Chapter 4 Consolidating and Rebuilding
In anticipation of the cease-fire, the North Vietnamese developed a strategy consisting of two parallel elements: political and military. Although this strategy was no departure from the fundamental theory that guided the prosecution of the war from its beginning, its restatement contributes to an understanding of subsequent events. Recognition of the endurance of this strategy and its ultimate objective, the conquest of South Vietnam, provides a frame of reference in which the tactics of the post-cease-fire period can be examined.
The political was the public element of Communist strategy. As the element that the North Vietnamese propagandized worldwide and used in exhortations to the troops, it first became apparent on the eve of the January cease-fire in a replay of the events preceding the aborted cease-fire of October 1972. Its supporting military activity was to capture as much populated area as possible just before the cease-fire, show the flag, and rely on the NVA main forces to contain the RVNAF while local forces entered the hamlets and villages. There the Communists would await the arrival of the teams of the International Commission for Control and Supervision to declare and guarantee their legitimacy in newly won areas. The success of this tactic depended on the local forces to gain access to the population and subsequently to win, through the gamut of persuasions from propaganda lectures to kidnapping and assassinations, allegiance from the South Vietnamese and defections from their forces. But the LANDGRAB campaign failed.
Much was learned about the political element of Communist strategy through the exploitation of captured documents and interrogation of prisoners of war and ralliers to the South Vietnamese side. One such document was Directive No. 2/73, issued by the enemy's Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) in late January to coincide with the signing of the cease-fire agreement. Enunciating the guidelines for activity during and after the ceasefire, this document was explained to all Communist forces in South Vietnam. It announced the beginning of a new political struggle in which military units were to play a secondary role in support of the political efforts of the cadre. They were to help the VC with its proselyting role, harass the RVNAF, defend the "liberated" areas, conduct terrorist campaigns, protect "mass movements," and secure the resettlement areas within the Communist-controlled regions of the country. Essentially, this document contained the rationale for the campaign.
Although disappointed by the failures of January and February, the Communists did not abandon the political offensive. COSVN Directive No. 2/73 called upon the Viet Cong's infrastructure, or political arm, to accomplish five tasks sequentially: (1) motivate the population; (2) develop mass movements; (3) reform the infrastructure and local armed forces to suit prevailing conditions and to mirror the governmental structure of South Vietnam; (4) strengthen the infrastructure, the revolutionary government, and its armed forces; and (S) adapt operational procedures to new situations and missions. Although the guidance was admittedly vague, it was to be executed with readily definable programs. The COSVN directive applied only to COSVN forces in the southern part of South Vietnam, but it was based on high-level guidance from Hanoi and had its counterparts in the other military regions and fronts.
One of the major components of the political offensive was propaganda. There were three broad targets for it: "world opinion," in which were included, with different objectives, both the United States and North Vietnam's allies; the citizens and armed forces of South Vietnam; and the Communists' own people and soldiers.
The principal thrust of the propaganda message to the world was that the Communists were scrupulously observing the terms of the cease-fire in the face of constant, aggressive violations by the other side. The only offensive operations undertaken by the Communist forces were to punish the "Thieu puppets" and promote peace. This line persisted until its credibility was worn irreparably thin by the NVA's conquest of Phuoc Long Province in December 1974. Although its effectiveness cannot be objectively measured, Soviet and Chinese military and economic assistance to North Vietnam increased after the cease-fire, while American help tapered off. An estimate based on information available in early 1975 showed that North Vietnam received from its Communist allies a record 2.8 million metric tons of imported commodities during 1973. This volume was over 50 percent greater than that received during 1972 and more than 10 percent higher than the previous record set in 1971. The trend continued throughout 1974, when more than 3.5 million tons were received.
That the propaganda to encourage desertion and disaffection among RVNAF troops failed is shown in desertion statistics. For example, in the first half of 1973, desertions among territorials, the most vulnerable to Communist propaganda, remained relatively constant, declining slightly from a high in February. Desertions in the ARVN declined sharply from February to June, the period of most intensive Communist proselyting activity. Almost without exception the desertions were simply desertions and not defections to the Communist side.
