The Easter Offensive
BY the spring of l972, it was apparent that Vietnamization was working well enough to give the Nixon Administration breathing space. Negotiations with the North Vietnamese were going nowhere, but the withdrawal of U.S. troops was proceeding on schedule and by March the last ground combat troops were preparing to depart South Vietnam. Considerable numbers of advisors to the ARVN remained, to be sure, as did a substantial air presence in South Vietnam and Thailand, butt he weekly toll of American casualties was down sufficiently to take the edge off of anti-war protests. Then, on 30 March, North Vietnamese troops came pouring over the DMZ and across the Laotian border in a military bid to end the war by conventional means that would test both Nixon's political stamina and the viability of his Vietnamization policy.
The communists struck first in the north, shattering the ARVN 3rd Division which was defending the area south of the DMZ. The gravity of the situation was worsened by the incompetence of the ARVN corps commander, Major General Hoang Xuan Lam, architect of the Lam Son 719 disaster. American air power and the staunch combat performance of ARVN Marines, ably supported and in some cases led by their American advisors, slowed the North Vietnamese advance in the critical early days. Massive applications of U.S. air power also helped. Nevertheless, Quang Tri was surrounded and abandoned in panic in late April and the situation was contained only when the elements of the elite ARVN 1st. Division and Airborne Division halted the North Vietnamese short of Hue. The tide turned in early May, when President Thieu replaced Lam with Major General Ngo Quang Truong, a competent soldier with an excellent combat record, and by mid-June the ARVN were fighting their way back toward the DMZ.
North Vietnamese attacks in the south and in the Central Highlands were slower coming, but were none the less dangerous. Loc Ninh, north of Saigon, fell on 7 April and the provi ncial capital of An Loc to the south was quickly besieged by a powerful force of three divisions. An Loc was only secured after an arduous struggle in which the elite ARVN 81 st Airborne Ranger Group was committed. Meanwhile, strong North Vietnamese elements were moving on Kontum in the Central Highlands. The storm did not break there until 14 May, but when it did, it came with full fury in the form of tank-led assault columns attacking under heavy artillery barrages which threatened to overrun the town. Thanks to the inspired leadership of the ARVN 23rd Division commander, Colonel Ly Tong Ba, and the American regional chief, John Paul Vann, who were helped at several crucial points by precisely-delivered B-52 strikes, the communists were stopped. In all three areas, it had been a close thing. U.S. air power had been a major ingredient in the South Vietnamese victory, but it was only that. With few exceptions, the ARVN had fought well and in some cases brilliantly; the North Vietnamese had been repulsed with enormous casualties.
In the meantime, President Nixon, rejecting the counsel of his more cautious advisors, determined to take the war directly to the North Vietnamese with a massive application of air power. Ordering major reinforcements to be flown into South Vietnam and Thailand, Nixon revived ROLLING THUNDER with a vengeance under the code name LINEBACKER, inspired by his fondness for football. Relieved of the operational micro management of the Johnson-McNamara days and helped enormously by the availability of heavy laser- and television-guided bombs, the airmen didnimmense damage to the North Vietnamese supply net. The precision-guided munitions gave aerial interdiction A whole new dimension; using them, Air Force and Navy airmen took out, in a single raid, targets which had withstood months of costly and ineffectual attacks with 'iron bombs,' the most notable of these targets being the notorious Dragon's Jaw Bridge at Than Hoa. The interdiction effort was also helped by Nixon's relaxation of targeting restrictions; he ordered the aerial mining of North Vietnam's harbors and coastal waters-a measure the JSC had urged since the beginning of ROLLING THUNDER - and on 15 April he permitted attacks on targets in the immediate vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong. The military results were impressive, and if LINEBACKER only took effect in the south after the crisis of the Easter Offensive had passed, it did play a major role in the success of the ARVN counteroffensive that followed. Better still, from Nixon's viewpoint, it made the North Vietnamese, with whom Secretary of State Kissinger had made contact the previous year, more willing to negotiate. On 1 August, the hitherto secret and intermittent negotiations between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese representative, Le Due Tho, began openly in Paris. It was a good omen for Nixon with the presidential election approaching.
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