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The Offensive I: The View from Vietnam

The North Vietnamese/NLF offensive of the past weeks exceeded all the most pessimistic (or realistic) expectations of American officials in Washington and Saigon. The military commanders predicted some form of offensive some time this year, but they foresaw neither the time, nor the place, nor the duration of it. Most officials in Saigon thought that two or three NVA divisions would conduct a spectacular but short-lived attack on Kontum City and other ARVN outposts in the central highlands either at Têt or during the summer. The idea that the North Vietnamese would launch a twelve-division offensive with tanks and heavy artillery against three major strategic centers would have seemed to them nearly impossible.

After the Cambodian invasion in 1970 several high US military commanders in Vietnam boasted that the North Vietnamese could no longer bring the war back onto South Vietnamese territory. After the Laos invasion a year later they felt their predictions were confirmed. The US commanders based these predictions not only on conventional intelligence sources—after-action reports, captured documents, aerial surveillance, and so forth—but on the “electronic battlefield,” which includes twenty-first-century devices that can see, hear, count, and smell, seeded along the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh trail. The sudden appearance of forty or more North Vietnamese tanks and several well-equipped divisions south of the trail suggests that the “electronic battlefield” produces little but static—a most embarrassing predicament for those American specialists who are currently attempting to sell this “battlefield” to other NATO powers.

Of course, the problem may well lie less with the devices themselves than with the system they are plugged into. The junior intelligence officers in the US Military Assistance Command have for a long time doubted such generally accepted conclusions as the statistic that only 15 percent of the North Vietnamese supplies beginning at one end of the trail actually reach the other end of it. In their view about the same proportion of bad—and accurate—news actually passes upward through intelligence channels; but the bearers of this news are constantly told by their superiors, “Oh, but you can’t tell that to COMUS” (COMUS being the Commander, US, General Abrams).

After a decade of direct US involvement in the Vietnam war it might seem merely redundant to point out yet another failure of US military intelligence. But the current situation is somewhat different from any that preceded it. It is, after all, quite understandable for American officers trained at such conventional military schools as Fort Knox and Fort Leavenworth to misjudge the character of a guerrilla war in Asia. It is even understandable that with a half million American troops in Vietnam and several years’ experience there all of them should have failed to anticipate an 80,000 man attack against every major city in the country at Têt in 1968. But it is inexplicable that those same officers should have been caught unaware by a conventional offensive of regular divisions armed with heavy weapons and using the very tactics taught by men similar to Abrams and Westmoreland at Forts Knox and Leavenworth (Abrams and Westmoreland being tank and artillery commanders, respectively).

The North Vietnamese and the NLF are somewhat better at keeping secrets than the ARVN, but they are not supermen. As Newsweek (April 17) points out, the US command possessed several pieces of extremely hard intelligence, including information on the construction of airfields and missile sites along the DMZ and the visit of Soviet artillery experts to Hanoi, that ought to have provided clues to the place and form of the attack. Even in January this year Newsweek reporters in Saigon had enough information to consider the possibility of an attack around April across the DMZ. Were Vietnam of any real strategic interest to the United States, such a failure of intelligence would be grounds for an abrupt change of officers in the intelligence analysis section and even, perhaps, in the high command. As it is, the American public can only conclude a) that Vietnam is of no real strategic interest to the US, and b) should a US strategic interest ever be threatened, Americans have very little reason for confidence in those who bear responsibility for their defense and command two-thirds of the annual federal budget.

The question of what the current offensive means has received a great deal of attention over the past weeks. In a discussion that they have, as usual, virtually monopolized, officials of the Nixon Administration have given a most complicated explanation for the attacks. Nixon himself has proclaimed them “a clear case of naked and unprovoked aggression.” Other officials have claimed that the offensive is a totally new form of warfare for the other side—a “massive invasion” of one country by another. They (and “they” clearly includes Kissinger, Bunker, and Abrams) have contended that the aim of North Vietnam is to “capture” the two northern provinces of South Vietnam in order to use them as the basis for negotiating a settlement of the war on their own terms. According to them the offensive is “the final test of Vietnamization…the last gasp…the last roll of the dice.” And they have argued that because the North Vietnamese know that time is running against them they have decided to risk their whole army on one final attempt to conquer the South.

