The Peace That Never Was 18

Undaunted, Tra carried his case to Le Duan, a consistent advocate of energetic action in South Vietnam, who worked out a compromise. Tra could launch his operation in Phuoc Long province but only with limited forces. Beginning their attacks in the middle of December, the Communist troops seized the key junction on Route 14 the day after Christmas. On January 6, 1975, they hoisted their flag over Phuoc Binh, the province capital, the first regional seat of importance taken by the Communists since the capture three years before of Quangtri, which the Saigon regime had later regained. The garrison defending Phuoc Binh was no match for the eight thousand North Vietnamese regulars who pulverized the town with artillery and rocket fire before storming its perimeter. Fearful of flying within range of Communist antiaircraft guns, South Vietnamese pilots could not operate like the B-52s that had unloaded their bombs from an altitude of six miles.
Stunned by the loss of Phuoc Binh, members of the Saigon regime were doubly shocked by the almost inaudible American reaction to the defeat. Le Duan, encouraged, now urged a more aggressive sched¬ule: bolder actions “to create conditions for a general uprising in 1976, ” with a bid for complete victory sooner “if opportunities present them¬selves.” So the strategy was to be improvised, with each new step determined by the results of the last one. A crucial question was whether the United States might intervene, but the grizzled Com¬munist leaders, the dream of a lifetime within their grasp, refused to be pessimistic. Pham Van Dong, then nearly seventy, had been strug¬gling for a half century. Addressing his comrades at one meeting in Hanoi, he conceded that American bombers might return. But only U.S. combat troops would make a difference, and, he quipped: “They won’t come back even if we offered them candy.”
In November 1974, anxious to avert disaster in Indochina, Kissinger had resorted to diplomacy. He raised the issue of Vietnam dur¬ing President Ford’s meeting with Brezhnev at Vladivostok, then broached the subject of Cambodia with the Chinese during a quick trip to Beijing. In both instances, the likelihood of better relations with the United States was offered as an incentive, but at both sessions he drew a blank. The Communist superpowers, having decided that the Saigon regime was doomed, were now preoccupied with their coming rivalry for increased influence in Southeast Asia. The Chinese had accelerated their aid to the Cambodian Communists, who were advancing on Phnompenh, while the Soviets, hoping to retain a foot¬hold in the country, still recognized the Lon Nol regime. They had also renewed their assistance to the North Vietnamese. General Viktor Kulikov, chief of the Soviet armed forces, had in fact rushed to Hanoi in December with promises of fresh materiel, and his pledge had influenced their decision to forge ahead fast. Their next target was to be Banmethuot, capital of Darlac province, a squalid town situated on a plateau in the central highlands of South Vietnam.
They entrusted the operation to General Van Tien Dung, at fifty- eight the youngest of the politburo members and the only one with authentic proletarian antecedents. A peasant boy from the area near Hanoi, he had worked in a French textile factory before joining the Communist party in the 1930s. Giap adopted him as a protege, and he rose rapidly in rank; as the Vietminh army’s chief of staff, he orchestrated the immense logistical achievement that crushed the French at Dienbienphu. In contrast to Giap, a spinner of brilliant and often erratic theories, Dung was a solid if uninspired officer—an ad¬versary befitting the American military bureaucrats who had directed the U. S. war effort. He later succeeded Giap as defense minister, and he had acquired new trappings of authority when I interviewed him in Hanoi in 1981. Dressed in glittering Soviet-style regalia, a swagger stick tucked under his arm, he arrived at his office in a black Russian limousine, as aides snapped to attention. During our chat, however, he displayed much of the charm and wit that pervades Our Great Spring Victory, his account of the final phase of the war.
Dung, having moved four divisions into central Vietnam, set up his command post in a jungle clearing “whose dry leaves covered the ground like a yellow carpet.” General Pham Van Phu, the inept gov¬ernment commander of the region, knew that the element of surprise gave the Communists an advantage even though their forces were equal in size. Aware of his edge, Dung uncorked his attacks on March 1 with a feint toward Phu’s headquarters at Pleiku. Phu braced for the main assault there, but Dung instead cut the road to Banmethuot, thereby isolating its meager garrison of only a thousand defenders. Within a week, three North Vietnamese divisions were converging on Banmethuot. They struck before dawn on March 10, their tanks slamming into the town following an artillery barrage. The battle was over by five o’clock in the afternoon—many South Vietnamese troops fleeing with their families, who traditionally lived with the army.
At first Thieu decided to “lighten the top and keep the bottom” by abandoning the northern provinces of South Vietnam. He instructed Phu to evacuate Pleiku and Kontum, another highland town. Phu promptly evacuated himself, by air, leaving two hundred thousand leaderless men, women and children to straggle down a treacherous mountain road to the coast as the Communists shelled them. And the situation was worse along the coast. Reversing his earlier decision, Thieu now insisted that Hue be held to the last man. But the Com¬munists severed the highway south of the city, its only escape route. Remembering the Communist slaughter of civilians during the Tet offensive in 1968, the population of Hue panicked.

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