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The Lost War: Vietnam, 1968–1975

“Time is the crucial element at this stage of our involvement in Vietnam,” wrote an administration insider in November 1967. “Can the tortoise of progress in Viet-Nam stay ahead of the hare of dissent at home?”

Antiwar sentiment grew against a backdrop of social instability, a foundering economy, and a rising death toll. Urban race riots so threatened social tranquility that the administration repeatedly had to use the Army and National Guard to restore order. “[M]y God,” exclaimed a general who returned to the U.S. in 1969, “they’ve had a war in Detroit, and Baltimore, and Washington.” Refusing to cut domestic programs or raise taxes significantly, the administration paid much of the war’s steep price with deficit financing, resulting in inflation, soaring trade deficits, and rocketing interest rates. Even the staunchly anti-Communist Wall Street Journal wondered whether “the U.S. is inflicting more injury on the Communists or on itself.” Caskets returning from Vietnam increased from an average of 477 per month in 1966 to 816 per month in the first half of 1967, and both military and civilian leaders understood that deaths, not antiwar protests, were sapping public support.

Within weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted that citizens were “already beginning to ask what are we supporting and why.” The president had few good answers. To assert that the U.S. was supporting freedom rang hollow. In 1966 a junta headed by Generals Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu crushed the Buddhist Struggle Movement, which demanded free elections and a civilian government, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians. In a rigged election the next year, Thieu became president and Ky vice president; the curtailment of civil liberties became one of their regime’s hallmarks.

The disaffection that began as a rivulet in 1964–1965 became a full-sized river by mid-1967. It included both hawks who wanted to crush North Vietnam even if it led to war with China and the Soviet Union, and an amorphous flock of doves who wanted the U.S. out of the war. A comparative few doves engaged in active protests, while a much larger number opposed the war without publicly protesting. Even the protesters were splintered among pacifists, liberals who disliked the war on ethical and practical grounds, and “New Left” radicals who railed against capitalism and racism. Rent by fractious disputes, the antiwar movement lacked cohesive leadership and a national organization, so most protests were small and local. But a few had national significance, such as the Spring [1967] Mobilization to End the War, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people. The administration tried to quash the antiwar movement, often by illegal means. In violation of its charter prohibiting domestic surveillance, the CIA’s Operation CHAOS and the FBI’s Operation COINTELPRO employed illicit wiretaps and forged documents, framed protesters on drug charges, and incited violence through agents provocateur to subvert antiwar protesters.

Whether they discussed it around kitchen tables or marched in the streets, the war’s dovish opponents viewed Vietnam as an anticolonial civil war with no impact on America’s vital interests, feared that the war undermined social reforms and domestic stability, or questioned its morality. Those most opposed to the war included older Americans, the undereducated, women, African-Americans, and Jews. The young, the highly educated, males, whites, and Republicans most avidly supported the war. Prowar sentiment was weakest among those over fifty, strongest among those under thirty. College-educated individuals consistently favored the war more than those with a high-school education. Of course, many young, educated males who rhetorically embraced Vietnam evaded the draft. Even under a Democratic president, Republicans predominantly favored the war.

Antiwar sentiment even crept into the administration. Foremost among those who questioned the war was Robert McNamara, the first of three secretaries of defense who began as hawks and morphed into doves. Although maintaining a prowar façade, he privately expressed doubts, warning the president that there might be “a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

In the fall of 1967 the administration launched a “Success Offensive” to shore up public opinion. Johnson ordered the embassy in Saigon and military leaders to “search urgently for occasions to present sound evidence of progress in Viet Nam.” They dutifully responded with a barrage of optimistic data. The “Wise Men” and Westmoreland played prominent roles. An informal, bipartisan group of senior advisers, the Wise Men included such notables as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, former ambassadors Henry Cabot Lodge and Douglas Dillon, and retired generals Omar Bradley and Matthew B. Ridgway. After receiving carefully screened briefings, which were not altogether accurate, they concluded the war was going well. Westmoreland returned to the U.S. and expressed exuberant optimism in several highly publicized appearances. The hemorrhaging eased. In July 1967, 10 percent of the population thought the U.S. was losing, 34 percent believed it was winning, and 46 percent considered the war a stalemate (10 percent had no opinion). When 1967 ended the figures were 8 percent, 51 percent, and 33 percent (8 percent still had no opinion). However, in return for increased support, the administration promised a victory soon.

The War Reaches a Climax

Unknown to those conducting the Success Offensive, Hanoi decided to launch an enormous campaign consisting of a deception phase followed by what enemy strategists called a “General Offensive–General Uprising.” Because the General Offensive–General Uprising occurred during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and Vietnam’s most popular holiday, the media and policymakers in the U.S. referred to it as the Tet Offensive.

Designed to lure U.S. troops out of populated areas, the deception phase began in the fall of 1967 with a series of assaults in isolated border areas, which culminated in the siege of the Marines’ Khe Sanh combat base near the Laotian border. As two NVA divisions closed in on the base, Westmoreland and President Johnson became fixated on superficial analogies between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu and became determined to avoid France’s fate. When the siege’s final stage began on January 20, 1968, with a barrage of artillery and rocket fire, it triggered Operation NIAGARA, an aerial campaign in which bombs fell continuously, like water cascading over Niagara Falls. Before the siege ended on March 30, more than 24,000 fighter-bomber and 2,700 B-52 sorties had pulverized the NVA positions. Although MACV estimated that NVA losses were at least 10,000, primarily from the B-52 Arc Light strikes, the official body count was only 1,602. Officially, the Marines had 205 KIA and more than 1,600 WIA. ARVN rangers held Khe Sanh’s southwest perimeter and suffered heavy casualties, but the exact number is unknown. In addition, between 1,000 and 1,500 Montagnards died in the fighting.

With U.S. attention riveted on the sanguinary border battles, the VC/NVA took up positions for their General Offensive—General Uprising, which began on January 30–31, 1968, and, for the first time in the war, targeted urban areas. Catching U.S. and ARVN forces by surprise, the initial attacks struck twenty-seven of forty-four provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, fifty-eight of 245 district towns, and more than fifty hamlets. Westmoreland was so preoccupied with Khe Sanh that he thought these attacks were a diversion and that the main assault was still coming against the combat base. And MACV’s intelligence chief acknowledged that even had he known exactly what the NVA/VC were going to do, “It was so preposterous that I probably would have been unable to sell it to anybody. Why would the enemy give away its major advantage, which was its ability to be elusive and avoid heavy casualties?”

Why indeed? The offensive resulted from a strategic debate as to whether thoi co (the opportune moment) had arrived, when a shift from political to military dau tranh and from guerrilla to conventional warfare might alter the strategic balance. Those favoring aggressive action prevailed, and pre-Tet propaganda proclaimed a “new era, a real revolutionary period, and an offensive uprising period” in which success was certain. As with Johnson’s Success Offensive, the Communists were promising victory, which would come not against the Americans but against the South Vietnamese, who were the Tet Offensive’s foremost targets. Realizing they could not knock out the powerful Americans, enemy forces planned to attack only symbolic U.S. targets, such as its Embassy. On the other hand, enemy strategists hoped to crush ARVN in a General Offensive and overthrow the South’s government by inciting an urban-based General Uprising. The primary reason for the deception battles was to lure U.S. troops out of the cities, leaving South Vietnamese forces, officials, and their clients isolated and vulnerable.

Communist leaders saw a range of possible outcomes. The worst was that the U.S., with its “limited war” strategy in tatters, would escalate again as it had done in 1965, pouring more troops into Southeast Asia and perhaps invading Laos, Cambodia, or even North Vietnam. The best outcome was an overwhelming victory, one that collapsed South Vietnam and undermined America’s “aggressive will.” Between the extremes was a third possibility. Although the VC/NVA won important victories, “the enemy might still have many forces supported by big bases and would continue to fight.” Nothing in the Communists’ planning anticipated that the offensive’s most important effect might be on the American home front, both among government officials and the public at large.

The result did not precisely accord with any of Hanoi’s expectations. Despite being surprised, U.S. forces reacted with incredible mobility and firepower. In some places ARVN and the Territorial Forces fought tenaciously, and the General Offensive was quickly crushed except in Saigon and Hue, where fighting raged for weeks. Tet ended when the last enemy units were driven out of Hue in late February, leaving behind a ruined city and several mass graves filled with civilian victims of Communist massacres. As for a General Uprising, although the Communists extended their control in rural areas and temporarily crippled pacification efforts, they misjudged the urban population’s revolutionary temper. No urban revolts occurred. Exactly how many casualties the VC/NVA suffered is unknown, but experts estimated more than 30,000 dead or captured, with thousands more wounded. In addition, many VC operatives came out into the open for the first time, which made them vulnerable to retribution. Hanoi admitted it “had somewhat underestimated the capabilities and reactions” of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops and had set its goals too high.

From a tactical military perspective, Tet was a victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese. But war is more than tactics. Despite the “victory,” the U.S. had suffered a strategic defeat, much in the same way Sioux victories at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, or Japan’s success at Pearl Harbor, presaged strategic defeat. Juxtaposed against the Success Offensive, Tet had a cataclysmic political and psychological effect in the U.S., vitiating the illusion of progress and convincing many political elites that the war could not be won at an acceptable cost.

