The Easter Offensive of 1972: North Vietnam Attacks the South

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  • 0:01 All or Nothing for…
  • 1:24 The Easter Offensive
  • 3:52 The United States Response
  • 4:56 Aftermath
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Easter Offensive of 1972 was an effort by North Vietnam to eradicate South Vietnam, expedite the American withdrawal and unify the nation. Learn about the planning, execution and outcome of the campaign.

All or Nothing for North Vietnam

At the beginning of 1972, North Vietnam prepared for a major invasion of South Vietnam known as the Easter Offensive by the United States. North Vietnam contended that the offensive would prove to be the coup de grace to South Vietnam. However, it severely underestimated the resolve of both South Vietnam and the United States to prevent a communist takeover.

North Vietnam planned the Easter Offensive with a number of factors in mind. First, North Vietnam believed that the South Vietnamese forces, known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), were not capable of defending the nation. This theory was developed following the catastrophic loss the ARVN took during Operation Lam Son 719 in Laos in 1971. It was also backed by the observation that the United States' policy of Vietnamization, or turning the war over to South Vietnam, had not sufficiently trained the ARVN.

Second, North Vietnam contended that the Vietnamese living within South Vietnam would support the overthrow of the nation and the beginning of the national reunification. Finally, it hoped that a successful invasion of South Vietnam, including capturing the capital of Saigon, would force American voters to remove President Richard Nixon from office during the 1972 presidential election. Nixon proved to be a thorn in the side of North Vietnam; the nation hoped that an antiwar candidate would win the election and remove a major obstacle that was the American military. Yet, as you will see, the North Vietnamese reasoning was severely misguided.

The Easter Offensive

North Vietnam launched its invasion on March 30, 1972. Roughly 120,000 North Vietnamese troops, a mixture of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and remaining elements of the National Liberation Front (NLF), barreled into South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese strategy was a somewhat simultaneous three-pronged approach: a direct attack across the Demilitarized Zone, an invasion into the Central Highlands and the capturing the city of An Loc.

The first wave of PAVN attackers reached the province of Quang Tri, just across the Demilitarized Zone, on March 31. Within a day, the PAVN had administered a devastating beating to the ARVN division stationed in the area. By the end of April, Quang Tri City had been captured by PAVN. The North Vietnamese then moved toward the city of Hue.

Sensing an imminent defeat, President of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu quickly replaced the ARVN commanders within the region. The gamble worked as the ARVN forces regrouped and mounted a counteroffensive beginning in May. With assistance from American air and sea firepower, the ARVN halted the PAVN movement toward Hue and recaptured Quang Tri in September.

North Vietnam's second wave of the offensive was eerily similar to that of the first. PAVN invaded the Central Highlands region on April 12. The goal was to capture the provinces of Kontum and Pleiku, as well as divide South Vietnam in half at Route 19. At the onset of the engagement, ARVN took significant losses, and vital cities such as Dak To quickly fell to the PAVN forces.

Thieu had once again to shakeup his leadership within the region. He replaced the failing commander with a more seasoned leader. The move was beneficial as the ARVN rebounded and slowly eliminated the PAVN forces within Kontum and Pleiku. By the end of June, the ARVN had successfully reclaimed the Central Highlands.

The third and final prong of the offensive focused on the North Vietnamese capturing An Loc. Elements of the NLF were given the responsibility; it is important to note that there still was a majority of PAVN troops present during the mission. The North Vietnamese attacked on April 2 and established a perimeter around the city. This tactic should sound familiar as it was employed by the North Vietnamese before at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The NLF and PAVN bombarded An Loc with everything that it had, but the besieged ARVN forces, with the help of precise American artillery, fought valiantly. After over 90 days of combating the enemy, reinforcements arrived. The ARVN launched a counteroffensive and swiftly defeated the NLF/PAVN forces.

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