Black April: The Fall Of South Vietnam 1973-75 by George J. Veith
Long quotes from the book:
As this book depicts, South Vietnam was defeated not because of military incompetence or an unjust dictatorship, but because of six overriding facts: complete abrogation of the Paris Peace Accords by the North Vietnamese; dire South Vietnamese economic straits; lack of U.S. firepower to stem a massive assault; the vast reduction of U.S. aid; and President Thieu’s military blunders in the face of a large-scale Communist offensive. In combination, these five facts created a sixth: devastated South Vietnamese morale, which led to the swift collapse.
Strategically, the main failure in 1975 was not RVNAF cowardice, but Thieu’s aversion to a strong, centralized military command system. His structure of four corps commanders exercising complete control over their fiefdoms proved more devastating than anyone would have imagined. Faced with a nationwide offensive in 1975, and bereft of American fire support to counter the North Vietnamese army’s ability to mass, ARVN corps commanders were left isolated against a powerful and centrally controlled enemy.
The Communist offensive, of course, remains the primary reason for South Vietnam’s demise. Why did Hanoi succeed in 1975 when it had failed in 1972? Beyond the obvious impact of U.S. aid cuts on the South Vietnamese, the lack of U.S. firepower, and the massive infiltration of men and equipment, there were three significant improvements in the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) between 1972 and 1975 that helped Hanoi win.
First was the enhancement in North Vietnamese command and control, to include successfully using combined-arms formations, particularly armor. Soviet training assisted this development, but so did hard-won experience. Second, sophisticated logistics planning, improved engineering abilities, and detailed military and political analysis, even if heavily colored by Communist dogma, were all hallmarks of the 1975 campaign. In these fundamental aspects, the People’s Army in 1975 was far superior to any previous incarnation, even though it had fewer heavy weapons than the 1972 version.
The third factor was Communist spies who provided Hanoi critical intelligence into Saigon’s most closely guarded secrets. This advantage enabled PAVN to draft combat plans with almost real-time insight into RVNAF designs for counterattacks, withdrawals, and other maneuvers. Without such intelligence coups, it is doubtful that the North Vietnamese could have conducted its war-planning with such precision. Moreover, several agents acted as provocateurs, including one who visited President Gerald Ford with a South Vietnamese delegation in late March 1975, Another convinced an entire ARVN battalion to surrender on 28 April 1975.
Three physical factors also played pivotal roles in the war: weather, infrastructure, and geography. Vietnam has a distinct rainy season and dry season, and they dictated the war’s tempo. Since South Vietnam has few roads, the Communist tactic of using large units to grab and hold important sections of road, such as mountain passes and critical junctions, was essential in defeating the RVNAE During the days of vast American-supplied helicopter mobility, cutting the roads was a nuisance. In 1975, with limited fuel supplies and few spare parts for South Vietnamese helicopters, it was a mortal blow.
Most important, South Vietnam’s geography made defending the country against an invader extraordinarily difficult. South Vietnam is a long, narrow country, especially in the central and northern portions. This geographical fact meant the KVNAF had to protect an 800-mile western flank, most of which consisted of sparsely populated rugged mountain terrain covered with thick jungle vegetation. The difficult landscape provided plenty of concealment for enemy forces, enabling them to mass undetected at key points. Worse, there was little room between the mountains and the coast to absorb an assault. Armored columns could easily penetrate to the sea and cut the country in two, which is precisely what occurred in the Central Highlands in 1975. In perhaps the strangest twist of the war, in a conflict exemplified by the guerrilla on one side and the helicopter on the other, it was armor, the war’s least-used weapon system, which was the key to victory. This shocking development began at Ban Me Thuot, and continued until North Vietnamese tanks burst onto the grounds of Independence Palace in Saigon.
These key features, from an improved PAVN to the geography, made having reserves, firepower, mobility, and supplies fundamental ingredients in defending South Vietnam. No senior American or South Vietnamese military or political figure expected South Vietnam to defeat a major attack without adequate U.S. military firepower. Thus, for the remaining American personnel in South Vietnam, the U.S. Congress’s aid cutbacks and legislation denying fire support were the main culprits in South Vietnam’s demise. This combination essentially gutted the RVNAF while enticing the Politburo into militarily re-escalating the war.
Historical records prove this perspective to be correct, as there is no doubt that congressional aid reductions were imposed in perverse synchronicity with increased Communist aggression. Communist accounts written after the war trumpet the fact that aid cuts progressively weakened the RVNAF, while North Vietnam’s military strength concurrently recovered from the debacle of the 1972 offensive. In this volume, I discuss only briefly the anti-war groups’ efforts to convince Congress to reduce aid, but it should surprise no one that Hanoi closely monitored the ongoing discussion, attempted to influence it, and calculated its own opportunities accordingly.
Yet Hanoi’s decision to return to war was not based solely on American actions. Just as important was the North Vietnamese leaders’ judgment that the circumstances of 1973-75 presented them with the best window for achieving victory. They viewed the burgeoning economic problems of both South Vietnam and the United States, along with American domestic dissent and occasional South Vietnamese street protests, as proof that “internal contradictions” (mau thuan noi ho) had badly weakened both countries. Eventually, the Politburo reasoned, both would recover from their economic and political frailty. Moreover, China and Japan would establish stronger ties with South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese judged that if they did not act soon, it would be nearly impossible to unify the country under their domination.