Tet impelled the administration to reexamine the war. A potent prelude to the reassessment was the gloomy perspective of Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson, who told the president the JCS believed “we have taken several hard knocks. The situation can get worse.” Although publicly claiming victory on the basis of a huge (inflated) body count and the enemy’s inability to hold a single city, Westmoreland privately questioned whether the South Vietnamese could survive another onslaught. After initially telling the president he would merely welcome reinforcements, he soon acknowledged that “we face a determined, highly disciplined enemy, fully mobilized to achieve a quick victory.” He needed more troops. Dismayed by this pessimism, the president dispatched Chairman Wheeler to Saigon for a first-hand investigation, which did nothing to restore optimism. Tet “was a near run thing,” he reported, and similar offensives were in the offing because the VC/NVA, despite heavy losses, had “the will and the capability to continue.” Wheeler feared further reverses unless the government met Westmoreland’s plea for reinforcements: 206,756 men, which would raise the number of troops in South Vietnam to 731,756. Sending them entailed further Americanizing the war, mobilizing 280,000 Reserves, and potentially ruinous expenditures.

Wheeler may not have believed the situation was as dire as he reported because he was, at least partially, using Westmoreland’s reinforcement request as a ploy to rebuild the strategic reserve. But President Johnson did not know about the chairman’s machinations, and Wheeler’s message stunned him, especially since CIA estimates reinforced it. In this crisis atmosphere Johnson asked his new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, to undertake a complete reassessment, undoubtedly expecting hawkish advice. One reason the president appointed Clifford to replace the dovish McNamara was that he was adamantly prowar. It took Clifford little time, however, to join the doves. After receiving a series of briefings the secretary concluded U.S. policy had failed “because it was based on false premises and false promises.” No quick solution was imminent; more troops, guns, planes, and ships would simply increase VC/NVA casualties and cause “significantly higher” U.S. deaths, which were already exceeding the Pacific Theater’s monthly KIA rate during World War II. Nor could Johnson ignore economic problems. The 206,756 reinforcements would cost $2.5 billion in 1968 and $10 billion the next year—huge expenditures, considering the faltering economy. Topping it off, an international gold crisis portended a global depression.

As the administration pondered Westmoreland’s request and Clifford’s reassessment, the New York Times revealed the purported dire need for reinforcements. The official optimism about a magnificent victory during Tet now seemed as fraudulent as the Success Offensive. Why did Westmoreland need additional forces if he had just slaughtered the VC/NVA? Perhaps seeking advice that accorded with his own instinct to fight on, Johnson assembled the Wise Men, who supported the war during the Success Offensive. One briefing they received confirmed the military’s less than realistic grasp of the situation. When General DePuy claimed the enemy had lost 80,000 dead during Tet, one of the Wise Men, U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, asked what enemy troop strength was when the offensive began. No more than 240,000. What, Goldberg continued, was the ratio between killed and wounded? About three to one. If these calculations were correct, Communist casualties were 80,000 more than their estimated strength! With no effective enemy forces left, Goldberg wondered, why were reinforcements necessary? After all their briefings the Wise Men concluded the U.S. could “no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left, and we must begin to take steps to disengage.”

A dismayed president addressed the nation on March 31. Taking the first steps toward de-escalation and de-Americanization of the war, Johnson announced he was curtailing the bombing over most of North Vietnam and was sending only 13,500 more men, thus capping America’s commitment and confirming the Communists’ hopes that the U.S. would de-escalate if its “limited war” strategy failed. With the U.S. doing less, the president insisted the South Vietnamese must do more, and the war’s burden now began shifting to South Vietnam in a process later called “Vietnamization.” Donning the peacemaker’s mantle, Johnson offered to open negotiations, although nothing in the speech indicated he had forsaken the goal of a non-Communist South Vietnam. In a dramatic few moments at the end of the speech, Johnson also announced that he would not run for reelection. Shifting to gradual de-escalation and Vietnamization were ways to buy time for the South to become stronger and, perhaps, survive. Hanoi’s strategists had been correct: The decisive moment had arrived in early 1968. The U.S. either had to escalate dramatically or begin to disengage, and now Johnson edged toward disengagement.

Tet was only the first in a series of coordinated attacks during the spring and summer. A little more than a month after Johnson’s speech, the enemy launched a second offensive, called “mini Tet.” Although lacking Tet’s intensity, the two weeks between May 5 and May 18 were the war’s most costly for the U.S., with 1,168 KIA and 2,479 so badly wounded they required hospitalization (as opposed to 1,120 dead and 1,909 hospitalized during Tet’s two worst weeks). In August the NVA/VC conducted a third offensive—“mini-mini Tet.” But the U.S. had conducted a number of preemptive actions, and this offensive was only a pale replica of the earlier two. Still, 308 more U.S. soldiers died.

The Tet Offensive was not a precise turning point because the war remained mired in a stalemate. However, though it had not collapsed, America’s “aggressive will” wavered. Reinforced by the two succeeding offensives, Tet represented a turning curve that started the United States down the road to withdrawal and defeat.

Vietnamization

By the time the VC/NVA launched another nationwide offensive in February 1969, they had moved toward a new strategic approach, the U.S. had a new president, and MACV had a new commander. The offensive lasted six weeks, demonstrating that despite horrific losses the previous year the enemy had not disintegrated. Although the VC/NVA sent another 1,740 Americans home in caskets, they suffered severely themselves. By mid-1969 morale among the surviving VC/NVA was plummeting. Between 1969 and 1971 captured documents revealed defeatism, desertions, self-inflicted wounds (even suicides), grave supply shortages, and insufficient recruiting. PAVN’s official history admitted: “Some of our cadre and soldiers became pessimistic and exhibited fear of close combat and of remaining in the battle zones.” But as a senior U.S. commander remarked, although the enemy “has really taken a lot of punishment,” the VC/NVA were tough, and they were “used to a hell of a problem. He lives in an environment where he’s got a hell of a problem. . . . He’s a pretty determined chap, when you get right down to it.”

Whether as a result of heavy losses in four consecutive offensives, declining morale, or a matter of strategic choice (or a combination of all three), the enemy adopted a new approach. COSVN Resolutions 9 and 14, both issued in July 1969, unveiled a protracted war strategy, one in which the VC/NVA would wait for American strength to ebb before trying another major strike. Victory, the Communists now realized, would not come suddenly through a Tet-like offensive, “but in a complicated and tortuous way.” Many large units pulled back to base areas in Cambodia and Laos, while those that stayed in the South broke into smaller units and employed sapper (commando) tactics and indirect attacks with mortars and rockets to conserve strength while still inflicting casualties on U.S. forces. As combat intensity declined, political dau tranh received heightened emphasis and the enemy attention shifted from urban to rural areas, where the goal was to disrupt a revived pacification effort. Propaganda activities increased and terrorist incidents such as assassinations and abductions rocketed from 7,566 in 1967 to 12,056 in 1970. While this strategic shift was underway, another change occurred: VC casualties were so heavy during 1968 that NVA soldiers began replacing southerners in PLAF units while the VC rebuilt its strength, a task that achieved considerable success by 1972.

The new president was Republican Richard Nixon, who hinted during the 1968 election campaign that he had a plan to end the war quickly. One option was simply to withdraw, blame the war on the Democrats, and extol Republican virtues for extricating America from the mess, even if on less than favorable terms. But, priding himself on toughness and vowing that he would not be the first president to lose a war, Nixon determined to preserve a non-Communist South Vietnam and achieve “peace with honor.” However, his administration had no plan; it overestimated U.S. capabilities, underestimated enemy resolve, and had limited options because of burgeoning antiwar sentiment and the South Vietnamese government’s failure to gain widespread support.

Soon after the administration assumed office, Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s special assistant for national security affairs, issued NSSM #1, which ordered a survey of the relevant government agencies to provide a “snapshot” of the situation. Although all the agencies thought South Vietnam’s situation was improving, they questioned whether it could survive even a peaceful competition with the NLF, and all agreed that the South’s armed forces could not defeat the NVA/VC in the foreseeable future. The enemy could endure the current rate of attrition almost indefinitely and believed it could persist long enough to obtain a favorable negotiated settlement. Beyond these areas of agreement, MACV, CINCPAC, the JCS, and the Saigon embassy were relatively optimistic about South Vietnam’s prospects. But false data underlay much of the optimism since MACV suppressed negative analyses from the field. On the other hand, the office of the secretary of defense, the CIA, and elements within the State Department were more pessimistic, believing recent pacification improvements were illusory and that enemy forces were far more numerous than the optimists thought. So far during the war, optimists had been consistently wrong.

