The Easter offensive of 1972
The Easter offensive of 1972: The last engagement of US forces in the Vietnam War
To most people, the fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War was a guerrilla war. Yet in its later stages, the conflict headed towards a conventional phase with two more major campaigns before the war concluded. In those later stages, the United States, which had been backing South Vietnam, now had the right political conditions to engage in the manner their military officials had been demanding in previous year and falling into some of the conditions of the Powell Doctrine, which the Vietnam War inspired. The first one, known as the Easter Offensive failed due to the US finally using its fighting strengths at their best while the second one, conducted with no interference from US airpower, resulted in the final collapse of South Vietnam and the end of the Vietnam war.
In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968, the population of the United States had now turned firmly against the war. It was the final straw for beleaguered US president Lyndon B Johnson who announced that he would not run for a second term in March 1968. Instead, negotiations soon took place in Paris for a political settlement to end the fighting. However, these talks quickly stalemated and would remain so for the next four years.
However, in military terms, the United States and her South Vietnamese allies had done well. Despite being taken by surprise, the US and South Vietnam armies had defeated the Viet-Cong offensive and inflicted heavy casualties on their best units. This as well as several later battles in 1969 and 1970 and increased counter-insurgency efforts decimated the Viet-Cong to the point where in 1972; NVA troops mostly filled the ranks of what had been a homegrown force of South Vietnamese.
Fighting continued to rage during this time with some instances of it matching the intensity of the Tet Offensive. In attempts to cut the supply lines of the North Vietnamese and the Viet-Cong, the American and South Vietnamese forces brought the war to the eastern areas of Cambodia and Laos. As in the early years of the fighting, the Viet Cong withdrew into the safe areas to which the US and South Vietnamese forces could not follow. However, the circumstances changed and the military command sanctioned offensives in 1970 in Cambodia and 1971 in Laos.
In addition to taking out the Viet-Cong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) bases, the invasion of Cambodia served as an attempt to deal with a communist uprising occurring at the time between a new western-backed government and the Khmer Rouge. Going in during late April, the combined US and South Vietnamese forces advanced into the Cambodian safe areas. Although they would encounter enemy resistance, they were mainly delaying actions as the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese comrades withdrew into the interior. However, the combined ground force did find and demolished the immense supply dumps in the area, which they considered at the time a vital victory. Unfortunately, the operation in Cambodia and several ugly results: it brought US protesters out into the streets and drove Cambodia further into the arms of China and Moscow, eventually leading the Khmer Rouge into the power and the tragic events that followed in that country. Also unknown at the time, it showed still that the South Vietnamese Army (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) needed a large amount of US assistance in order to fight and survive.
Laos however turned out to be a disaster. At first, it would have been a combined American-South Vietnamese operation but a decision passed by Congress to force American ground forces to remain on the South Vietnamese territory turned it into a purely South-Vietnamese operation. Organized sloppily under the name of Operation Som Lam 719, the attack went in on February 8, 1971. Although the South Vietnamese had initial success by seizing the staging areas for the operation near Khe Shan, the advance into Laos was at a grinding pace that eventually stalled due to the terrain and the command decisions from the main South Vietnamese commander. That bought time for the North Vietnamese forces to react and they did via deploying reinforcements from defense against a possible American invasion. In savage fighting, they first eliminated the north then south flanks of the advancing South Vietnamese force before attempting to encircle and destroy them. After a last grasp attempt to reach their main objective through an airborne assault, the government ordered a retreat that turned into a rout as the ARVN had to claw its way through NVA roadblocks. The air support that was available had to deal with the weather as well as numerous NVA anti-aircraft weapons. Operation Som Lam 719 ended in a disaster with heavy casualties for the South Vietnamese forces, a large amount of their equipment destroyed and their morale badly shaken. For the NVA, although it had suffered as well, they saw it as a victory and that spurred them on to attempt a new approach to win the war.
After deciding to change to conventional warfare in May 1971, the North Vietnamese Army prepared for the offensive. Turning to their backers, the Soviet Union and China, the North Vietnamese played on the two communist countries suspicion of each other to procure the weapons they needed in order to succeed. While the Soviet Union provided the more advanced weapons such as the T-55 tank and AT-3 Sagger anti-tank missiles (a year before its famous use in the Yom Kippur War), the Chinese mainly provided the basic materials that every army needed to function although they provided their own copies of the T-55s, known as the Type 59 tank. In addition, the industry of North Vietnam provided what assistance it could to the armed forces in terms of manufacturing uniforms and small arms. At the same time, the NVA attempted to improve their supply lines, particularly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as the new campaign would be much different from what they had been through in the war thus far. In addition to dealing with the usual problems of supplying their forces with enough ammunition and food, the NVA would have to ensure their armored units had enough fuel to maintain a continuous advance. Not surprisingly, the rush by the North Vietnamese army to mechanize itself would lead to problems in terms of training and supply, even with the victories that it had in Cambodia and Laos.