The third target of the propaganda campaign, the NVA, was especially important because its soldiers were anticipating a real peace and an early return to their northern homeland. With inconsequential exceptions, the only NVA soldiers who went home were the severely wounded and sick, essentially those who could never be returned to battle. Even ex-prisoners of war, unless they were in poor physical condition, were assembled in retraining camps in the South and reassigned to combat units. Many Communist PWs released by the South Vietnamese after the cease-fire rallied or were captured again.
The first former Viet Cong PW to rally in Phu Yen Province turned himself in on 10 June 1973 to Dong Xuan District. His testimony was typical. He said that a thousand PWs were released in Binh Dinh Province on 10 and 11 March 1973. Their first formal activity was so-called political training during a 10-day period of reorientation and rest. Next they were told that they would have to spend another period of time, unspecified, working for the revolution and for ultimate victory. About 700 of the prisoners, men not over 30 years old, were assigned to military units in Communist MRS; about 300 who were over 30 were sent back to their home provinces to be assigned to VC Province Party Committees.
The heavy fighting of 1972, the high casualties and little evidence of accomplishment, combined with the profound disappointment on being ordered to remain in the southern battlefields, had lowered morale in many units. The failure of the cease-fire to bring peace had to be rationalized and attributed to the perfidy of the South Vietnamese.
Another tactic included in the political strategy was resettlement of the "liberated" areas. In some parts of the country, this involved moving civilians from North Vietnam down Laotian trails into the wooded, primitive areas of the Central Highlands. In other cases such as in South Vietnam's Military Region 3, it involved bringing in not only Northerners, but also Southerners who had fled their homes in Tay Ninh and Binh Long for the relative safety of Cambodia.
One example of this program was described in the interrogation of a soldier who had been in the 12th Artillery Battalion of the 711th NVA Division before defecting on 22 June 1973 in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province. This rallier described a speech, made at the hospital in which he was a patient, by To Huu, who was introduced as the Secretary of the Central Headquarters of the North Vietnamese Labor Party. Huu had traveled from Hanoi on an inspection trip with other members of the Government. According to the rallier, Huu said that if the South did not strictly observe the ceasefire agreement, the Armed Forces of the North would "deal heavy blows" to the enemy in the South. In the meantime the Army's missions would be to promote self-sufficiency in producing food and to train to improve combat skills and be always ready to fight. He added that many youths, including young women, were being bought from North Vietnam to construct roads and installations in the base areas and that when a true peace was achieved, they would be employed in civil enterprises and agriculture in the "liberated" areas.
The world wide propaganda campaign was launched soon after the agreement was signed. On 30 January 1973, Hanoi Radio said that the United States and South Vietnam must "bear full responsibility" for cease-fire violations and demanded that Saigon "immediately withdraw" its forces from "areas under Provisional Revolutionary Government, Republic of South Vietnam control." The broadcast blasted President Thieu's 28 January speech, which, it claimed, proved his intention "to sabotage the agreement right at the outset." It also charged that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Sullivan sought "to cover up these violations" and had "hinted at the possibility of resuming United States military intervention, which makes one question the United States attitude toward seriously implementing the agreement."
Meanwhile, Le Duc Tho and Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh were attending a banquet hosted by top Russian officials in Moscow. This visit ostensibly was to brief the Soviet leadership on the final round of talks in Paris. In Hanoi, the North Vietnamese Central Committee convened a special conference on 29 January to hear government leaders report on the Paris Agreement. Truong Chinh, Chairman of the National Assembly's Standing Committee, urged the audience to propagandize "deeply and widely" the "great victory of the agreement on ending the war."
