Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719

Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719

by Robert D. Sander

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In 1971, while U.S. ground forces were prohibited from crossing the Laotian border, a South Vietnamese Army corps, with U.S. air support, launched the largest airmobile operation in the history of warfare, Lam Son 719. The objective: to sever the North Vietnamese Army’s main logistical artery, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, at its hub, Tchepone in Laos, an operation that, according to General Creighton Abrams, could have been the decisive battle of the war, hastening the withdrawal of U.S. forces and ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. The outcome: defeat of the South Vietnamese Army and heavy losses of U.S. helicopters and aircrews, but a successful preemptive strike that met President Nixon’s near-term political objectives.

Author Robert Sander, a helicopter pilot in Lam Son 719, explores why an operation of such importance failed. Drawing on archives and interviews, and firsthand testimony and reports, Sander chronicles not only the planning and execution of the operation but also the maneuvers of the bastions of political and military power during the ten-year effort to end Communist infiltration of South Vietnam leading up to Lam Son 719. The result is a picture from disparate perspectives: the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations; the South Vietnamese government led by President Nguyen Van Thieu; and senior U.S. military commanders and army aviators.

Sander’s conclusion is at once powerful and persuasively clear. Lam Son 719 was doomed in both the planning and execution—a casualty of domestic and international politics, flawed assumptions, incompetent execution, and the resolve of the North Vietnamese Army. A powerful work of military and political history, this book offers eloquent testimony that “failure, like success, cannot be measured in absolute terms.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806145884
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/26/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Robert D. Sander served twenty-five years in the U.S. Army and retired as a colonel in 1993.

Read an Excerpt

Invasion of Laos, 1971

Lam Son 719

By Robert D. Sander


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4588-4



DURING LYNDON JOHNSON'S FIVE YEARS IN OFFICE, America's role in Southeast Asia evolved from military assistance and covert participation in the Vietnam War to commitment of more than 500,000 American troops and a secret war in Laos. Bound by a pretense of honoring the 1962 Geneva Accords and the faux neutrality of Cambodia, Johnson refused to authorize overt actions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The eastern border areas of Cambodia and Laos provided a safe haven for the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong forces where they could withdraw when threatened and stage their attacks on allied forces at the time and place of their choosing.

On 23 November 1963, the day following Kennedy's death, Secretary of State Dean Rusk provided newly sworn-in President Johnson with a report that summarized the situation in Vietnam. The report cast an optimistic outlook on the future stating that, since Diem's demise, the outlook for progress was much improved: the new government had the enthusiastic support of the urban population and recognized the need to win the support of the peasants; officers in South Vietnam's notoriously politicized armed forces were now being chosen on the basis of merit; and the United States was withdrawing 1,000 of its 16,500 military forces from Vietnam. Unfortunately, Rusk's claims of progress were soon proven wrong.

President Johnson met with the National Security Council two days after Kennedy's assassination. During this meeting Director of Central Intelligence John McCone contradicted Rusk's optimistic appraisal with the CIA's more pessimistic and accurate estimate of the situation in Vietnam. The CIA had noted an increase in Vietcong activity since the first of November, and the level of message traffic on the Vietcong military and political networks might reflect preparations for further sustained guerrilla pressures. McCone stated that the military junta was having considerable trouble in completing the political organization of the government and was receiving little, if any, help from the civilian leadership. He concluded by stating that his agency could not give a particularly optimistic appraisal of the future. McCone wrote in his notes of the meeting that "Johnson definitely feels that we place too much emphasis on social reforms; he has very little tolerance with our spending so much time being 'do-gooders'; and he has no tolerance whatsoever with bickering and quarreling of the type that has gone on in South Vietnam." Director McCone also commented that President Johnson's "tone" contrasted with that of President Kennedy: whereas Kennedy was willing to entertain discussions of opposing views and build consensus, it would soon become clear that Johnson was an authoritarian, unwilling to tolerate any discussion of views contrary to his own.

