Op Plans York, El Paso 1, El Paso 2… If you do’t have a clue to what went on behind the headlines, you have no moral authority to produce a cultural-story altering documentary. Shame on you!
By John M. Del Vecchio
Photo by the author: Interdicting Infiltration—from this hilltop in western I Corps one could look across the northern end of the A Shau Valley and into Laos.
Where to start? Episode 4, Resolve (Jan 66-Jun 67) was by far the most emotional. Toward the end, one would have to be awfully hardhearted to watch the resolution of the Denton W. Crocker, Jr. storyline and not be in tears. A master storyteller sets these things up, and Burns has been setting this element up since at least episode two. We’ve come to like and admire not just Denton, but his mother and sister. More than like and admire, we identify with them. By his demise Denton has become our son, our brother, our friend. This is very powerful. Exactly what is needed to convince a viewer who might be skeptical of Burns’ historical perspective, to essentially throw in the towel. Don’t. Just as Burns wants you to empathize with the plight of American troops yet despise American involvement, I’m asking you to honor the courage and sacrifices of American troops, but also to understand the greater story and thereby not deny meaning to their courage and sacrifices.
I am no fan of Lyndon Johnson or Robert McNamara. Their strategic handling of the war—both in the war zone and on the home front—reeks of irresponsibility and ineptitude. Their meddling in day-to-day tactical decisions was ludicrous. And most upsetting to me, and not a word of this in the Burns documentary other than a very general statement that it was denied, was their active ignorance of General Westmoreland’s clear-sighted op-plan to stop Northern infiltration and turn over in-country fighting of domestic terrorists (VC, though this is not fully accurate as we’ll see below) to the Army of The Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
As early as 1965 Westmoreland recognized the interdiction inadequacies of the system he’d inherited, and he’d surmised the war could not be won by simply defending South Vietnamese territory and killing invaders thereof. He knew that to control a defensive border—a line running from the tip of the Mekong Delta north along the borders with Cambodia and Laos then east across the DMZ to the South China Sea, a distance of over 700 miles—would take upwards of 1.5 to 2 million troops. He summed up his solution, laid out in Op Plan York, as such:
I continued for long to hope for an international force to man a line below the DMZ and across the Laos panhandle… From the first I contemplated eventually moving into Laos to cut and block the infiltration routes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in 1966 and 1967 my staff prepared detail plans for such an operation.
Below the DMZ, from the South China Sea to the Mekong River and border with Thailand is approximately 125 miles. This is approximately one sixth the length of border Johnson’s strategy required defending. It would have required approximately one sixth the troops, somewhere in the order of 300,000 to 350,000. Johnson, McNamara, and other’s in that administration turned the general down. Westmoreland repeated his request with Op Plans El Paso I and El Paso II. U.S. Ambassador to The Republic of Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, backed Westmoreland.
Politically-imposed restrictions on military operations were not just casing inefficiencies and increasing casualties, they were perverting the operations themselves. Sweep and destroy missions in or close to population concentrations were Plan-B expediencies. Think of it this way: a group of armed crazies forms up outside your condominium complex. They enter the property. They kill your neighbor’s dog. They demand that all owners support them with food and funds. You are restricted by law from physically opposing them. Then they enter your neighbor’s unit. You hear violence, panic. They break into your house, begin raping your wife and daughter, and are about to kill you. At this point the restrictions are lifted and you are allowed to shoot. The problem now is how to shoot without harming your wife and daughter, and without the collateral damage going through your walls into adjoining units of even burning the complex to the ground.
Johnson and McNamara enforced the use of Plan-B and attempted to offset it with a bombing campaign in the next town over. Combat roles became twisted.
Westmoreland continuously attempted to convince LBJ that it was better to meet the hoard before they entered the property. “…it was essential for me to plan ahead,” he wrote in A Soldier Reports, “to develop contingency plans… A staff section known as J-5 developed multiple plans… I was particularly pleased with three plans developed for Laos. I am convinced two, and probably the third, would have succeeded, would have eliminated the enemy’s steady flow of men and supplies through the Laotian Panhandle, and would have materially shortened American involvement in the war.”
In 1967, to account for increased enemy infiltration, Westmoreland modified the York plan. As the year progressed, activity levels and intelligence reports indicated new enemy offensives was about to unfold.
“The enemy’s aggressive tactics…” Westmoreland wrote, “at Dak To (3-22 November) and elsewhere contrasted sharply with an article by (NVA) General Giap published in September 1967… in an official North Vietnamese journal. Giap proclaimed (the need) for a protracted war of attrition and urged conserving forces.” Westmoreland, matching the article with captured enemy documents, recognized that as a ruse. By the end of the year he was anticipating a major offensive, the communist’s “long heralded ‘final phase’ of the war.” Still Johnson kept Westmoreland’s strike plans in limbo. Anticipating approval, and hoping to preempt the suspected enemy offensive of 1968, Westmoreland ordered his staff to update Op Plan York. 6000 Marines loggered at or near the Special Forces camp at Kham Duc near the Laotian border because the base had the best air field—equipped with all-weather radar and navigations aids—in the border zone of the northern provinces. Approval for the operation never came.
Critics might scoff at Westmoreland’s York planning, but two additional factors should be considered before one decides. 1) A modified form of York was the basis for Operation Lam Son 719 launched in January 1971 under General Creighton Abrams (Westmoreland’s successor) and approved by President Nixon; 2) North Vietnamese commander Bui Tin, after the war, stated that what the Northern leaders feared most was a strategy which would permanently cut the trail. At the time Lam Son 719 (also called the Laotian Incursion) was approved, American forces were being withdrawn from Vietnam. All of the ground fighting was turned over to South Vietnamese troops, although they were transported into battle on American helicopter, had American air cover, and were supplied up to the border by American convoys. North Vietnamese intelligence had discovered the plan, and massive troop movements brought men and materiel not only from all over Laos, but units that had been stationed in South Vietnam, Cambodia and North Vietnam joined the fight.
One must wonder: What if?! What if Johnson had backed Westmoreland’s plan in 1965? Or 1966? Or 1967? What if there was never a need to count bodies because territory was being held? What if the ARVN had only to deal with indigenous insurgents? [As to the claim of being indigenous—by 1970 Northern troops comprised 95% of all VC unites, and from years earlier, 100% of the VC political cadre and military command was Northern.] That situation did, by the way, pretty much come to pass by 1970, and the indigenous insurgents proved to be no match for the ARVN. In fact, and this is a major flaw in episode 4, the ARVN which every year became a more accomplished fighting force, is only mentioned in a few negative incidents.
There is so much more real material on the events covered in the last episode it will take a book, or many books, to cover in any sort of depth.
Mr. Burns and Ms Novick, shame on you! You either don’t have a clue to what went on behind the headlines, or you have chosen to present a very lopsided story designed to alter a far more accurate cultural-story.
Please feel free to forward or share this essay. For more on this and for the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and many other aspects of our culture, visit: www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on: Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com.