Small Wars Journal

The Easter Offensive of 1972: A Prelude to Vengeance Achieved

Share this Post

The Easter Offensive of 1972: A Prelude to Vengeance Achieved

W. R. Baker

The Easter Offensive of 1972, coming at the end of the Vietnam War, is usually an afterthought in most histories of the conflict, primarily because most U.S. troops had already left the country. This does a great disservice to the American and South Vietnamese militaries who remained, particularly to those killed or wounded in-action. Even beyond that, the people of South Vietnam themselves were to experience the cruelty and savagery of the North Vietnamese Army and their terrorist cohorts - the Viet Cong (VC) - for almost a year after the offensive began.

A December 1971 COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam) resolution concludes with, “…if hit hard enough, the allies will either collapse or be forced to withdraw, enabling the revolution to regain access to the population.” (my emphasis). If the communists had to “regain access,” then they admitted to not having it. Without specifically stating it, the effects of pacification (gaining the support of the rural population for the South Vietnamese government) were obviously working.

Consider that pacification of the rural areas had shown steady positive results since 1968, to the point in late-1971 that almost 90% were considered pacified. The Popular and Regional Forces (PF/RF) had come far in protecting their local areas from the Viet Cong (VC), in many areas these terrorist units were filled-out by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.

As part of my adopted daily routine with the 571st Military Intelligence (MI) Detachment, 525th MI Group in South Vietnam in 1971-1972, I kept track of all NVA and VC forces in I Corps (which became the First Regional Assistance Command - FRAC).

Two years before I arrived, Col. Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.) remembered, “Although the local VC never stopped committing atrocities in southern Quang Nam Province … they outdid themselves in early March (1969) with a particularly vicious and egregious example of the kind of terror they were capable of inflicting on civilians. In a refugee camp 10 miles south of An Hoa, the VC came into the camp after dark, taking advantage of the South Vietnamese forces who would normally have provided security for the camp. The VC burned down thirty-one houses and murdered nine adults and twenty-two children. As they left, they warned the refugees that unless they returned to their farms in VC-controlled areas, they would return and kill all of them. Such acts, while not always on the same scale, were routine in areas where the local VC held sway in the province and provoked a profound fear among the population.” (Finlayson, 2014: 77-78). Of course, a much more formatted report would have found its way into the large files I kept on each unit and/or province, but notice Finlayson wrote “the local VC never stopped committing atrocities.” Multiply this statement a few times daily for every province and you can imagine how large these files became in a relatively short time. This does not include any of the VC’s unreported acts of violence throughout the provinces of I Corps, especially in areas that the Saigon government did not control.

The 571st MI Detachment was fortunate on several occasions to be able to provide timely and accurate information which led to the destruction of Surface-to-Air Missile sites, arms caches, and the infiltration of NVA and VC units.  One example while I was there was the recurring sightings of a so-called “Salt and Pepper” VC Armed Propaganda Team – a pair of presumed U.S. soldiers (one white, one black) carrying AK-47s. These two apparent military turncoats (though some has suggested they might have been French) were always reported west of Chu Lai and were of such high priority that U.S. Special Forces would conduct an immediate search after I notified them.  Despite the 3-4 reports I received about them, they were never caught.

A major problem in trying to confirm or refute the Rockpile massacre of 1,500-1,800 ARVN troops of the 56th Regiment/3rd ARVN Division by the NVA in early-April 1972 is the fact that a communist government is now in place in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government continues to deny anything that puts them in a bad light and has still never given a full accounting of the Hue and Dak Son massacres, nor have they indicated that anyone was tried for these atrocities

Another bloodlust was conducted by at least one NVA battalion a few miles away from the Rockpile. However, this wanton disregard for human life was witnessed by numerous press and other eyewitness reports that were published in newspapers (albeit tucked well inside them). These NVA troops were part of a blocking force south of Quang Tri that reportedly killed between 1,000-2,000 soldiers, old men, women, and children escaping southward along QL-1 (the national north-south highway) during late-April and early-May. The commander of the battalion told his troops that anyone coming south were the enemy and they were to kill them all.

Throughout South Vietnam, VC execution squads quickly roamed the country where areas recently occupied by NVA troops dominated, finding people who could identify any VC and those who would likely take over or resume their South Vietnamese government positions if there were to be a ceasefire.

These are a few examples of specific instances of what occurred in the first few months of the offensive.