Lyndon Johnson's policy on the war was issued two days later. National Security Action Memorandum 273 stated that the United States was committed to assisting the South Vietnamese in their contest "against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy." Paragraph seven of the memorandum directed that planning should include increased levels of covert actions "resulting in damage to North Vietnam," and that all planning should include the "plausibility of denial." The directive for covert activities led to the formulation of Operation Plan (OPLAN) 34A, a concept that was developed at the headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Pacific command (CINCPAC), in 1963 and expanded at McNamara's direction by the CIA and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), in 1964. OPLAN 34A included more than 2,000 proposed covert activities, including reconnaissance, psychological warfare, sabotage, and small-scale raids in and on the coast of North Vietnam.

By early January 1964 the situation in Vietnam was in a downward spiral. A junta led by Gen. Duong Van Minh replaced President Diem. Then, on 30 January 1964 Minh and his junta were ousted in a successful coup by one of their co-conspirators in the coup of Diem, Gen. Nguyen Khanh. In the meantime, the Communist insurgents were gaining on the battlefield. By August covert OPLAN 34A raids were hitting the North Vietnamese coast. These raids led to the Tonkin Gulf incident, U.S. retaliatory air strikes, and a congressional resolution giving President Johnson open-ended authority for military operations. Despite this authority, Johnson continued to avoid overt military activity.

Lyndon Johnson, running as the "peace candidate," defeated Barry Goldwater by a landslide margin in the 1964 presidential elections. The United States was still not "at war" in Vietnam since the acknowledged military presence was still limited to an advisory role. But the covert war was expanding. The Tonkin Gulf incident led to ineffective limited retaliatory air strikes as the Communist forces struck back against increasing American military presence. The pace of infiltration continued to increase as well. By the end of the year complete battalions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were making the trek down the rapidly expanding Ho Chi Minh Trail and entering South Vietnam. One regiment of the NVA's 325th Division had crossed the Cambodian border and entered the central highlands of South Vietnam, and the two remaining regiments of the division were on their way.

During the 1964 strategy discussions, Westmoreland consistently argued that border control operations into Laos would benefit the counterinsurgency campaign more than attacks against North Vietnam. Westmoreland recognized that the only way to seal South Vietnam's eight hundred-mile western border was to shut down the infiltration routes. However, the administration rejected his logic and continued to follow the policy of aid and assistance to the South Vietnamese government and covert OPLAN 34A operations. By early 1965 Communist momentum was threatening to push the United States out of Vietnam. On 7 February the Vietcong attacked the U.S. air bases at Pleiku and Camp Holloway in the western highlands, destroying several aircraft and inflicting eighty-five casualties. Johnson ordered immediate retaliation, and launched carrier-based Operation Flaming Dart. Three days later the Vietcong struck again, this time on the enlisted barracks at Qui Nhon, killing twenty-three American soldiers and wounding another twenty-one. Again, Johnson ordered limited retaliatory airstrikes on North Vietnam. On 13 February President Johnson ordered a "program of measured and limited air action" against selected targets in North Vietnam. The code name for the operation was Rolling Thunder.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara provided the strategy for Rolling Thunder that fit Johnson's needs: that is, a "graduated response." Under this strategy, in theory, small increments of increasing military force would signal U.S. resolve to the North Vietnamese, who would then end infiltration and cease their efforts to reunite Vietnam under a Communist government by force. Mindful of the catastrophic entry of the Chinese Communists in the Korean War, these increments were intended to pose no overt threat to Communist China or the Soviet Union and to minimize the risk of Chinese or Soviet intervention. At the same time, the incremental application of force was designed to maintain the support of the political Right while being small enough to avoid alienating the political Left. Johnson took the middle road, a road that would take the nation into a long, bloody war with little hope of victory.

Rolling Thunder was originally intended to be an eight-week program; it quickly expanded to twelve weeks, but it ultimately continued until late 1968, with periodic pauses intended to advance negotiations. Johnson, driven by fears that the war would widen to a land war with China, and all too familiar with how Gen. Douglas McArthur had brought the nation to the brink of nuclear war in Korea, was determined to maintain personal control over the operation.

