The Peace That Never Was 16

Thieu’s regime was in relatively sturdy shape at the start of the truce. His army, equipped with last-minute deliveries of American weapons and still receiving U.S. aid, controlled roughly 75 percent of South Vietnam’s territory and about 85 percent of its population. But Thieu was jittery. The armistice was merely a “phase” in the war, he repeatedly affirmed, and he conspicuously avoided the word “peace” in his pronouncements. Spurning American counsel to broaden his base of support so that he could prevail in any coming political contest with the Communists, he instead cracked down on dissidents. In any case, he could not reform his regime without dis¬rupting the system of bribes and kickbacks that guaranteed him the loyalty of his officers. His biggest mistake, however, was to launch military operations aimed at seizing areas occupied by the North Viet-namese and Vietcong in the Mekong Delta and along the Cambodian border. Though initially successful, these efforts soon taxed the re¬gime’s resources. Still, he was confident that Nixon would save him from real trouble. “You have my assurance,” Nixon had written in January, “that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.”
The Communists, eager to win the sympathy of the weary southern population, had hailed the cease-fire in their propaganda as an op¬portunity for all Vietnamese to bury their differences in “peace and love. ” But they needed the truce as a respite to rebuild their strength; like Thieu, they anticipated renewed struggles. Their internal debates during that period have been described in a remarkable book by Gen¬eral Tran Van Tra, one of the top commanders in the south; an account that was banned almost immediately after its publication in Ho Chi Minh City in March 1982, when he himself temporarily disappeared from sight. The document, copies of which were smuggled out of Vietnam, matches other evidence that Tra, who was dedicated to the cause of Communism in the south, may have been purged for criti¬cizing his northern comrades.
A sinewy soldier then in his mid-fifties, Tra was a native of Quangn- gai, a coastal province in central Vietnam. He had quit his job on the railroad in his early twenties to join the Vietminh resistance against the French and had become a senior officer in the south. Sent to the north when Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, he trained in the Soviet Union and China and trekked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail nine years later to assume responsibility for the Vietcong organization in the Mekong Delta, using the code name Anh Tu, his family’s third son. He commanded the attack against Saigon during the Tet offensive of 1968, and he entered the city legally, following the cease-fire, to serve on an armistice commission.
Summoned to Hanoi in March 1973, he attended a high-level meet¬ing at which the Communist leaders pondered the future. They con¬curred that their present problems in the south were serious. The South Vietnamese force, now more than a million men armed with American aircraft, artillery and tanks, was retaking key sectors, while the Com¬munists had not recovered from the casualties they had suffered during their massive spring offensive of 1972. “Our troops were exhausted and their units in disarray,” wrote Tra. “We had not been able to make up our losses. We were short of manpower as well as food and ammunition, and coping with the enemy was very difficult.” Vietcong cadres in some places were confused, numbers of them actually be¬having passively toward the Saigon government in the belief that they had to observe the cease-fire.
At this rate, disaster loomed for the Communists. Their spies inside the Saigon regime informed them that Thieu had developed a plan for the next two years to keep grabbing territory until he felt secure enough to authorize an election—the results of which would, of course, confirm him as South Vietnam’s sole authority. He would then scrap the tattered cease-fire agreement openly and proceed to mop up the Communist remnants just as Diem had liquidated the Vietminh survivors after he consolidated his power. The clock would be turned back to the dark days of the 1950s, when the southern Communist movement was nearly extinguished.
On the other hand, the party leaders in Hanoi figured, the Saigon government army was handicapped by the absence of the B-52s and the American military advisers. They also calculated that it would be years before the South Vietnamese troops were trained properly. Thus they concluded that “the path of revolution in the south is the path of revolutionary violence. ” But they emphasized prudence and flex¬ibility; a premature push could end in catastrophe. As he contemplated the strategy, Tran Van Tra reflected on the ambitious Tet offensive of 1968, when “an illusion based on our subjective desires” had pro¬pelled the Communists into their costly campaign against South Viet¬nam’s towns and cities. Had that drive been planned “scientifically,” he wrote, “the future of the revolution would certainly have been far different.”
The Communist commanders now instructed their forces to attack only where they were clearly superior to Thieu’s troops, their ultimate objective to tilt the military balance in their favor. Meanwhile, they embarked on a huge logistical program designed to create a spring¬board for an eventual offensive of vast proportions. To move large trucks, tanks and armored vehicles into position to strike a final blow at Saigon, their labor battalions began hacking through jungles and cutting across mountains to build an all-weather highway from Quangtri province on the central coast down into the Mekong Delta— a project destined to stretch their total road network to more than twelve thousand miles. They also started construction of an oil pipe¬line, three thousand miles long, to reach from Quangtri to the town of Locninh, their main headquarters, seventy-five miles northwest of Saigon. And they laid out a modern radio grid, centered in Locninh, that enabled them to communicate directly with Hanoi and with their field units. General Van Tien Dung, later to lead the operation against Saigon, resorted to purple metaphors to describe the operation: “Strong ropes inching gradually, day by day, around the neck, arms and legs of a demon, awaiting the order to jerk tight and bring the creature’s life to an end. ”

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