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We WonAnd then there was Linebacker II: Strategic and political issues surrounding the bombing campaign
By Albert Atkins
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Dr. Albert Atkins
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The Communist View of the Situation in Laos
To estimate 0Communists views of the situation in Laos the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paid particular attention to North Vietnam's assessment of recent Royal Lao Government (RLG)/US military activities in the country. In a document, (HRP 94-3), which has been approved for release through the Historical Review Program of the Central Intelligence Agency on January 27, 1994, the CIA concluded that Hanoi almost certainly wanted to establish its hegemony over all Laos. However, Vietnam's objective subordinates this goal to its higher priority interest in establishing its control over South Vietnam. At this early stage, broader questions were involved in Soviet and Chinese Communist policies toward Laos. The CIA document shows that Moscow and Peking gave priority to supporting Hanoi and each recognizes that its ability to influence Hanoi's policy concerning Laos was limited.
The Communists stepped up military activity in northern Laos during 1968-1969 partly to counter US-supported RLG military initiative. The CIA believed that these actions were particularly sensitiveincluding guerrilla and intelligence operations in areas close to North Vietnamese and Chinese borders, and penetrations into areas regarded by the Communists as rightfully theirs. This increased Communist activity, supported by the CIA strong belief, stemmed from Hanoi's anticipation of favorable developments in Vietnam. In addition, its related desire to bolster Vietnam's political and military posture in Laos put Vietnam in the best possible position for any coincident movement toward a new settlement there.
While the Communists believed that the United States violated the Geneva arrangements and has certainly done so themselves nevertheless, the Communists wished to preserve the symbolic authority of the 1962 settlement. The CIA reports concludes that this settlement afforded them opportunities for an eventual return, without further international negotiations, to a legitimate and strengthened position in Vientiane. This concern led the CIA to support this view, among other factors, as a restraint on Communists military actions.
The CIA did not believe that they were likely at that time to cast aside these restraints and embark on military actions as dramatic as push to the Mekong. Nonetheless, the CIA expected a vigorous Communist military campaign over the next few months aimed at retaking the Plain of Jars. In fact, the capture of which, particularly in the context of the intensified U.S. Air campaign in Northern Laos, Communists probably regarded as evidence of a surprisingly tough US posture. The CIA believed that these actions probably aimed at eliminating Vang Pao and his forces that carried the major burden of the war in northern Laos. In addition, if the Communists were successful in these efforts, they would had seek to take advantage of the badly shaken RLG confidence to persuade RLG leaders, Souvanna and the King in particular, that a new political settlement was necessary to bring an end to the war.
Such a settlement, according to the CIA, required that RLG obtain a halt to all US bombing in Laos, and an alteration of the tri-partite arrangement that would enhance the Communists political position. Communist objectives in Laos were determined almost entirely in Hanoi, according to the CIA. The indigenous Lao Communist movement (the Neo Lao Hak Sat - NLHS) and its military arm (the Pathet Lao PL) were essentially creations of the Vietnamese Communist Party (the Lao Dong) and were firmly under Hanoi's control.
The CIA report emphasizes that there was little question that Hanoi wanted eventually to establish its hegemony over all Laos. Physically weak and lacking even a firm national identity, Laos lies between the far stronger and competing Thai and Vietnamese nations each of which controlled major portions of what is now the Kingdom of Laos before the establishment of the French protectorate. With the departure of the French, Hanoi came to see itself as the logical leader over all of former French Indochina. In addition, according to some sources not specified by the CIA, as the predominant influence over ethnically related peoples in adjacent portions of Thailand. The CIA believed that Hanoi's interest in bordering northeastern Laos was particularly strong because, at its eastern extremity in Houa Phan (San Neua) Province, Lao territory extends to within 50 miles of the North Vietnamese heartland the Tonkin Delta. Hanoi's interest in southern Laos was reinforced, as that area became virtually indispensable to the campaign to take over South Vietnam.
Hanoi appeared to have no set timetable for establishing its hegemony over Laos. The North Vietnamese seemed willing to defer this aim until they achieved their priority objective in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, for the ultimate achievement of this aim, Hanoi wanted to preserve and strengthen the Lao Communist movement. Thus, it was concerned to prevent Lao government forces from making any major inroads into Communist-held territory, to recover such ground when it is lost, to maintain the strength of PL occupied areas. However, in pursuit of these goals, Hanoi had been careful to avoid moves which might have overturned the Geneva settlement. Alternatively, be used by the United States to justify large-scale ground intervention in Laos, particularly against Communist supply routes in the southern corridor.
