During the Vietnam War there were four standalone strategic bombing campaigns, lasting from just a matter of days to several years. They progressively became more successful as doctrine was changed and lessons were learned, but it was a slow process. Initially honing in on civilian vulnerabilities, the focus eventually changed to the destruction of military targets, which finally forced Hanoi towards the negotiation table. Nevertheless, even the might of the world’s largest air force could not bomb the guerrilla soldiers of North Vietnam’s People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Viet Cong (VC) into submission. Several factors ensured that the US strategic bombing of Vietnam was not more successful, ranging from the very geography of the region to the immense backing North Vietnam received from the Soviet Union and China.
David vs. Goliath in the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was definitely a battle between David and Goliath. It perfectly embodied the idea of asymmetrical warfare – according to Bernd Greiner in War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam, it was a contest of “B-52 bombers and bamboo traps, napalm and handguns, battalions versus five-man night patrols.” The odds should have been stacked heavily in the United States’ favor, particularly when it came to the skies, but the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were hardened and willing to give everything for their beliefs.
The Air Force was the figurehead of the entire US military, built up by Eisenhower and now put forth as the symbol of nuclear supremacy. As Air Force General Curtis LeMay famously put it, “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age,” and they fully believed they were capable of doing so. Nevertheless, the US strategic bombing was relatively ineffectual in destabilizing North Vietnam and discouraging them from continuing their fight.
The use of airpower against the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War “[was] a classic example of conventional coercion” – the US wanted to shock the North into capitulating and coming to the negotiating table. The Americans initially did this through strategic bombing campaigns such as Operation Rolling Thunder, authorized by President Johnson, which took place between March 1965 and October 1968. There were two aims: firstly, to halt the stream of men and material into South Vietnam, and, secondly, to force North Vietnam into conducting peace negotiations.
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Unfortunately for the United States, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s insurgent tactics in the Vietnam War were largely immune to traditional air attacks. This was a lesson the Air Force did not learn until Nixon’s presidency, when Operations Linebacker I and II coincided with Hanoi switching from a guerrilla to a conventional war strategy in the South, leaving them vulnerable to air attack.
While Linebacker I, which ran from May to October 1972, had proved a partial success in that it brought Hanoi to peace discussions and a temporary ceasefire for its ground troops, this was short-lived as South Vietnam soon stalled negotiations, whereupon Hanoi backed away from the agreement. It was not until Linebacker II, which lasted just 11 days, that an American air operation could be declared a resounding success. Both Linebacker strategic bombing operations prioritized military targets, leaving Hanoi unable to fight back, rather than trying to gradually tighten the noose around the neck of the civilian population as this only angered the North Vietnamese and steeled their resolve. It took the Air Force far too long to adapt to this problem, which proved highly detrimental to their war effort.
Shockingly, the Air Force tried to justify the devastating effect their indiscriminate “strategic” bombing had on the civilian population of North Vietnam. They were merely collateral damage in Nixon and Kissinger’s furious quest to defeat the “unbeatable enemy.” Oval Office recordings showed that, in 1972, Nixon declared his intent to “bomb the livin’ bejesus out of ‘em,” much like LeMay’s threat almost a decade earlier.
While the Viet Cong hunkered down in sturdy bunkers, the general populace was at high risk of death or injury due to a significant target identification problem for pilots, caused in part by the thick jungle canopy covering almost all US target areas. In a secret 1970 memorandum, the Air Force acknowledged the failings of their tactics during the Vietnam War thus far and the immense difficulties this presented their men. In addition to the dense forest, the memorandum concluded that USAAF pilots were not able to reliably strike military targets and instead were “shooting on suspicion over wide swathes of land, under orders based on unreliable information and[…]under considerable time constraints.” These factors all combine to show that despite the massive imbalance in strike power, conditions in Vietnam were not conducive to the Air Force conducting successful operations.
The North Vietnamese were tremendously resourceful, as evidenced by their building and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail throughout the war despite the US’ best efforts against them. Known as the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route to the North Vietnamese, it wound its way for hundreds of miles through Laos and Cambodia before reaching the North’s war effort in the South. In creating the trail, the North made one of history’s great achievements in military engineering. It was able to send its trucks across rugged mountains, under the thick jungle canopy that had proved detrimental to American bombing attempts.