With nothing resembling a government-wide consensus on exactly how to proceed, the president envisioned winning the war by isolating the North diplomatically and intimidating Communist leaders with military action. In what was called “linkage,” Nixon promised the Soviets arms limitation talks, economic cooperation, and other benefits if they exerted pressure on North Vietnam to accept an “honorable” settlement. Kissinger explained to the Soviets that the U.S. could not accept the South’s imminent demise or “a settlement that looked like a military defeat,” but that the U.S. “had no objection to gradual evolution.” That is, the U.S. considered the South’s immediate defeat intolerable but did not object to a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of American troops and South Vietnam’s collapse. Moscow, however, was never able to translate its considerable aid to North Vietnam into political influence. Nixon also tried to establish linkage through China, but the Chinese had no desire to help the Americans and exerted no more influence over the North than did the Soviets. Nonetheless, these overtures initiated a reorientation in foreign policy as the U.S. sought a détente with both Communist powers, culminating in presidential visits to Moscow and Beijing in 1972.

Nixon’s faith in military power revealed itself in his “madman theory” and Operation DUCK HOOK. The threat of drastic, almost irrational, action underlay the madman theory. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” the president told an aide. “We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” To give substance to this theory, Nixon ordered the NSC to plan for savage strikes. Known as DUCK HOOK within the White House (and PRUNING KNIFE by the military), the operation would exert maximum political and military shock. The administration alerted North Vietnam that if no substantive progress toward peace occurred by November 1, the U.S. would resort to “measures of great consequence and force.”

Events undercut DUCK HOOK and the November 1 deadline. Nixon inadvertently weakened his threats by announcing the first troop withdrawals in June and then enunciating the “Nixon Doctrine” the next month, signaling a decreased military presence in Asia. Henceforth the U.S. would supply equipment and economic aid but would not readily provide troops to Asian nations, who must defend themselves. The JSC did not consider DUCK HOOK feasible because the November 1 deadline coincided with dismal weather over North Vietnam, the aerial refueling capacity to support the proposed blitz was insufficient, and additional aircraft carriers could not arrive in time. Both Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird and Secretary of State William P. Rogers feared a dramatic escalation might undercut the war’s limited remaining support. The New Mobilization Committee to End the War initiated monthly national moratoriums on October 15, resulting in a huge antiwar protest; the next one, scheduled for November 15, promised to be even bigger. Finally, although they expected the U.S. to unleash its bombers and perhaps even invade, the North Vietnamese refused to buckle.

With linkage a failure and DUCK HOOK shelved, the administration had little choice but to embrace the policy Johnson outlined in his March 31 speech: Buy time to win the war by quelling dissent and reducing casualties, lessen the U.S. commitment, and prod South Vietnam to greater efforts on its own behalf. To achieve these goals Nixon embraced the dual policies of Vietnamization (accompanied by U.S. troop withdrawals) and pacification, occasionally undertook unexpected military actions to keep Hanoi off balance, and worked assiduously to undermine the antiwar movement.

A new MACV commander confronted the daunting task of managing the war’s de-Americanization while still trying to preserve a viable South Vietnam. After the Tet Offensive, President Johnson replaced Westmoreland, who became chief of staff, with General Creighton W. Abrams. In certain ways the war remained much the same as under Westmoreland. Some large operations, indistinguishable from those under his predecessor, still occurred, and a heavy reliance on firepower remained standard fare with many units. On the other hand, Abrams adopted a “one war” strategy that reduced the overemphasis on the big-unit war; battles, he stressed, were not that important, since the true measure of success was not the body count but population security. Understanding that the Communists made no distinction among the big-unit war, pacification, and territorial security, that they operated on the proposition that “this is just one, repeat one, war,” the MACV commander wanted the U.S. to confront them “simultaneously, in all areas of the conflict.” Protecting the population—which would allow pacification to progress—required small patrols and ambushes rather than big units thrashing around in the jungles, limiting firepower in populated areas, building effective South Vietnamese forces, and neutralizing the VCI. Abrams admitted that most of this was “completely undramatic. It’s just a lot of damn drudgery. . . . But that’s what we’ve got to do.”

The “one war” approach was partly a matter of choice but was also dictated by changed circumstances. One was the enemy’s decreased aggressiveness, which permitted U.S. forces and ARVN to concentrate on population security rather than worrying about major enemy offensives. Another change occurred after the Battle for Dong Ap Bia (called “Hamburger Hill” by troops who fought there). During the ten-day slugfest in mid-May, 1969, three battalions from the 3d Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and two battalions from ARVN’s 1st Division made repeated assaults against entrenched NVA positions. Despite losing 56 KIA and 420 WIA to capture the hill, the U.S. soon abandoned the hard-won position and the NVA returned, reinforcing the public perception that the war was not just futile, but absurd. To prevent future sanguinary battles, the president insisted that MACV make reducing casualties a primary objective. A new mission statement no longer called for the enemy’s defeat but instead directed MACV to provide maximum assistance to strengthening ARVN and to reducing infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Abrams’s emphasis had to shift from fighting the war to improving ARVN and to searching out the NVA’s logistical system and destroying it.

A third change involved financially induced austerity measures, which limited Arc Light strikes, artillery fire, tactical air support, and fuel consumption. Between 1968 and 1970 the B-52 sortie rate fell from 1,800 to 1,000 per month, and H&I fire was restricted to reduce munitions consumption. Such reductions, said Abrams, were “entirely a budgetary motivated thing” that had nothing to do with the tactical situation. Finally, the departure of American troops transformed the war, reducing casualties, saving money, and buying more time by appeasing the antiwar movement. After the first increment of 25,000 men departed in the summer of 1969, the withdrawals became irreversible, especially since Secretary of Defense Laird, initially a hawk, soon joined McNamara and Clifford in the dovecote and pressured the president to continue the drawdown. Not only were the withdrawals faster and larger than Abrams advised, but they were also unilateral (North Vietnam rejected mutual withdrawals) and total, even though MACV had assumed the U.S. would leave a residual force, as it had done in Korea. Because of the need to undercut antiwar protests and to revive a flagging economy, Nixon felt that bringing the troops home took precedence over the South’s survival. While the withdrawals scored political points at home, they reduced Hanoi’s incentive to negotiate: Why sign an agreement if the U.S. was disengaging anyway, and withdrawing so quickly that, as Kissinger noted, it placed “a burden of credulity on Vietnamization”?

Negotiating and Fighting

Ideally, America’s withdrawal would have marched in lockstep with the peace negotiations, a reduced level of enemy activity, and success in Vietnamization and pacification so that South Vietnam could defend itself. Then even if the Communists refused to negotiate a settlement, a reinvigorated South could confront them with the prospect of perpetual war. Virtually everyone understood that, at best, Vietnamization would be a difficult, long-term process. Kissinger believed it would never work, Laird thought it was a farce, and Abrams considered it a “slow surrender,” nothing but a fig leaf to cover America’s retreat. Unless the NVA returned to North Vietnam, MACV concluded in 1969, “there is little chance that any improvement in the Republic of Vietnam’s Armed Forces or any degree of progress in pacification, no matter how significant, could justify significant reductions in U.S. forces from their present level.”

Building an army even in peacetime is difficult. Doing it in wartime compounds the difficulty. ARVN began with systemic problems, foremost among them being leadership. Abrams correctly asserted that ARVN was “not going to be any better, no matter whatwe do, no matter what we give them in the way of equipment, and no matter what we do with them in the way of training, unless they’ve got the kind of leadership that’ll take a hold of it and carry it.” But solid, aggressive leadership was scarce because President Thieu, always fearing a coup, selected commanders based on political loyalty, not combat ability. Most of his officers had not joined the struggle for independence against France, or if they had, they served with the French. Because the commissioning system relied on formal education and few men received secondary schooling, the majority of the population was excluded from becoming officers. Many of the educated, urban elite who did serve as officers had trouble relating to their peasant soldiers, and they engaged in corrupt activities, including using their units to protect criminals, hiring soldiers out as laborers, selling promotions, misusing American supplies, and trading with the enemy. MACV urged the South to commission qualified men from the enlisted ranks and replace incompetent officers, but Thieu rarely took action. As of late 1970 a senior American official rated only one South Vietnamese general as “fully competent.”

Even if South Vietnam had competent officers, they served in a dysfunctional system. As in the U.S., the draft system contained many exemptions and deferments. Bribery to avoid being conscripted was so widespread that large numbers of men avoided service. Among those who did serve, 65 percent were conscripts pressed into service. Few believed Saigon could defeat the VC/NVA, and desertion was a chronic problem. ARVN lost about one-third of its strength annually through desertion, though this figure is somewhat misleading because many “deserters” joined RF or PF units closer to their homes, and some men left during the planting and harvesting seasons to help out on the farm and then voluntarily returned. Still, desertion was a disruption at best, a serious manpower drain at worst. Soldiers endured poor food and housing, low pay, medical malpractice, and inadequate training, all of which led them to resent their government. Another problem was that the government recruited, trained, and based almost all ARVN units territorially. Specific units occupied permanent installations where their families joined them, which tied those units to those locales. Soldiers stationed in a particular location fought valiantly to defend their families. But if the government ordered those troops outside their region, the unit could disintegrate as men deserted to stay close to their wives, children, and parents. Keeping their families safe trumped national survival.