The Soviet policy toward Laos, detailed later, was a function of broader considerations arising from Moscow's desire to offset and minimize the influence of China and the United States, which it attempted to do mainly by supporting Hanoi. The CIA report stated that the Soviets also found it useful to preserve their role as one of the sponsors of the 1962 accords on Laos and their continuing shared responsibility for the government of Souvanna Phouma. At that time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) did not desire to have the delicate balance in Laos upset or to see the Vietnam conflict spill over into adjacent areas. Moscow was obviously in an ambiguous position, but it was likely to continue to accord priority to the support of Hanoi's objectives and policies.
China's basic objectives in Laos were to eliminate the U.S. military and political presence, and to ensure that Laos was controlled by a regime closely aligned with China, according to the CIA. Until these objectives were achieved, Peking wished to make certain that the areas of Laos bordering on its own territory were in friendly hands, and that it retained access through Laos to the Communist insurgents in northern Thailand. Apparently, as shown later, satisfied for the present with the prospect of a North Vietnamese-dominated Laos, the Chinese played a supporting role there. Nonetheless, both situations advanced China's own objectives and intended to bolster Peking's position with Hanoi in competition with Moscow. The Chinese provided supplies for the local Communist forces in northwestern Laos where their military construction units were also building and extensive road network. The most significant of these roads is the one which the Chinese were pushing southwestwards from Muong Sai, previously the southern terminus of their efforts, down the Nam Beng Valley in the direction of Pak Beng on the Mekong River, only 22 miles from the Thai border.
However, the North Vietnamese did not share China's intentions on Laos. In a CIA Intelligence Information Cable (dated 25 October 1968, Case 94-214, document 3500 and approved for released on January 1995), the CIA comments on deteriorating North Vietnamese-Chinese relations. In addition, it claims that Americans will cease bombing and offensive military action if Hanoi agrees to South Vietnamese coalition government, which included Viet Cong representation. The Information Cable is partially censured, but it shows clearly that these were "high level talks" between the North Vietnamese and the Chinese:
"... relations between the two governments are said to be rapidly deteriorating. The Chinese offered combat troops to the North Vietnamese to enable them to continue the struggle, but the North Vietnamese refused to accept them. The Chinese continue to remain bitterly opposed to continuation of the Paris Talks with the Americans. Figures differ, but a large number of Chinese sappers, bridge and road specialists, have been withdrawn from North Vietnam."
Let us recall now the 1962 Geneva Settlement taken from the CIA report number 58-70, 6 February 1970. In that report the CIA states that although the Communists asserted that they were "punishing" imperialist transgressors, their military activities were rarely undertaken for a single reason. The CIA believed rather, the Communists were led to act or not to act by complex considerations. Certainly the drive to regain their own territory, eliminate hostile pockets within it and retaliate against specific RLG acts was among these considerations. In addition, the CIA supported the view that the Communists without doubt viewed the RLG capture of Nam Bac in 1966 and its use as a support base for guerrilla and intelligence operations in Phong Saly Province and other areas close to the Chinese borders, the establishment of the navigation sites related to the war against North Vietnam such as Phou Pha Thi, the expansion into the Sedone Valley in the south and the growth of Vang Pao's forces and their activities in areas of Houa Phan and Xieng Khouang Provinces as requiring retaliatory action.
Until the fall of 1967, because of its concentration on South Vietnam, Hanoi did not attempt to move decisively against US/ RLG gains in Laos at its expense. Characteristically, the war in Laos seesawed back and forth, with RLG offensives during the May-October rainy season and Communist counteroffensives during the November-April dry season. The CIA believed that if North Vietnamese forces were not withdrawn as required by the Geneva settlement, neither were they used to modify greatly the general lines of military control pertaining in 1962. Indeed, after registering a net gain in such seesaw exchanges in the first few years, in 1966 and 1967 the Communists suffered a net loss of territory. The Communists suffered an even greater loss of population (through migration) during these annual cycles of military action. However, the Communist military action took on a new intensity in 1968 and 1969. Pathet Lao (PL) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) combat forces in northern Laos increased substantially during the period. The CIA report shows that, vigorous campaigns took place in the dry seasons of both years, beginning with the recapture of Nam Bac, and targeted primarily against major government sites behind Communist lines, resulted in some of the worse RLG setbacks of the war. Major General Rockly Triantafellu, the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, United States Air Force (USAF), believed the last sentence of the previous paragraph seriously underestimated the extent to which the flow of supplies through Laos to South Vietnam has been implemented. In addition, emphasizes the impact, which this had had on Hanoi's options and strategy in the war.
