Stephen Emerson, North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive (Pen & Sword, 2020)
On paper, South Vietnamese prospects for winning the Vietnam War in 1972 looked as good as they ever had. Although the US was pulling out, its funding enabled South Vietnam to field one of the world’s biggest and best armed military forces. The policy of Vietnamization was going well apparently, but all was not as it seemed. Stephen Emerson narrates what happened next in an engaging little book.
Across the borders of South Vietnam, 225,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were massing, waiting for the order to strike. This was no peasant army, but a well-armed Soviet and Chinese backed force, whose commanders were willing to gamble on maintaining supply lines while overcoming the South Vietnamese resistance. On 30 March, NVA tanks rolled across the DMZ supported by a massive artillery barrage and 30,000 troops. More fighting broke out in April at the Cambodian border just north of Saigon, along the coast, and through the Central Highlands. ARVN defences collapsed in front of all this despite continuous air-strikes and American naval support. Then the NVA paused, allowing the Americans to escalate their air support for South Vietnam. Massive air-strikes followed, but the NVA pressed ahead with their offensive. The ARVN suffered great losses but held on where they could, particularly around Hue and the besieged An Loc. At Kontum, meanwhile, the NVA lost up to 40,000 troops in a losing effort. A lull followed again with both sides licking their considerable wounds, but the NVA had won ground. Only now they had to defend their gains.
In retaliation, President Nixon unleashed the full power of America’s Air Force on North Vietnam, hitting transportation and supply links the hardest. The North Vietnamese air defences had improved, causing some losses for the Americans though not enough to stop the pounding. While this was ongoing, the ARVN counter-attacked on the ground. After initial success, that offensive stalled too through attrition. Nevertheless, the ARVN crawled its way forward to regain much of what they had lost in the Easter Offensive and by September the NVA’s Easter gamble had failed. North Vietnam’s reluctance to negotiate saw the B-52s return in December, which changed minds if not hearts, and peace talks resumed. Emerson concludes with his analysis of the campaign that he regards mostly in terms of North Vietnamese miscalculations, though Hanoi’s gamble had exposed fatal flaws in South Vietnam’s ability to defend itself, which would end with defeat three years after the Easter Offensive.
North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive is a solid if unremarkable addition to Pen & Sword’s Cold War 1945-1991 series. Emerson teases out the main themes of the fighting that he reveals as much more intense than the textbook dismissal of the Offensive, as little more than strategic manoeuvring before peace talks, suggests. He is aided by informative maps and many colour and black and white photographs to tell a deeper story and one that deserves our attention if we are to understand the closing stages of the Vietnam War.