Week of April 2
By the end of March 1972, there were fewer than 70,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam (after peaking in 1969 at over 540,000). Following President Richard Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan, which called for gradually withdrawing American forces and handing responsibility for the war over to the South Vietnamese, the defense of South Vietnam was largely in the hands of the South Vietnamese armed forces.
On March 30, North Vietnam launched a massive, multipronged offensive across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laos and Cambodia borders. With no significant American ground forces to oppose them, the North Vietnamese hoped to seize large swaths of South Vietnam's territory and improve their position in the ongoing peace negotiations. The Hà Nội government named it the Nguyễn Huệ Campaign, but it became known to the allies as the "Easter Offensive."
Unlike past Communist offensives-such as Tet in 1968 - these North Vietnamese troops were well equipped with new weapons, heavy artillery, and armor from the Soviet Union and China. The attacking forces totaled over 120,000 troops and included 14 reinforced infantry divisions and some 500 tanks.
After initially being overwhelmed and suffering heavy losses, South Vietnamese forces successfully held out against attacks in Quảng Trị Province and near the cities of Huế, Kon Tum, and Sài Gòn. U.S. military advisers played a crucial role rallying South Vietnamese units in retreat, and U.S. air support also proved critical. President Nixon responded to the offensive by authorizing a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam in May, known as Operation LINEBACKER, and the mining of North Vietnam's seaport at Hải Phòng, hoping to weaken the offensive and induce Hà Nội to stop the attack. The Easter Offensive finally stalled by the end of summer.
After months of fighting that left multiple cities in ruins, the North Vietnamese lost much of their armor and equipment and as many as 100,000 troops. South Vietnamese casualties were approximately 43,000, including 10,000 killed. The Easter Offensive also resulted in the deaths of at least 25,000 Vietnamese civilians and left almost one million others homeless.1
1Graham A. Cosmas, United States Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Withdrawal, 1968-1973 (Wash DC: Center of Military History, 2006), 348, 353-54, 356-58, 363-64, 377-79 (for "fewer than 70,000," see p. 353; for casualty numbers, see p. 378); Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 323-25, 660-62; Jeffrey J. Clarke, United States Army in Vietnam: Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973 (Wash DC: Center of Military History, 1988), 481-83; Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (Wash DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000), 255-56; John Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia, 1961-1975 (Wash DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996), 92-94, 96.