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November/December 2021 -   -  

Lam Son 719: No Surprises

White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman left an informative diary of President Richard Nixon’s years in the White House. Among the astonishing tales he recounts is one in January 1971, when the U.S. cooked up a scheme to back a South Vietnamese invasion that would cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

The most astonishing thing Haldeman wrote was that the North Vietnamese knew about the plan, which would come to be known as Operation Lam Son 719. And that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger knew that, and said: “We can draw them into a monumental trap and then move ahead and bomb them!”

U. Alexis Johnson, a senior official at the State Department, said that Lam Son was “ill-conceived from the start. It required an unproven group of soldiers to strike at an objective that the enemy would defend stoutly in a region where it had superior logistics.”

Johnson was right. Lam Son 719 ended with South Vietnamese troops desperately clinging to the skids of helicopters in hopes of escaping Laos. There was a huge toll. American casualties equaled those of the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh, with enormous losses in helicopters to boot. The comments by Kissinger and Johnson are quite revealing—and they indicate that Lam Son was a major error. As it turns out, the truth is worse than it seemed.

In the fall of 1970 the CIA believed the main threat in the coming dry season would be in northern Laos. But other theaters were under threat as well. In Cambodia, which the Americans and South Vietnamese had invaded in May, and where the government had shut down communist access to the port of Sihanoukville restricting Hanoi’s supply route to The Trail, the enemy had taken significant losses. In South Vietnam some Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units had been broken down to strengthen local guerrilla bands resisting pacification. Intelligence believed Hanoi had put extra supplies, plus thousands of additional troops, on the road south before the dry season.

Allied intelligence resources interrogated enemy prisoners using a set of standard questions that asked when they had joined the North Vietnamese Army, trained, started down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and reached their destinations. U.S. radio intercepts captured great quantities of traffic regarding troop movements down The Trail—and the Americans had figured out how to read Hanoi’s code.

The Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the CIA therefore knew just about every enemy movement, including where the North Vietnamese troops were bound. Aircraft provided almost daily photographic coverage of The Trail. Satellite photography furnished more, and the Americans had seeded the land with electronic sensors that provided real-time indications of troop and supply movements.

Even though Hanoi played sophisticated deception games, allied intelligence also had a pile of accumulated data to help see through the fog and identify what was really happening. Historically, the North Vietnamese always mounted big reinforcement-logistics efforts around the turn of the year to prepare for the next big campaign.

On November 3, 1970, Kissinger reported to Nixon on Hanoi’s effort to refurbish its logistical bases in southern Laos and Cambodia. He had already informed the president that the North Vietnamese had put 20,000 additional troops in motion. The reports even appeared in the press. Several days later, for example, The New York Times ran a story headlined, “Supply Build-Up by Foe.” Even more explicitly, on November 19 reporter Tad Szulc, who had good sources among the intelligence agencies, wrote in the same newspaper that “North Vietnam is sending nearly twice as many troops southward along infiltration routes in the early weeks of the dry season this year.”

From the White House on November 4, Nixon ordered a full review of alternatives for offensive action. A week later U.S. Pacific theater commander Adm. John S. McCain, Sr., circulated a contingency plan for a Laotian invasion. On December 8 he authorized MACV to consult with South Vietnamese commanders on the idea.

A ‘Special Operation’

That same day Gen. Creighton V. Abrams, the MACV commander, instructed his regional commanders to draw up offensive actions in their sectors. Lt. Gen. James W. Sutherland, commanding XXIV Corps in northernmost South Vietnam, came up with the Laotian invasion idea. That, in combination with renewed attacks inside Cambodia, was accepted as the main option.

The White House labeled this a “special operation,” and permitted only talk about the option until Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s deputy, visited South Vietnam in December. Meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu on the 17th, Haig discussed the Laotian invasion in detail.