To administer the areas in which new settlers were being established, immediately after the ceasefire and perhaps before, the North Vietnamese began sending in large numbers of bureaucrats. By mid-May more than 3,000 were on their way to South Vietnam, their functions covering the full spectrum of government and public administration. By far the largest enemy-controlled population in South Vietnam, possibly as many as 180,000 people, was in northern and western Quang Tri Province, spreading southward into western Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, as well as western Quang Nam. Many of the people were Montagnards who had fled to Laos but had returned to their homes after the cease-fire. In northern Quang Tri, which was under exclusive North Vietnamese control as far south as the Thach Han River, a provincial government, integrated into the North Vietnamese system, developed gradually, probably beginning in the winter of 1972, and by the time of the cease-fire the process was virtually complete. Local offices of the Departments of Communications and Transportation, Culture, Education, Finance, and Public Health were established while the Lao Dong (Communist) Party of North Vietnam began operating in Quang Tri, co-located with government headquarters in Dong Ha.
Farther south, in South Vietnam's Military Region 2, Communist administration in the villages was on a much smaller scale and vulnerable to interference. A survey in early May 1973 in Phu My District in the center of the coastal plain of Binh Dinh Province disclosed that about 25,000 of the district's 100,000 people were under Communist control. According to the survey, since the ceasefire the Communists had established resident Village Administrative Committees in 13 of the 15 government-recognized villages of Phu My. In 9 of the villages the Communists had constructed permanent, publicly identified village offices, usually of palm leaves and thatch, and some displayed the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) flag. In the other 4 villages, they used private homes for offices. In My Chanh, the village office was within 500 meters of and plainly visible from the South Vietnamese village office. In order to fill some of the vacant positions in the village administration in Phu My, the VC demobilized some of the military cadre and brought them back to perform administrative duties. The Communists constructed fences around sections of villages and hamlets and told the people that those areas would be defended if the South Vietnamese government tried to interfere. They also began confiscating South Vietnamese identification cards, replacing them with Communist documents. When an individual wanted to leave the area, he would call at the village office and obtain his South Vietnamese identification card, which he needed for travel in areas controlled by the RVNAF. Upon returning to the village, he would turn in his South Vietnamese card and pick up his Communist card.
Preparations for issuing identification cards were discovered soon after the cease-fire throughout Vietnam. Notes made in a book belonging to an unidentified cadre from Communist Military Region 5 (Quang Da Special Zone Party Committee) disclosed that 50,000 identification cards were available for distribution some time after 25 December 1972. Other notes revealed that 165,000 identification cards would be issued following the cease-fire but would be back-dated beginning in February 1970 in order to create the impression that the bearer had been under the control of the Communist government since the date of issue of the card.
An example of how a local VC political unit interpreted and determined to execute COSVN Directive No. 2/73 was contained in a report from a member of the VC Can Tho Province Committee. On 19 February 1973, the Committee issued a directive entitled "Indoctrination Document for Can Tho Province Unit." The mission of the Communist Armed Forces, as described in this directive, was to support the political struggle through violence and bloodshed although this did not mean, the directive insisted, that they would conduct attacks that "clearly violated" the cease-fire. On the other hand, it did not mean that they would cease hostile action. This sort of rationalization was fairly typical of the guidance given to local units during this period. The Communist military force in Can Tho Province was expected to occupy and control all rural areas so that the political and administrative organizations could establish jurisdiction. They were not to use firepower to overwhelm the RVNAF but only to protect their political forces from attack. The directive went on to say that the combat units were to protect VC "controlled territory" so that VC organizations in "liberated" areas could be developed. They were also to eliminate South Vietnamese officials in the villages and hamlets, surround government outposts with mines and booby traps, increase guerrilla warfare by harassing the RVNAF with small-scale attacks and ambushes, capture weapons, and organize indoctrination sessions "to develop the spirit of leadership." Coincident with these low-level military operations, armed propaganda units had two primary missions: to enter South Vietnamese-controlled territory and recruit in the vicinity of the outposts manned by territorial forces; to move among the population, propagandizing, recruiting soldiers, and collecting taxes. During the months following the cease-fire, Communist activities in the delta generally followed the patterns suggested by this directive.