Although this explanation may be convenient, it is hardly credible. The North Vietnamese and NLF leaders have been fighting their revolutionary war for over three decades and now, more than ever before, time is on their side. The most powerful enemy they have ever faced is now disengaging. While the Nixon Administration may resist a complete withdrawal of ground troops, it has already reduced its troop strength to the point where it no longer possesses an effective combat force. True, the US maintains a vast air force within striking distance of Vietnam, and the Administration shows no signs of removing it from combat; indeed, in this offensive Nixon has shown himself willing to increase it to the strength he deems necessary. Still, the military effectiveness of this air force has diminished with the removal of American ground troops. And although American bombers may remain in action for years, they cannot defend the Saigon regime forever.

As for the strength of the opposite side, the only piece of evidence the American officials give for North Vietnamese weakness and “desperation” is the fact that they have committed twelve, and later all, of their thirteen combat divisions to the offensive in and around South Vietnam. Since the major American and ARVN effort over the past three years has been to keep these divisions locked up in North Vietnam, the size of the offensive says more about the ability of the North Vietnamese to foil interdiction efforts than it does about their desperation. (Particularly since to date only half of these divisions have actually engaged in combat; the rest, while on the offensive, are still maneuvering outside the battle zones.)

As for the ARVN, the current offensive has only confirmed the evidence of the last two years that they are in the long run no match for the North Vietnamese regulars. In combat the quality of their units runs from good to abysmal, but as a whole they do not, and perhaps cannot, take over the offensive function of the American troops. In the months of relative calm following the Laos operation most ARVN divisions failed to perform the number of routine long-range patrols and spoiling operations that would have been necessary to prevent the North Vietnamese from building logistics systems and preparing for large-unit operations. The constant labor and attention required for these pre-emptive operations are something like those a farmer needs in order to keep the jungle from encroaching upon his fields.

The American commanders have always believed they could teach their counterparts the technique of preemptive strikes, but even at a tactical level the obstacles are more political than technical. The top ARVN officers are political appointees who do not care about their men and who do not trust each other, much less their American advisers. The duty of constantly ordering long-range patrols is as onerous to them as it is terrifying to the soldiers, who for their part fear they will be abandoned in case of trouble. (The plight of the ARVN Fifth Division at An Loc is a perfect example of this form of military politics. Having called up a vast relief force composed of elements of several divisions, President Thieu could not get these units to move up Highway 13 in time to save the Fifth.)

That the Saigon government had to call up all its reserves to meet the offensive is in many ways revealing. A million soldiers are at Thieu’s disposal, counting the Regional and Popular Forces (which man for man are as well armed as the ARVN), whereas the DRVN has fewer than half a million. But there is a difference between the two armies which, once taken for granted, has now been largely forgotten. Since the withdrawal of the American troops, the North Vietnamese can afford to field almost all their ground troops outside their home territory: after all, no one is going to invade North Vietnam, nor is there any prospect of an internal uprising against the regime. When the North Vietnamese troops are not in the field, they are as inactive as American troops at Knox or Leavenworth.

The same is by no means true of the Saigon regime’s armed forces. Not only the Regional and Popular Forces but the regular divisions are territorially based; they are occupation forces engaged in defending the areas in which they are stationed. When a division moves—as divisions have been moved in recent weeks—it leaves an opening for the local guerrillas as well as for a maneuvering North Vietnamese division. The need to defend territory is the reason for the vast size of the Saigon regime’s army; and it also explains why the North Vietnamese and the NLF retain the initiative.

With 1.1 million men in the armed forces, another 200,000 in the police, and thousands more in all the other government services, the Saigon regime is stalled. Not only do salaries consume 75 percent of its enormous budget, but the government has employed almost all of the young men available to it. From a political point of view the situation is advantageous, since a government that drafts and pays an entire generation of young men with foreign money in effect purchases a huge insurance policy against political unrest.