With U.S. troop departures underway, the effort to expand and improve South Vietnam’s military and security forces began. ARVN’s expansion was impressive, increasing from 380,000 in 1968 to 416,000 two years later, primarily through tightening deferments, expanding the draft age, and mandating that soldiers serve for the duration. Both the South Vietnamese navy and air force approximately doubled in size between 1968 and 1970. The Territorials also expanded, going from 393,000 in 1968 to 453,000 in 1970. The regular forces and the RF/PF received upgraded equipment, including M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers, and the regulars benefited from infusions of artillery, tanks, helicopters, aircraft, and ships. By 1971 the National Police numbered 114,000, while a newly created People’s Self Defense Force (PSDF), which was an unpaid, lightly armed militia that included men, women, elders, and children, supposedly contained 4,429,000 members. These disparate forces did not work together easily. “The regular forces look down on the Territorial Forces,” noted Abrams, “and the Territorial Forces look down on the Popular Self Defense Forces, and everybody looks down on the police.”

Captured documents revealed that Vietnamization worried the VC/NVA, especially the upgrading of the Territorials and the PSDF, both of which provided local security. The crucial question, however, was whether quantitative growth equaled qualitative improvements, and that could not be answered until ARVN and the Territorials faced a test in major combat. As Abrams asked CORDS director William Colby, if ARVN could not meet the challenges that lay ahead, “Then where are we?” “Then,” responded Colby, “we’re in a hell of a state.”

Vietnamization’s concomitant was pacification, which assumed heightened significance, as indicated by a three-month Accelerated Pacification Campaign (APC) that began on November 1, 1968. Since it seemed to be reasonably effective, it continued for three years. Because the VC endured heavy casualties during Tet and the South Vietnamese abandoned hamlets and villages to defend the cities, a vacuum existed in rural areas. Under the APC the government returned to the countryside and the surviving VC apparatus suffered, particularly since MACV shifted much of its military effort to support pacification directly. A combined U.S.–South Vietnamese Phoenix Program targeted the VCI. Although assassinations did occur, many of the targeted individuals died when they fought back rather than surrender, and even more were captured. Others “rallied”—that is, changed sides via a Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program that offered defectors a monetary reward and lenient treatment. For the most part these two programs neutralized low-level operatives. Large numbers of hard-core VCI remained unidentified and thus the infrastructure survived intact. In some places the VC cadre conducted a “Phoenix in reverse,” assassinating or abducting more than 50,000 village and hamlet officials and PF leaders between 1969 and 1972. MACV complained about the “continued inability to develop a detailed understanding of the Viet Cong capacity to evade, withdraw, and escape at will” after terrorist incidents or following attacks. Nonetheless, Abrams thought it was “far more significant that we neutralize one thousand of these guerrillas and infrastructure than kill 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.”

While hunting down the VCI and welcoming defectors, the U.S. and South Vietnam initiated civic action campaigns to enhance the government’s image and to improve rural living conditions, which officials assumed would alleviate the insurgency’s underlying causes. The U.S. tallied an impressive number of roads, bridges, schools, playgrounds, and dispensaries built or rebuilt, of wells dug, of food distributed, and of health services rendered. Then in 1970 Thieu’s administration finally addressed the contentious land reform issue, passing a Land-to-the-Tiller Law that distributed several million acres to hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers. The perception of the government as exclusively the protector of the rich and powerful blurred, as at least some previously landless farmers now had a stake in Theiu’s regime.

Very much wanting pacification to succeed, many officials discerned progress, and to some extent enemy observers and HES evaluations supported that optimism. “Our side,” wrote an NVA colonel, “suffered seriously from the subsequent pacification plans dreamed up by the Americans, such as Operation Phoenix and the Chieu Hoi campaign.” A postwar Communist study confessed that South Vietnam’s expanding regular and security forces and the new pacification programs “created immeasurable difficulties and complications for our armed forces and civilian population.” HES scores indicated that South Vietnam controlled some 90 percent of the countryside by 1972. But many people living in “secure” villages were there only to find shelter from American firepower; ARVN’s mistreatment of the population continued; many government officials remained incompetent and corrupt; and HES data was still subjective, falsified, or inflated because of command pressure for positive results. Perhaps most important, physical control did not necessarily equate with heartfelt allegiance.

Perhaps nothing demonstrated pacification’s limitations more than the 1971 election, when Thieu’s government was unwilling to risk an honest plebiscite. Assisted by the American ambassador and the CIA, Thieu rigged it so that he ran unopposed. The U.S., which wanted at least the appearance of a genuine election, offered a candidate a $3 million bribe to remain in the race. The police threatened to arrest citizens who tried to vote for anyone but Thieu, opposition newspapers were shut down, and province chiefs received orders to do whatever was necessary to ensure victory. “It was a ridiculous election,” as Thieu’s vice president admitted, “just like a Communist one.”

In short, a weakened NLF did not automatically translate into a stronger, more popular South Vietnamese government. Until the South stood alone against its foes, no one knew whether pacification gains were permanent or fragile and reversible.

Fighting for a Decent Interval

To buy time for Vietnamization and pacification, to prevent any large-scale VC/NVA action that might impede America’s retreat, and to put pressure on Hanoi to negotiate an “honorable” settlement, the president ordered a number of unexpected actions: The secret bombing of Cambodia, a ground incursion into that country in 1970, a raid into Laos in 1971, and a ferocious aerial response to the enemy’s Easter Offensive of 1972.

Both the Communists and the U.S. had routinely violated Cambodian neutrality, the former by maintaining sanctuaries there and the latter by cross-border raiding under a program called DANIEL BOONE (later renamed SALEM HOUSE). When the JCS assured Nixon that the U.S. could destroy COSVN and degrade Communist capabilities throughout III and IV Corps by striking Cambodia, he went further, ordering secret B-52 strikes against enemy positions. He hoped the raids would also send a madman message to Hanoi that this president was not bound by the self-imposed restraints that limited his predecessor. Under what became Operation MENU, the bombing began on March 18, 1969, unknown to the public, Congress, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Air Force chief of staff. Even the military’s normally classified reports contained false data indicating the raids struck targets inside South Vietnam. Despite Nixon’s zeal to conceal MENU, a New York Times report exposed it a few months after it began.

When the operation ended in late May 1970, the big bombers had flown 3,875 sorties. As was true of most B-52 strikes inside South Vietnam, the damage inside Cambodia was difficult to assess, but the bombing had clearly not eliminated COSVN or the sanctuaries. Consequently Nixon sanctioned a ground invasion to finish the job and to reinforce his madman image. In March 1970 the pro-American Cambodian prime minister, General Lon Nol, deposed his country’s head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Favoring vigorous action against the VC/NVA, Nol ordered the Cambodian army to attack them in three border provinces and closed Sihanoukville. This port city had been a major Communist supply point from which food and equipment moved along the Sihanoukville Trail to positions adjacent to IV and III CTZs. Ostensibly with General Nol’s consent, in late March the South Vietnamese raided Communist bases in Cambodia’s Parrot’s Beak region. Responding to these threats, as well as to the MENU bombing, the VC/NVA, and an indigenous Communist Khmer Rouge movement headed by Pol Pot, counterattacked and soon threatened Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh. Despite opposition from Laird and Rogers, Nixon ordered 50,000 ARVN into the Parrot’s Beak and 30,000 U.S. forces into an area called the Fishhook, hoping to relieve pressure on Cambodia’s army, destroy the sanctuaries, and capture COSVN.

Crossing the border on April 29–30, the raiders did not find COSVN and in most cases the VC/NVA fled rather than fight, though pitched battles occurred at a base area nicknamed “The City” and at the towns of Krek, Mimot, and Snoul. Despite perennial problems with timid leadership, ineffective artillery fire, and faulty communications, in a few places ARVN fought aggressively, which seemed promising for Vietnamization. The U.S. and South Vietnamese captured an impressive array of food and equipment, though some of the weapons were obsolete. The CIA estimated the Communists could replace their losses in three months. Other agencies believed the losses crippled enemy capabilities for as much as a year. In one sense the sheer size of the supply caches was dismaying: A year of MENU bombing and COMMANDO HUNT operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail had not prevented the depots from being stuffed to overflowing.

The incursion had three negative effects. First, it converted the Vietnam War into an Indochinese War by engulfing Cambodia in the ground war, ultimately resulting in a holocaust that killed up to 2 million Cambodians after the demonic Pol Pot assumed power. Second, North Vietnam did not capitulate to Nixon’s madman gambit by offering concessions but instead hardened its negotiating stance in large part because of the third negative consequence: The operation reenergized antiwar opposition in the U.S., which had become quiescent when it appeared Nixon was liquidating the war through troop withdrawals, Vietnamization, and pacification. As frustration mounted that the president was now widening rather than ending the war, renewed demonstrations erupted, and not just in the streets. Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor explained to MACV that “there were great delegations of people, some of them very substantial people, coming down to call on their congressmen to do something about getting out [of Vietnam] faster.”