These dates are important in the intelligence. On December 17 the Defense Intelligence Agency issued an intelligence appraisal covering North Vietnamese Base Areas 604 and 611. Those would be the targets of Lam Son 719, with 604 centered on the Laotian town of Tchepone, a nexus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and 611 at the head of the Ashau Valley. The DIA estimated that the North Vietnamese had 28 combat battalions in those positions (15,000-18,000 troops) with an additional 7,000-15,000 logistics and support forces there as well.

But that wasn’t the end of it. There were 21 more North Vietnamese battalions along the Demilitarized Zone, and 27 (24,000 troops) in the region from Quang Khe south. They were deemed capable of reaching the battle zone within five to seven days. In the North Vietnamese panhandle up to Thanh Hoa Province were an additional 42 combat battalions (42,000 men) who were about ten days away. Plus, 30,000 North Vietnamese troops were believed in transit on The Trail.

DIA pulled no punches. Appraisal 8A-70 stated: “The enemy’s continued interest in maintaining vital positions in base Areas 604 and 611 was reflected in communications intelligence last spring…. These intercepts indicated an increase in preparedness to resist an incursion and made no mention of abandoning or withdrawing…. Enemy intentions were confirmed in late spring and early summer by the movement of forces from both the Republic of Vietnam’s MR 1 and from North Vietnam to reinforce the area.”

Signals intelligence indicated that the North Vietnamese had gone to a high state of alert starting in November 1970. When Alex Johnson worried that Hanoi had superior logistics capability he was correct. The Lam Son 719 plan anticipated invading Laos with 14,000 South Vietnamese troops, with a peak offensive strength of 22,000.

We now know that in October 1970 the North Vietnamese established the 70B Front in the Tchepone area in anticipation of battles here. Some of Hanoi’s best military men led this formation, with Maj. Gen. Le Trong Tan as commander and Nguyen Huu Anh, who played a prominent role in the pivotal 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, as his deputy. The NVA forces included elements of the 304th and 308th Divisions, who also fought at Dien Bien Phu. Nguyen Huu Anh had fought with Tan in a campaign in northern Laos which nearly captured a secret CIA army stronghold at Long Tieng.

ARVN General Hoang Xuan Lam briefs the press on the progress of Operation Lam
Son 719 from the field, March 1971.

These preparations were no secret to U.S. intelligence. On January 12, 1971, the MACV intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. William C. Potts, in a secret cable, noted the existence of a front headquarters, as well as nine regimental-level or higher commands. Potts said that the enemy would be able to use two divisions from North Vietnam, 20 battalions from the South, and additional elements from lower Laos to reinforce troops in Laos. The XXIV Corps leader and his ARVN opposite number, Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, went to Saigon on January 16 to brief top commanders on the invasion plan. “By then I knew,” Sutherland said, “and so did Gen. Abrams, that the [NVA] had been alerted that something was going on.”

At the White House on January 19, Kissinger convened the Washington Special Actions Group, a high-level interagency crisis management unit, to work on the Laos invasion plan. It these meetings Alex Johnson argued against the Lam Son plan, much as did his boss, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, in meetings with President Nixon.

During the WSAG meeting Kissinger asked for a CIA evaluation of how others would respond to the Laotian invasion. The agency supplied it several days later. It said that “the logistics offensive of the current dry season” had gotten underway on January 5 and would approach its peak in four to six weeks—the first or second week of February. Lam Son 719 was scheduled to begin on February 8.

The CIA predicted that ARVN operations around Tchepone, if they lasted just a few days, “would not significantly reduce the enemy’s capabilities to maintain a military presence in South Vietnam or Cambodia.” South Vietnamese fighting near Tchepone for a month or two, the CIA estimated, however, “would inflict significantly greater disruption.”

The CIA evaluation also noted that thousands of North Vietnamese troops had been added to Trail defenses during the second half of 1970, and that several regiments of Hanoi’s regulars had shifted further south, shortening their response time to reach Tchepone.

