The Peace That Never Was 17

That the Communists could undertake such a stupendous enterprise testified to the failure of American bombings to destroy the equipment and fuel that they had amassed in North Vietnam over the preceding years. For they were not getting new supplies: Pham Van Dong and Le Duan, the party general secretary, were rebuffed in both Moscow and Beijing in October 1973 when they asked for additional Soviet and Chinese military aid. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese prime minister, told Pham Van Dong: “It would be best for Vietnam and the rest of Indochina to relax for, say, five or ten years.”
North Vietnamese and Vietcong units lay low during the rainy summer of 1973, then they cautiously went into action in the autumn. Instead of staging big assaults, they hit at the Saigon government’s weak spots—small airfields, remote outposts and storage facilities. By the late spring of 1974, Tran Van Tra estimated, they had recaptured all the territory in the Mekong Delta lost to the South Vietnamese army following the truce. But they were counting on developments apart from military operations to help them.
The Saigon scene, chronically volatile, was again boiling up. Despite Thieu’s rigorous police measures, assorted political and religious fac¬tions were denouncing him, and their agitation was symptomatic of deeper problems nagging the society. The millions of refugees who had poured into the cities for safety had survived and even prospered by catering to the Americans as secretaries, maids, prostitutes, cab- drivers, shoeshine boys and in other such roles. But the jobs had gone with the American departure. Neither the United States nor the Saigon government had focused on laying down a durable industrial or com¬mercial foundation for Vietnam’s city dwellers, the war having gen¬erated a false sense of affluence. The economic disintegration was also aggravated by soaring prices, partly a consequence of the Arab oil embargo triggered by the war in the Middle East late in 1973.
South Vietnam’s crumbling economy eroded army morale, which had been surprisingly high until then. A survey conducted during the summer of 1974 by the U.S. mission in Saigon found that more than 90 percent of the soldiers were not receiving enough in wages and allowances to sustain their families. Inflation was only one cause, however. Corruption was now exceeding all bounds as commanders robbed payrolls and embezzled other funds. Quartermaster units often insisted on bribes in exchange for delivering rice and other supplies to troops, and even demanded cash to furnish the fighting men with ammunition, gasoline and spare parts. Officers frequently raised the money by squeezing local villagers, whose support they alienated in the process, and many traded with the Communists privately. The American report cautioned that the “deterioration” had to be halted “if the South Vietnamese military is to be considered a viable force.” Ambassador Martin dismissed the warning with a tired cliche: “A little corruption oils the machinery.” There was nothing he could do, in any case. Thieu’s wife and cronies and their wives, indifferent to the danger, were reaping fortunes in real estate and other deals, and they set the code of misconduct for the entire officialdom. Or as an old Vietnamese adage put it: “A house leaks from the roof.”
The roof collapsed in the United States on August 9, 1974, when Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment proceedings. One of his last acts as president had been to sign into law a bill that imposed a ceiling of one billion dollars on American military aid to South Vietnam for the next eleven months. A couple of days after his de¬parture, the House of Representatives voted to trim the actual appropriation to seven hundred million dollars. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, hastily assured Thieu in a personal letter that “our support will be adequate.” Ambassador Martin and others were to assert that the cuts in U.S. assistance had prevented the South Vietnamese from resisting the Communists effectively, but a Pentagon study later noted that only about two-fifths of the funds allocated actually reached Viet¬nam; the rest was committed to equipment that awaited shipment, or had not yet been spent.
Back in the south during the summer of 1974, General Tran Van Tra sat snugly in his command post near Locninh, drafting strategy as torrential tropical rains lashed the surrounding rice fields and jun¬gles. He calculated victory in 1976—on condition that the Commu¬nists moved dynamically during the “pivotal” dry season ahead. Like any good officer, he weighed the hazards and opportunities. Thieu’s troops had to be prevented from forming solid lines of defense in coastal redoubts, which would require driving them swiftly into iso¬lated pockets that could be eliminated one by one. Their airfields would also have to be hit hard, lest their tactical bombers get off the ground. Above all, the eventual push on Saigon, the prize, had to be carried out swiftly and meticulously “to avoid a fight for each street and house” that would, as he wrote, “turn the city into rubble and create difficulties” for the Communist assault force. He drew up a plan to attack the capital from five directions. The north and north¬west, with their open terrain, offered the best approach for tanks and battalions. The south and west—a maze of rivers, canals and swamps—would be slow going.
Tra returned to Hanoi late in October 1974 to promote his plan, noting that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a “far cry” from the primitive web of paths he had first descended more than a decade earlier. Now, traveling by car, he cruised along a modern highway dotted with truck rest and service areas, oil tanks, machine shops and other in¬stallations, all protected by hilltop antiaircraft emplacements.
Once in Hanoi, his attempt to win approval for his project resembled the efforts of American generals in Washington to lobby for their programs. Tra proposed an immediate attack against Route 14, which traverses Phuoc Long, a mountainous province about sixty miles north of Saigon. Control of the road would signify virtual control of the province, he pointed out. The South Vietnamese army would there¬fore be denied a vital area between central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. The Communists would also gain a springboard for an eventual assault against Saigon from the north, and the city could be captured during the dry season of 1976—perhaps even before the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh’s birthday in May. But Kissinger’s nemesis, Le Duc Tho, now back at his old job of managing policy for the south, was reluctant to gamble. He preferred to continue with the logistical buildup into 1976 before initiating major military ventures; any of¬fensive might be prolonged, and neither the Soviet Union nor China was likely to replenish North Vietnam’s arsenal. General Van Tien Dung, the second-ranking North Vietnamese officer after Giap, con¬curred. Rather than risk resources at this time, he urged continued small-scale attacks until the moment was ripe for a bigger drive.

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