To MACV’s dismay, antiwar sentiment compelled Nixon to limit the U.S. penetration to thirty kilometers and to announce a June 30 deadline for withdrawing U.S. ground forces from Cambodia. Congress went further, passing a bill in late 1970 containing the Cooper-Church Amendment, which prohibited all future U.S. ground (but not air) activity in Cambodia and Laos. In addition, the Senate repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, though the president continued the war by relying on his authority as commander in chief. Thieu did not feel bound by the limitations imposed on U.S. forces. Although ARVN suffered from poor leadership and insufficient battlefield aggressiveness, it penetrated twice as far as the Americans and operated in Cambodia for the next several years, supported by U.S. artillery, B-52 strikes, and tactical air support.

The Cambodian incursion, claimed the president, was “the most decisive action in terms of damaging the enemy’s ability to wage effective warfare that has occurred in this war to date.” This was an exaggeration. Abrams thought the operation, at best, caused the enemy “some temporary inconvenience.” Another general considered it a disaster that fatally wounded South Vietnam because of the widespread unrest it generated on the American home front. The enemy agreed. As a high-level Communist leader put it, “Nixon paid dearly for our temporary discomfiture by sustaining major political losses.”

Closing Sihanoukville and disrupting the VC/NVA’s Cambodian sanctuaries reflected Abrams’s emphasis on attacking enemy logistics to disrupt Hanoi’s plans, to buy time for Vietnamization and pacification, and to prevent a debacle among the dwindling number of U.S. forces remaining in South Vietnam. With Sihanoukville no longer available and MARKET TIME frustrating seaborne supply efforts, the Communists began urgent measures to improve and defend the Ho Chi Minh Trail. More and more trucks provided by Beijing and Moscow moved on a steadily improving road network. Repair facilities proliferated, bomb damage was quickly repaired, a newly constructed pipeline transported fuel, and antiaircraft and SAM batteries shifted southward to protect the indispensable Trail and pipeline.

At the heart of the interdiction effort was COMMANDO HUNT, which began in November 1968 and ended in April 1972. Operation FREEDOM DEAL, a new name for the Cambodian bombing that was now conducted openly, complemented COMMANDO HUNT by attacking the Trail in northeastern Cambodia. Arc light strikes, fighter-bombers, and night-flying AC-130 Spectre gunships struck at reinforcements, trucks, supply caches, and enemy defenses. Converted cargo planes armed with rockets and 20-mm automatic cannons and equipped with a vehicle ignition detector codenamed BLACK CROW, the AC-130s initially killed many truck drivers in their cabs and caused others to abandon their vehicles as soon as they heard them overhead. But a U.S. aeronautics magazine inadvertently alerted the Communists to BLACK CROW, and soon truck drivers were wrapping their ignition systems in aluminum foil to suppress emissions.

In the midst of COMMANDO HUNT Nixon sanctioned another effort to disrupt the Trail and remind Hanoi that he did not play by Johnson’s self-imposed rules. While ARVN was still engaged in Cambodia, it invaded Laos on February 8, 1971, in Operation LAM SON 719. The goal was Base Area 604 centered on Tchepone, a key logistics node. Intelligence indicated NVA infantry, armor, artillery, and air defenses were concentrated there, that the jungle-covered area was ill-suited for helicopter warfare, and that Hanoi knew about the invasion weeks in advance. Equally problematic, because of the Cooper-Church Amendment, for the first time no American troops or advisers would accompany ARVN, though it would receive support from U.S. helicopters, planes, and artillery—and from hard fighting on the Vietnamese side of the border in I Corps. In essence, U.S. forces kicked open the door for ARVN’s invasion, resulting in 215 Americans KIA and another 1,100 WIA during the first four months of 1971.

Despite the potential pitfalls, Nixon let the operation continue, thus widening the war a second time by invading a country that had been off limits during the Johnson administration. President Thieu committed 20,000 men to LAM SON 719. Some of his best units participated, including the ARVN 1st Division, the 1st Armored Brigade, three ranger battalions, and most of the elite airborne and marine units from the strategic reserve. At a dreadful cost in men, ordnance, and supplies, the NVA attacked day and night, keeping continuous pressure on ARVN that sent it reeling in retreat. American intelligence estimated the Communists committed approximately 110 tanks to the battle and lost seventy-five of them. Sixteen of the thirty-three NVA maneuver battalions involved in the fighting were complete losses. The South Vietnamese had thus fought tenaciously at times, but not often enough. Pictures showed panic-stricken ARVN soldiers fleeing by hanging on to helicopter skids, and even some of the South’s elite units collapsed. The last ARVN troops crossed back into South Vietnam on March 24. They left behind thirty-seven of their sixty-two tanks, ninety-eight of their 162 armored personnel carriers, and many of their dead. “They knew they’d been whipped,” observed a Marine general, “and they acted like they had been whipped.”

Only American air power and artillery saved ARVN from catastrophe. Though rain and fog often grounded them and enemy defenses were deadly, tactical fighters still dropped 20,000 tons of napalm and bombs, B-52s added 32,000 tons, Hercules transports dropped twenty-five 15,000-pound air-fuel bombs, Air Force gunships patrolled the night skies, and U.S. helicopters flew 160,000 sorties. Tucked along the border were eighteen U.S. Army 155-mm howitzers, sixteen 175-mm guns, and eight 8-inch howitzers. As ARVN’s situation in Laos deteriorated, it also suffered defeats at Dambe, Snoul, and Krek in Cambodia, despite U.S. air and artillery support. Although the debacles in Cambodia involved more forces on both sides than LAM SON 719, they received less publicity.

In what one general considered “an Orwellian untruth of boggling proportions,” the president did what he had done after the less than successful Cambodian incursion: Proclaimed LAM SON 719 a victory, asserting that it proved “Vietnamization has succeeded.” From the start Nixon sought to portray events in Laos in a positive light, telling Kissinger, “I can’t emphasize this too strongly; I don’t care what happened there, it’s a win.” In fact, after two years of Vietnamization, ARVN had suffered another setback. This did not necessarily mean the program would ultimately fail, but it created profound doubts about its progress and in doing so weakened the U.S. negotiating position. The president understood this, for privately he complained about ARVN’s poor performance. LAM SON 719 had two other negative consequences. First, it caused no lasting damage to the enemy’s Laotian transportation network. According to a MACV briefing, by early April the NVA were “right back in there again, balls out.” Finally, the operation also sparked renewed antiwar demonstrations, sowing concern among Republicans about the president’s reelection. On the positive side, it may have delayed an NVA offensive in I Corps, thus buying time for both South Vietnam and the orderly redeployment of American forces.

Despite the Cambodian incursion, COMMANDO HUNT and FREEDOM DEAL, and LAM SON 719, the North met its supply and reinforcement goals. NVA Colonel Bui Tin explained how: “We put so much in at the top of the Trail that enough men and weapons to prolong the war always came out at the bottom.” This was a callous approach, costly in men and material. But it worked, as the Easter Offensive revealed.

Beginning on March 30, 1972, North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive was a three-pronged campaign, one prong coming across the DMZ aimed at Quang Tri City, another directed from Kontum toward the coast in II Corps, and a third surging across the Cambodian border toward An Loc in III Corps. The assaults revealed Hanoi’s decision to reverse the protracted-war, economy-of-force strategy it had followed for the previous few years and to escalate directly to military dau tranh’s conventional warfare phase. In a remarkably short time the NVA had transformed itself from a light-infantry force into a Soviet-style mechanized army. In the Easter Offensive it employed 1,200 Soviet-made tanks and a huge artillery array in support of fourteen of its fifteen divisions, most of which had previously remained outside South Vietnam. The rebuilt VC supported the major thrusts with hundreds of small attacks in urban areas and the Mekong Delta. Within a week after the offensive began, Abrams realized the enemy had “committed every goddamn thing he owns!”

The offensive’s primary architects were the minister of defense, General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the Viet Minh’s founders, who remained the North’s foremost strategist for most of the war; and his chief of staff, General Van Tien Dung. They hoped for a knockout punch to defeat Vietnamization, gain a decisive victory in 1972, and force the U.S. to negotiate from a weakened position. Since fewer than 70,000 Americans remained in Vietnam, the NVA concentrated against ARVN, its elite units weakened by LAM SON 719. A crushing success seemed likely. However, enemy strategists realized they might have to settle for less, such as merely improving their position by creating enclaves inside the South and by weakening pacification.

Because MACV intelligence misjudged the offensive’s timing, size, and location, the offensive caught ARVN and the Nixon administration by surprise. After all, it seemed foolhardy for the North to attack in 1972, when all the Americans would soon be gone. ARVN quickly neared collapse. Fearing he could not win reelection if South Vietnam fell and that a humiliating defeat might hamper relations with China and the Soviet Union, Nixon responded aggressively. Domestic antiwar sentiment made reintroducing ground troops impossible, so he assembled an aerial armada. The previous summer he had shouted that he did not intend to “go out whimpering”—that he was going to “bomb the livin’ bejesus out of ’em” and that he wanted to “level the goddamn country!” Now he had an opportunity to do just that, to infuse life into the madman strategy and DUCK HOOK. The number of B-52s on Guam rose from 47 to 210, the number of F-4s reached 374, and the carriers on Yankee Station tripled from two to six. Unleashing this formidable force, Nixon believed, would shatter the invasion, save Vietnamization and pacification, and compel Hanoi to negotiate a favorable settlement. When B-52s struck Haiphong for the first time during the war on April 16, the administration hoped it sent “a warning that things might get out of hand if the offensive did not stop.”

