Tet With Tanks – The NVA Easter Offensive, 1972
ACG Vietnam War Bonus Article!
The October/November 2007 issue of ARMCHAIR GENERAL® magazine is chock-full of articles on America’s longest war, Vietnam, including James Willbank’s outstanding retrospective of the entire war, featuring ACG’s exclusive “VIETNAM” gatefold map. As a special bonus to complement the articles in our magazine and to expand our coverage of the Vietnam War, we present Frederick Lash’s compelling account of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Easter Offensive.
On March 30, 1972, Hanoi sought to take advantage of the U.S. troop drawdown and attempted to quickly overrun South Vietnam by launching a war-winning “Blitzkrieg” offensive during which its forces abandoned guerrilla war tactics and adopted conventional “fire and maneuver” operations featuring masses of NVA regular infantry supported by tanks and long-range artillery. This “Tet with tanks” was a colossal failure, but it exposed the weaknesses of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and demonstrated that ARVN could not prevail without massive U.S. fire support (mainly airpower and helicopter “tank killers”). Later, when Congress cut off all U.S. support to South Vietnam due to domestic political pressure (1973-75), Hanoi knew it could break the 1973 cease-fire agreement and overpower South Vietnam without U.S. interference.
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The lesson taught by the defeat during the 1972 Easter Offensive and the subsequent victory by Hanoi in April 1975 that can be applied to U.S. policy today regarding the new democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan seems clear: fledgling governments struggling against a determined enemy cannot survive without some level of continued U.S. military support.
ACG Editor in Chief
The entire bunker heaved as fine dust filtered through sandbags and the overhead wooden ceiling, filling U.S. Marine Major Walter Boomer’s nostrils and sticking to the sweat on his face and arms. As the last NVA artillery round slammed directly into Boomer’s bunker, he threw himself against the plywood wall of the 10×20-foot underground room. Even with tiny balls of wadded toilet paper stuffed in his ears, the ringing in his head continued. He yelled into his radio handset, demanding to know why friendly artillery had not slowed the incoming enemy barrage.
Major Boomer was the lone American Marine adviser to 200 South Vietnamese Marines at Fire Support Base (FSB) Sarge (see Easter Offensive map), a tiny, remote outpost a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Vietnam. On March 30, 1972, three days before Easter, FSB Sarge and several other firebases came under intense artillery barrages and ground attacks lasting day and night. So began the Vietnam War’s largest and most destructive offensive. In the north, 30,000 NVA troops, 400 tanks and armored fighting vehicles, and five artillery regiments attacked across the DMZ into South Vietnam, while an even larger force struck farther south at the heart of the republic.
Click for larger image
The 1972 Easter Offensive established a pattern that the North
Vietnamese would later follow – successfully – in 1975. The two-pronged
offensive combined a major assault across the DMZ with a strong offensive farther
south aimed at cutting South Vietnam in two. Departing from guerrilla
war tactics, the North Vietnamese invasions of 1972 and 1975 were
conventional attacks, using massed troops supported by tanks and artillery.
The South Vietnamese, supported by U.S. firepower, defeated the 1972
offensive. By 1975, American fire support had been withdrawn.
Image Credit: PETHO CARTOGRAPHY
Despite the Easter Offensive’s scope and intensity, this invasion and its outcome largely is unknown to the American public – even most Vietnam veterans know little about it. Stanley Karnow’s definitive work, Vietnam: A History, devotes only four pages to the event. Although the Easter Offensive was reported in the media, relatively few American ground troops were involved in the fighting, and the story never found roots. The ramifications of this last, massive shudder of America’s military presence in Vietnam, however, are significant. Three years later, had the forces of South Vietnam enjoyed the same U.S. airpower and military support as in they did in 1972, they might very well have prevented their final defeat by the invading North Vietnamese. The NVA plan and the forces committed to it in the NVA’s victorious 1975 campaign were virtually identical to those in the Easter Offensive in 1972. Only the absence of U.S. support in 1975 was different – with fatal results for the Republic of Vietnam.
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