The 1972 Eastertide Offensive. What did Hanoi hope to achieve militarily and politically? What did they actually achieve? What were the long term implications of the Eastertide Offensive for both sides?
The 1972 Eastertide Offensive was Giap’s third try at Mao’s third stage conventional warfare, the first being his General Offensive against Hanoi in 1951, the second being Tet in 1968. He was surely hoping for better results this time around. The Offensive was dubbed the Nguyen Hue offensive after the emperor who had led the Vietnamese against the Chinese in the first Tet in 1798.
The Nguyen Hue Offensive was planned to overwhelm South Vietnam, and destroy Thieu’s government with overwhelming numbers and firepower. The leaders in Hanoi knew they could take advantage of ARVN, first because the US had withdrawn the majority of its forces by then, and second they knew ARVN soldiers were not concentrated in large units, due in large part to the pacification strategy being pursued, fairly successfully, by the South Vietnamese military. The leaders in Hanoi, like Pham van Dong and General Giap, were now seeking to destroy South Vietnam as a political and military entity and since they had long given up on the idea of the national uprising, and since the PLAF (Viet Cong) had basically been wiped out during Tet and pacification, they knew it had to be conventional attack from the North.
The big wild card was American air power. How much would the US bring to bear? PAVN had massed huge numbers of SA-2, SA-7s and anti-aircraft artillery around the DMZ with the goal of keeping the US bombers away from the advancing PAVN armies. It appears that they underestimated the US, and ARVN resolve. Remember, we still had a good amount of firepower in the area, bombers, helicopters, advisors, logistical support.
The air firepower that the US used was the turning point it was designed to do two things: directly support ARVN ground troops and also take the fight to North Vietnam. The Linebacker I operation was launched against the North, both supply lines and infrastructure, and with a goal of crushing the logistical support of the offensive and forcing Hanoi leadership to the negotiating table.
So ARVN, and the US backers, we facing an all out conventional drive by PAVN to finally knock out the South Vietnamese and it was designed to hit on three fronts: in the North against Quang-Tri across the DMZ and Hue with an inland hook maneuver; in the Central Highlands around Pleiku, Dak To, and Kontum; and in the area just north west of Saigon around An Loc and Loc Ninh.
In the North, they had immediate success around the Quang-Tri area and actuall captured Quang-Tri City. One curious behavior of the ARVN troops was the fact that they had their families in tow, and this caused some major problems, both in 1972 and in 1975. At any rate, the northern attack began to bog down when they met stiff resistance in Hue. Bat-21 was an important episode in this phase of the offensive.
BAT 21 Bravo (30 March 1972): Mission in extreme north of South Vietnam, near DMZ, (I corp) above quang-tri during the Easter Offensive in which a pilot who’s call signal was BAT-21 was the only survivor of a jamming aircraft shot down. The rescue effort became exceptionally costly and controversial. First we sent in a “jolly green giant” Huey to try to get him but it was shot down killing all on board, it was a disaster. Then we called a moratorium on shelling in his area while we tried to get him, which put the ARVN troops at risk and gave the impression that one American pilot was more important than a whole ARVN regiment.
Meanwhile, the attack in the Central Highlands was launched a few days later and was successful early on, but two old characters from the Ap Bac days, Ba and Vann, reappeared together and did an excellent job of reppelling the PAVN forces, although as mentioned before many PAVN forces would remain in the Central Highlands even after the truce was signed. Nevertheless, Vann and Ba had done there jobs and held Pleiku. Tragically John Paul Vann would be killed a short time later.
Down South the PAVN forces attacked from the Cambodia side against An Loc and Loc Ninh. Again, the Northern forces were successful early on but were unable to maintain their attacks, largely due to supply problems and American firepower and expertise. In An Loc there was a famous siege, much like Khe Sanh, ARVN held on long enough until American bombers arrived to turn the tide. The American who was influential there was Hollingsworth.
So, the Eastertide offensive ultimately was turned back. ARVN’s role was uneven, in some places they fought valiantly, in others they ran. The difference was the airpower from the US, primarily B-52 bombers. Nixon was able to get Le Duc Tho to the bargaining table and it was a short-term shot in the arm for ARVN. But if you believe Troung Nhu Tang in his Viet Cong Memoir, the long term affect was to reinforce for ARVN that they were in trouble without US firepower backing them up. For the North it was a setback, but they fought successfully to keep troops in South Vietnam in the final peace treaty with the US– a cease-fire in-place was granted. They were clearly in a perfect position to go back and retool for the 1975 Ho Chi Minh Offensive. Which they of course did.