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First Bombing of Haiphong
US aircraft bomb Haiphong for the first time, with 86 planes taking part in the raid. Previously raids on Haiphong had been detered by the fear of hitting foreign ships..
Haiphong Air Attacks
U.S. air campaign to close an important North Vietnamese port. North Vietnam relied on the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries for war materials, all of which had to be imported, mostly by sea. By 1971, because of the Sino-Soviet rift and the warming relations between the United States and China, 85 percent of all military supplies entered North Vietnam through Haiphong Harbor.
Haiphong is located 10 miles north of the Gulf of Tonkin at the mouth of the Red River, the silt of which would close access were it not for dredges. As a kind of metaphor for the air war, these dredges were off-limits to U. S. bombing throughout the war. From 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for mining of the harbor, but the White House ruled that out for two reasons. First, President Lyndon Johnson feared that a mistakenly sunken Soviet merchant ship might lead to World War III. Second, Britain, France, and other U. S. allies traded with North Vietnam, and their ships regularly visited Haiphong Harbor.
Due to interservice rivalries between the U. S. Air Force and Navy, North Vietnam was divided into a system of route packages (known as “route packs”) to evenly portion out the bombing. Haiphong was in Route Pack 6b and reserved primarily for naval air action, although Air Force sorties were sometimes targeted there. In June 1967, Air Force F-105s flying over the Cam Pha Peninsula north of Haiphong strafed the Turkestan, a Soviet freighter. The local USAF wing commander tried to cover up the incident and Washington denied that it had happened, but when Premier Alexei Kosygin presented President Johnson a 20mm slug with U. S. markings on it at the Glassboro, New Jersey, summit in July, denial turned to embarrassment.
Haiphong became fair game during Operation LINEBACKER. On 8 May 1972, as a part of a concerted air effort aimed at stemming North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive, President Richard Nixon ordered Haiphong and the port at Dong Ha closed by mining. During his televised address on the evening of 8 May, Nixon announced that as he was speaking A-7 Corsairs and A-6 Intruders were sowing acoustical and magnetic mines across the harbor entrance. He gave shipping 72 hours to vacate the harbor, and then the mines would be activated. After 11 May, the harbor remained closed until the Navy started clearing the mines away on 5 February 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords brought an end to U. S. involvement in the war.
Like Hanoi, Haiphong suffered very little damage from U. S. bombing during either ROLLING THUNDER or the two LINEBACKER operations. For most of the war, the docking facilities and storage areas around the harbor were rarely targeted because of fear of collateral damage to Soviet or allied merchant vessels. But the closing of Haiphong Harbor during the critical days of the Easter Offensive of 1972 probably did more to turn the war in the favor of the United States than any other single operation. This one act effectively denied the North Vietnamese Army the supplies it needed to sustain a 14-division offensive inside South Vietnam. Given the increased pace of U. S. bombing along the infiltration corridors, and the stiff resistance offered by a better-trained and better-led Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, North Vietnam’s big offensive was made to pay a price it could not afford.
LINEBACKER II (1972)
Code name for the operation that came to be known as the so-called Christmas bombings-intense bombing campaign against North Vietnam in late 1972 to coerce the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. When North Vietnamese negotiators walked away from the Paris peace talks in December 1972, U. S. President Richard Nixon issued an ultimatum for them to return to the talks “or else.” The North Vietnamese rejected Nixon’s demand, and the president ordered an all-out air campaign against the Hanoi- Haiphong area to force an agreement on a cease-fire. This operation involved the concentrated use of B-52 strategic bombers supported by Air Force fighter-bombers flying from bases in Thailand and Navy fighter-bombers flying from carriers in the South China Sea. During the intensive air campaign, 700 B-52 and 1,000 fighter-bomber sorties were flown against targets near Hanoi and Haiphong, dropping 20,000 tons of ordnance on airfields, petroleum storage facilities, warehouse complexes, and railroad marshalling yards.
During the LINEBACKER II raids, the North Vietnamese fired more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the attacking aircraft and deployed MiG fighter-interceptor squadrons. Eight MiGs were shot down, two by B-52 tailgunners. U. S. losses were 26 aircraft shot down, including 15 B-52s. Three aircraft were downed by MiGs the rest, including the B-52s, were downed by SAMs. Nine were shot down during the first three days of the operation, causing a change in tactics that had more favorable results.