The guidance for military-supported political activities in Can Tho Province was similar to that issued in Tay Ninh Province. In late April 1973, COSVN conducted a meeting concerning proselyting among the Cao Dai, a religious sect centered in Tay Ninh City. At this meeting, the Lao Dong Party Committee advised that the time had come to
concentrate on developing the "liberated" areas and not to be concerned with launching military campaigns. Political capabilities and local infrastructures would be expanded. The NVA had paid a high price to achieve the cease-fire agreement, and it behooved the VC leadership to operate within the framework of the agreement to recover its political, economic, and military strength. In Tay Ninh Province, the Thien Ngon and Xa Mat areas would be developed into political and economic resettlement areas. (Thien Ngon was in north-central Tay Ninh Province, and Xa Mat was north of it on the Cambodian border. This was the area in which contingents of COSVN Headquarters had been located before most of them slipped across the border during the Cambodian incursion of 1970.)
The Northern leadership expected more of the Southern cadres than they were able to deliver. One of the Southerners at the meeting said that one of the greatest problems they faced was the lack of success in recruiting new party cadre at local levels. The problems arose, they said, from the gradual isolation of the cadre from the people and local units and because the political cadre had suffered greatly during the 1972 campaign LANDGRAB 73
Preparing for the Military Option
Even as the political offensive was being conducted internationally and locally, supported by relatively minor military operations, unprecedented preparations for new main force warfare were under way in North Vietnam and along the lines of communication into South Vietnam. Anxious to deny observation of these preparations, the NVA provided protection for them by deploying new antiaircraft systems into South Vietnam. Although the North Vietnamese were largely successful in denying VNAF visual or photo reconnaissance over sensitive areas, they were not successful in preventing U.S. reconnaissance drones from photographing the buildup.
Attempts by the ICCS, which was supposed to monitor shipments of all war materials into South Vietnam, to deploy to the border crossing points were effectively thwarted by the Communists. One such effort ended in tragedy on 7 April 1973 when two ICCS helicopters, flown under contract by Air America, were shot down along Route 9 in Quang Tri Province, en route to Lao Bao on the Laos frontier. One was hit by an SA-7 heat-seeking antiaircraft missile and crashed in the forest killing all nine passengers and crew, including a North Vietnamese officer who was suppose to be guiding the flight over an approved course to Lao Bao. The other helicopter, hit by small arms and machine gun fire, made an emergency landing without casualties.
Attempts to establish an effective ICCS post at Duc Co, the proposed entry point into Pleiku Province, also failed. Because of inadequate health protection and sanitation facilities provided by the Communists, all ICCS members became ill with malaria, dysentery, or other ailments. The post was abandoned in May 1973, although the closing was of little consequence, because while in Duc Co, the team was never permitted outside its compound without Communist escort and was not allowed to observe any traffic or military activity.
As mentioned earlier, the North Vietnamese were receiving ample shipments of military assistance from Communist allies, principally the Soviet Union and China. The problem facing the NVA was not the quantity of material coming into North Vietnam but rather transportation of the equipment into South Vietnam, storing it, and distributing it to the combat units. Nevertheless, over the years, even in the face of intensive U.S. air attacks, the NVA had developed a complex and remarkably efficient system for the movement of supplies into South Vietnam.
With the advent of the cease-fire, the system was streamlined and expanded. Unfettered by American air attacks in North Vietnam, Laos, or South Vietnam, the system was soon able to handle increasingly large tonnages of ammunition, tanks, and other heavy equipment and at the same time transport to South Vietnam the thousands of replacements required by the NVA.
In a strategic sense, this logistics system provided the North Vietnamese with the military option of renewing the main force war if the political offensive failed to achieve its objective. Signs that the political offensive might fail must have been apparent to the North Vietnamese leadership early in 1973, for it was then that a new surge of replacements and heavy equipment began to move south. In a remarkably short time, the NVA established in the South its strongest military position during the course of the entire war.