The price of this “stability” is, however, economic progress. Having drafted its labor force, the Thieu regime has no significant means of increasing production or reducing its dependency on the United States. If the Saigon government is to have a future as anything more than the general staff of a mercenary army, it must gradually demobilize—thus sapping its armed strength against the North Vietnamese and unleashing enormous political and economic problems now held in abeyance by the very fact of total mobilization. While the North Vietnamese also have serious economic problems and an annual debt to the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist countries that, according to Robert Shaplen, some officials estimate as high as a billion dollars a year, they are not similarly paralyzed. Their half-million-man army comes from a population of 26 million, and in spite of the constant American bombing below the 20th parallel, their country has been largely safe for civilians and civilian enterprise for the past four years. Even from a purely technical perspective—always the most favorable for the Saigon government—the North Vietnamese have the advantage of time.

While it is not impossible that the North Vietnamese planned this offensive as their final effort of the war, they would have been highly irrational to do so. Thus far US officials have presented no convincing evidence for this from captured documents or other sources. According to the Hanoi press, the regime is determined to achieve a “decisive” but not a “total” victory. The distinction is crucial, for the word “decisive” implies a turning point, but not an end. For the first four weeks at least, the North Vietnamese divisions have employed tactics designed to conserve their own forces even at the cost of territorial or political gains. In the northern provinces they used artillery barrages in an almost American fashion. In the South the North Vietnamese had the reserves to overrun An Loc and other provincial towns, but they did not commit them to a sudden and expensive advance.

Equally significant, the North Vietnamese/NLF command did not move a majority of the southern guerrilla forces into action—a move it surely would have made had it been attempting a final overthrow of the Saigon regime. More important perhaps, it did not bring into the open the southern political cadre or (so far as one can tell) call for a political uprising in the cities and throughout the countryside. This conservation of force during the first weeks of the offensive convinced at least one top military commander in Saigon to change his estimate of what was happening. At the beginning of the offensive he reported to Washington that the North Vietnamese were engaged in an all-out effort in the South; now he believes the offensive to be anything but a last gasp.

The second official US theory—that the North Vietnamese planned to take over the two northern provinces of the South in order to negotiate a political victory—has been similarly discredited during the first weeks of the offensive. Even at the outset, however, this theory was almost incredible, for the simple reason that the North Vietnamese know better than anyone else in the world what American air power can do. In planning the operation they might have expected—weather permitting—to seize important bases, even cities, in the coastal lowlands, but they could not have hoped to hold them. Each year the skies clear, and, as the North Vietnamese can hardly have failed to notice, tanks lining roads or city streets make easy targets for bombers. If the North Vietnamese had ever imagined that the Americans might fail to bomb the cities of South Vietnam, they could no longer do so after the Têt offensive.

The only uncertainty about the two-province theory is why US officials proposed it in the first place. The obvious reason is that they saw it as a useful fiction. Once the North Vietnamese tanks left the immediate vicinity of Hue and Quang Tri, American officials could proclaim a victory for the ARVN, even if—as has been the case for many years of this war—the ARVN did not dare set foot outside the province capitals. If the fighting ends and the other side has not yet overthrown the Saigon government, the American officials will proclaim victory as surely as the skies will clear. And incredibly enough, some will believe it.

After more than a decade of the Vietnam war there persists a strong tradition of World War I military thinking within the US command. In 1966, after all, General Westmoreland, with two years’ experience in Vietnam, claimed that the American troops had stopped the North Vietnamese from “cutting the country in two” at the east-west parallel near Pleiku. That the other side had already cut the country in much more than two—there being no access by road to most provincial towns—was a complication he chose not to enlarge on. In January this year certain military analysts in Saigon warned that the North Vietnamese might again attempt to “cut the country in half” at a latitude near Pleiku.

A more plausible explanation for the offensive than the Administration’s is that, far from being a last gasp or an attempt to occupy the two northern capitals, it is but one more offensive in a continuum that stretches through history and across military, political, and diplomatic strategies. It may be seen as an intermediate step which, if successful, will reveal the “light at the end of the tunnel”—for the NLF and the North Vietnamese. Certainly the offensive marks no departure from traditional Vietnamese revolutionary strategy. In 1950-54 and then again in 1966-68 the North Vietnamese main forces fought conventional battles with the French and American regulars: they marched in large units, they used heavy weapons, and they held fixed battle positions. Dien Bien Phu, for example, was a purely conventional battle with the one difference that the Viet Minh did not use the French-built roads or airways to get to the battleground.