US. antiwar activists labeled the LINEBACKER II raids the “Christmas bombings,” and the charge was made that it involved carpet-bombing-the deliberate targeting of civilian areas with widespread bombing designed to completely cover a city with bombs. However, the bombing was targeted against military targets 1,318 died in Hanoi and 305 in Haiphong.
By 26 December, the Christmas bombing had inflicted heavy damage on all assigned targets. With its air defenses in shambles and most military targets destroyed, Hanoi was virtually defenseless, and on 26 December the North Vietnamese agreed to resume negotiations. LINEBACKER II ended on 29 December. The Paris Peace Accords were signed less than a month later on 23 January 1973.
Some airpower advocates point to LINEBACKER II as evidence that the war could have been won by airpower alone, but this argument neglects the fact that Nixon’s policy aims in 1972 were much more modest compared to Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965-1968.
References Momyer, William. Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1978. Morrocco, John. The Vietnam Experience: Rain of Fire-The Air War, 1969-1973. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984. Tilford, Earl H. Jr. Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993. Allison, George B. LINEBACKER II: A View from the Rock. USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series, Volume 6. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1979. Morrocco, John. The Vietnam Experience: Thunder from Above: The Air War, 1941-1968. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984. ______. The Vietnam Experience: Rain of Fire. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
The Manhattan Project
Even before the outbreak of war in 1939, a group of American scientists—many of them refugees from fascist regimes in Europeme concerned with nuclear weapons research being conducted in Nazi Germany. In 1940, the U.S. government began funding its own atomic weapons development program, which came under the joint responsibility of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the War Department after the U.S. entry into World War II. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with spearheading the construction of the vast facilities necessary for the top-secret program, codenamed “The Manhattan Project” (for the engineering corps’ Manhattan district).
Over the next several years, the program’s scientists worked on producing the key materials for nuclear fission—uranium-235 and plutonium (Pu-239). They sent them to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where a team led by J. Robert Oppenheimer worked to turn these materials into a workable atomic bomb. Early on the morning of July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project held its first successful test of an atomic device𠅊 plutonium bomb𠅊t the Trinity test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
First Bombing of Haiphong - History
Herewith thoughts on the alternatives that face us in Viet Nam. First, a word about our general strategy:
I. U.S. strategy in Viet Nam
We have been seeking to frustrate the effort by the Communists to take over South Viet Nam by defeating their main force units attacking the guerrilla infrastructure and building a South Vietnamese governmental and security structure—rural and urban—strong enough to stand on its feet as a reputable, independent nation.
To hasten the decision in Hanoi to abandon the aggression, we have been trying to do two other things: (i) to limit and harass infiltration and (ii) to impose on the North sufficient military and civil cost to make them decide to get out of the war earlier rather than later.
We have never held the view that bombing could stop infiltration. We have never held the view that bombing of the Hanoi-Haiphong area alone would lead them to abandon the effort in the South. We have never held the view that bombing Hanoi-Haiphong would directly cut back infiltration. We have held the view that the degree of military and civilian cost felt in the North and the diversion of resources to deal with our bombing could contribute marginally—and perhaps significantly—to the timing of a decision to end the war. But it was no substitute for making progress in the South.
- —We must use maximum influence to achieve a smooth transition to constitutional government in South Viet Nam
- —We must continue to constrict and harass all the lines of infiltration of men and supplies
- —We must encourage the South Vietnamese to the most forthcoming posture possible towards those fighting with the Viet Cong in the South and look to reconciliation and, ultimately, negotiation among the South Vietnamese to help settle the war.
- —We must carry forward pacification at the maximum possible pace, including especially the improvement in the quality of South Vietnamese efforts in this field.
III. Policy decisions in the area where we agree
In this agreed area of policy, our task is to do what we have been doing better and faster than in the past. In effect, this is the assignment we have given the new team of Bunker - Locke -Abrams- Komer .
- —The question of enlarging our own military manpower in Viet Nam and deciding, with the Saigon team, how best it should be disposed
- —Enlarging the contribution of military manpower from others
- —Taking a fresh high-level, coordinated look at all our measures to inhibit or harass interdiction, with an eye to making them more efficient bombing in Route Packages 1 and 2 inhibiting infiltration of manpower in the western part of the DMZ enlarging and making more efficient our efforts against the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos doing more about the flow of supplies from Cambodia improving, if possible, the naval blockade
- —Pressing Ky to seek to defect high-level Viet Cong figures, and to consider more explicit offers about future political possibilities for those now fighting with the Viet Cong, within the framework of the constitution, both in the rural areas and in national politics.
