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44 CHAPTER TWO Fast and Thin The difficulty the 173rd Airborne encountered in bringing enemy forces to battle in Binh Dinh was mirrored throughout South Vietnam, since the Communists were now consciously avoiding combat in order to hold down their casualties. VC and NVA regular units were breaking down into small, highly elusive groups that reassembled only for short periods to launch an attack, then dispersed immediately afterward. Moreover, in the latter half of 1968, allied intelligence detected a major withdrawal of enemy Main Force units into cross-border sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. Between July and December 1968, thirty-two NVA combat and combat support battalions exited South Vietnam. Twenty-one battalion equivalents of NVA and Main Force VC left II Corps, although roughly half of them (including the bulk of the 3rd NVA Yellow Star Division) merely shifted northward across the boundary into I Corps. Another sign of enemy quiescence was that many of the regular units that remained in South Vietnam took refuge in well-fortified base areas situated in remote and inaccessible parts of the country.1 These developments drastically reduced the tempo of the Vietnam War and seemed to indicate a major shift in enemy strategy. In reality, the Communist leadership was reluctant to make any fundamental changes because it feared demoralizing its troops in the near term, by renouncing the goal of decisive victory, or in the long term, by creating unrealistic expectations that victory would soon be achieved.2 In October 1968 the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) of the Lao Dong (Workers) Party (North Vietnamese Communist Party) issued its Eighth Resolution, which reaffirmed the general offensive–general uprising strategy and set extremely ambitious objectives for the near future: “Annihilate and disintegrate the Puppet Army” and “Destroy the main elements of the US forces.”3 But it also emphasized the importance of protracted warfare, tempering the theme of decisive victory by explaining that this would be achieved gradually through a two-phase process wherein intensified military and political activity in the first phase set the stage for final success in the second.4 This effort to straddle the fence caused confusion even within COSVN’s own ranks. At a COSVN cadres’ conference, a senior Lao Dong official tried Fast and Thin 45 to finesse the contradictions in the Eighth Resolution by arguing: “There is no contradiction between the concept of a protracted struggle and that of gaining a decisive victory in the immediate future, because in both cases there always is a requirement for a quick development of the South Vietnam Revolutionary Forces in every aspect.” And later: “In the First Phase [of the general offensive], many comrades had not yet learned or had not mastered the basic principles of this new phase; they thought General Offensive and General Uprising meant a ‘one blow’ affair.”5 Despite this equivocation, COSVN had retreated from the goal of achieving decisive victory in the near term, although it could not drop it entirely, for reasons of morale. Formally, that decision would not be made until midway through 1969. But in reality , there had already been a de facto shift in strategy simply because the inactivity and/or absence of so many regular military units meant that the Communists had no choice but to revert to lower-intensity guerrilla warfare operations. The “One War” Strategy US strategy was also evolving during this period under the direction of General Creighton W. Abrams, who had replaced General Westmoreland as MACV commander in July 1968. The need for a new strategy had been obvious since March 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson announced his intention to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. Yet in the nine months he remained in the White House, Johnson never gave MACV guidance as to what its new mission was, now that the strategy of attrition was dead.6 When Abrams assumed command, he fell back on his own resources and created a Long-Range Planning Task Group to thoroughly reassess the situation and offer recommendations for a new military strategy.7 The Task Group would not report back for several months, and in the interim, events did not stand still. In the fall, allied intelligence discovered that the Communists were creating “popularly elected” People’s Liberation Committees nationwide. Abrams was concerned that these would allow the NLF to claim that it was the undisputed sovereign authority in much of South Vietnam if the Paris peace talks produced a standstill cease-fire...


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