Between the 1959 decision to force a military solution upon the southern question and the death of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, Le Duan and his associates in Hanoi were constrained by party members who believed that economic development was a higher priority than military confrontation with the south and that, in fact, developing a strong economy was an essential first step toward overcoming the south. The Le Duan leadership group tightened its control over the party, the army, and intellectuals during the third party congress in late 1960, but internal resistance and the indifference of China and the Soviet Union continued to inhibit policy toward Saigon. By late 1962, after the strategic hamlet program was launched and Kennedy escalated American military involve- ment, there was much uncertainty and vacillation in the party. After the agree- ment to neutralize Laos was completed in the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union lost interest in Southeast Asia. China continued to support the Laotian and Vietnamese communists but was distracted by mass starvation and by border tensions with India, Taiwan, and the Soviet Union. Party leadership in Hanoi was divided over the relative importance of the Soviet model of a centralized bureaucratic state and the Chinese model of mass mobilization and permanent revolution.
The November 1963 coup in Saigon awakened the Hanoi leadership from the conundrums of socialist internationalism and its manifestations within the Viet- namese party. The sudden, dramatic dismantling of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime opened the prospect of victory in the south much sooner than it had been thought possible. Within weeks of Ngo Dinh Diem’s death, the central committee of the party resolved upon an aggressive policy of “general offensive and general uprising” to take over the south. Dissenting party members were demoted, marginalized, put under house arrest, or imprisoned. Students in the Soviet Bloc countries were recalled for re-education. A campaign to enforce intellectual conformity among writers and artists was launched. North Vietnamese army units began to move into South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.
By the time of the 1965 Johnson escalation, Khrushchev had been deposed, and the new Soviet leadership challenged the expansion of American military action in Vietnam by giving strong support to Hanoi. China followed suit and within two years stationed nearly two hundred thousand troops between the Chinese border and Hanoi. The Chinese troops handled air defense, logistics, and construction. Their presence enabled the Vietnamese to allocate more man- power to the south.
Nguyen Chi Thanh, the commander of communist forces in South Vietnam, believed that the Vietnamese disadvantage in battlefield technology could be overcome by high morale. He aimed to break the will of Americans to fight in Vietnam by seeking direct engagement with American units to inflict maximum casualties. The high cost of this strategy provoked dissent within the North Vietnamese army. In 1966 and the first half of 1967, Vo Nguyen Giap spoke out against what he considered to be the wasting of the army in high casualty engagements. He advocated an emphasis on guerrilla operations and protracted warfare to minimize the damage suffered from superior US firepower. In reply, Nguyen Chi Thanh argued that the US strategy of limited war and attrition could be overcome by an aggressive strategy that prevented Americans from becoming comfortable in Vietnam and that a shift to guerrilla warfare would damage the morale of the communist soldiers.
Voices of moderation within the party began to rise as the human and material cost of the war became increasingly apparent. US bombing disrupted and degraded the country’s industrial and transportation infrastructure and forced major relocations of population. Many party members were dismayed to see plans for economic development sacrificed to a war they considered unnecessary. They called for peace talks to end the war, believing that a better way to unify the country was through economic development, confident that a vibrant socialist economy would eventually overwhelm southern resistance. These people were encouraged by the growing involvement of the Soviet Union in the war effort. They admired the Soviet model of state building, being repelled by the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution, and they supported the Soviet Union’s call for a negotiated settlement.
By 1967, the rising involvement of both the Soviet Union and China in the war brought the Sino-Soviet conflict into the center of party politics. The Soviet Union provided military material for conventional war but advocated negoti- ations with the Americans. China advocated a protracted guerrilla war and opposed negotiations. In mid 1967, disagreements within the army about battle- field strategy and pressures from rival allies about diplomatic strategy became entangled with the problem of party leadership. The death of Nguyen Chi Thanh and the declining health of Ho Chi Minh raised the profile of Vo Nguyen Giap and the prospect of a challenge to Le Duan’s position at the head of the party. Le Duan felt the need to reassert his authority by distancing himself from his foreign allies and silencing his domestic critics.