  • In Quang Ngai, Local Force VC Sappers burned down 15 villages adding to the 30,000 people made homeless in May.
  • A “People’s Court” in Binh Dinh executed 45, after they dug their own graves sometime in the summer of 1972.  The VC also engaged in bayonet practice of at least three men, as well. In another instance in what has been called the “Binh Dinh Massacre,” between 250-500 people where tried and executed from among 6,000-7,000 collected and executed or impressed into servitude by VC/NVA forces in the An Lao and An Hue areas.
  • Forty-five people were buried alive in the Tam Quan District, as a local politician was beheaded in Bon Son village.

As of May 8, 1972, 700,000 people had fled the communist onslaught, mostly from Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces, which created a massive refugee problem. Also in this first month, it was estimated that 20,000 civilians were killed.

The terror campaign against civilians didn’t stop after the first few months of the offensive. In early September, a VC demolition squad attacked the largest refugee camp in Vietnam northwest of Da Nang. The camp held some 50,000 civilians and this attack killed 20 and wounded almost a 100.

Though there are many reasons given as to why North Vietnam didn’t simply wait until all U.S. forces were out of South Vietnam before making their assault against the South, one reason that has never been put forward is vengeance. A ruthless vengeance against the people of the South who hadn’t yet been beaten or enslaved, people who were trying to construct a viable democracy, and a people who had asked the greatest democracy on Earth for assistance and we answered the call. It was a vengeance that was consummated two years later when 185,000 people died in re-education camps, the 65,000 executed outside of these camps, and the 250,000 who died in the ocean trying to escape the horrors imposed on their country.

There has been no clamor for justice, no United Nations condemnations, no war trials - the sound of silence is deafening.


Andrew Finlayson (2014). Rice Paddy Recon: A Marine Officer’s Second Tour in Vietnam, 1968-1970. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.


Categories: Vietnam War

About the Author(s)

W. R. (Bob) Baker graduated with the first 96B/Intelligence Analyst class at Fort Huachuca, AZ in 1971. He was then assigned to the 1st Battalion (which soon became the 571st MI Det.), 525th MI Group, headquartered in Da Nang, Vietnam. His further assignments included positions at Fort Bliss, Texas; two tours with the European Defense Analysis Center (EUDAC) in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany; and the 513th MI Group in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

He left the US Army and worked as an analyst for Interstate Electronics, Northrop-Grumman and Xontec defense contractors before teaching in primary and secondary schools.

Mr. Baker has a bachelor of science degree in Government from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Dayton. He has authored other Easter Offensive articles and is currently writing a book on this subject.


To Bill C. RE: Civil and Proxy Wars…



With the notable exceptions of the English Civil War and the American Civil War, almost all civil wars involve foreign interference and participation.  From 1945 to 1975, Vietnam suffered both a civil war and a proxy war; Indochina’s Thirty Years War. 



War crimes and crimes against humanity should be attributed to their perpetrators, whether indigenous or foreign. 



Your reference to the Nicaraguan Revolution is off-topic with regard to Vietnam.



You refer to US and/or Western military interventions that transform other counties i.e. by imposing new and alien political and socio-economic orders in these countries.  Your examples include Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and yet the facts suggest the opposite:



  • In Vietnam, the US fought to preserve the nascent state of South Vietnam, which was more representative of Vietnamese history and traditions than the Communist state in North Vietnam.  By definition, Ho, Le, and the Communist Party of Vietnam were revolutionaries seeking to revolutionize Vietnamese society.  There were certainly tensions within Vietnam in terms of Catholic vs. Buddhist, pro-French vs. anti-French, landowner vs. peasant; however, those tensions co-existed in the South, whereas in the North they were obliterated by way of mass-repression.  Again, the process of collectivization in Vietnam killed ~5% of the total Vietnamese population and caused ~9% to flee.  
  • In Afghanistan, it is difficult to say with any certainty what the status quo was when the US invaded in 2001.  Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war since 1978, and the Taliban had ruled most of Afghanistan for only 5 years (1996-2001).  The Taliban were not wholly-Afghan and their ideology was a radical and revolutionary blend of Islamism and Pashtun culture.  Was Daud Khan’s fateful period as Afghanistan’s first President the status quo?  No.  Perhaps the US should have installed Karzai as a Shah or Emir to keep with centuries-old Afghan traditions?
  • Iraq only gained independence in 1932.  In 1968, the Ba’ath Party began transforming Iraq’s state and society, and in 1979, Iraq came under the rule of an aggressive tyrant who sought to impose absolute rule.  What is the true model then for Iraq?  A constitutional monarchy (Jordan, Morocco)?  A return to Ba’athism (Syria)?  Dictatorial rule (Algeria, Egypt)?  Decentralization along ethnic and confessional lines (Lebanon)? A new foray into democracy (Tunisia)?