One important point to consider is that during the Ted offensive of 1968, the Communists had two years and every incentive to rebuild their forces to the level necessary to achieve their objectives in South Vietnam. General Triantafellu said that the enemy made enormous efforts to overcome the interdiction obstacle by introducing supplies at a rate five times the level eventually filtered through (The Communist View of the Situation in Laos, NIE 58-70). Although not personnel limited in the north, Vietnam was forced to reduce troop infiltration to a level that could not support logistically, according to General Triantafellu. In addition, general Triantafellu said that these events resulted in an intensity of operations insufficient to prevent progress in pacification and Vietnamization.
It is important to notice is that; General Triantafellu believed that the interdiction in Laos caused the conflict in South Vietnam to remain at a losing level for the enemy. Thus, forcing Hanoi to recognize it was faced with a more protracted war. Finally, the margin of interdiction success or failure was very critical. The outcome impinged heavily upon the rate and success of pacification and Vietnamization.
The CIA never could fully explain this buildup and these Communist offensives, but only as reactions to RLG initiatives, increased U.S. bombing, or Hanoi's concern over the security of border areas. According to the CIA report, Souvanna first requested U.S. air reconnaissance in May 1964. A month later, these planes were authorized to return fire. Total U.S. attack sorties in Laos grew steadily from 250 in 1964 to almost 50,000 in 1966. In November 1968, after the bombing of North Vietnam was halted, U.S. attack sorties over Laos jumped from an average of about 5,000 per month to about 12,000 per month. Until July 1969 by far the greater portion of these sorties were made in the corridor in south Laos. Beginning in July 1969, however, attacks sorties in northern Laos, flown mainly in support of Vang Pao's operations, increased from about 1,200-1,900 a month to about 4,000 per month.
Communist military moves in 1968-1969 in Laos were seen in the context of Hanoi's expectations with respect to the war in Vietnam. During 1968-1969 Hanoi apparently began to expect the military and political struggle in Vietnam and pressures on U.S. policy to develop increasingly in its favor, according to the CIA. In addition, the CIA believed that in anticipation of such developments in Vietnam, it appeared that Hanoi set out in Laos to bolster its political and military posture in order to be in best possible position for coincident developments toward a new settlement in Laos. Then, much to the Communists' surprise, Vang Pao undertook a major rainy season offensive which drove the Communists off the Plain of Jars for the first time and captured stores in quantities which appeared far in excess of normal Communist requirements.
According to the CIA, the communists probably viewed the capture of the Plain, especially in the context of the intensified U.S. air campaign in northern Laos, as evidence of a surprisingly tough U.S. posture in Laos. The loss of the plain was not only a blow to Communist prestige but also a serious setback, which complicated their continuation of the high level of military activity they pursued in 1968 and 1969. Now, the Communists almost certainly believed they had to recapture the Plain before they can increase the military pressure on the RLG in pursuit of their objectives of stopping the U.S. bombing and forcing a favorable political settlement.
The North Vietnamese probably calculated that any Communist successes in Laos were likely to contribute to American war-weariness. However, the CIA had doubts that Hanoi could have faced long-standing restraints aside and move in strength to the Mekong. That was in the hope that the U.S. Government would feel compelled by its own re-evaluation of the over-all prospects. Or by public opinion, to move more rapidly toward withdrawing American forces in Vietnam and ending the war there on Communist terms. Hanoi was not especially confident at that time of its reading of either American public opinion or U.S. Government policy. Nor did it have any particular basis in past behavior for assuming those specific events in Laos caused specific U.S. reactions with respect to Vietnam.
Vietnamese Political Posture in Response to US Bombing
In December 1966, the U.S. conducted the first series of bombing missions over Hanoi. The consequences of such bombing, as described by CIA Intelligence Information Cables TWX 93-183, 154, dated 13-14 December 1966 partially censured show North Vietnamese Official's Comments on 1314 December U.S. bombings of Hanoi:
"The Official gave details of four very populated streets inside Hanoi which had been bombed and strafed on 13 and 14 December 66, by U.S. planes ... the Americans were gravely mistaken ... Vietnam would fight on with even grimmer determination until victory. The Democratic Government of Vietnam (DRVN) was appealing to socialist and Nationalists countries for support and to denounce American attacks on Hanoi and its war of aggression against Vietnam."
Excerpted from We Won by Albert Atkins Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Albert Atkins. Excerpted by permission.
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