IV. Policy issues in contention: Choices in bombing the North
Essentially there are three strategies we might pursue in bombing the North. I shall try to assess in each case the advantages and the risks:
A. Closing the top of the funnel 2
Under this strategy we would mine the major harbors and, perhaps, bomb port facilities and even consider blockade. In addition, we would attack systematically the rail lines between Hanoi and mainland China. At the moment the total import capacity into North Viet Nam is about 17,200 tons per day. Even with expanded import requirements due to the food shortage, imports are, in fact, coming in at about 5700 tons per day. It is possible with a concerted and determined effort that we could cut back import capacity somewhat below the level of requirements but this is not sure. On the other hand, it would require a difficult and sustained effort by North Viet Nam and its allies to prevent a reduction in total imports below requirements if we did all these things.
- —The Soviet Union would have to permit a radical increase in Hanoi’s dependence upon Communist China, or introduce minesweepers, etc., to keep its supplies coming into Hanoi by sea
- —The Chinese Communists would probably introduce many more engineering and anti-aircraft forces along the roads and rail lines between Hanoi and China in order to keep the supplies moving
- —To maintain its prestige, in case it could not or would not open up Hanoi-Haiphong in the face of mines, the Soviet Union might contemplate creating a Berlin crisis. With respect to a Berlin crisis, they would have to weigh the possible split between the U. S. and its Western European allies under this pressure against damage to the atmosphere of détente in Europe which is working in favor of the French Communist Party and providing the Soviet Union with generally enlarged influence in Western Europe.
I myself do not believe that the Soviet Union would go to war with us over Viet Nam unless we sought to occupy North Viet Nam and, even then, a military response from Moscow would not be certain.
With respect to Communist China, it always has the option of invading Laos and Thailand but this would not be a rational response to naval and air operations designed to strangle Hanoi. A war throughout Southeast Asia would not help Hanoi although I do believe Communist China would fight us if we invaded the northern part of North Viet Nam.
One can always take the view that, given the turmoil inside Communist China, an irrational act by Peiping is possible. And such irrationality cannot be ruled out.
I conclude that if we try to close the top of the funnel, tension between ourselves and the Soviet Union and Communist China would increase if we were very determined, we could impose additional burdens on Hanoi and its allies we might cut capacity below requirements and the outcome is less likely to be a general war than more likely.
B. Attacking what is inside the funnel
This is what we have been doing in the Hanoi-Haiphong area for some weeks. I do not agree with the view that the attacks on Hanoi-Haiphong have no bearing on the war in the South. They divert massive amounts of resources, energies, and attention to keeping the civil and military establishment going. They impose general economic, political, and psychological difficulties on the North which have been complicated this year by a bad harvest and food shortages. I do not believe that they “harden the will of the North.” In my judgment, up to this point, our bombing of the North has been a painful additional cost they have thus far been willing to bear to pursue their efforts in the South.
- —There is no direct, immediate connection between bombing the Hanoi-Haiphong area and the battle in the South
- —If we complete the attack on electric power by taking out the Hanoi station—which constitutes about 80% of the electric power supply of the country now operating—we will have hit most of the targets [Page 387] whose destruction imposes serious military-civil costs on the North.
- —With respect to risk, it is unclear whether Soviet warnings about our bombing Hanoi-Haiphong represent decisions already taken or decisions which might be taken if we persist in banging away in that area.
It is my judgment that the Soviet reaction will continue to be addressed to the problem imposed on Hanoi by us that is, they might introduce Soviet pilots as they did in the Korean War they might bring ground-to-ground missiles into North Viet Nam with the object of attacking our vessels at sea and our airfields in the Danang area.
I do not believe that the continuation of attacks at about the level we have been conducting them in the Hanoi-Haiphong area will lead to pressure on Berlin or a general war with the Soviet Union. In fact, carefully read, what the Soviets have been trying to signal is: Keep away from our ships we may counter-escalate to some degree but we do not want a nuclear confrontation over Viet Nam.
