As you were, Grunts,
In the “quiet” year of 1971, would you believe that the largest airborne operation of the war involved an ARVN invasion into Laos? This article describes some of the major events of 1971, both military and political. It was a strange time, with many surprises and contradictions.
The program to expand, equip, and train the South Vietnamese Army was known as the “Vietnamization Program.” The goal was to make South Vietnam militarily self sufficient against North Vietnam so that the US forces could withdraw.
As of January, 1971, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird said that the “Vietnamization” was ahead of schedule, and that the combat mission of the US troops would end in summer 1971. Indeed, the reduction of US troops was significant. The total US troops in Vietnam went from 334600 on 31 December 1970 to 156800 on 31 December 1971.
There were two key political developments. The US Congress adopted the revised Cooper-Church Amendment in January, which prohibited the introduction of US ground troops or advisers into Cambodia, and declared that US aid to Cambodia should not be considered a commitment to the defense of Cambodia. This was the Congressional response to Nixon’s Cambodian Incursion the previous year.
The other development was the Mansfield Amendment, authored by Senator Mike Mansfield, and adopted by Congress in June. The amendment urged withdrawing American troops from South Vietnam at “the earliest practical date.” This was the first time in US history that Congress had called for the end of a war.
The Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger announced in July that the US was prepared to provide $7.5 billion in aid to Vietnam, of which $2.5 billion could go to North Vietnam, and to withdraw all American forces within nine months.
The last major ground operation for American forces was Operation “Jefferson Glenn.” Three battalions of the 101st Airborne patrolled the area west of Hue, called the “rocket belt,” to prevent communist rocket attacks. Americans were gradually replaced by ARVN soldiers. The operation claimed to have inflicted 2026 casualties on the NVA/VC.
In October, President Nixon announced that “American troops are now in a defensive position. The offensive activities of search and destroy are now being undertaken by the South Vietnamese.”
Lam Son 719
The largest 1971 operation was Lam Son 719. It was a joint US-ARVN thrust into Laos to destroy supply depots on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Americans provided a blocking force and air support, while only ARVN troops entered Laos. This battle is described in detail in the CS Legion article UHH#11 Truong Son Ground Combat.
In summary, the ARVN armor and infantry task force consisted of the 1st and 3rd Armored Brigades, 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, plus the Airborne Division and 1st Ranger Group. Advancing west along Route 9, this effort failed when faced by NVA counterattacks of the 304th, 308th, 320th and 2nd Divisions. ARVN helicopter assaults faltered due to unexpected numbers of anti-aircraft guns. (NVA 367th Air Defense Division) Poor condition of Route 9 slowed advance, and hampered resupply. ARVN artillery range was inferior to the NVA’s 122mm and 130mm guns.
However, Operation Lam Son 719 had the largest airborne assault of the Vietnam War utilizing 120 Huey helicopters to transport two battalions to capture Tchepone. This transportation center was captured without major resistance, because the NVA abandoned it.
After its capture, many stocks of supplies were destroyed. But, President Thieu of South Vietnam ordered the withdrawal of ARVN troops from Laos. He ignored the recommendation of MACV Commander General Creighton Abrams that ARVN reinforce and hold its position. The withdrawal became a disaster with heavy ARVN casualties.
War Protests in US
Vietnam veterans threw away over 700 medals on the west steps of the United States Capitol building in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. The next day, antiwar organizers claimed that 500000 marched, making this the largest demonstration since November 1969. Police arrested more than 1200 protesters during the 1971 May Day rallies.
Lt. Calley Trial
The courts-martial of Lt. William Calley was a significant event. It was the result of the My Lai massacre in 1968.
This was a high profile massacre in the news media. It involved the killing of Vietnamese villagers by American soldiers at My Lai. In March 1968, soldiers from ‘Charlie’ Company, deployed in the coastal province of Quang Ngai, were sent into areas believed to house Viet Cong soldiers and sympathisers. This company was in 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division.
Operating under stress,with questionable intelligence, and unclear orders, US soldiers entered the small hamlet of My Lai, and began firing indiscriminately on people and buildings. When they left at dusk, hundreds of Vietnamese peasants lay dead, the vast majority were women, children, and aged.
The incident was concealed for several months, until revealed by concerned American soldiers, and later, journalist Seymour Hersh. The My Lai massacre, as it became known, caused horror and outrage in the United States and around the world. It raised questions about the methods being used in Vietnam and whether American soldiers were doing more harm than good.
Calley was the only soldier convicted for his role in the massacre. In March 1971, he was convicted of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. President Nixon ordered Calley, to be transferred from Leavenworth to house arrest. The life sentence was reduced to 20 years, but Calley served only three and one-half years before being paroled.
Paris Peace Negotiations
The peace talks in Paris between North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong,) and the United States enter the fourth year. Little or no progress had been made. Henry Kissinger introduced a new US proposal to withdraw from South Vietnam, with a cease fire in place, and an exchange of prisoners. The cease fire in place was a key concession, because it would allow North Vietnamese soldiers to remain in South Vietnam at least temporarily.
North Vietnam negotiators Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy responded to Kissinger’s 31 May proposal with a nine-point “bargaining proposal.” This was the first time that the North Vietnamese had indicated a willingness to negotiate, rather than presenting unilateral demands. But later, the North Vietnamese Politburo instructed its negotiators not to make any further concessions.
President Nixon ordered the initiation of Operation Proud Deep Alpha, an intensive five-day bombing campaign against military targets in North Vietnam just north of the border above the 17th parallel. This was likely meant to provide leverage in the peace negotiations.
“1971 in the Vietnam War”, Wikipedia
“UHH#11 Truong Son Ground Combat“, CS Legion.com, David Galster
Maj Gen Ernest Cheatham, USMC
Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1969 onward. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.