Prior to his death in July 1967, Nguyen Chi Thanh proposed a major offensive in 1968 to break the seeming stalemate on the battlefield, to rally the southern population behind the party, and to turn back the tide of Ameri- can intervention. The virtue of this proposal was that it asserted a Vietnamese strategy for victory that rebuffed both the Chinese advocacy of protracted guerrilla warfare and the Soviet advocacy for a negotiated peace settlement. This would enable Le Duan to separate himself from both allies, thereby avoiding the morass of their rivalry
. The debate about battlefield strategy ended with Nguyen Chi Thanh’s death. Without him, Le Duan’s control of the army was threatened. Le Duan countered opposition to Nguyen Chi Thanh’s plans by purging party members inclined toward a guerrilla strategy and peace talks; these people viewed Vo Nguyen Giap, now the dominant military figure, as their leading spokesman. During the last half of 1967 as plans for the 1968 offensive were completed and negotiating possibilities were rejected, several hundred people were disciplined or arrested, including members of Vo Nguyen Giap’s personal staff; this series of purges was called the “revisionist anti-party affair.” Plans for the offensive of 1968 were closely related to Le Duan countering threats to his authority both from his foreign allies and from within the ruling party. Beginning in the late 1950s, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho repeatedly renewed their ascendancy in the party by enforcing their policy of war to conquer the south. The purges of late 1967 brought an end to debates that had begun with the decision to accelerate this policy that had been prompted by Ngo Dinh Diem’s death. At the end of January 1968, Hanoi initiated the first phase of its offensive. Six cities, thirty-six provincial capitals, and sixty-four district capitals were attacked, primarily by the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, commonly called the Viet Cong, the military arm of the communist movement in the south. The attacks were rapidly defeated everywhere except in Hue. The communists held Hue for about a month, during which time people from Hue who had joined the com- munists after the revolt in spring 1966 returned and attempted to establish a revolutionary regime. The communists arrested around three thousand people in Hue; most of these were later found massacred in shallow graves outside the city. A second wave of attacks in May and a third wave in August were on a much- reduced scale and were no more successful.
One result of the offensive was that the southern communists were virtually wiped out as a military force and thereafter the North Vietnamese army was forced to assume a defensive pose; the communists lost control of much of the territory that they had previously taken. On the other side, the new government of the Second Republic in Saigon benefited from a rise of popular support as people rallied against the attackers with a new sense of appreciation for what was at stake. For many people in relatively protected urban areas, what had been a war in the countryside was suddenly in their streets and homes. The fighting of 1968 strengthened the Saigon government and stimulated a surge of volunteers into its armed forces.
What anti-communist Vietnamese experienced as a victory, American report- ers, opinion makers, and politicians perceived as a defeat. The reason for this was that Johnson’s limited war strategy did not account for the vital connection between Le Duan’s leadership and Hanoi’s uncompromising pursuit of victory in the south. There was no way to persuade Le Duan to renounce his war policy in the south because his authority depended upon it. Yielding to American pressure would have meant the downfall of Le Duan and his associates, which they were determined to prevent. American public opinion turned away from the war when the 1968 offensive revealed that the enemy was far from giving up. Johnson saw that he was politically vulnerable and decided against running for re-election. At the same time, at the end of March 1968, he responded to criticism of his policy in Vietnam by unilaterally restricting US bombing of North Vietnam to an area on its southern border and by calling for negotiations to end the war.
Seeing the effect of the offensive on American politics and sensing that the American will to continue the war had been broken, Hanoi agreed to peace talks, which opened in Paris at the beginning of May 1968. From the beginning, the peace talks served the non-negotiable American desire to disengage from the war and the non-negotiable Hanoi determination to gain control of South Vietnam. On the other hand, the survival of an independent non-communist South Viet- nam was negotiable. In June, the National Assembly in Saigon protested the US negotiating matters related to South Vietnamese sovereignty without its partici- pation, but Ambassador Bunker failed to obtain assurances from the State Department that the Saigon government would be fully informed and consulted.
From the beginning, Hanoi demanded that the US cease all bombing of North Vietnam as a precondition for continuing the talks. Johnson acceded to this demand just before the presidential election in November 1968. In late 1968, the US forced Nguyen Van Thieu to accept a negotiating formula of “two sides, four parties” that compromised his government’s claim of sovereignty over South Vietnam. The US and the Republic of Vietnam formed one side while North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front were the other side. This acknowledgment of equal status between the Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front as two governments each claiming to rule all of South Vietnam became even more explicit a year later when the National Liberation Front was redesigned as the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. Despite the battlefield victories of 1968, American eagerness to negoti- ate an exit from the war forced the Republic of Vietnam into a negotiating stance that threatened its continued existence.