President Johnson, assisted by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, personally assumed the task of selecting targets. Strikes on targets in and around Hanoi and Hiaphong (the latter a major point of entry for military supplies and equipment from the Soviet Union) were rarely authorized. The airfields housing the Soviet-built MIG fighters were off-limits, as were (for a period of time) the surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites, for fear of killing Chinese and Soviet technicians and advisors. Johnson and McNamara then determined the number of strike aircraft, the date and time that each target was to be struck, the type and amount of ordnance used on each target, and in many cases, the direction of attack. President Johnson is alleged to have bragged, "They can't even bomb an outhouse without my approval."

The majority of Johnson's advisors endorsed the concept of bombing North Vietnam to force an end to their infiltration of South Vietnam. The major difference of opinions dealt only with the scope of the proposed operation. The exception was Undersecretary George Ball who had never been an advocate of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Ball argued that the proposed air offensive would be ineffective. While Ball's cabinet position as undersecretary of state for economic and agricultural affairs would seem to undermine his qualifications to make such an assessment, Ball was uniquely qualified. During the latter part of World War II Ball had been a member of a board of experts assembled to produce an assessment of the bombing of Germany. During the French Indochina War he had served as counsel to the French embassy and had great insight into the war. In November 1961 he met with President Kennedy to discuss an unrelated matter, but the discussion eventually turned to Vietnam. Ball stated that he was opposed to committing American forces to Vietnam because it would be a tragic error. Once it started there would be no end: "Within five years we'll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles and we will never find them again.... Vietnam is the worst possible terrain both from a physical and a political point of view." Kennedy's reply was, "George you are crazier than hell. That's just not going to happen."

The graduated response strategy provided the North Vietnamese the time and opportunity to disperse critical assets and assemble an effective air defense system. As time went on, North Vietnamese prisons became populated with downed American pilots and aircrews. Rolling Thunder entailed a dramatic increase in the number of aircraft required to support air operations. In 1964 the Vietcong had scored a major victory when a successful rocket-and-mortar attack on the Bien Hoa Airfield, located twelve miles north of Saigon, destroyed four B-57 bombers and damaged fifteen others. The first U.S. ground combat forces, the 9th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade, was deployed to Da Nang on 8 March 1965 to protect the airbase and the USAF squadrons stationed there. The North Vietnamese failed to react to the signal Rolling Thunder was designed to transmit, so in late March the target list was refined to transmit a stronger signal. On 6 April yet another small increment was added to the graduated response when the president approved a change of mission for all marine battalions deployed to Vietnam. The mission for the marines at Da Nang changed from passive defense of the airbase to active counterguerilla operations.

Director of Central Intelligence John McCone had reservations about the wisdom of changing the mission for U.S. ground forces. On 2 April he sent a memorandum outlining his reservations to secretaries Rusk and McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Gen. Maxwell Taylor. McCone stated that he believed the decision to change the marines' mission was correct only if Rolling Thunder targets were less restrained. His reports stated that the air strikes had not caused a change in North Vietnam's policy of directing the Vietcong insurgency and infiltration, and he doubted that the new changes in target selection would accomplish anything more than hardening the attitude of the North Vietnamese. He believed that under these conditions, the United States "can expect requirements for an ever-increasing commitment of U.S. personnel without materially improving the chances of victory." He concluded that if the mission of the marines was going to change, then the ground rules for airstrikes against targets in North Vietnam must also change.

Director McCone reiterated his conclusions to President Johnson during a National Security Council meeting later that day. Johnson listened to McCone's appraisal without comment, and a copy of the memorandum was included in the president's reading file. McCone continued to insist that the graduated response strategy was failing, and Rusk and McNamara continued to hold the line for graduated response. Still convinced that President Johnson had not had an opportunity to read a copy of the memorandum, McCone composed a detailed letter to President Johnson repeating his assessment. On 28 April he met with President Johnson yet again. The president listened stoically, accepted his letter, and set it aside. McCone resigned that same day.