The organization responsible for the movement of all personnel and materiel into South Vietnam was the Headquarters, General Directorate for Rear Services. Located in Hanoi, the headquarters directly controlled the operations of all support units in North Vietnam, Northern Laos, and Military Region 559, the latter controlling operations of logistics groups in southern Laos, the Republic of Vietnam, and Cambodia. In December 1972, there were five logistical groups subordinate to MR 559: Group 470 had jurisdiction generally in the triborder area of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam and southward into the mountain provinces of South Vietnam; Group 471 controlled activities north of Group 470 and into the A Shau Valley of Vietnam's Thua Thien Province; Group 473's area was north of the A Shau and ended just south of Khe Sanh, but also extended into the Muong Nong region of Laos; Southern Laos was the operating area of Group 472; and the southern part of North Vietnam and the Ban Karai and Mu Gia passes were the responsibility of Group 571.
Each group had subordinate to it a number of Binh Trams, which were administrative, tactical, and logistical headquarters, responsible for all activities within their respective areas of operation. In December 1972, there were 45 Binh Trams with an approximate total strength of 75,000 men. The composition of a Binh Tram varied with the scope of its activities and the region in which it was located. Binh Tram 35, for example, in Saravane Province of southern Laos, had a headquarters and staff of about 450 men, two infantry companies of about 125 men each, two NVA engineer battalions with a total strength of about 500, a transportation truck battalion, three antiaircraft artillery battalions, and two communications-liaison battalions. Binh Tram 37 was located farther south in Laos in Attopoeu and had a strength of about 3,400 men. Its additional strength was accounted for by four standard transportation battalions and a river transportation battalion. As the year ended, about 19 of the 45 Binh Trams in the system were operating in southern Laos from the Mu Gia Pass to the Cambodian border. Considerably mobile, Binh Trams were observed moving from Laos into South Vietnam during the 1972 offensive to provide better support for heavily engaged combat forces. Although Binh Trams suffered severely from American bombing during the 1972 campaign, their recovery after the cessation of the bombing was rapid.
The headquarters for MR 559 was located in the southern part of North Vietnam. In addition to the engineer, transportation, and communications battalions operating under the control of the Binh Trams, the 559th directly controlled up to four engineer regiments and the equivalent of a transportation battalion. In addition to the Binh Tram system, a number of other North Vietnamese forces contributed to the security of the lines of communication through Laos. Among these were the NVA 968th Infantry Division in Saravane Province, several independent infantry battalions, and a number of antiaircraft artillery regiments.
As long as American planes continued to interdict the supply corridors through Laos, the NVA had to maintain the large number of Binh Trams and way stations along the routes. Trucks could run only at night or under other conditions of reduced visibility. Replacements had to march on foot from North Vietnam to their final destinations in South Vietnam. This required stations for rest, rations, and medical attention. When the bombing stopped, the roads could be improved and used around-the-clock. March distances were increased and troops began making the journey by truck rather than on foot, freeing a number of Binh Tram soldiers for employment elsewhere.
The Intelligence Branch of DAO Saigon took note of these new developments and recommended that new travel times be used in estimating the arrival of NVA replacements. Subsequent interrogation of prisoners and ralliers confirmed the validity of this new estimating policy. The distance from Vinh, for example, where one of the first Binh Trams was located, to the DMZ was about 300 kilometers. This was a 20-day march, while by vehicle it took only two days. A replacement destined for COSVN, having to travel 1,250 kilometers from Vinh, was on the trail for about 100 days, while DAO Saigon estimated the travel time by vehicle to be about 25 days. This was in April 1973; by the winter of 1974, travel time to COSVN had been reduced to under 20 days.
Several categories of troops used the NVA transportation network. First, and the largest proportion, were combat replacements moving south. Movements of this category began slowly, but by the end of 1973 more than 75,000 individual replacements had moved into South Vietnam. A much smaller category was composed of military and civilian cadre who had been on missions in the North and were returning South, or who were replacing cadre in Southern assignments. A third category were civilian settlers to populate the "liberated" areas; this group was also proportionately small. The fourth category consisted of organized units such as antiaircraft regiments and tank battalions. There were also large numbers of trucks in convoys moving ammunition, supplies, and equipment for replacing losses and equipping new units. In the absence of American air interdiction of the roads in Laos and North Vietnam, the NVA for the first time in the war was able to move badly wounded soldiers out of primitive hospitals in South Vietnam to better treatment in North Vietnam. Limited numbers of released PWs were also moved north on trucks that had discharged their cargoes and were returning for new loads.