Of course, Dien Bien Phu took place in the setting of a People’s War, but so too does the current offensive: even though the guerrillas are weaker today, they tie down an equivalent number of troops. The North Vietnamese never before used so many tanks, heavy artillery pieces, and surface-to-air missiles, but then weapons on both sides have grown in magnitude since the beginning of the French Indochina war. The current offensive is not another Têt offensive any more than the battle for Khe Sanh during the Têt offensive was, as the US military then thought, “another Dien Bien Phu.” It is an extension of the working principle General Giap adopted during the French war of alternating between popular insurrection and regular warfare.

Looked at as a part of an over-all political and military strategy, the current offensive is probably designed with several objectives and several considerations in mind. The point is important, for it bears on the most commonly heard theory: that the North Vietnamese wish to influence the American Presidential election. While the North Vietnamese have certainly not ignored that election, Americans tend to exaggerate its importance to their planning. There is a distinction to be made. In the Têt offensive the communist leaders risked the near annihilation of their troops in the South in order to show the American people in the most dramatic way the futility of the US military adventure. (The lesson of Têt was, to put it simply, that if the Americans did not withdraw from Vietnam in 1968 they would still be fighting the war in 1972.) The North risked an immediate military defeat for a political victory and the prospect of a complete reversal of the military situation in the long run.

The current offensive has not followed the same pattern at all. Rather than the spectacular but militarily ineffective demonstration expected by US commanders (who after four years have learned what the Têt offensive was about), it has begun as a conservative military campaign. The offensive will surely demonstrate to the American electorate the hollowness of Nixon’s 1968 campaign promises to end the war. But it will do so only as a consequence of North Vietnamese military advances. The North Vietnamese may well have realized that it would be difficult for them to manipulate an American election when so few American lives are at stake and the US aid and air support for the Saigon regime constitute such a small part of the US budget. If so, they expected not that the offensive would result in a final victory by influencing the election but merely that it would push the electorate and the Administration further toward a recognition of the hopelessness of the cause of the Saigon regime. The North’s offer of renewed secret negotiations was in all likelihood not a new initiative but merely an offer to discuss the softening or the actual surrender of the Nixon Administration’s position.

American officials and journalists have also tended to discuss the offensive as though it had an exclusive bearing on the summit meeting scheduled in Moscow and on the relations between the great powers. This debate has produced only hours of barren and scholastic argument, not merely because the facts are so uncertain but because historically the relations of the great powers have proved almost impervious to the Vietnam war. Early in the conflict, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States established tacit ground rules designed to prevent the Vietnam war from becoming the provocation for World War III—no nuclear weapons, no invasion of North Vietnam by US troops, no troop support from China or the Soviet Union, etc.

Adherence to these rules has increasingly given all three powers the confidence to detach their involvement in the Vietnam war from all of their other mutual concerns. Even after the American bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong and the North Vietnamese attack on the American ships, the US and the Soviet Union may well go ahead with the summit meeting. But even if they do not, the chances are (though the chances always include catastrophe) that the meeting would be canceled for reasons of face alone, and the negotiations between the two countries would continue through normal diplomatic channels.

Nor have the Vietnam war and its alliances been greatly affected by the other concerns of the great powers. Few countries have had more stable relations over the past eighteen years than North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and China on the one hand, and the Saigon regime and the United States on the other. At present there is very little reason to assume that the offensive is changing Hanoi’s relations with Moscow and Peking. The North Vietnamese could not carry on the fighting without both Chinese and Russian support. The Chinese small arms and the heavy weapons donated by the Soviet Union over the past two years or so have gone far to determine the type of offensive the North Vietnamese are carrying out.

On the other hand, there is also little reason to suppose that either the Chinese or the Russians forced the North Vietnamese into the current offensive for their own ulterior motives. The North Vietnamese control all the triggers and, to judge from the past, they will continue to pull those triggers when and where it best suits them—within the limits of the ground rules set by the great powers. The timing of the current offensive may or may not worry the Soviet leaders, but they are not in any position to call the offensive off and risk losing a critical advantage to the United States. If North Vietnamese plans work out, the only unstable alliance will be that between the Saigon government and the US—and not because of interference by other great powers but because of the situation in South Vietnam itself.

