The Peace That Never Was 9

Near the Cambodian border north of Saigon, by contrast, a bitter battle raged for Anloc, the capital of Binh Long province. A force of three thousand North Vietnamese, spearheaded by forty tanks, stormed Anloc on April 13 and almost seized the town. Repulsed by government troops, who sustained heavy casualties, the Communists began a siege. Their artillery shelled the town around the clock. Thieu proclaimed Anloc to be a symbol of South Vietnam’s resistance. He diverted a division from the Mekong Delta to the battle and even pitched his own palace guard into the fight. But in the end Anloc owed its survival to American help. American helicopters airlifted supplies to the town’s defenders and carried out the wounded while B-52s bombed enemy positions in the vicinity.
The action in the Mekong Delta was light compared to the massive battles elsewhere. But in this densely populated area of fertile rice fields, the real prize to be won in the war, the Communists made significant progress during the offensive. They had counted on the inexorable arithmetic of the war in order to extend their hold over the region.
By now, only six thousand of the seventy thousand Americans remaining in Vietnam were combat troops, and their activities were restricted. The Saigon regime had more than a million men under arms, about half of them regulars and the rest in various local units— a force superior in firepower that outnumbered the enemy by a ratio of about five to one. Even so, Thieu’s army was stretched thin, which gave the Communists the edge that they hoped to exploit in the Mekong Delta. For as Thieu rushed his big battalions away from the area to check the North Vietnamese offensive in other parts of the country, Vietcong guerrillas rapidly filled the vacuum left by their redeployment. Within two months, guerrillas overran or occupied more than a hundred abandoned government posts in the region, and pacification programs crumbled in several key provinces, such as Chuong Thien and Dinh Tuong. If a truce was to freeze the two sides in place pending a final political settlement, the Communists wanted to control as much of the rich and populous area as possible.
Figuring that domestic American pressures would prevent Nixon from reintroducing American forces in Vietnam, they were also out to cripple the Vietnamization effort. Pham Van Dong publicly stated that it was necessary to prove the failure of Vietnamization to dem¬onstrate to Nixon that “he has everything to lose except the honorable exit we are determined to enable him to make.” Melvin Laird, who had a vested interest in seeing Vietnamization work, acclaimed the South Vietnamese military performance as “astonishingly successful.” Nixon expressed the same optimism in public, but he was privately glum. With the U.S. forces virtually out of action in Vietnam, Amer¬ica’s position and prestige hinged on the Saigon regime—“the weak link in our whole chain,” as he noted in his diary. “The real problem,” he wrote, “is that the enemy is willing to sacrifice in order to win, while the South Vietnamese simply aren’t willing to pay that much of a price in order to avoid losing.”
Nixon’s observation was not original. It merely restated the di¬lemma that had confounded the United States since the very beginning of its intervention in Vietnam. The Communists were prepared to accept appalling casualties for the sake of minimal gains. Their losses in this 1972 drive probably ran to fifty thousand dead and at least as many wounded. They had not crushed the South Vietnamese army, shattered the Saigon government or permanently acquired territory. But, at an astronomical cost in human life, they had laid the groundwork for an eventual political deal and had rehearsed a future offensive. And, by puncturing the illusion of Vietnamization, they clouded the period ahead with grave uncertainties.
Though the South Vietnamese troops often displayed uncommon courage, they would have collapsed without American air support and advisers to stiffen their ranks. In the south alone, B-52 bombers flew nearly five thousand sorties during the offensive, pulverizing the enemy around Anloc and in the vicinity of Quangtri. The American advisers frequently took command of government units that would have been otherwise routed. This critical reliance on the United States heightened Thieu’s anxiety that an American departure would leave him naked, especially if Nixon and Kissinger allowed the North Viet¬namese to remain in the south. It also stiffened Nixon’s conviction that to quit Vietnam unconditionally would doom the Saigon re¬gime—and his own reputation.
Nixon noted in his diary that “all the air power in the world,” including strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong, would not save South Vietnam “if the South Vietnamese aren’t able to hold on the ground.” But a day after the Communist offensive began, he ordered B-52s and other U.S. aircraft to hit targets in North Vietnam. It was not the first time he had authorized raids against the north. Since 1970, Amer¬ican bombers had been flying so-called protective reaction missions under the pretext of accompanying reconnaissance airplanes. Now, however, the strikes were to be massive. He soon lapsed into his Patton mood: “The damned war would be over now,” he told aides, had he followed his instincts and resumed the sustained bombing of North Vietnam when he invaded Cambodia two years before. He also de¬lighted the joint chiefs of staff by directing them to dust off their old blueprints for blasting the Hanoi area and mining Haiphong harbor, both of which had been placed off-limits by Lyndon Johnson. Nixon now asserted that only “decisive action” against the north would stop the Communists in the south. In reality, his military initiative had a dual psychological purpose: he wanted to reassure Thieu that, what¬ever the shape of a future agreement, America would continue to protect him; and he wanted to show the Communists that he was ready to bomb North Vietnam again if they violated an eventual settlement. He was putting the “madman theory” into practice.

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