All I can answer is that in all three cases, the adversaries of the United States had more transformative or revolutionary designs on the countries in question, than either the United States or its allies.

Bill C.

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 11:09am

Question:  If Vietnam can rightfully be described and understood as a "proxy war,"


The Vietnam War was a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union — then growing rapidly in military power, confidence, and prestige — and communist China. Despite their rivalry for leadership of the communist bloc of nations, the Soviets and the Chinese collaborated to support North Vietnam's effort to destroy South Vietnam, to promote communist revolutions in Indochina and, if possible, Thailand, and to humiliate the United States.


Then how can we avoid rightfully blaming the ambitions/the requirements of the competing great powers -- this, rather than indigenous personnel -- for the atrocities, chaos and suffering which occurs within such proxy wars?

Here is another proxy war example from the Old Cold War, in this case, via a 1991 Linda Robinson ("Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces ) review of Stephen Kinzer's then-recently published book "Blood of Brothers:"  


"Blood of Brothers" is a graphic account of a country torn in half over the Sandinistas' efforts to build a new political and economic order. Early on, Mr. Kinzer saw that Sandinista policies were alienating ordinary Nicaraguans. "In 1983 most Nicaraguans had still not fallen to the depths of deprivation and despair which they would reach in later years, but many were already unhappy and restive. . . . When the Sandinistas decreed that foreign trade was to be a state monopoly, they effectively declared war on these small-scale entrepreneurs. . . . [ And ] by trying to transform [ the existing system of food production ] so completely and so suddenly, they were underestimating the deeply ingrained conservatism of Nicaraguan peasants."

While Mr. Kinzer in no way sees the Sandinistas' actions as justifying the United States intervention by proxy, he does recognize that they fed the contra resistance: "As years passed, the nature of the contra force changed. Most of its members were young Nicaraguan peasants and workers, driven by Sandinista policies to the point of rebellion."


Moving forward to today -- and paraphrasing now Linda Robinson's thoughts above -- might we, indeed, concede that the great powers bear responsibility for the atrocities, chaos, suffering, etc., which occur as (a) these great powers, (b) pursue their wants, needs and desires; this, (c) "by, with and through" other states and societies?  


"Blood of brothers," also, is an apt and proper description of an entire region (the Greater Middle East) -- which, indeed, has been torn in half over the U.S./the West's efforts to build a new political and economic order there.


To W.R. Baker and Bill C……



W.R. Baker is absolutely correct that the PAVN and NLF deliberately and indiscriminately engaged in both war crimes and crimes against humanity in South Vietnam.  The CPV engaged in crimes against peace in South Vietnam, and crimes against humanity in the North as well as the country post-unification.  In comparing Hanoi and Saigon, the former killed almost 800,000 of its citizens in Red Terror (3.76% of the population), whereas the latter killed less than 100,000 (0.56% of the population) in White Terror.  During the war, US forces killed some 4,000 to 10,000 Vietnamese civilians and non-combatants in war crimes, whereas the North Vietnamese killed more than 550,000.  Nor do I recall the North Vietnamese or their Soviet and Chinese sponsors, ever holding PAVN or NLF members to account for these atrocities either during or after the war.



Bill C. is moving the goalpost from Vietnam to the “Greater Middle East”.  Before the Cold War, diverse societies clashed during World War II.  The Soviets absorbed numerous indigenous peoples during the 1944-1950 period (Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Western Ukrainians, Germans, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks), as did the Chinese in 1949-1950 (Uighurs, Tibetans, and others).  In addition, the Soviets and Chinese attempted to transform their societies – minorities and all – on a monumental scale that necessitated mass-murder, whether genocide, democide, or both. 



If the Western model of state and society is so alien and so incompatible beyond the West, then why has it taken hold in Europe, Latin America, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea?  Why did the Soviets kill mainly civilians in Afghanistan, while NATO now kills mainly Islamist militants?  Why does the Western model not require mass murder to establish, but Sino-Russian authoritarian capitalism does? 

Bill C.

Wed, 10/24/2018 - 12:26pm

With regard to the atrocities, chaos and suffering -- experienced by the indigenous peoples of numerous states and societies during the Old Cold War -- Azor and W.R. Baker, below, seem to discount -- or to simply disregard -- the central "causative" role of (a) expansionist great powers who (b) sought to transform other states and societies; this, (c) more along their -- often alien and profane -- modern/secular political, economic, social and value lines.  (See my Morgenthau quote below.)

