By W.R. (Bob) Baker
As the Easter Offensive of 1972 was the precursor to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, there were two occasions where the United States could and should have moved against North Vietnam earlier but didn’t.
The first time occurred prior to the invasion of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which began of March 30, 1972, was when William Stearman, a career Foreign Service member who went over to the National Security Council (NSC), put together a small sub rosa group before the Easter Offensive. This group was composed of NSA, CIA, and DIA members, as well as Dr. Steve Hosmer of RAND and Dr. Stearman. Using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)—the Hanoi newspapers—they had they first inkling of what was to be the Easter Offensive in the fall of 1971.
They found that North Vietnamese men who were previously exempted (both skilled and physically unfit, Chinese, and Montagnards who didn’t speak Vietnamese) were all being conscripted in North Vietnam, they looked at seasonal weather patterns, and “communications shifts,” all of which brought them to the conclusion that the date of the invasion was to be somewhere around 10 days before it actually occurred, which was March 30th. This analysis was passed to Henry Kissinger’s deputy, General Alexander Haig. “I wrongly passed this on to Al Haig who seems to have ignored it, since our generals were caught by surprise,” Stearman wrote.
The second occurrence happened shortly afterward.
DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency) noticed a large increase in men, materiel, and new unit traffic headed south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sound, heat, urine, and vibration sensors were placed along the Trail to detect movement of troops and trucks. Colonel Peter Armstrong, USMC, wrote, “Our estimate was based on hard intelligence, and as the intelligence business is a very competitive one, I also enjoyed the fact the DIA was first on the street with the new estimate.”
The 571st Military Intelligence Detachment (the only US intelligence unit still operating in South Vietnam’s I Corps) however, never received anything from DIA, nor any reference to their estimate. COL Armstrong also wrote that, “South Vietnamese units, while well aware of the impending offensive, were not prepared for the enormity of the Communist’s thrust directly through the DMZ.” If they were so well aware, why did US Ambassador (to South Vietnam) Ellsworth Bunker, General Creighton Abrams (MACV commander), and Major General William E. Potts (his J-2, Intelligence officer) all leave the country and why did two ARVN regiments below the DMZ turn off their comms and hit the road to swap positions on the very morning of the Easter Offensive of 1972? None of which could possibly indicate any sign of “high levels of awareness” or warning.
Surprisingly, the full extent of the invasion only became evident four days later.President Nixon “insisted that it was impossible for the North Vietnamese to haveassembled three divisions and support facilities without the Pentagon’s knowing about it. Laird, so the President made clear, had deliberately withheld the information.” Secretary Laird must not have remembered COL Armstrong’s briefing he received in January 1972.
The 571st knew something was going to happen from the information our agents were sending to us. This Human Intelligence allowed us to translate their information into exact locations and to correctly surmise their initial intentions – few headquarters (both in-country and out) listened until the NVA invasion began. For instance, one of the three NVA divisions was positioned west of Hue three weeks before one division entered South Vietnam from the Trail as another division and multiple independent regiments came south through the Demilitarized Zone early on March 30th.
If the generals and admirals in and out of Vietnam had heeded our intelligence, things would certainly have been different. Ultimately, there would probably have been far fewer American and South Vietnamese casualties as the US slammed the door in helping South Vietnam withstand the communist North.
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The topic of missed…
The topic of missed opportunities during the Vietnam War is a complex and controversial one. While it is interesting to consider whether the United States could have taken action to prevent the Easter Offensive of 1972, it is important to remember the complexity of the contexto conflict and the many factors that contributed to the decisions made by political and military leaders.
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Thanks to Break in the Chain…
Thanks to Break in the Chain author Bob Baker for his concise and informative article. With regard to South Vietnam's fate, the 'what-ifs' of that historic conflict are haunting, and the Easter Offensive of 1972 is no exception. I use the term 'historic conflict' even though it has been argued by some that South Vietnam (and, by extension, the rest of Indochina) was of no strategic importance to America. Nevertheless, I fear that when South Vietnam died, America began to slowly die thereafter. I refer to that honorable and dependable America of men like Dr. William Stearman and the courageous Captain (later Colonel) John Ripley who blew the bridge at Dong Ha on Easter Sunday, 1972. That the terms of the subsequent 'peace' of 1973 enabled an otherwise defeated NVA to remain in place within South Vietnam's borders was truly the beginning of an ignominious end, one that was determined by the slamming of the door which Bob chose as the bottom line of his article. Those who actively slammed that door and then barred it to ensure it stayed shut are amongst those who exulted in America's humiliation with the same degree of satisfaction that they savoured South Vietnam's defeat. Despite abundant and studiously disregarded evidence to the contrary, this treasonable legacy is lauded historically and culturally reinforced, and its effects today upon America's institutions are as pernicious as they are self-evident. 'Vietnam', therefore, may prove to be a 'small war' with great and terrible 'strategic' consequences for an America brought to ruin from within -- not least because of the twinned effects of history subverted and intelligence ignored.