In fact the reason for the offensive is extremely simple: the North Vietnamese want a military victory against the American-supported Saigon regime. Tactically, the principal target of their strategy over the past few weeks has appeared to be the regular ARVN divisions and the elite reserve units—the Marines, the Rangers, and the Airborne. This target determined their choice of location. Instead of attacking initially through the sparsely populated and relatively poorly defended high plateau, they went for the two most important strategic areas in the country, taking on the weakest of the local ARVN divisions: the newly formed Third ARVN Infantry, posted in the isolated firebases along the DMZ, and the Fifth ARVN Division, which has always been more of a stumbling block than a barrier across the northwestern approaches to Saigon.

Instead of advancing to overrun important towns, they kept their supply lines short and waited for the Thieu government to send in the reserves—the same tactic used by the NLF during the 1964-65 offensive. This engagement of reserves permitted them an almost free hand in the central highlands. Whether or not the attacks have so far lived up to their expectations, their planners clearly have maximum and minimum objectives and good enough communications with the regular divisions to operate flexibly, changing or modifying their strategy from day to day.

At this writing, after the fourth week of the offensive, they have already done much damage to the ARVN: they have practically destroyed the Third and Fifth Divisions. While apparently taking substantial losses themselves, they have inflicted high casualties upon two regiments of the crack ARVN First Division, regiments of the Twenty-first and Twenty-second Divisions in the central highlands, and a number of other regular units, including some of the best of the ARVN reserves. They have not so far withdrawn from any of their positions, and they maintain the initiative, not only in the two major areas of attack, but also in Binh Dinh, on the coast, in the central highlands, and elsewhere in the country.

Though many ARVN units—particularly the Marines and the Rangers—have fought well and successfully, the losses to the South Vietnamese may in the long run serve to demoralize large sections of the ARVN. “Demoralization” is, of course, a somewhat tricky word when applied to an army that in any case has no real enthusiasm for its cause or for the government it serves; but it has some meaning. After the five years before 1970, during which the American forces took the brunt of the large-unit battles, and after the last two years, during which the ARVN fought a war outside their own territory in Laos and Cambodia, many ARVN units had a sense of military superiority, if not invulnerability. Hostile though any soldier in these units might be to the Thieu regime, he was a much more difficult subject for NLF political cadres than his predecessor in 1963-65.

To do lasting damage to ARVN morale is very important to the North Vietnamese, for regular military engagements in a People’s War do not exist in isolation, as if they were played on a chessboard. One central goal for the North Vietnamese in this offensive is certainly to take pressure off the southern revolutionary movement. Before the offensive the guerrillas in many regions of South Vietnam had neither the room nor the security to enable them to expand and even, in certain areas, to survive. The depopulation and defoliation of the countryside by the American troops left the hugely expanded government territorial forces with the relatively easy tasks of destroying the remaining guerrilla “mini-bases” and of patroling to prevent the formation of new guerrilla training and supply centers.

The important Front political cadres continued to operate, but in many regions they found recruiting difficult, even among the people generally sympathetic to them. The villages were simply too exposed to the government’s troops and its various intelligence networks, such as that of the Phoenix program. With very few “liberated areas” left, the NLF became almost parasitic on the Saigon regime, buying their supplies in the government-controlled towns and infiltrating government agencies.

One way to help the guerrillas, therefore, was simply to give them space. Although in this offensive the North Vietnamese do not intend to occupy whole provinces permanently, they probably wish to “liberate” key areas that are some distance from the ARVN bases and the main roads. This they can do by an initial military victory followed by occasional displays of force sufficient to convince the ARVN that it is too dangerous to enter those areas except in large units, and thus, of necessity, infrequently. The guerrillas can cope with such large-scale operations simply by avoiding them, and for the rest of the time they can have the security to recruit and build.