Despite dedicated strike forces, US bombing never stopped traffic and never got the job done – a sore point for both military leaders and the pilots themselves. It was the piecemeal construction of the Trail and others like it that made the US bombing so inconsequential. Despite its might, the “US Air Force could not seriously disrupt a line of communications that depended in large part on trails and men on bicycles,” according to Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley in Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938. Damaged parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail were quickly bypassed or repaired, allowing the flow of strategic materials from the Soviet Union and China to recommence. This constant flow of information and material also highlights the ineffectual nature of US strategic bombing.
It is important to note that the Vietnam War was a proxy war – North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in the South had the financial and military backing of both the Soviet Union and China. As Senator J. William Fulbright put it, “we go ahead treating this little piss-ant country as though we were up against Russia and China together” – and they were. From early on, the US made a concerted effort not to draw the two Communist powers directly into the fray.
President Johnson had regular Tuesday lunch meetings with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other advisers. The purpose of these meetings was to pick the next bombing targets, and concerns about the risk of expanding the war by forcing other countries into the fighting were at the forefront of their discussions. They considered the four main points of their checklist regarding each target: military advantage, risk to American aircraft, the danger of expanding the war, and the danger of heavy civilian casualties. Accordingly, high-value targets such as Haiphong Harbour were not bombed because Soviet ships regularly docked there, and the risk of fully drawing the Soviet Union into the conflict outweighed the strategic value of damaging the infrastructure.
A declassified 1968 CIA intelligence report makes the influence of China and the Soviet Union very clear. Addressed to Senator Karl E. Mundt, it shows that the US strategic bombing only strengthened the North’s war effort rather than defeating it as intended. The US Armed Forces essentially shot themselves in the foot as “both economic and military aid were at reasonably low levels prior to the bombing,” but, from 1965, support from the Communists increased rapidly, making life harder for both US ground troops and the Air Force.
In the fourteen years since the war had begun, North Vietnam had received over $3.2 billion in assistance from China and the Soviet Union. The CIA thought it was likely they would soon be receiving over a billion dollars in aid each year. The Air Force’s problems were compounded by the fact that most of the military equipment the PAVN and VC received, of which eighty percent came from the Soviet Union, was intended for air defense.
In conjunction with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the support of North Vietnam’s Communist brethren ensured that the United States would have its work cut out trying to stem the flow of men and material towards the battlefields of the South. The risk of being dragged into an all-out nuclear war, which would lead to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), prevented the US from trying to strike the source of North Vietnam’s support. Each time the PAVN or VC suffered particularly heavy losses, China or Russia could simply send more supplies their way. In a conventional war, the United States’ military-industrial complex could have easily outstripped the production capabilities of the rival nations. However, with the Vietnam War so reliant on guerrilla warfare, it was too broken up to fight at once.
The “Special” Relationship Challenged
The indiscriminate US bombing was unpopular at home and overseas. This was highlighted in June 1966, when the Anglo-American “special” relationship was publicly challenged by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s “disassociation” from an American decision to bomb “POL (petrol, oil, lubricants) facilities in[…]Hanoi and Haiphong” that same month. This move was dismissed by President Johnson’s new National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow, an ardent “hawk,” as gutless. He and Secretary of State Dean Rusk made it clear that, in the future, Wilson must publicly support US foreign policy, “lest he alienate the President completely.”
A year prior, Undersecretary of State George W. Ball pushed for “A Compromise Solution in South Vietnam” in a memo to President Johnson. He called for the US to commit to cease its bombing of the North as he saw the conflict as one about to turn “almost certainly” into a “protracted war.” This clearly demonstrates the stress that the failure of the US strategic bombing was putting on public and political opinion globally. Long gone were the days of March 1963, when Rusk declared that “the struggle against the VC had ‘turned an important corner,’” and was nearly won. The Vietnam War was far from over.
American Strategic Bombing in the Vietnam War: Ultimately Unsuccessful
To conclude, the United States Armed Forces had an uphill battle in the Vietnam War, particularly the Air Force. A fundamental misunderstanding of how to defeat guerrillas in an unconventional war was an issue that took far too long to rectify. Even in the 1970s, when the focus changed from forcing civilians into submission to eradicating Hanoi’s military capabilities, the Air Force’s efforts continued to be hampered by the very geography of the region they were fighting in. The thick jungles prevented precise targeting and accurate intelligence gathering, leading to indiscriminate bombing, which angered the North Vietnamese further and only served to turn public and political opinions against the war, both at home and abroad. The backing of powerful Communist allies and utilization of jungle trails allowed the North Vietnamese to continue the war effort, almost without setback. US strategic bombing in Vietnam was ineffective and all too undiscerning, and it took far too long for its leaders to adapt to the unwelcoming scenario they faced.