Efforts to reduce the aggressive capabilities of the North Vietnamese and to strengthen the South Vietnamese were primary goals of the Nixon administration, necessary to prepare the way for the successful withdrawal of American troops. Under the policy of Vietnamization, the size of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was increased and its training and equipment were improved. To interdict the use of Cambodia for sanctuary and supply, in March 1969 secret B-52 bombing of North Vietnam's Cambodian bases began, followed in April 1970 by an invasion of Camobodia by U.S. and ARVN forces to destroy munitions stockpiles and disrupt the enemy's compounds there. In early 1971, the South Vietnamese, supported by American units, swept into Laos to disrupt Communist supply and troop movements along the Ho Chi Minh trail. But these operations and the continuing aerial and ground combat in Vietnam failed to prevent a North Vietnamese invasion of the South in March 1972.
The success of the Vietnamization Program worried the North Vietnamese because it was succeeding and they were losing ground. They wanted to control as much of South Vietnam as possible at the time of a cease-fire so they would be in a position to expand from there after the Americans left. They planned the Nguyen Hue Campaign -- their name for the Easter Offensive -- to regain control on the ground, to setback or smash the ARVN, and to discredit Vietnamization as thoroughly as possible. From their experiences after the 1968 Tet Offensive they knew that American public opinion could be manipulated by heavy fighting -- even if North Vietnam lost on the battlefield, they could damage Pres. Nixon's claims that the war was winding down.
As early as November 1971, the intelligence community, the government of South Vietnam, and U.S. and South Vietnamese Army commanders anticipated a significant enemy offensive in 1972, on the scale of the Tet attack of 1968. The attack, which commenced in earnest on 30 March 1972, was a conventional cross-border invasion on three fronts with 40,000 troops and 600 armored vehicles:
An assault across the DMZ into Quang Tri province, coupled with a drive from the A Shau Valley toward Hue.
An attack on Kontum in the Central Highlands and Qui Nhon on the coast, attempting to sever S. Vietnam into two parts.
A drive in the south attempting to capture An Loc, the provincial capital 60 miles north of Saigon.
Success in these three simultaneous drives would put North Vietnam in control of most of South Vietnam, ready to subdue Saigon and take over the country.
Reaction to the North Vietnamese Assault
ARVN M113 APC of the 17th Armored Cavalry, near My Chanh, northwest of Hue, Vietnam, July 1972.
The attack in Quang Tri was carried out by four NVA divisions supported by intense artillery bombardments along with tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. Northern positions quickly fell under the shock and momentum of this tremendous assault, but ARVN formed a defensive line at Quang Tri City that held, helped by massive B52 air strikes. They were able to hold there unitl 1 May when they fell back to a second line across the Thach Han River. This left Hue open to the NVA, but ARVN I Corps held Hue and even counterattacked. By the end of June, ARVN was in position to retake Quang Tri City.
In the Central Highlands, NVA attacks did well right up to the gates of Kontum but they were not able to capture the city. ARVN defenders and the tremendous firepower of U.S. air power destroyed attacking NVA armor and troop formations. By the end of May, the NVA were retreating from Kontum.
In the southern attack, NVA moved toward Tay Ninh City and An Loc, both of which were initially successful with An Loc's airport falling on 7 April. The seige of An Loc saw the city endure multiple assaults, all defeated by mid-May by the tenacious ARVN defenders and awesome B52 raids on the attackers.
On 8 May 1972, President Nixon ordered the Linebacker campaign of air raids on North Vietnam, to punish the North for its aggression and to get them back to the Paris peace negotiations. By 17 May the NVA were in general retreat throughout S. Vietnam. Although fighting went on for months, the NVA momentum was shattered and the ARVN were advancing.
Results of the 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam
The Easter Offensive was conventional warfare, between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and the Army of South Vietham (ARVN) with the latter backed up by U.S. air power. The NVA fared poorly, losing an estimated 120,000 men in the large scale assaults. The American B-52s, combined with the growing strength and confidence of the ARVN, dealt a humiliating defeat to the North Vietnamese. As a result, they returned to the Paris negotiations with a new seriousness about reaching an agreement that would rid them of the American presence in Vietnam.