The North did not cave in to the threats. But this time an iron fist lay clenched behind them. Even as air power hammered the NVA in the South, on May 8 the president announced the mining of Haiphong (other major ports and inland waterways were also soon mined), a naval blockade, and Operation LINEBACKER I, which was a sustained bombing campaign against the North. Urging his military advisers to “recommend action which is very strong, threatening, and effective,” he intended “to stop at nothing to bring the enemy to his knees.” By the time LINEBACKER I ended on October 23, 155,548 tons of bombs had fallen on North Vietnam. Yet in his May 8 speech Nixon also issued an “ultimatum” that really spelled out terms for America’s withdrawal. All the U.S. wanted was the return of its prisoners of war and an internationally supervised ceasefire. Once North Vietnam met these conditions, the U.S. would “stop all acts of force throughout Indochina, and at that time we will proceed with a complete withdrawal of all American forces from Vietnam within four months.”

In some ways LINEBACKER I resembled the original ROLLING THUNDER. The new air campaign retained the Route Packages and lacked an overall commander; hit targets in the Chinese buffer zone and inside restrictive zones around Hanoi and Haiphong only with JCS approval; confronted a substantial array of enemy defenses; and experienced disruptions caused by bad weather. LINEBACKER I also differed from ROLLING THUNDER in significant ways that made it comparatively more successful. Nixon’s détente with the Soviets and Chinese reduced the chances of igniting World War III, thus allowing him to employ air power in ways Johnson never dared to try—for example, sending B-52s against the enemy heartland. By launching conventional assaults the Communists developed huge logistical requirements; however, the mining, blockade, and bombing damaged their essential resupply efforts by sea and railroads. New weapons enhanced the bombing, especially “smart bombs,” which were laser-guided and electro-optically guided munitions that struck targets with unparalleled accuracy. A few planes now achieved greater results than ROLLING THUNDER’s large strike forces.

Most important, LINEBACKER I supported a more limited policy objective than ROLLING THUNDER. As often happened in warfare, the losing side reduced its war aims. Johnson sought an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam; Nixon’s objective was an independent South Vietnam that did not collapse immediately after America’s withdrawal. Kissinger told the Soviet ambassador that if renewed war broke out after the U.S. withdrawal, “that conflict will no longer be an American affair; it will be an affair of the Vietnamese themselves, because the Americans will have left Vietnam.” He relayed a similar message to China, saying all the U.S. wanted was for the South to survive for a “decent interval,” which he defined as five years. Nixon contemplated using air power to insure the South’s existence until at least 1977, when his second term would end, thus removing any imputation that he lost the war.

With the enemy’s conventional forces more vulnerable to aerial destruction than their guerrilla operations had been, and with the NVA experiencing untold difficulty in waging combined-arms warfare for the first time in its history, the Easter Offensive soon sputtered. The NVA, said Abrams, were “losing tanks like he didn’t care about having any more, and people, and artillery, and equipment.” After suffering such a disaster, the NVA would not soon launch another offensive. Moreover, despite fearsome losses of men and equipment, ARVN survived under a protective airpower umbrella, and LINEBACKER I pummeled the North. Although Nixon’s ferocious response shocked Communist leaders and the offensive failed to deliver a knockout punch, the VC/NVA nonetheless attained advantages that pointed toward ultimate success. Counterbalancing the destruction LINEBACKER I did to the North was the destruction in South Vietnam, where combat reduced cities to rubble and created more than a million new refugees. The NVA established control over a belt of strategic terrain running from the DMZ along the Laotian and Cambodian borders to the northern Delta, thus strengthening its grip on the Central Highlands, improving the security of its sanctuaries and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and gaining essential territory for launching subsequent military actions.

ARVN had barely escaped defeat, as Hanoi, MACV, and many South Vietnamese understood. To the Communists the offensive signaled Vietnamization’s failure because the South still could not stand on its own. While praising a few ARVN units that fought well, Abrams and other high-ranking Americans admitted Vietnamization’s prospects were precarious, and that only a torrent of bombs averted a catastrophe by compensating for ARVN’s feeble fighting spirit. “Equipment is not what you need,” Abrams emphasized to General Cao Van Vien, chief of the Joint General Staff. “You need men that will fight. And you need officers that will fight and lead the men.” Neither the men nor the officers seemed in the offing anytime soon. As for the South Vietnamese, a soldier recalled the sense of impending doom: “We all believed we had fought heroically in Quang Tri, but that our best was not good enough.”

Even though the Easter Offensive accomplished less than enemy strategists ideally sought, it also revealed that Vietnamization and pacification had not yet created a stout-hearted South Vietnamese nationalism that could match the Communists. And time was swiftly running out.

An Army in Distress

Throughout the war American soldiers committed a number of war crimes, the most heinous being the slaughter of civilians at My Lai and the neighboring hamlet of Co Luy on March 16, 1968. Under the command of Lieutenant William L. Calley, the 1st Platoon of Company C, Task Force Barker, 11th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, massacred approximately 500 women, the elderly, boys and girls, and infants in My Lai. Some of the women were raped and sodomized before being killed in exceptionally inhumane ways. At Co Luy, the 1st Platoon of Company B committed a similar crime, though on a lesser scale, since the grunts murdered “only” ninety-seven civilians. The lone American to act honorably during the day was Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson Jr., a reconnaissance helicopter pilot. Seeing the slaughter unfolding, he landed his helicopter to save a group of Vietnamese civilians from soldiers advancing upon them with murderous intent. When he returned to base, Thompson informed his superiors of the massacre. Soon numerous officers knew something had gone terribly wrong at My Lai and Co Luy, but they conspired to cover up the massacre until late 1969, when the war crime finally became public knowledge. As a result, the Army undertook two investigations, one public, the other secret. Headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers, a formal board of inquiry confirmed the massacre’s magnitude and the cover-up. But witnesses lied or had selective memories, and documents had been destroyed. Everyone escaped punishment for the murders and the cover-up except for Calley, who was convicted of killing twenty-two unarmed civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. In late 1974 Nixon paroled him. “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden some place,” alleged Colonel Oren K. Henderson, an officer charged (but not convicted) in the cover-up. That may not have been an exaggeration. Along with the Peers investigation, the Army established a secret “Vietnam War Crimes Working Group” that amassed 9,000 pages of evidence implicating Americans in rapes, torture, murder, and massacres. The Working Group, whose records were secret until 1994, substantiated more than 300 cases, while another 500 allegations could not be proven. However, many of the “investigations” were perfunctory. For example, one case that landed on the discard pile contained allegations about a Tiger Force reconnaissance unit from the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division that murdered women and children in Quang Ngai Province in 1967. As was finally exposed in 2003, the Tiger Force unit had indeed killed at least 120 civilians. According to the officers who helped compile the records, even the 800 proven and unsubstantiated cases combined represented only a small fraction of the Army’s war crimes. The Marines also committed atrocities, most notably in Son Thang where a five-man “killer team” slaughtered sixteen women and children, including a twenty-year-old blind woman and ten boys and girls under the age of thirteen.

To say that wars—all wars—spawn atrocities and to affirm that the vast majority of Americans served faithfully and bravely does not remove the stain that war crimes left on the American record.

As the withdrawal accelerated, the disciplinary problems revealed by atrocities took new directions among units remaining in Vietnam. A hairline crack in the Army’s morale and discipline that first appeared in 1969 had become a yawning crevice by 1971. Part of the problem was the unruliness afflicting American society in general, and part of it came from the soldiers’ realization that America was quitting the war. “Nobody wants to be the last man in Viet Nam killed,” said Lieutenant Frank M. Campagne. Future chief of staff Colin Powell believed soldiers were “no less brave or skilled, but by this time in the war, they lacked inspiration and sense of purpose.” At the bottom of the disciplinary abyss lay poor leadership. “These sorry asses would go out of their way to get their ticket punched and show an increased body count,” remembered Campagne about professional officers. “They didn’t care who or how many guys got ‘wasted’ doing it, because these sorry asses stayed on the fire base or the rear area way in the back.” A “Study on Military Professionalism” ordered by Chief of Staff Westmoreland agreed, revealing that ethical transgressions were pervasive in the officer corps. In pursuit of selfish career goals, senior officers “sacrificed integrity on the altar of personal success.” They became preoccupied with “trivial short-term objectives even through dishonest practices” and compelled subordinates “to lie, cheat, and steal to meet the impossible demands of higher officers.”