One of the logical areas for the North Vietnamese to choose would be their own former “sanctuaries” across the Cambodian border and the neighboring War Zone C. Others might include the A Shau valley west of Hue, the mountainous regions of the northern provinces and central highlands, the U Minh forest at the base of the Delta, the Plain of Reeds and War Zone D just north of Saigon. If they succeed in securing these areas—and the results will probably remain unclear for some time—they will have reversed the military results of the American, operations in 1967-69 and gone a long way to returning the insurgency to its peak of 1965.

Though US officials portray this offensive as a “pure” or naked” military invasion from the North, the final goal of the North Vietnamese is political: it is to help rebuild the southern revolutionary movement. If the US continues to support the Saigon regime, as Nixon’s speech of April 26 would indicate, the NLF will be necessary to continue the struggle which, because of US firepower, cannot be completed by military means alone. Should the US negotiate an end to its own presence in Vietnam, the NLF will be necessary to the formation of a government in the South. Politically the North Vietnamese might expect this offensive to set off a chain reaction that would begin with the lowering of popular estimates about the military might of the Saigon regime and the encouragement of NLF sympathizers, and continue with the reorganization of Front village and district committees.

The offensive can be expected to have its greatest effect on the population and the government of central Vietnam from Binh Dinh to Quang Tri, in the provinces where revolutionary sentiment has traditionally been the strongest and where, because of the poverty and the isolation of the region, even the noncommunist communities have always resented control by Saigon. In Saigon as well the offensive may encourage the various urban political groups, such as the Buddhists, to become more active. Almost certainly it will encourage expression of the anti-American sentiment latent among the urban populations of the South.

At the moment it is impossible to predict how the offensive will end or to assess the degree of its impact. In four weeks the North Vietnamese have dealt a heavy blow to the ARVN, and it is possible, though unlikely, that the offensive will end by destroying the Saigon regime. The North Vietnamese do not have to march into Saigon and set up a government to accomplish that end; they will succeed in it if they manage to shatter the ARVN to such an extent that it cannot regroup for a counteroffensive, reorganize its divisions, or do much more than hold onto its own major bases. While life in Saigon might continue unaltered, the government would then cease to function in extensive regions of the countryside. The local civil servants and ARVN officers, left without supplies and having at last lost confidence that the regime could recover, would attempt to negotiate their own separate peace with the NLF.

But this scenario appears too drastic at the moment. The fighting will more probably die down before a political crisis occurs, and the effect of the offensive will be to set in motion a process of disintegration within the Saigon regime. The process may take place fairly rapidly, within a year or two, as the North Vietnamese and the NLF force the ARVN to abandon certain areas, such as the central highlands, cut the supply routes, rebuild the insurgency, and bring the cities to the point of economic and political crisis. Or it may occur, as it did in the early Sixties, so gradually that the signs of it are almost invisible: less activity on the part of the ARVN, less rice coming into Saigon from the countryside, more quarreling among the generals, and a new tone to political debates in the cities. Whatever the pace of these developments, however, it is difficult to see how the trend can be reversed, even if the offensive results in high casualties for the North Vietnamese army.

In showing the direction of things to come, the offensive has initiated an extremely dangerous period in the war. While Nixon has withdrawn most of the US ground troops from Vietnam, he has neither ended the war nor returned it to the status of a domestic Vietnamese struggle. It therefore remains a potential source of conflict between the great powers. As Administration officials themselves said, the sense of time running out tends to breed desperation and increased violence. Already the President has responded to the ground attacks by sharply increasing the numbers of American bombers ready for action in Indochina and launching the greatest bombing program since 1968 over both North and South Vietnam. Nixon’s explanation for this action was simply, “When they jump on you, you have to let them have it.”

But President Nixon now has both too much and too little power to respond to the North Vietnamese ground offensive. While the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong may cause much destruction, it can have no permanent effect on the military situation inside Vietnam. Possibly it will persuade the North Vietnamese to ease their pressure on the ARVN, but in that case Nixon has gained only time for the Saigon regime—and time will not resolve the dilemma he now confronts. If the North Vietnamese choose not to bow to the current bombing and to the threat of further bombing, Nixon might be faced with the even more serious choice of either acknowledging US impotence or taking actions so drastic as to upset the international ground rules and risk international catastrophe. If that choice comes, it will not be a fluke, but a foreseeable result of Nixon’s Vietnam policy over the past three and a half years.

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