And yet, are we not, today, somewhat more ready to acknowledge this exact such "cause and effect" relationship/role?

(For example, between [a] the U.S./the West's expansionist/transformative designs for the Greater Middle East of late and [b] the atrocities, chaos and suffering that has been experienced by the indigenous peoples of this region recently?)

In this regard, consider:

First, from 2003, and our determination, then, to "transform" the Greater Middle East; this, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines:


Today America and our friends and allies must commit ourselves to a long-term transformation in another part of the world: the Middle East.

Next, from 2017, and our apparent decision, now, to abandon these such "transformative" projects.  


This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.


Last, an understanding of how (a) these such "transformative" projects -- undertaken by great powers during the Old Cold War and again today -- (b) led to, re: the indigenous populations, atrocities, chaos and suffering.


On asking an anti-government tribal leader – whom he first met in the mountains of Afghanistan in 1987 – whether the ICRC could travel safely in the area under his control, a senior ICRC delegate received the following reply:

"Today, like 20 years ago, a government and its international allies are trying to impose a model of society, with all the modernization, reconstruction, development and Western values that go with it. Today, like 20 years ago, I disagree and we all shed blood. ... "





The London Charter of the International Military Tribunal in 1945 defined three categories of crimes: crimes against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity.

The hundreds of thousands of people who were deliberately and maliciously killed is not (and should not) be part of an academic exercise. The NVA and the VC killed without any thought of right or wrong. Whether they killed with flame throwers at Dak Son in 1967 or with AK-47s at the Highway of Horror in 1972, men, women, and children were viciously and wantonly slain in the years in-between, as well.

It isn’t an academic question, but a moral and human rights one.

In Reply to Bill C.’s ‘Broader Perspective’…



Bill C. considers the issue of attributing blame for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Cold War in general, and Vietnam in particular.  His attribution of responsibility predictably goes to: “the competing great powers”, as opposed to the “indigenous people”. 



With regard to the indigenous people of Vietnam, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s popularity necessitated that North Vietnam mass-murdered almost 4% of its population as it imposed collectivization during the 1950s-1970s; when North Vietnam conquered the South in 1975, some 10% of the population of former South Vietnam were expelled or fled.  The relief valve of the ‘boat people’ prevented Ho and Le from decimating (10%) of their subjects as was the case in North Korea under Kim (Il-Sung) and China under Mao; Castro’s reputation similarly benefited from the proximity of Cuba to the United States, to which almost 15% of the Cuban population would eventually flee.



Bill C. quotes Morgenthau, who seems to have lost the plot.  The Cold War was in many respects a continuation of a divide that emerged in the 1930s, pitting the Western democracies against totalitarian militarists.  For any who would dispute Soviet militarism, I would exhort them to note the following: in 1937 the Soviet Union was the second-largest per capita military spender, exceeded only by Japan (Kennedy, 1989); from 1948 to 1970, the Soviet Union was the first or second-largest military spender in absolute terms (Kennedy, 1989); and from 1950 to 1990, the Soviet Union spent double what the United States did on its military in relative terms (Harrison, 2003).  In fact, I doubt that there is an example of a Communist country that was not militarist, even if its military was intended for internal rather than external use.  



Did the United States forces commit war crimes in Vietnam?  Yes.  Did it support various authoritarian governments in South Vietnam?  Yes.  Does the ‘White Terror’ of Saigon compare to the ‘Red Terror’ of Hanoi?  Not at all.  Could South Vietnam have gone the way of South Korea and Taiwan?  Possibly.  Did conditions for the Vietnamese improve after unification?  No.  Did Vietnam lose more than a decade pursuing Maoist policies before instituting Dengist economic reforms?  Yes.  Which country do the Vietnamese want closer and better relations with?  The United States.

For a broader perspective -- and, thus, a different consideration as to who is to blame for such things as atrocities, suffering, etc. -- consider the following; which suggests that, ultimately,

a.  "Blame" for atrocities, suffering, etc.,

b.  Experienced by indigenous people during the Old Cold War,    

c.  This must -- rightfully -- be assigned to the competing great powers?


The United States and the Soviet Union face each other ... as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the Cold War has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a contest between two secular religions. And like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the globe, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of diplomatic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force.


(See Hans Morgenthau's "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.")