Some rebellious behavior was relatively innocuous. Soldiers sympathized with the antiwar movement, lacked proper haircuts, displayed peace medallions, and penned “UUUU” on their helmets, the code for “We are the Unwilling, led by the Unqualified, to do the Unnecessary, for the Ungrateful.” Other problems were more serious. For all the American services stationed throughout the world, the desertion rate jumped from 8.43 men per thousand in 1966 to 33.9 in 1971. The Army-wide desertion rate was especially serious, soaring from 14.9 per thousand to 73.5 per thousand during those five years. Desertions hindered the ability of the armed forces to function effectively, not just in Vietnam but worldwide. In South Vietnam, rear area “fragging” (slang for murder or attempted murder, often with a fragmentation grenade) became common, especially in the Army, which had 126 incidents in 1969, 271 in 1970, and 333 in 1971. (The Marines had between 100 and 150 incidents, while the Air Force and Navy had a mere handful.) These numbers do not include “accidental” killings in the field where, admitted one lieutenant, “I was very frightened, not just of what was in front of me, but what was behind me.” Although popular culture portrayed unpopular officers as the primary fragging target, most victims were enlisted men, including NCOs. The perpetrators, their judgment often impaired by drugs or alcohol, were usually lower-ranking enlisted personnel settling personal disputes, not making some grandiose antiwar statement.

Equally disturbing were “combat refusals.” While some of these were mutinies—by 1971 the Army occasionally used military police to assault mutinous troops—many were wise decisions by experienced troops who understood the tactical situation better than their superiors. “Nothing against you, Lieutenant,” said one grunt to his commanding officer, “but this is just stupid. We move out and the point’s [the point man leading the patrol] getting ambushed before the rear squad’s even cleared the laager. We’ve been hit day after day, and we’re just not going.” During 1970 even the fabled 1st Cavalry Division experienced several dozen combat refusals. In order to avoid a combat refusal, some officers began ordering “search and evade” missions, purposefully sending their men into areas where they would not encounter the enemy.

Among the most pernicious disciplinary issues were racial friction and drug abuse, both of which flared in rear areas. Out in the bush, said a black rifleman, “everybody was the same. You can’t find no racism in the bush.” But in base camps and on ships, racial friction was always simmering, and it sometimes escalated into full-fledged riots with deadly consequences. Among other complaints, a black soldier convicted at a general court-martial was likely to receive a harsher penalty than a white convicted of the same offense, and blacks more commonly received less than honorable discharges. Since drug abuse imperiled everyone on combat operations it, like racial conflict, occurred primarily in the rear. Marijuana was the primary drug of choice until 1970, when cheap, high-grade heroin became the foremost culprit—behind alcohol, which was the most serious problem. In the spring of 1970 two servicemen a month died from drug overdoses; by that fall two per day were dying. So many soldiers got “high” on drugs and started shooting wildly that some officers believed drugged GIs were a more serious menace than the enemy.

“What the hell is going on?” wondered Abrams. “I’ve got white shirts all over the place—psychologists, drug counselors, detox specialists, rehab people, social workers, and psychiatrists. Is this a goddamned army or a mental hospital? Officers are afraid to lead their men into battle, and the men won’t follow. Jesus Christ! What happened?” The general knew that “it does no good to sit around and piss about the good old days, because they aren’t here—if they ever were.” He also understood that even though the majority of soldiers continued doing their duty honorably, the disintegration was so severe that he needed “to get this Army home to save it.”

Peace Without Honor

Even as the Easter Offensive raged across South Vietnam and LINEBACKER I inflicted crippling losses on the North, negotiators inched toward a truce. The battering inflicted by American warplanes convinced the Communists they must get the U.S. out of the war as soon as possible. With indications the Congress that assembled in January 1973 would be so dovish that it might legislate an end to the war, Nixon was also anxious to settle. Both sides retreated from long-held positions. The Communists’ key concession was to drop their demand for Thieu’s ouster and the creation of a coalition government in the South. Nixon’s most significant concession—the most significant in the entire negotiating process—was agreeing to allow NVA troops to remain inside South Vietnam after previously insisting on mutual troop withdrawals. The president’s new position acknowledged reality; as Kissinger stated, “no negotiations would be able to remove [the NVA] if we had not been able to expel them with force of arms.” The NVA’s presence in the South virtually guaranteed the Communists’ ultimate success, even if Thieu remained in power for the time being. The U.S. also failed to insist on a ceasefire that recognized two Vietnams, thereby conceding, as the Geneva Conference had insisted in 1954, that the 17th Parallel was not an international boundary.

The U.S. and North Vietnam completed a treaty on October 8, agreeing to sign it by October 31. But the U.S. negotiated its retreat without fully consulting South Vietnam—with good reason, since Nixon capitulated on such crucial issues. “The real basic problem,” wrote one of his aides, “boils down to the question of whether Thieu can be sold on it.” He could not. Fearing his government would not survive if the NVA remained in the South, and wanting the 17th Parallel recognized as a boundary between sovereign nations, he insisted the treaty required major changes. In an effort to placate his recalcitrant ally, Nixon assured Thieu “that the United States will react very strongly and rapidly to any violation of the agreement,” and warned him that it was essential “your Government does not emerge as the obstacle to peace which American public opinion now universally desires.” Thieu was not placated, resulting in a paradoxical situation: Since the U.S. had a deal with its enemy, its ally was the obstacle to peace.

Nixon directed Kissinger, who considered Thieu’s proposed changes “preposterous,” to present them to North Vietnam, but the North’s chief negotiator, Le Duc Tho, insisted the U.S. fulfill the October 8 agreement. When negotiations failed to break the deadlock, Nixon tried to get tough, first with his ally and then against his foe. He sent Thieu several messages threatening to move forward with the treaty “at whatever cost.” When the South Vietnamese president did not relent, Nixon threatened the North with another aerial barrage. When the Communists rejected any amendments, he ordered Operation LINEBACKER II, which lasted from December 18 until December 29. Like so many operations, it yielded ambiguous results. Relying extensively on B-52s, it rearranged much of LINEBACKER I’s rubble, crippled the North’s air defenses, and inflicted additional damage, particularly on previously restricted targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. But the U.S. lost fifteen B-52s and thirteen other warplanes, leaving thirty-one crewmen as prisoners of war and another ninety-three missing and presumed dead.15 Moreover, the operation provoked outrage. Domestically, impeachment threats hung in the air, and Congress vowed to cut off war funding contingent upon the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and the return of its prisoners. Nixon knew he had to obtain a deal quickly, because the bombing was not politically sustainable. Even though he threatened the North with still more bombing, the outcry was so great “we cannot consider this to be a viable option.” Internationally, in contrast to their tepid objections to LINEBACKER I the Soviets and Chinese now reacted angrily, raising fears that détente was at risk.

Nixon used LINEBACKER II to try to influence both North and South Vietnam. Rather than risk a third LINEBACKER, the North returned to the conference table determined to get the U.S. out of the war even if it meant accepting a few cosmetic changes to the October 8 agreement. Nixon hoped LINEBACKER II would reassure Thieu that the U.S. would not desert him or allow the enemy to break the agreement with impunity. When Thieu still balked, Nixon insisted he was going to sign an agreement, alone if necessary, in which case “I shall have to explain publicly that your Government obstructs peace.” Not wanting an open break with the U.S., Thieu unhappily acquiesced.

On January 23, 1973, all parties—the South, the U.S., the North, and the NLF—signed the Paris Peace Accords, which were only slightly modified from the October 8 document. The agreement called for a ceasefire in place (which left at least 100,000 NVA in the South), complete American withdrawal, and prisoner exchanges, though the North betrayed the VC because the accords excluded them from the prisoner swap. In a protocol kept secret from the public and Congress, Nixon pledged the U.S. to pay at least $3.25 billion in what were essentially reparations. The president insisted he achieved “peace with honor,” but even viewed in the best light the accords left the South in a precarious position. Former secretary of state Dean Rusk said they were “in effect a surrender”; South Vietnam’s Vice President Ky described them as a “Sellout”; and Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt asserted that two words that could never describe the outcome of Nixon’s policy were “peace” and “honor.”

An Indecent Interval

The Paris Peace Accords removed the U.S. from the war and brought its prisoners of war home, but they did not resolve the fundamental issue: Was Vietnam one nation or two? Consequently, as Nixon and Kissinger expected, the Vietnamese civil war continued with barely a pause. Thieu ordered ARVN to reclaim as much territory as possible, and it recovered some areas the NVA had “liberated” during the Easter Offensive. The NVA did not yield terrain without exacting a sanguinary price. ARVN suffered 25,473 KIA in 1973 and another 19,375 in the first eight months of 1974, and was stretched dangerously thin. Initially the South seemed to benefit from Projects ENHANCE and ENHANCE PLUS, two gargantuan efforts to beef up the South’s arsenal before the ceasefire went into effect, because the terms limited resupply to one-for-one replacements. The Department of Defense engorged the South’s armed forces with equipment, but as Lieutenant General Phillip Davidson observed, the U.S. had provided “airplanes they couldn’t fly, ships they couldn’t man, and tanks and other equipment they couldn’t maintain.” By late 1974 many ARVN soldiers were dispirited and desertions were running about 24,000 per month.

After the Americans departed, the Communists were more confident than ever of ultimate victory. They moved cautiously, however, for fear of provoking another LINEBACKER and because they needed time to rebuild their own weakened forces. Encouraged by cuts in U.S. aid to South Vietnam, the convulsions in the U.S. caused by Nixon’s misdeeds during the Watergate scandal, continued Soviet support, and growing unrest against Thieu’s dictatorship, they began driving ARVN from territory South Vietnam acquired in its immediate post-peace land grab, and adopted a two-year plan to unify Vietnam. Limited offensives in late 1974 and into 1975 would create favorable conditions for a climactic “General Offensive—General Uprising” in 1976.

