Operation Cedar Falls, Prelude
After Operation Attleboro, two nearly identical questions were being asked in both Hanoi and Saigon: should the military forces engage main force units, or should they conduct guerilla warfare (for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong), or Counterinsurgency (for the US and South Vietnam)? This sparked vicious debates in both capitals.
In Hanoi, Giap, the NVA Commander, wanted to revert back to guerilla warfare after the horrible losses in 1966 suffered by the NVA and VC. Giap wanted to avoid the Americans, attack the South Vietnamese regime indirectly through the population (Classic Mao). Gen Nguyen Chi Than, the Central Office for South Vietnam or COSVN commander, wanted to continue engaging American units directly. Although Attleboro nearly destroyed the elite 9th VC Division, it did not. And furthermore its remnants could easily be reinforced from Cambodia. Thanh remarked that the 9th VC took the best that the Americans could deliver (an entire corps assault) and they still survived. The “soft” Americans by contrast were exhausted, and their casualties directly inflamed the burgeoning antiwar movement in the US. Also, the American casualties went a long way in proving the superiority of the Communist soldier vs the American/ARVN soldier to the population, and eventually gaining their support for an uprising in the South. Furthermore, the American main force units in conventional operations were practically VC recruiting tools with their disregard of the population. Thanh argued that Giap’s course would force the Americans to treat the people better, and avert a general uprising (He was right). Thanh won the argument.
In Saigon, the 1st ID Commander, MG DePuy, also wanted to continue engage main force units. He knew the 9th VC Div was not destroyed. But he could finish the job in the relatively underpopulated Tay Ninh province, an area that the NVA and VC must traverse to get to Saigon and the South from the Fishhook in Cambodia. His staff was already planning this follow up operation named Junction City, after Ft Riley’s ville. However, LTG Seaman, the II Corps commander, wanted first to clear the Iron Triangle, a VC stronghold south of Tay Ninh and just north of Saigon in a heavily fortified, nearly impenetrable forested area bordered by the Saigon river in the south and the Tinh River in the west. It was from there that devastating attacks were launched on targets in the city. Seaman wanted to isolate the Iron Triangle, destroy the VC infrastructure, capture the COSVN headquarters which intelligence placed there, and then focus on the population. However, since there weren’t troops available to hold the 160 square km area, his plan was to relocate the population to more easily defendable areas in conjunction with the CORDS “New Life Villages”. The area could then be turned into a free fire zone, defoliated, and rendered unusable by the VC.
They took the dispute to Gen Westmoreland, the MACV Commander. DePuy was one of Westmoreland’s golden children, so he thought Junction City was guaranteed. But surprisingly, Westmoreland deferred to Seaman. So Seaman postponed DePuy’s operation, and ordered his alternative to clear the Iron Triangle, an operation named after the hometown of a recent 1st ID Medal of Honor winner,