To achieve their long-sought goal of unification, and unknown to everyone else at the time, in May 1973 the Communist leaders in North Vietnam decided to resume full-scale warfare in the South. To justify their decision, they blamed the failure of the accords on “massive” South Vietnamese and U.S. violations. The Politburo then hid its decision behind a public facade that its priority was economic reconstruction.
While the record on that decision leaves little room for misinterpretation, the evidence remains thin on precisely how the decision was reached. The debate among Politburo members over returning to war was probably more intense than has been revealed. Undoubtedly, the Party suppressed evidence of internal dissent in favor of a glorious tale of a unified Politburo determined to “liberate” the South. Still, the suppression of such evidence does not alter the fact that less than four months after the signing of the Paris Accords, the Party leadership in Hanoi secretly made a formal decision to return to war.
Ultimately, whatever errors were committed on the American and South Vietnamese side, the simple fact remains that a North Vietnamese military invasion conquered the country in direct violation of the Politburo’s solemn written pledges against such an action. Hanoi’s momentous choice to destroy the Paris Peace Accords and forcibly unify the country sent a generation of South Vietnamese into exile, and exacerbated a societal trauma in America over our long Vietnam involvement that reverberates to this day. How that transpired deserves deeper scrutiny.
RESEARCH, TERMINOLOGY, AND GEOGRAPHY
This book is the culmination of exhaustive research in three distinct areas: primary source documents from American archives, North Vietnamese publications containing primary and secondary source material, and dozens of articles and numerous interviews with key South Vietnamese participants. This work is mainly the voice of the Vietnamese-their stories, their view of what happened during the final days. It represents one of the largest Vietnamese translation projects ever accomplished, including almost one hundred North Vietnamese unit histories, battle studies, and memoirs. Most important, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the conquest of South Vietnam, the leaders in Hanoi released several compendium of formerly highly classified cables and memorandum between the Politburo and its military commanders in the South. Using this treasure trove of primary source materials, along with unit histories and memoirs of senior officers, this work provides the most complete account of North Vietnamese decision-making in a particular era ever compiled. While official South Vietnamese documentation remains scarce, enough material exists to provide a decent overview.
Thieu knew better. The Vietnamese Communists had a long history of ruthless elimination of opponents. From the earliest days of the Communist movement, most Nationalists who tried to work with the Marxists were soon betrayed or assassinated. As China’s Mao Zedong once told a senior Laotian Communist leader, “The purpose of organizing a coalition government is to destroy the coalition government.’Hanoi felt no differently.
Thieu, however, was not the inflexible hard-liner often portrayed. In fact, he had stated at a press conference in September 1971 that he was not against the National Liberation Front participating in elections. The only stipulation was that it could not carry out Communist activities, which were banned by the Constitution. He also informed U.S. officials in late January 1973 that if elections were held, he expected the NLF to win a few seats. Despite his earlier disavowal of Kissinger’s agreement, he now told U.S. visitors that he strongly favored the political solution envisioned by the Paris Accords. He believed the accords worked in his favor, since in his opinion the Communists had little political support in the country. Ultimately, Thieu’s policies stemmed from his unyielding belief that the Communists would not negotiate on the political issues until they had concluded that a military victory was unachievable.
While his faults were well known-and often magnified-Thieu receives little credit for his positive attributes. Tough and hard-working, he molded grand ambition with intelligence, courage, and cunning to govern a fractious country facing an implacable foe. These were the qualities that, while not endearing him to most American officials, generally earned their support. He realized that the departure of U.S. troops offered high risks coupled with a chance to craft his country’s destiny, and he was appropriately sobered by the enormous tasks he faced in rebuilding a country that had been devastated by war. Facing abundant problems in the economic, diplomatic, and security arenas, he tossed aside his instinctive caution and set an aggressive agenda.
The aid cuts were only one reason for the Communists’ conclusion that the time to strike had come. Nixon’s resignation in early August 1974 removed a major restraint on Communist strategy. Nixon, with his unpredictable penchant for releasing the bombers, was perhaps the only Western leader 1-cared by the Communists. The Politburo welcomed his resignation with undisguised delight. In its Weltanschauung, Nixon’s fall was a direct result of America’s defeat in Vietnam, which was feeding a growing revolutionary movement around the world against the United States. Both Le Duan and Truong Chinh viewed the Vietnam conflict within a “big-power” international context, and their analysis was highly slanted by Marxist-Leninist ideology. Le Duan fervently believed his country was the vanguard in a worldwide struggle for national liberation, and he ascribed to Vietnam an importance far beyond its nominal weight in the world.
Shortly after Nixon’s resignation, Truong Chinh analyzed the situation in precisely that framework: “Nixon’s resignation … is an important political event that signals the weakness and defeat of American imperialists…. Nixon was not forced to resign … solely because of the crimes committed in the Watergate affair…. Watergate … set off an explosion of the U.S:s social contradictions and the internal contradictions within the American monopoly capitalist class. In fact, the primary cause of these contradictions is the U.S. war of aggression in Vietnam…. For that reason, we can see that the deep, real reason for Nixon’s forced resignation was the heavy defeat the U.S. suffered in Vietnam, while the direct, ulterior reason was Watergate. In order to exacerbate the contradictions, to add to the difficulties of the Americans, and to win victory for our people, we must implement the following measures: We must launch a continuous and wide-ranging propaganda campaign aimed at both domestic [Vietnamese] and world opinion…. We must link the corruption, the rottenness, the failures, and the stagnation of the Nixon government to [the] Thieu government. We need to form a broad-based front against Thieu, a front that demands that Thieu be thrown out, that supports … the Paris Agreement, that frees the political prisoners, and that implements peace and national reconciliation.”