Chapter 18    Was Defeat Inevitable?

What happened in the last two years of the struggle in Vietnam cannot really be understood in isolation from the many years of war that preceded the final period. Considerable treatment was therefore given to events immediately preceding the Paris agreement, to the balance of forces in the South, to the disposition of forces following the Communist 1972 offensive, and to the cease-fire landgrab battles. Although measurements of power were not attempted, for the nature of ground combat does not lend itself to such analysis, it was clear that a temporary stalemate had been reached. The South was strong defensively and growing stronger with its newfound confidence, stability, and steadily improving combat efficiency, all brought about largely by the success of the Vietnamization program.

On the other hand, North Vietnam's expeditionary force, although no longer supported by an effective southern guerrilla force and badly battered by the battles of 1972, embarked on an intensive program of reorganization, modernization, and logistical buildup without interference from the United States or South Vietnam. The United States had withdrawn its forces from South Vietnam and that country lacked the military strength to attack the enemy's rear logistical areas and new lines of communication.

Generalizations about the character of the struggle in Vietnam inevitably fail many tests for validity and often lead to less rather than more understanding. That is why so much detail has been included in this account. One generalization, however, seems clear. During the last two years of the war, the South adopted an aggressive defense that strengthened its influence and improved security in the populated regions of the country. Seriously concerned about that success, the Communists responded with plans and operations specifically directed to "defeat pacification."

Although the antipacification plan was a failure, the NVA eliminated step by step isolated government outposts, most of which interfered in some degree with the Communist plan for developing sparsely populated regions and securing the expanded and modernized logistical system supporting the rapidly growing expeditionary force in the South. So, despite some notable Southern gains, as in the Seven Mountains of Chau Duc and the Tri Phap, and in Svay Rieng Province of Cambodia, the South's defenses around major population centers eventually became the forward line of contact.

As outposts fell, the armed forces of South Vietnam benefitted in that there were fewer demands placed upon strained logistical and tactical resources. On the other hand, the resources thus freed were insufficient to build up significant reserves. The compression of South Vietnam defenses around the population centers also meant that the advantages of the NVA multiplied. Its heavy artillery came within range of final objectives, its logistical system was able to expand without effective observation or interference, and strategic options increased. It enjoyed the decisive advantage of the ability to mass, with considerable surprise, overwhelming combat power against strategic objective areas. This, essentially, is what happened at Ban Me Thuot.

Yet the outcome could have been different. Unit for unit and man for man, the combat forces of South Vietnam repeatedly proved themselves superior to their adversaries. Missing, however, were inspired civil and military leadership at the highest levels and unflagging American moral and material support. The required leadership was certainly available in the South Vietnamese armed forces, but it was not allowed to surface and take charge in enough situations. The United States might conceivably have responded consistently and more generously had the South Vietnamese been able to demonstrate conclusively the validity of their cause through beneficent and self-sacrificing leadership at the top. But convincing reforms were needed in South Vietnam long before the cease-fire of January 1973 in order to have reversed the momentum of decreasing American support. Lest the impression be left that the civil and military leadership in North Vietnam was morally superior to that in the South or that the citizens of NorthVietnam enjoyed greater freedoms, one need only look at the events that have transpired in the South since May 1975. Even in embattled South Vietnam, the citizenry largely went about its private affairs without interruption or governmental interference, and the rule of law was preserved. But what was missing was a national leader of great stature and strength who was committed to personal sacrifice, willing to get tough with inept or corrupt subordinates, and able to rally the support he would need to stay in office. Such a man did not emerge. But even without strong leadership, substantial American support for an indefinite period would have made the difference. Given more time, a new generation of younger South Vietnam leaders probably could have produced the leadership to institute the internal reforms so badly needed.

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