In the final draw up of the plans for the Easter Offensive, it would proceed in three stages that would involve nearly the entire NVA. Organized into three groups with a total number of 15 divisions, the NVA would have scores of anti-aircraft weapons to protect its ground forces, as the air force remained behind to protect North Vietnam. The first phase would begin with an attack on the DMZ with two more following in stages of several days. The second attack would occur out of Cambodia near the center of South Vietnam and the third would occur in the southern area with a strike towards Saigon itself. This multi-stage offensive had two main aims: the destruction of the regular forces would allow the local guerrilla units to reassert control over the lost areas and if possible, that victories on the field would improve their negotiation position at the Paris peace talks. If the operation went better than they had hoped, the North Vietnamese hoped that the offensive would actually topple the present regime of South Vietnam and replace it with a more broad-based government.
On the other side of the line, the process of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam and Vietnamization was fully underway. As American ground forces departed from the country, the AVRN expanded in size while attempting to reorganize its force structure. By the time of the Easter Offensive, the ARVN had 12 divisions organized into four military regions with each region under the command of a single corps of two to four divisions and multiple brigade units including marines, ranger groups, and tanks. The ARVN now had access to some of the latest American hardware. Their own air force would support them with over 2,000 planes. The US naval and air forces had units immediately available in Laos as well as two carriers on station in the Gulf of Tonkin. In case trouble developed, forces all around the Pacific could move in rapidly to assist. However, problems had already begun to appear with the frantic process of reorganization, which along with the problems that had bedeviled the ARVN for years still very much present. Furthermore, the operations in Cambodia and particularly Laos did not help matters. Although Cambodia was a victory, it was mainly due to the direct presence of US forces on the battlefield. Laos was a disaster and already the US had to fly in large stores of replacement equipment to compensate for the losses from the operations as well as draw on supplies that US ground forces left behind when they departed from Vietnam. Some US ground forces remained in the country but they were mainly busy closing down bases and had strict rules of engagement.
Similar to what happened before the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese preparations managed to slip mostly by the Americans and South Vietnamese with the result that the attack came as a surprise. Soon enough the Americans and the ARVN detected the NVA moves and launched preventive airstrikes. However, this did not prevent the offensive from taking place, which took them by surprise as intelligence officials predicted the wrong date for the new offensive. Predictably, when the date passed, the commanders let down their guard, which gave an added measure of surprise to the attackers.
The first attack kicked off in the north along the DMZ on March 30. Taking the South Vietnamese 3rd division by complete surprise, the VA divisions along the DMZ and their supporting regiments easily blasted their way through, overrunning several defensive positions and scattering the defenders in confusion. They quickly had captured several firebases before eventually taking Quan Tri in May despite increasing resistance from ARVN units as well as the start of US air and naval support. Soon after that, the 304th and 324B divisions began an advance on Hue but the city held as the South Vietnamese defense regrouped around it and the Americans called in vast destructive firepower on the surrounding enemy.
The next attack came in the south with the NVA attempting a drive on Saigon by the 5th, 7th, and 9th divisions. They quickly took Loc Ninh and attempted to take An Loc quickly during early April. However, a heavy defense by the ARVN 5th division along with air strikes, including the use of the new TOW missile, and logistical problems forced the 9th into a siege of the city. South Vietnamese airborne units rushed in by helicopters to strengthen the defensive lines while US air power raged all around the perimeter. Eventually the NVA launched another attack on May 11, which despite gaining ground in the early hours, did not break the ARVN defense, leading to withdrawal from the area. Still the NVA gave the South Vietnamese forces several bloody noses as they inflicted heavy casualties on ARVN units relieving the city before the fighting ended in mid-June.
The third attack occurred in the central highlands on April 4 with a drive by three divisions to capture the cities and split the country in two. It started with the NVA 320th and 2nd division overrunning several firebases before driving towards the larger towns. As the South Vietnamese commander of the 22nd division began to panic, American advisers took over command and began to regain control of the battle by calling in air support from other sectors whose fighting had died down. They also had help from an unwitting NVA, which inexplicably halted its advance for the next three weeks, resuming it in May. That gave enough time for the defenders to receive reinforcements particularly from the air as well as the ARVN 23rd division. When the NVA renewed their attack, they did make initial progress but B-52 strikes, called in sometimes right on top of the ARVN defenders, devastated the attackers as they were about to make a breakthrough. It began a process, along with assistance from attack helicopters that repeated itself until the end of May when the ARVN went over to the offensive and drove their attackers off.
