A war too long: Part II.

Author:Schlight, John S.

The second air war took place in the skies over North Vietnam. Between March 1965 and the end of October 1968, Air Force and Navy aircraft conducted Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign designed to force Ho Chi Minh to abandon his ambition to take over South Vietnam. Over the objections of many Air Force leaders, the operation began primarily as a diplomatic signal to impress Hanoi with America's determination, essentially a warning that the violence would escalate until Ho Chi Minh blinked, and secondarily as a means to bolster the sagging morale of the South Vietnamese. In the view of the Air Force, the campaign had no clear-cut military objective nor its authors any real estimate of the cost in lives and aircraft. General LeMay and others argued that military targets, rather than the enemy's resolve, should be attacked and that the blows should be rapid and sharp, with the impact felt immediately by the North Vietnamese Army on the battlefield as well as by the political leadership at Hanoi. Secretary McNamara favored the measured application of force and was convinced that the war could be won in the South. He initially emphasized strikes against the extended battlefield, which consisted of South Vietnam and the areas immediately beyond its borders, instead of proceeding directly against the targets many deep within North Vietnam advocated by LeMay. When Rolling Thunder failed to weaken the enemy's will after the first several weeks, the purpose, though not the pace, of the campaign began to change. By the end of 1965, the Johnson administration still used air power in an attempt to change North Vietnamese policy, but the bombing tended to be directed against the flow of men and supplies from the North, thus damaging the enemy militarily while warning him of the danger of greater destruction if he maintained the present aggressive course.

Although the bombing campaign was taking on more of a military coloration, forcing Ho Chi Minh to give up his goal of absorbing South Vietnam into a unified communist state remained the underlying purpose. The change in the conduct of the air war was not sufficient to satisfy LeMay and like-minded members of the military leadership, who believed that the United States could not end aggression with these strategies. The ill-conceived attempt to bomb Ho Chi Minh into being a good neighbor, in part the product of a cultural bias that perceived a militarily backward North Vietnam as succumbing to the use (if not the mere threat) of American might, had failed. McNamara's persisting in such an effort, even in the form of aerial interdiction, served mainly to estrange LeMay and other uniformed leaders from the civilian officials of the Department of Defense. In essence, the senior officers argued that military considerations should determine the use of force, whereas the civilians, typified by Secretary McNamara, insisted that selective pressure, controlled by them and combined with diplomatic overtures, would prevail and compel North Vietnam to call off its aggression in the South.

Within Congress, doubts about the McNamara policy mounted as the bombing dragged on without an appreciable effect on the leadership at Hanoi. At last in August 1967, after more than two years of Rolling Thunder, the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee began to probe the conduct of the air war. Under the leadership of John C. Stennis, a Democrat from Mississippi, the subcommittee provided a sympathetic forum where the admirals and generals presented their case for stronger action. In the words of Democratic Senator W. Stuart Symington of Missouri, a member of the subcommittee and the first Secretary of the Air Force, Rolling Thunder resembled an attack on an octopus; he, along with the other members of the subcommittee and the uniformed witnesses, believed in going for the head, which would mean an escalation of the bombing in terms of targets and tonnage. In contrast, Secretary McNamara argued unsuccessfully that attacking the head of the octopus was not necessary if all the tentacles were pounded to a pulp, as he maintained the limited bombing was doing. The consensus of the subcommittee was that the policy represented by Secretary McNamara had failed and that purely military considerations should prevail in selecting and attacking targets. Nevertheless, the hearings resulted in little more than an expansion of the target list, for the President undertook no dramatic escalation. The secret sessions did, however, destroy what remained of McNamara's credibility with Congress, contributing to his disenchantment with the war and edging him toward resigning, which he did early in 1968.

