On 8 December 1970, in response to a request from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a highly secret meeting was held at the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam's (MACV) Saigon headquarters to discuss the possibility of an ARVN cross-border attack into southeastern Laos. According to General Creighton W. Abrams, the American commander in Vietnam, the main impetus for the offensive came from Colonel Alexander M. Haig, an aide to National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger. MACV had been disturbed by intelligence of a PAVN logistical build-up in southeastern Laos but was reluctant to let the ARVN go it alone against the North Vietnamese. The group's findings were then sent on to the Joint Chiefs in Washington, D.C. By mid-December, President Richard M. Nixon had also become intrigued by possible offensive actions in Laos and had begun efforts to convince both General Abrams and the members of his cabinet of the efficacy of a cross-border attack.
Abrams felt that undue pressure was being exerted on Nixon by Haig, but Haig later wrote that the military was lacking in enthusiasm for such an operation and that "prodded remorselessly by Nixon and Kissinger, the Pentagon finally devised a plan" for the Laotian operation. Other possible benefits which might accrue from such an operation were also being discussed. Admiral John S. McCain Jr (CINCPAC) communicated with Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that an offensive against the Ho Chi Minh Trail might compel Prince Souvanna Phouma, prime minister of Laos, "to abandon the guise of neutrality and enter the war openly." On 7 January 1971 MACV was authorized to begin detailed planning for an attack against PAVN Base Areas 604 and 611. The task was given to the commander of U.S. XXIV Corps, Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland, Jr., who had only nine days to submit it to MACV for approval. The operation would consist of four phases. During the first phase U.S. forces inside South Vietnam would seize the border approaches and conduct diversionary operations. Next would come an ARVN armored/infantry attack along Route 9 toward the abandoned Laotian town of Tchepone, the perceived nexus of Base Area 604. This advance would be protected by a series of leap-frogging aerial infantry assaults to cover the northern and southern flanks of the main column. During the third phase, search and destroy operations within Base Area 604 would be carried out and finally, the South Vietnamese force would retire either back along Route 9 or through Base Area 611 and exit through the A Shau Valley. It was hoped that the force could remain in Laos until the rainy season was underway at the beginning of May.
Because of the notorious laxity of the South Vietnamese military when it came to security precautions and the uncanny ability of communist agents to uncover operational information, the planning phase lasted only a few weeks and was divided between the American and Vietnamese high commands. At the lower levels, it was limited to the intelligence and operational staffs of ARVN's I Corps, under Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, who was to command the operation, and the XXIV Corps, headed by General Sutherland. When Lam was finally briefed by MACV and the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff in Saigon, his chief of operations was forbidden to attend the meeting, even though he had helped to write the very plan under discussion. At this meeting, Lam's operational area was restricted to a corridor no wider than 15 miles on either side of Route 9 and a penetration no deeper than Tchepone.
Command, control, and coordination of the operation was going to be problematic, especially in the highly politicized South Vietnamese command structure, where the support of key political figures was of paramount importance in promotion to and retention of command positions. Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang, the Vietnamese Marine Corps commander and protege of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, whose troops were scheduled to participate in the operation, actually outranked General Lam, who had the support of President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. The same situation applied to Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, commander of ARVN Airborne forces also scheduled to participate in the operation. After the incursion began, both men remained in Saigon and delegated their command authority to minor officers rather than take orders from Lam. This did not bode well for the success of the operation.
Individual units did not learn about their planned participation until 17 January. The Airborne Division that was to lead the operation received no detailed plans until 2 February, less than a week before the campaign was to begin. This was of crucial importance, since many of the units, particularly the Airborne and the Marines, had worked as separate battalions and brigades and had no experience maneuvering or cooperating in adjoining areas. According to the assistant commander of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, "Planning was rushed, handicapped by security restrictions, and conducted separately and in isolation by the Vietnamese and the Americans."
The U.S. portion of the operation was to bear the title Dewey Canyon II, named for the original operation conducted by U.S. Marines in the northwestern South Vietnam in 1969. It was hoped that the reference to the previous operation would confuse Hanoi as to the actual target of the proposed incursion. The ARVN's portion was given the title Lam Son 719, after the village of Lam Son, birthplace of the legendary Vietnamese patriot Lê Lợi, who had defeated an invading Chinese army in 1427. The numerical designation came from the year, 1971, and the main axis of the attack, Route 9.
The decisions had been made at the highest levels and planning had been completed, but valuable time had been lost. The South Vietnamese were about to begin their largest, most complex, and most important operation of the war. The lack of time for adequate planning and preparation, as well as the absence of any real questioning about military realities and the capabilities of the ARVN were going to prove decisive. On 29 January President Nixon gave his final approval for the operation. On the following day, Operation Dewey Canyon II was under way.
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