Overall at first NVA units managed to advance in all sectors. While several AVRN units attempted to hold their ground, the rest eventually fell back with many units in disorder. Soon though, NVA units ran into supply problems that delayed their advance while giving the South Vietnamese a chance to reorganize.
Due to the fog as well as the drawdown, American air support would not be available in strength for the first few days. However when the clouds cleared, US air power moved into action under the name Operation Freedom Train with deadly effect against the enemy spearheads. Soon naval gunfire added its weight to the storm unleashed against the NVA offensive in the northern and central areas of the country. Just as in Tet in 1968, the Americans and the South Vietnamese took advantage of the fact that now their foes were fighting in a situation that allowed them to exploit their firepower to the full. Almost immediately after the Easter Offensive began, the US rushed air and naval reinforcements to the battle zone with six carriers eventually operating off Vietnam (four operated in the main battle zone at any given time during the fighting).
Their attention immediately expanded into North Vietnam with airstrikes under the name of Operation Linebacker. Unlike with Operation Rolling Thunder, this time the US air and naval forces gradually had full authority to engage their targets as the situation deteriorated in the south and at the Paris Peace talks, including airfields, oil and supply depots, road and rail lines as well as the mining of Haiphong and other major harbors. Although they faced heavy air defenses that had four years of quiet to refit and rearm and suffered accordingly, the damage completely outdid the damage the US inflicted during the three years of Operation Rolling Thunder. The air attacks also revealed the use of the first laser guided bombs by the US. To add to North Vietnamese woes, their patrons did no more than protest at the American airstrikes even when they hit Soviet ships operating in Haiphong harbor. Both countries felt that with the war starting to wind down, Russia and China wanted to preserve a sense of good relations with the US.
Under the umbrella provided by American air power, the AVRN recovered from its initial shock and soon provided tough resistance against the NVA. With the situation stabilizing around Hue, the ARVN launched a counteroffensive with the reinforced 3rd division under the name of Lam Som 72 in the northern region of the country to regain the territory that they had lost particularly Quan Tri City. Lasting from the end of June to mid-September, they used the US air force to blast a path open to them to go after their objectives via land and helicopters in exceptionally heavy fighting.
Eventually the Easter Offensive turned out to be another military failure as the NVA suffered extremely heavy casualties. This came about due to underestimating the South Vietnamese military and more importantly underestimating the destructive power of US air when fighting in the open as well as the inexperienced handling of its armored formations. The savage fighting, particularly the air raids had an effect on the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam suddenly more open towards compromise with their US and South Vietnamese counterparts. However, they still at time proved obstinate to counterproposals from the US as well as South Vietnamese intransigence, which broke the peace talks down. Eventually US air power moved in again under Operation Linebacker II with even more savage air strikes on North Vietnam despite the gradual losses the airstrikes had on the US regular air and naval air units. That, along with additional assurances to South Vietnam, finally thawed the peace talks and soon the US came close to an agreement with the North Vietnamese that would allow US forces to pull out of the country and the release of all US prisoners. Still though it was a political victory for North Vietnam as they had retained control of some of the areas they have captured and finally the US had mostly gone from the region.
The fear of encountering US air resistance was on the minds of the NVA leadership as they planned their campaigns in the aftermath of the Easter Offensive. However, strategic considerations, war-weariness, and domestic controversies closer to home prevented the US from intervening in the eventual final assault, which lead to the final end of the Vietnam War.
Pictures of weapons used during the Easter Offensive
Selected book references.
Clayton, I.B. USS Midway. Classic Warships Publishing. 2005.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York. Penguin Books, 1997.
Sorley, Lewis, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harvest Books, 1999.
Stoffey, Robert E., Fighting to Leave: The Final Years of America’s War in Vietnam, 1972-1973. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2008.
Zaloga, Steven J. Red SAM: The SA-2 Guideline Anti-Aircraft Missile. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.
Zaloga, Steven J. T-54 and T-55 Main Battle Tanks 1944-2004. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004
- Battlefield: Vietnam: TET!
Another of the DVD documentaries that I used to pull the research together for this article. Deals with the actual combat action.
- Battlefield: Vietnam
One of the DVD documentaries that I used when researching for this article. Deals with the planning and description of the combat forces involved.
- Armchair General Magazine – We Put YOU in Command!Tet With Tanks – The NVA Easte
As a special bonus to complement the articles in our magazine and to expand our coverage of the Vietnam War, we present Frederick Lash's compelling account of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Easter Offensive.
Map of the battle zone.
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