“We do not think [the North Vietnamese] would be unduly surprised,” the report said. “Their troop deployments to date have put them in a good posture to contest such an operation vigorously and promptly.”


These arguments convinced William R. Smyser, the National Security Council staffer who specialized in Southeast Asia military issues. Smyser mentioned the CIA analysis on January 26 when he told Kissinger there would be no strategic surprise and the North Vietnamese would fight. He also argued that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer was “naive” to think Hanoi would interpret Lam Son as “just another Route 9 operation.” Kissinger used Smyser’s paper as the basis for a memo to Nixon in which he informed the president that the North Vietnamese “probably” were expecting an attack and would likely stand and fight. On January 26 Bob Haldeman wrote: “Hanoi has our plan, we’ve discovered.”

That same day a communications intercept from Binh Tram 27, one of the supply depots on The Trail, showed the North Vietnamese were aware that several ARVN and South Vietnamese Marine units were preparing to attack. Binh Tram ordered its forces to prepare for combat and antiaircraft units to ready positions and protect transportation. A different unit was overheard reporting that the forward command post of the ARVN I Corps had moved up to Cam Lo, a fortified camp below the DMZ.

On the afternoon of January 27, 1971, MACV commander Abrams recommended canceling the planned offensive. He also added that unless ordered not to, he would launch the operation after midnight on January 29. This was vital because Operation Dewey Canyon II, a preliminary phase to clear Khe Sanh and Route 9 up to the Laotian border, was scheduled to be in motion by that time. The troops involved were the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) under Brig. Gen. John G. Hill. A full battalion, Lt. Col. Raymond E. Farrar’s 1/11 Infantry, was scheduled to make an air assault into Khe Sanh, with the position consolidated by the mechanized column blasting its way up Route 9.

Gen. Abrams’ idea of canceling Dewey Canyon came to naught. On White House orders the Joint Chiefs ordered the operation to go forward. At Pearl Harbor Adm. McCain concurred. Dewey Canyon began on January 28. Lam Son 719 was scheduled to begin on February 8.

On January 29 intercepted messages indicated that the North Vietnamese were expecting an attack in Laos. A regiment of the North Vietnamese 320th Division had begun moving south, and a report mentioned signs that elements of several other enemy divisions were preparing to move as well.

The CIA reported on February 3, though, that it had uncovered no evidence of new North Vietnamese troop reinforcements during the previous 24 hours. “Communist forces in eastern Laos expect the allied drive to begin at any time,” the report said, and “forces throughout the general Tchepone area continue preparations for a large allied attack.” A different report the same day said that the 24B Regiment of the North Vietnamese 304th Division had begun its march from Quang Binh Province.

On February 6 the CIA noted that “the Communists plan to push a large number of vehicles through the Tchepone area on a crash basis beginning tomorrow or Monday,” with a good deal of troop movement in the area and a suspicion that North Vietnam had begun bringing MIG aircraft into Vinh. A briefing note that Haig prepared for Henry Kissinger that same day said that the “maximum peak surge” in North Vietnamese logistics activity was expected between the middle and end of February.

So American leaders knew the North Vietnamese expected a battle, that it would be around Tchepone, and that Hanoi had alerted its forces. The Americans also were aware that North Vietnamese reinforcements had already started toward the battle zone, that Hanoi had the capacity to double its combat troops within two weeks, and that the North Vietnamese had already started a supply push that would peak about two weeks after the ARVN began its invasion.

Nixon and Kissinger’s stubborn adherence to a plan that had leaked to the enemy set up the South Vietnamese—and American support troops and airmen—for a huge disaster. Nixon demanded—and Kissinger produced—an invasion of Laos. In November or December 1971 the U.S. could have walked away from it. But Nixon and Kissinger held firm, even when it became evident the enemy was ready for them. They dared Hanoi to fight when its troops in Laos were on maximum combat alert.




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