Cavalry, a Tank Battalion and two Marine brigades available for response to the North Vietnamese.
According to W. R. Baker, Chief Threat Analyst for Northrop Grumman Corporation, in The Easter Offensive of 1972: A Failure to Use Intelligence written for the Federation of American Scientists:
Nevertheless, the enemy struck with speed and accuracy at the weakest link along the line. The offensive began with the 308th NVA Division and the attached 204th Tank Regiment springing from the western Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Concurrently, what amounted to (and perhaps was) a division-sized task force composed of three independent infantry regiments (the 27th, 31st, and 126th Sapper) and the 201st Tank Regiment, jumped off from the eastern portion of the DMZ.
Meanwhile, the 304th NVA Division (which had infiltrated from Laos) and the attached 203d Tank Regiment arrived in the Khe Sanh area and attacked eastward, eventually linking up with the 246th and 270th Infantry Regiments on its left flank. This assault from the west allowed the NVA to conduct flanking attacks towards Quang Tri City and, most importantly, enabled some units to become a blocking force against any attempt to relieve the 3d ARVN from the south. Additionally, there was an intelligence report that indicated that the 324B NVA Division detached two of its three regiments (the 29th and the 812th) in an attempt to strike northeastward towards Quang Tri during this period.
Essentially, the NVA forces had achieved a lightning-fast victory that sealed off the 3d ARVN Division from its reinforcements and relief. Striking at the weak link along the Allied line, the NVA completely surprised the Allied forces.
The Easter Offensive did not come as a complete surprise, however. People in Vietnam knew something was up. On April 4, 2014, John Malch who was in-country at the time stated:
Where I was at the beginning of the NVA Easter offensive in 1972? Are you very familiar with Long Hai? When driving to Vung Tau on Highway 15, instead of turning right at Phouc Le (aka Baria), you would continue to Long Hai. Just as you entered this once sleepy fishing village, there was an ancient dilapidated hotel (Don’t remember the name) built during the French Colonial Era on the right. American Embassy and USAID personnel would spend their weekends. I don’t know whether it was owned by the French or Vietnamese. The Embassy had some kind of arrangement with who ever owned it. It was managed by an American (I can only remember his first name, Bobby, and he played a very mean trumpet). The food and booze were of Officer’s Club quality and I am sure the source was either from the Embassy or USAID. Over the years we stayed there half dozen times, beginning Christmas 1969 and ending in 1973. There
were unconfirmed reports that on weekends starting on Friday through Sunday evening, the hotel was an American R&R center and during the week Monday through Thursday it accommodated Viet Cong Cadre and NVA Officers. I came very close to confirming this when Kim and I stayed there over Easter weekend in 1972. Remember that was when the NVA had their massive Spring offensive in I Corps. We were advised by an old French expatriate the “get the hell out of there” because the enemy would be there “any day now”. Ha! Ha! We didn’t take his advice and returned to Saigon on Sunday. I knew that area was infested with VC and probably NVA, but we were never bothered by any of them. In the center of Long Ha atop a small knoll sat Bao Dai’s Holiday Palace it looked abandoned at the time. Long Hai was a better alternative to Vung Tau. Not as crowded, pristine beaches and very few automobiles to dodge when walking about the city.
Although the bulk of the Easter Offensive was in the northern reaches of South Vietnam, all of South Vietnam was affected and most everyone saw some conflict. As that unnamed officer stated “had it not been for the vast number of U.S. Military combat troops and the massive capability of strategic bombing by air assets from Guam and Thailand, the battle would have turned in favor for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).” Both South Vietnam and the U.S. were lucky and prevailed but the price was high. The North Vietnamese suffered greater casualties but triumphed in their international objectives:
“The Easter Offensive cost the North Vietnamese around 40,000 killed and 60,000 wounded/missing. ARVN and American losses are estimated at 10,000 killed, 33,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing. Though the offensive was defeated, PAVN forces continued to occupy around ten percent of South Vietnam after its conclusion. As a result of the offensive, both sides softened their stance in Paris and were more willing to make concessions during negotiations.”
The tables might have been turned had the United States and South Vietnam listened to their intelligence and tightened up their command and control. Intelligence, G2, is information used to evaluate an enemy and it comes in several forms; pictures or images, communications and other signals, and from human beings. It is tough to know when to believe people and when not to so many officers choose to ignore human intelligence when possible. It has happened with startling regularity throughout the history of warfare. As Colonel Robert S. Allen stated in his analysis of The Battle of the Bulge, “It was not Intelligence that failed. The failure was [that of] the commanders and certain G2s, who did not act on the intelligence they had.”
Before the Easter Offensive, many officers knew the game was afoot. Remember those firebases referred to earlier? According to Baker, on March 27, 1972 there was an ambush outside of Firebase Pedro and a map showing all of the trails, streams, firebases, and units in Quang Tri Province was found on a dead NVA soldier. Additionally, a U.S. intelligence unit even predicted the NVA’s preliminary objectives and the date the Offensive was to begin in advance of the Offensive, based on agent reports. And they continued reporting for weeks.
It took 28 days for the information to sink into the command structure. On 27 April 1972, General Kroesen, Commanding General, First Regional Assistance Command, FRAC, wrote to General Abrams, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, MACV:
Reports are fragmentary at this time but intelligence indicates that the objectives are the capture of Fire Support Base Nancy and to establish a blocking force on the Quang Tri/Thua Thien border. Other NVA forces will then assume offensive operations to capture Quang Tri City. [Message from: Kroesen to General Creighton Abrams, Subject: Daily Commander’s Evaluation, 033335Z 27APR72.]
Ya think? Re-learning the lesson, again and again; intelligence is only as good as the people who use it. Ignoring human intelligence because it is inconvenient and requires a value judgment on its worth can be hazardous to the health of thousands. Just recently the military learned the lesson in WWII, again in Korea, and in Vietnam, and in the U.S. for both World Trade Center bombings, and Iraq and Afghanistan.
The second lesson of this parable is that Command and Control, C2, sucked. To begin with, MACV was taking direction from Hawaii, which was getting its information from Da Nang. What could possibly go wrong? The reporting structure was a recipe for disaster. Then there are the South Vietnamese generals. Baker said it better and more clearly than anyone else I have read:
“…The leadership provided by the South Vietnamese commanders was rarely exemplary. The I Corps commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, who was more a political general than a military commander, often exhibited inept and indecisive leadership. To compound the problem in I Corps, the Corps’ headquarters had “never actually functioned as a field headquarters in combat,” as the FRAC commander later admitted.
However, the most infamous example of the dearth of ARVN leadership was the surrender of the 56th ARVN Regiment by Lieutenant Colonel Phan Van Dinh, its commander, at Camp Carroll after a short fight on Easter Sunday. Many other examples of cowardice occurred during the Offensive, but none was so flagrant or damning.”
Every time the U.S. military must re-learn lessons in intelligence gathering and use, soldiers and civilians die needlessly. Every time the U.S. military must re-learn lessons in Command and Control, soldiers and civilians die needlessly. Oh, the military religiously performs its post mortems and spends millions on taxpayer funded contractors to write and re-write the codes but the lessons seem to unlearn like some evil reflexive verb and more people die. Perhaps members of the wrong gene pool are in command?
 New York Times; October 4, 2013; JOSEPH R. GREGORY; Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Who Ousted U.S. From Vietnam, Is Dead; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/world/asia/gen-vo-nguyen-giap-dies.html?_r=0
 About.com; Military History; Kennedy Hickman; Vietnam War: The Easter Offensive; http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/vietnamwar/p/easteroffensive.htm