Besides opening divisions within the Department of Defense, the bombing contributed in some measure to the increasing opposition to the war and to the way it was being fought. Those among the populace who believed that the United States was doing too little could point to Rolling Thunder as an example of how American servicemen were risking their lives in operations that could not bring victory. At the opposite pole were those who felt that Rolling Thunder was unworthy of the United States, a form of war that unleashed the latest technology of violence against the civilian populace of North Vietnam. As the then-secret testimony before the Stennis subcommittee made clear, the nation's uniformed leaders did not advocate warfare against the population of the North, but attacks on undeniably military targets in crowded cities could not help but maim and kill noncombatants. Complicating any dispassionate judgment of the air war was the enduring myth that aerial bombardment was capable of unerring accuracy. Tracing its roots to the bombs-in-a-pickle-barrel legend of World War II, this myth had been reinforced by recent references to the surgical precision of aerial attack and by President Johnson's ill-advised remark that, whereas Viet Cong steel was plunged into flesh and blood, American bombs were directed only at steel and concrete. When an American reporter permitted to travel in North Vietnam sent back dispatches describing civilian casualties and the destruction of homes, the abiding belief of the American people in the precision of aerial bombing reinforced the enemy's propaganda.

When Rolling Thunder began in March 1965, strikes were limited to specific targets south of 20 degrees North latitude, but the area of operations rapidly expanded and the nature of the attacks changed. Within a few weeks Air Force fighterbombers were flying armed reconnaissance in that same area, hitting targets of opportunity. The first target north of the 20th parallel was bombed in May, and by November a few strikes had been authorized north of Hanoi against the rail lines entering the country from China. Because it represented a use of military force for diplomatic purposes, Rolling Thunder was controlled directly from Washington. Targets were chosen in the White House, at times when the President was having lunch with a few key advisers. At first, squadrons in South Vietnam and Thailand carried out the strikes approved for the Air Force, but after the construction of new airfields in Thailand, all the raids against the North originated there. The fleet of aircraft the Air Force operated from Thailand grew from 83 to 600. At first, the main burden of carrying the air war to North Vietnam fell to the F-105, but the F-4C joined it in mid-1965 and the F-4D somewhat later; the F--111, the operational version of the TFX, served briefly in 1968. The first of the few B-52 strikes directed against the North during this period took place in April 1966 and pounded the infiltration routes exiting into Laos; the Air Force Chief of Staff, General McConnell, did not want to send these bombers against the Hanoi-Haiphong region where the defenses were strongest.

Until November 1965, Air Force and Navy aircraft alternated in attacking Rolling Thunder targets throughout the North, but beginning that month, six armed reconnaissance areas, called route packages, were created, with each the responsibility of one of the two services. During April 1966, when infiltration into the South increased through the demilitarized zone, responsibility for strikes in the route package abutting the zone was turned over to General Westmoreland as part of South Vietnam's extended battlefield. Meanwhile, attacks continued, with certain exclusions, in the rest of North Vietnam. At various times, aircraft could not strike the potential targets within a thirty-mile radius of Hanoi, those within ten miles of Haiphong or thirty miles of the Chinese border, the MiG bases, and, until they demonstrated that they were actual weapons and not mere tokens of Soviet support, the surface-to-air missile sites.

The lists of authorized targets and excepted areas changed throughout the bombing campaign. In June 1966, for instance, fighter-bombers flew a series of powerful attacks against seven major petroleum storage areas, destroying some seventy percent of North Vietnam's tankage. The air war escalated further in February 1967 when aircraft hit power plants, military airfields, and railway yards within the buffer zones around Hanoi and targets along the Chinese border. Nevertheless, Rolling Thunder was fought in flurries, with periods of escalation or intensified activity separated by pauses in the bombing designed to facilitate a North Vietnamese response through diplomatic channels. In actuality, the pauses allowed the enemy time to bind up his wounds.

During Rolling Thunder, Air Force and Navy aircraft frequently attacked the highway bridge at Thanh Hoa, but the raids proved futile. Workmen swarmed over the bridge by night or in weather too bad for follow-up bombing and repaired the damage, with traffic rerouted across a nearby underwater bridge whenever the steel structure could not be used. A captured naval aviator, whose...

To continue reading