The landing of the marines at Da Nang was followed by the arrival of the army's 173rd Airborne Brigade at the Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon on 3 May. President Johnson approved a request from General Westmoreland for forty-four additional combat battalions. The 1st Infantry Division arrived at Lie Khe, north of Saigon. The 25th Infantry Division deployed to an area northwest of Saigon, and the 4th Infantry Division was sent to Pleiku. The 1st Cavalry Division, reorganized as an airmobile division, deployed to An Khe in the central highlands. The South Korean government sent the 9th Republic of Korea (ROK) Division, which was assigned an area of operations around Tuy Hoa.

The Cambodian government, led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, severed diplomatic relations with the United States on 3 May 1965, claiming America was responsible for air attacks by the South Vietnamese Air Force that allegedly killed Cambodian citizens. In order to avoid further international attention, President Johnson issued orders prohibiting any action, including aerial reconnaissance, across the Cambodian border. North Vietnamese infiltration into the Cambodian border area increased immediately.

In late 1965 infiltration of North Vietnamese forces increased to the point that, in their estimation, they had sufficient forces to move from a war of insurgency and guerilla warfare to a war of movement by conventional forces. The NVA's 324th Division moved southward, through the Laotian panhandle into northwest Cambodia, to a position west of Pleiku, to engage U.S. and ARVN forces in an apparent attempt to drive to the coastal lowlands in Quang Ngai Province to bisect South Vietnam south of Da Nang. The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division intercepted the NVA 66th Regiment and elements of the 33rd NVA Regiment near the Cambodian border during the bloody battle of the Ia Drang Valley from 14 to 18 November 1965. The NVA was forced to retreat across the Cambodian border after taking severe losses. The battle demonstrated an aspect of the war that would remain constant: when confronted by a superior force, the NVA would retreat back into safe havens west of the South Vietnamese border, and U.S. policy would honor this sanctuary.

Following the battle in the Ia Drang Valley, Secretary of Defense McNamara sent a memorandum to President Johnson summarizing the situation in South Vietnam. It stated that Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky estimated that his government controlled no more than 25 percent of the population. The Vietcong Army was expanding, and with increasing infiltration of NVA battalions, the combined Communist forces had the potential capability of expanding by sixteen battalions per month. McNamara estimated that even with the current level of sea and air interdiction, the NVA would be able to infiltrate more than two hundred tons of matériel per day, more than enough to support the combined Communist forces. McNamara recommended that additional U.S. battalions be deployed to Vietnam, bringing the total to seventy-four by the end of 1966. He stated that, combined with USAF squadrons, combat support units, and additional advisors, the proposed increase would bring the total U.S. strength in Vietnam to more than 400,000, and that 200,000 additional deployments might be required in 1967. In addition to the troop increases, McNamara recommended a slow expansion of the bombing campaign over North Vietnam, but that both the troop increase and the incrementally intensified bombing campaign should be delayed until after a three-to-four-week bombing halt. McNamara stated that this strategy would not guarantee success and that the number of U.S. killed-in-action could be expected to reach 1,000 per month. McNamara indicated that Ambassador Lodge, Generals Westmoreland and Wheeler, and Admiral Sharp (commander in chief of U.S. Pacific forces), all concurred with the "prolonged course of action," but that "General Wheeler and Admiral Sharp would intensify the bombing of the north more quickly." In truth, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had serious reservations, but their views rarely made it past McNamara, the gatekeeper to Johnson's office.


Excerpted from Invasion of Laos, 1971 by Robert D. Sander. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Johnson's War,
2. The Truck Hunters,
3. Nixon's War,
4. 1970: The Cambodian Incursion,
5. Planning Lam Son 719,
6. Dewy Canyon 2,
7. The First Week in Laos,
8. The Second Week in Laos: The Attack Stalls,
9. Collapse on the Northern Flank,
10. Onward to Tchepone,
11. The Retreat from Laos,
12. After Lam Son 719,
Appendix A: The Helicopters of Lam Son 719,
Appendix B: The Butcher's Bill,

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