The Peace That Never Was 8

Nixon, reluctant to jeopardize his trip to China, had exerted no pressure on the Chinese to curb the North Vietnamese. But he sent a tough message to Brezhnev, whom he was planning to meet in Moscow in the spring of 1972, warning that their encounter might be canceled if the Russians allowed the North Vietnamese to embark on ventures “designed to humiliate us.” Brezhnev’s reply was vague and uncooperative, again revealing indirectly his limited leverage over his comrades in Hanoi.
Just as they had misread the Tet offensive of 1968 as a “go-for- broke” operation, many Americans were to see the forthcoming Com¬munist push in Vietnam as another enemy attempt to gain a swift decision. But such a strategy was alien to the Communists. They viewed each engagement as a step in a series of encounters, winning some and losing some, until eventually the tide would turn in their favor. Giap, displaying his erudition as a historian, underlined this long-range process in an interview at the time: “The battle that will decide the future of our people began more than twenty-five years ago. A battle, no matter how important it may be, whether Issus or Hastings, Philippi or Belle-Alliance, can only represent the high point of a developing situation.”
Thus the Communists had several motives in mind as they prepared their action in early 1972. They hoped to influence the American presidential election campaign, then starting, and they also figured on assuring themselves of continued Soviet and Chinese support by dem¬onstrating their fighting ability. But above all, the new drive was inextricably linked to a central issue: how the balance of forces in South Vietnam related to the negotiations with the Americans. And, once again, it reflected the adherence of the Communists to the belief that military success dictated diplomatic success. If they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Saigon government army, they could prove the failure of Vietnamization and convince the United States that an agreement on their terms was the only way out. Battlefield victories were the key factor “for the attainment of a political settlement,” declared a Vietcong magazine called Tien Phong, or Vanguard, adding: “When the head passes through, the tail will follow easily.”
On March 30, 1972, the Communists struck in three successive waves, committing a total of one hundred and twenty thousand North Vietnamese regulars and thousands of Vietcong guerrillas to a syn¬chronized operation: the first wave rolled over South Vietnam’s north¬ern provinces while the second swept across the central highlands to the coast and the third hit the area above Saigon. The Mekong Delta, though spared the brunt of the offensive, was to suffer most severely from its consequences. Despite the advance intelligence they had re¬ceived, American and South Vietnamese commanders were stunned by the magnitude and duration of the actions, which also shocked top administration officials in Washington. Five weeks before, Secretary of Defense Laird had told members of Congress that nationwide North Vietnamese and Vietcong assaults were “not a serious possibility.” General Westmoreland, then army chief of staff, foresaw a Communist drive fading “in a matter of days” because “the staying power of the enemy is not great.” The battles, of unprecedented fury in some places, were to last into June, causing frightful military and civilian casualties on both sides.
The Communists staged their most dynamic attacks against the northern provinces. Equipped with Soviet artillery, rockets and tanks, some fifteen thousand North Vietnamese troops converged on the area in a three-pronged pincer—eastward from Laos, up from Cam¬bodia through the Ashau valley and directly down from North Viet¬nam across the demilitarized zone. The senior Saigon government officer in the region, General Hoang Xuan Lam, an incompetent largely responsible for the South Vietnamese debacle in Laos the year before, had been given the command by Thieu as a reward for loyalty. Thieu waffled before replacing him with a more effective figure, Gen¬eral Ngo Quang Truong. But Truong could not rally one of his two divisions, a raw unit that panicked in the face of the onslaught. The Communists captured the province capital of Quangtri on May 1 and held it until September, thereby dominating the whole northern sector. They refrained from pushing on to Hue, partly because they could not supply their forces and also because their drive had an essentially political purpose.
The coastal route south from Quangtri became known as the “high¬way of terror” as it was pounded by North Vietnamese artillery and American aircraft and warships, which killed and maimed thousands of fleeing civilians and government soldiers. A South Vietnamese army sergeant, Nguyen Tho Hang, recalled being trapped with his unit in a bunker in Quangtri under Communist shelling so relentless that “we couldn’t even raise our heads. ” Ordered to evacuate the city, he packed into a jeep with five or six comrades and drove toward Hue.
First, we had trouble getting out of town because the streets were blocked by rubble from destroyed buildings. Then the road was crowded with so many people, civilians and soldiers, that we could only crawl along. It was like everybody in the area was on that road, and Communist shells were exploding everywhere. A shell fell about five yards in front of our jeep, damaging a tire and wound¬ing a comrade in the leg. We abandoned the jeep and ran. The comrade couldn’t run. We left him behind, and he was later killed. Soon we saw Communist tanks. I ran toward the sea, then doubled back and finally got to a safe place. I had run all day, without stopping, and my feet were covered with blisters.
The Communists showed relative restraint in the central highlands, where they besieged the town of Kontum, even though a South Vietnamese division fled rather than fight. In coastal Binh Dinh prov¬ince, the North Vietnamese seized three district capitals after local self- defense units failed to receive support from the region commander, whose performance was described by an American adviser in the area as “disgraceful.” General Nguyen Van Toan, another of Thieu’s cro¬nies, had spent most of the war reaping fat profits from the cinnamon trade in the sector. Nearly forty thousand South Korean troops de¬ployed in Binh Dinh as part of the allied force displayed complacency rather than their usual brutal zeal, having been ordered to avoid combat because the war was winding down.

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