The three-front Easter Offensive, launched by North Vietnam in 1972, stunned the South Vietnamese and Americans with its magnitude. Here, France’s Albert Grandolini explains how he explores this landmark campaign in the Vietnam War in two exhilarating new volumes.
For many, the Vietnam War is synonymous with anti-insurgency warfare – where US soldiers tried to catch elusive guerrillas by hunting them from helicopters.
That was partially true, but – in addition to being constantly harassed by the Viet Cong – the American forces were also fighting the regular North Vietnamese tough infantry in pitched battles.
After nearly seven years of a protracted conflict from 1965 to 1971, the United States began to remove itself gradually from the area. That trend was accelerated after the historic visit of President Nixon to Beijing in February 1972 – leading to a normalisation between the United States and Communist China – and thus removing one of the main concerns for Washington in Asia. Furthermore, tension also declined with the Soviet Union over an agreement about the limitation of strategic weapons.
The two main mentors of North Vietnam were then sending encouraging signs, enabling the United States to extract from the Vietnamese quagmire. By that date, nearly all the US ground forces had withdrawn from South Vietnam. They were intended to be replaced by the expanding South Vietnamese armed forces within the cadre of the so-called “Vietnamization” policy.
Feeling betrayed by the Chinese, the Hanoi leadership was prepared for an all-out offensive in order to break the stalemate. The longer they had to wait, the more the Saigon regime would be strengthened; the more the aid received from its communist allies risked dwindling. The North Vietnamese then planned an unprecedented all-out offensive in order to derail the “Vietnamization” process; to soundly defeat a perceived fragile Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN); and to grab the maximum territory possible in order to be in a position of strength at the negotiation table – currently taking place in Paris.
On Easter Monday, 30 March 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a nation-wide offensive that stunned both the South Vietnamese and the Americans by its magnitude. Carried out on three different fronts, it was a multi-divisional effort supported by hundreds of tanks! Thus began one of the fiercest campaigns of the Vietnam War, but also one of the less well-documented due to the fact that most of the American forces had gone home.
Most of the published accounts to-date usually give an American perspective of the fighting through the eyes of the US advisers attached to the ARVN units. Indeed, the advisers played a key role by offering their expertise and co-ordinating the American air support. However, these studies tend to give a disproportionate role to them, often overlooking (if not downplaying) the combat performances of the ARVN – sometimes for the purposes of self-aggrandisement.
The two volumes try to correct that trend by extensively using Vietnamese sources from both sides, combined with unique and rare photos. A particular emphasis is placed on the development and the mechanisation of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces. Consequently, the nature of the war changed dramatically – evolving from a guerrilla one into a conventional conflict.
After detailing the downsizing of the American forces and the setting up of the “Vietnamization” policy, the build-up of both the ARVN in the South and the PAVN in the North is also discussed at length in Volume 1: Invasion across the DMZ. It covers the main North Vietnamese assault across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The South Vietnamese resistance shuddered and then crumbled under the communist onslaught, putting Hue – the ancient imperial capital – at threat. It was only thanks to the US airpower – directed by a small group of courageous American advisers, which helped to turn the tide. Under the command of a new capable commander, the South Vietnamese then methodically counter-attacked to retake part of the lost ground. That culminated with the ferocious street-fighting for Quang Tri.
After that first blow, which fell across the DMZ – separating the North from South Vietnam – the rest of the fighting is covered in the Volume 2: Tanks in the streets. In a surprise move, three communist divisions with T-54 tanks attacked from their sanctuaries in Cambodia (just north of Saigon). But their armours ventured into the streets of the An Loc City where they met a desperate and heroic stand by the South Vietnamese soldiers and their American advisers. The capital of South Vietnam was saved.
Finally, the third prong of the North Vietnamese offensive swept across the northern Central Highlands – destroying a whole South Vietnamese division. The communists then resumed their advance when their tanks were again entangled in a new street-fighting battle inside the Kontum City. Furthermore, they were harassed by the newly-developed gunship helicopters armed with anti-tank missiles. That volume also describes how the North Vietnamese learned to use their tanks the hard way.
With an MA in History from Paris I Sorbonne University, France’s Albert Grandolini is a military historian and aviation journalist. He focuses his research on contemporary conflicts in general and particularly on the military history of Asia.
Having been born in South Vietnam, where he spent his childhood until the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is one of Albert’s main fields of research. He will publish three further volumes with the Asia@War Series, covering the last fighting in Vietnam from 1973 to 1975.
Another project with Helion & Company Ltd will be a multi-volume study of the air wars in South East Asia (except Vietnam) since 1945, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma and Thailand.