By comparing the experiences of the previous years, analysts were able to draw conclusions concerning enemy capabilities and intentions based upon the intensity and size of the infiltration and the logistical movements. The NVA would periodically conduct so-called transportation offensives to deliver surges of supplies and equipment, sometimes in preparation for major operations, at other times only to replace depleted stocks. The greatest numbers of individual replacements normally came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the southern Laotian dry season, December through July. An exception occurred during 1968 when trail activity Quang Tri Province and set up near Khe Sanh. By the end of April this regiment had constructed eight SA-2 sites around Khe Sanh and had placed weapons in four of them. Although it would have been prudent for the South Vietnamese to have destroyed the sites before they became operational, the VNAF lacked the sophisticated ordnance, the radar jamming gear, and the navigational aids required for such a mission. Even had it been possible politically for American planes to do the job, significant losses would have been expected. While ominous for the future, Communist reinforcement of its expeditionary army in South Vietnam was consistent with the political offensive enunciated in the strategy direct 175-mm. guns in the ARVN corps artillery. (The ARVN had five battalions of 175s, each with 12 guns. Three battalions were deployed in MR 1 and one each in MR 2 and 3. The gun had a maximum effective range of 32,000 meters. The 105-mm. and 155-mm. howitzers had maximum effective ranges of 11,000 and 15,000 meters respectively. Ranged against these weapons were the 122- and 130-mm. Soviet field guns with ranges of 23,000 meters and 26,000 meters respectively. The Soviet 122-mm. howitzer had a range comparable to the U.S. 105-mm. howitzer, many of which were also in the NVA artillery force.)
By the end of April the NVA had increased its artillery strength in South Vietnam by the introduction of at least 170 more 122- and 130-mm. guns, bringing the total to over 250. As was the case with replacement soldiers, no accounting was made to the ICCS, but the ICCS teams nevertheless kept close track of U.S. shipments into Bien Hoa, Da Nang, and other ports of entry.
Of particular concern to the South Vietnamese as well as to American officers responsible for planning for renewed U.S. air operations, should they be ordered, was a rapid and significant increase in the NVA's air defense forces in northern Quang Tri Province. Order-of-battle experts had evidence that elements of 10 NVA antiaircraft regiments were operating in Quang Tri Province at the end of 1972. By the end of January 1973, two more regiments had joined this force and by the end of April, the count had risen to 13, even after two of the Quang Tri regiments had shifted into Laos. These antiaircraft regiments were equipped with cannon ranging from the automatic 20-mm. to 100-mm. They also had 12.7 and 14.5-mm. antiaircraft machine guns, and many of their 57-mm. cannon were radar-controlled. Furthermore they had the SA-7 "Strella" Soviet hand-held, heat-seeking missile, and early in 1973 evidence began to accumulate that at least some of the SA-7's were an improved version. Also early in 1973 the 263d SAM Regiment moved into
Note on Sources
The section on North Vietnamese post-cease-fire strategy was derived largely from documents captured by the ARVN, translated at the J2/JGS Document Exploitation Center, and furnished to DAO Saigon. Principal among these documents was a copy of COSVN Directive 2/73. Interpretations of this and other documents, as well as reports of interrogations of prisoners of war and ralliers, were found in DAO reports, studies, and estimates and in reports originated by the U.S. Embassy, Saigon.
Strength and other personnel reports, prepared by the RVNAF J-1, and furnished to DAO Saigon, provided information on RVNAF desertion and absentee rates.
Unclassified reports by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) provided quotations from the Hanoi press and radio.
Reports, appraisals, estimates and fact sheets prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency and DAO Saigon were used as the basis for information concerning the NVA logistical and tactical buildup in South Vietnam. Finally, translated editions of the J2/JGS Daily Intelligence Summary and notes retained by the author were used to describe certain aspects of the enemy strategy and general situation.