Vietnam War: The Easter Offensive

Easter Offensive
Photograph Courtesy of the US Army Center for Military History

The Easter Offensive occurred between March 30 and Oct. 22, 1972, and was a later campaign of the Vietnam War.

Armies & Commanders

South Vietnam & United States:

  • Hoang Xuan Lam
  • Ngo Dzu
  • Nguyen Van Minh
  • 742,000 men

North Vietnam:

  • Van Tien Dung
  • Tran Van Tra
  • Hoang Minh Thao
  • 120,000 men

Easter Offensive Background

In 1971, following the failure of the South Vietnamese in Operation Lam Son 719, the North Vietnamese government began assessing the possibility of launching a conventional offensive in spring 1972. After extensive political infighting among senior government leaders, it was decided to move forward as a victory could influence the 1972 US presidential election as well improve the North's bargaining position at the peace talks in Paris. Also, North Vietnamese commanders believed that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was overstretched and could be easily broken.

Planning soon moved forward under the guidance of First Party Secretary Le Duan who was assisted by Vo Nguyen Giap. The main thrust was to come through the Demilitarized Zone with the goal of shattering ARVN forces in the area and drawing additional Southern forces north. With this accomplished, two secondary attacks would be launched against the Central Highlands (from Laos) and Saigon (from Cambodia). Dubbed the Nguyen Hue Offensive, the attack was intended to destroy elements of the ARVN, prove that Vietnamization was a failure, and possibly force the replacement of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu.

Fighting for Quang Tri

The US and South Vietnam were aware that an offensive was in the offing, however, analysts disagreed as to when and where it would strike. Moving forward on March 30, 1972, People's Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) forces stormed across the DMZ supported by 200 tanks. Striking the ARVN I Corps, they sought to break through the ring of ARVN firebases located just below the DMZ. An additional division and armored regiment attacked east from Laos in support of the assault. On April 1, after heavy fighting, Brigadier General Vu Van Giai, whose ARVN 3rd Division had born the brunt of the fighting, ordered a retreat.

That same day, the PAVN 324B Division moved east out of the Shau Valley and attacked towards the firebases protecting Hue. Capturing the DMZ firebases, PAVN troops were delayed by ARVN counterattacks for three weeks as they pressed towards the city of Quang Tri. Coming into force on April 27, PAVN formations succeeded in capturing Dong Ha and reaching the outskirts of Quang Tri. Beginning a withdrawal from the city, Giai's units collapsed after receiving confusing orders from I Corps commander Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam.

Ordering a general retreat to the My Chanh River, ARVN columns were hit hard as they fell back. To the south near Hue, Fire Support Bases Bastogne and Checkmate fell after prolonged fighting. PAVN troops captured Quang Tri on May 2, while President Thieu replaced Lam with Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong on the same day. Tasked with protecting Hue and re-establish the ARVN lines, Truong immediately set to work. While the initial fighting in the north proved disastrous for South Vietnam, staunch defending in some places and massive US air support, including B-52 raids, had inflicted heavy losses on the PAVN.

Battle of An Loc

On April 5, while fighting raged to the north, PAVN troops advanced south out of Cambodia into Binh Long Province. Targeting Loc Ninh, Quan Loi, and An Loc, the advance engaged troops from the ARVN III Corps. Assaulting Loc Ninh, they were repelled by Rangers and the ARVN 9th Regiment for two days before breaking through. Believing An Loc to be next target, the corps commander, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Minh, dispatched the ARVN 5th Division to the town. By April 13, the garrison at An Loc was surrounded and under constant fire from PAVN troops.

Repeatedly assaulting the town's defenses, PAVN troops ultimately reduced the ARVN perimeter to about a square kilometer. Working feverishly, American advisors coordinated massive air support to aid the beleaguered garrison. Launching major frontal attacks on May 11 and 14, PAVN forces were unable to take the town. The initiative lost, ARVN forces were able to push them out of An Loc by June 12 and six days later III Corps declared the siege to be over. As in the north, American air support had been vital to ARVN defense.

Battle of Kontum

On April 5, Viet Cong forces attacked firebases and Highway 1 in coastal Binh Dinh Province. These operations were designed to pull ARVN forces east away from a thrust against Kontum and Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Initially panicked, II Corps commander Lieutenant General Ngo Dzu was calmed by John Paul Vann who led the US Second Regional Assistance Group. Crossing the border Lieutenant General Hoang Minh Thao's PAVN troops won quick victories in the vicinity of Ben Het and Dak To. With the ARVN defense northwest of Kontum in a shambles, PAVN troops inexplicably halted for three weeks.

With Dzu faltering, Vann effectively took command and organized the defense of Kontum with support from large-scale B-52 raids. On May 14, the PAVN advance resumed and reached the outskirts of the town. Though the ARVN defenders wavered, Vann directed B-52s against the attackers inflicting heavy losses and blunting the assault. Orchestrating Dzu's replacement with Major General Nguyen Van Toan, Vann was able to hold Kontum through the liberal application of American airpower and ARVN counterattacks. By early June, PAVN forces began withdrawing west.

Easter Offensive Aftermath

With PAVN forces halted on all fronts, ARVN troops began a counterattack around Hue. This was supported by Operations Freedom Train (beginning in April) and Linebacker (beginning in May) which saw American aircraft striking at a variety of targets in North Vietnam. Led by Truong, ARVN forces recaptured the lost firebases and defeated the final PAVN attacks against the city. On June 28, Truong launched Operation Lam Son 72 which saw his forces reach Quang Tri in ten days. Wishing to bypass and isolate the city, he was overruled by Thieu who demanded its recapture. After heavy fighting, it fell on July 14. Exhausted after their efforts, both sides halted following the city's fall.

The Easter Offensive cost the North Vietnamese around 40,000 killed and 60,000 wounded/missing. ARVN and American losses are estimated at 10,000 killed, 33,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing. Though the offensive was defeated, PAVN forces continued to occupy around ten percent of South Vietnam after its conclusion. As a result of the offensive, both sides softened their stance in Paris and were more willing to make concessions during negotiations.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: The Easter Offensive." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, January 26). Vietnam War: The Easter Offensive. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: The Easter Offensive." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).