Northern strategists often miscalculated during the war, usually to their regret. This time, however, they miscalculated to their advantage. In mid-December 1974, the NVA in Cambodia attacked Phuoc Long Province northwest of Saigon and captured it in only three weeks. Despite this blatant violation of the Paris Peace Accords, the U.S. did not react with anything more forceful than diplomatic notes. Convinced that Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford, would not intervene militarily, the Communists launched an offensive in the Central Highlands on March 10, 1975, aimed at Ban Me Thout. Within a week the Communists controlled the city and stood poised to bisect the South by advancing to the South China Sea. They would not have to fight very hard to do so. Without any advance notice, Thieu ordered ARVN to abandon the Highlands. Since it had no plans for withdrawing, the retreat degenerated into a rout. When General Van Tien Dung unleashed a second offensive, this one in I Corps, ARVN suffered another debacle despite a few pockets of heroic resistance.

Pleased by these unexpectedly easy successes, Hanoi ordered General Dung to discard the two-year plan and complete the South’s destruction in 1975. Substantially rebuilt after the nadir years of 1968–1971, the VC played vital roles in supporting the North’s conventional forces. By mid-April the NVA was approaching Saigon, delayed only by a ferocious last stand at the strategic crossroads of Xuan Loc by the 18th ARVN Division against four NVA divisions. On April 29 the Vietnam War’s last battle started when NVA rockets blasted Tan Son Nhut air base, which had been MACV’s headquarters. The next day the South unconditionally surrendered.

South Vietnam had collapsed after an indecently brief interval. If the war’s beginning was ambiguous, its ending was not. The U.S. and the South Vietnam it tried to create had lost, unequivocally.

In succession the VC/NVA defeated America’s special war, limited war, and Vietnamization-pacification strategies. By 1975 the U.S. could not afford the cost of propping up Thieu’s government; the public no longer had any interest in Vietnam; and America could not continue to ignore its other domestic and worldwide commitments. Throughout its brief history, the South had always been too dependent on the U.S. to stand on its own. William Colby once asserted: “There’s no reason why 17 million South Vietnamese can’t hold off 18 million North Vietnamese.” But there was a reason: The South’s population, like America’s, was never willing to pay anything close to the steep price the North Vietnamese and VC did in pursuit of what they considered the sacred goals of national unification and independence. In a larger sense, the Communist victory flowed with the tidal wave of decolonization that washed over the globe after World War II.

Approximately 260,000 South Vietnamese military personnel died and many hundreds of thousands more were wounded during the war. Hanoi stated that 1,100,000 VC/NVA were KIA or died of wounds; precisely how many were WIA or missing in action is unknown, but the numbers were substantial. An estimated 500,000 Vietnamese civilians, North and South, lost their lives, and perhaps three times that many were wounded. By comparison, U.S. losses were modest: 47,434 battle deaths, 10,786 nonbattle deaths, and 313,616 WIA, about half of whom required hospitalization.

Not the least of the war’s legacies was an array of haunting questions that have no definitive answers: How and why did the U.S. lose the war? Could it have been won at an acceptable cost? If so, how? Was Southeast Asia worth the prolonged ordeal? After all, although South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ended up in the Communist camp and endured decades of postwar misery and privation, no other dominoes toppled—not Thailand, not Malaysia, not the Philippines, not Indonesia.

The Reckoning

The Vietnam War mortgaged America’s global containment and forward, collective defense for a decade. European leaders of NATO wondered about the wisdom of a government that squandered lives and resources to fight a determined Asian enemy in an inconsequential corner of the world. And the war’s fiscal implications were severe. Between 1965 and 1974 the defense budget rose from $47 billion to $74 billion, but the increase was illusory. Fueled by domestic social spending and war expenditures, inflation reduced the purchasing power of defense dollars by one-third. The decline in defense spending reflected widespread discontent with the conduct of national security affairs, the erosion of support for the war, and a declining faith in the government.

The reduced commitment to defense did not reflect a diminished Soviet threat. During the Vietnam era the Russian armed forces embarked on a modernization program that dwarfed the comparable American effort. Soviet armed forces increased in size and fielded a sophisticated family of ground and air weapons in numbers that made “Flexible Response” less attractive as a NATO strategy. Russia also increased its nuclear warheads, improved their accuracy and warhead weight-to-yield ratios, and adopted solid fuels that decreased launch time, all of which made a disarming first strike a greater technical possibility. Two new missiles, the SS-9 and the SS-11, were especially worrisome, as was the prospect of the Soviets developing MIRVs—multiple, independently targeted reentry vehicles—which might give them superiority over America’s forces. Soviet advances in anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense based on ultra-high-speed missiles and phased-array radars worried SAC’s planners, though the U.S. ABM program was actually making better progress. A fleet of nuclear attack submarines, heavily armed surface attack groups, and land-based naval aviation gave the Soviets the capability to contest NATO’s control of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Thus, although the U.S. did not scrap all its modernization programs, the decade of deferral brought an erosion of America’s relative superiority. When the Vietnam War ended, U.S. officials spoke in morose terms of “sufficiency” and “rough parity” in nuclear forces, and the situation in conventional forces appeared equally dismaying.

The Nixon administration tried to cap the nuclear arms competition with the Soviet Union with two treaties signed in May 1972, the ABM Treaty and the Interim Agreement on intercontinental nuclear delivery vehicles. After complex negotiations, the U.S. and Russia agreed to curb their ABM programs and set a ceiling on their most threatening offensive programs. The ABM Treaty, which had no time limit, restricted both nations to two ABM sites of no more than 100 missiles, which basically made antimissile defense futile; the U.S. eventually stopped work on its only site. The Interim Agreement, which was to run five years, set limits on the number of missiles each side could deploy as ICBMs and SLBMs. The U.S. held its ICBM force at 1,054 and its SLBM ceiling at 710 mounted in forty-four submarines, while the Soviets set their ICBMs at 1,618 and their SLBM ceiling at 950 in sixty-two subs. U.S. technological advantages offset the Soviets’ larger numbers.

The treaties—labeled “SALT I” in diplomatic shorthand—did no more than modify the arms competition, since both sides continued with programs that escaped treaty limitations: Long-range bombers and MIRVs. They eventually tackled the MIRV problem in negotiations that resulted in the Vladivostok Accords (1974), which set a mutual ceiling of 2,400 on all delivery vehicles (including bombers) and of 1,320 MIRVed delivery vehicles, which included bombers armed with cruise missiles. While Vladivostok established equality in the number of offensive systems, it did not address the possibility that Russia’s large missiles could bear so many MIRVs that they might constitute a first-strike threat.

Meanwhile, U.S. conventional forces underwent dramatic reductions, from 3.5 million men (1968) to 2.1 million (1975). By 1974 the armed services had 46 percent fewer aviation squadrons, 47 percent fewer ships, and 16 percent fewer divisions than they had a decade earlier. One explanation for the decline was a change in manpower policy. To help defuse the antiwar movement, in 1971 the Nixon administration announced it would end the draft, and in 1973 an All Volunteer Force replaced conscription. But volunteers were scarce, notwithstanding florid rhetoric about the patriotism of American youth. The cost of a volunteer versus a conscript either doubled or tripled, depending on what costs one counted, and the quality of enlistees dropped, whether measured by their possession of high-school diplomas or intelligence testing. Compounding the cost and quality problems, the increased number of black and female recruits created difficulties that resisted easy solutions, and career officers and NCOs left the service in droves. The Department of Defense thought it could compensate for the chaos in the active forces by stressing a “Total Force” policy that improved reserve units, but the draft’s end also worked havoc on reserve enlistments. Inflation, soaring costs, mismanagement, and technological risk-taking hampered the modernization of equipment and munitions. To replace each old tank, ship, and aircraft generally cost double the original investment. The solution—not a good one—was to buy fewer units and spend less on operations and maintenance. The accepted efficiency measurements all declined as the armed forces flew less, steamed at sea less, shot fewer munitions less often, and held fewer exercises.

Congress exploited the public disillusionment with Vietnam to assert its influence on national security policy. It not only approved a decline in military spending but also limited executive branch flexibility through a combination of the legislative veto and new laws. The most significant of the latter included a July 1973 law that prohibited direct or indirect combat activities over, on, or even near Laos, Cambodia, and both Vietnams after August 15; the War Powers Act (1973), which required congressional approval of troop deployments abroad in combat situations within sixty days of commitment; and the Budget and Impoundment Control Act (1974), which weakened presidential authority to manage federal spending. Congress also placed legislative limits on future covert operations. Nixon’s Watergate scandal emboldened Congress to attack what some of its members characterized as an “imperial presidency” dedicated to supporting “militarism.”

In 1975 it seemed almost impossible to conceive of it, but fifteen years later the U.S. would win the Cold War as the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s sole remaining superpower.

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