C. Concentration in Route Packages 1 and 2
- —We would cut our loss rate in pilots and planes
- —We would somewhat improve our harassment of infiltration of South Viet Nam
- —We would diminish the risks of counter-escalatory action by the Soviet Union and Communist China, as compared with courses A and B.
I do not recommend at this time course A: closing the top of the funnel. The returns do not, on present evidence, seem high enough to justify the risks of Soviet and Chinese countermeasures and heightened world tensions. On the other hand, I do not believe it would lead to general war and in this judgment I believe I am supported by the conclusions of the intelligence community.
It is a course of action which, if undertaken, should be pursued with great determination and against a background of highly mobilized U. S. strength so that Moscow and Peiping would be forced to decide whether it wished to take on total U.S. strength or bring about an early end to the war. While, as I say, I would not recommend it, it is a line of policy which deserves the most careful and professional staffing out in the government, perhaps for later application.
With respect to course B, I believe we have achieved greater results in increasing the pressure on Hanoi and raising the cost of their continuing to conduct the aggression in the South than some of my most respected colleagues would agree. I do not believe we should [Page 388] lightly abandon what we have accomplished and specifically, I believe we should mount the most economical and careful attack on the Hanoi power station our air tacticians can devise. Moreover, I believe we should keep open the option of coming back to the Hanoi-Haiphong area, depending upon what we learn of their repair operations what Moscow’s and Peiping’s reactions are and especially, when we understand better what effects we have and have not achieved thus far.
I believe the Soviet Union may well have taken certain counter-steps addressed to the more effective protection of the Hanoi-
Haiphong area and may have decided—or could shortly decide—to introduce into North Viet Nam some surface-to-surface missiles.
With respect to option C, I believe we should, while keeping open the B option, concentrate our attacks to the maximum in Route Packages 1 and 2 and, in conducting Hanoi-Haiphong attacks, we should do so only when the targets make sense. I do not expect dramatic results from increasing the weight of attack in Route Packages 1 and 2 but I believe we are wasting a good many pilots in the Hanoi-Haiphong area without commensurate results. The major objectives of maintaining the B option can be achieved at lower cost.
The turn-around in policy can be managed, over a period of some weeks, in the context of Buddha’s birthday, etc., fairly easily but if we get no diplomatic response in that period—and I do not expect one—and if we set aside option A (closing the top of the funnel), we shall have to devise a way of presenting our total policy in Viet Nam in a manner which is consistent with diminished attacks in the Hanoi-Haiphong area which is honest and which is acceptable to our own people. Surfacing the concept of the barrier may be critical to that turn-around, as will be other measures to tighten infiltration, an improved ARVN effort in pacification, and the provision of additional allied forces to permit Westy to get on with our limited but real role in pacification—notably, with the defense of I Corps and the hounding of provincial main force units.
Air field attacks are only appropriate to the kind of sustained operations in the Hanoi-Haiphong area associated with option A.
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Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese were increasingly uncertain and tense about their country’s future.
The goal of Hanoi’s Easter Offensive, begun on March 30, 1972, was to overrun South Vietnam through a conventional military campaign with tanks and artillery while U.S. forces were winding down.
Finally, Nixon reached the climax of his narrative.
“There’s only one way to stop the killing,” he said. “That is to keep the weapons of war out of the hands of the international outlaws of North Vietnam…. I have therefore concluded that Hanoi must be denied the weapons and supplies it needs to continue the aggression. In full coordination with the Republic of Vietnam I have ordered the following measures, which are being implemented as I am speaking to you.
“All entrances to North Vietnamese ports will be mined to prevent access to these ports and North Vietnamese naval operations from these ports. United States forces have been directed to take appropriate measures within the internal and claimed territorial waters of North Vietnam to interdict the delivery of any supplies.
"Rail and all other communications will be cut off to the maximum extent possible. Air and naval strikes against military targets in North Vietnam will continue.”
Nixon explained to his audience that those measures were not aimed at other nations. Indeed, the United States would wait three days before it activated the planted mines in North Vietnam’s harbors so the foreign ships currently there would have time to leave safely.
Only after that period, would the mines be activated and become a threat to any ships navigating North Vietnamese waters.
That speech was the start of Operation Pocket Money.
/>The Soviet freighter Mtsensk underway to Haiphong, North Vietnam, with a deck cargo of cranes, barges and other heavy equipment, 7 November 1967, as photographed by a plane from the aircraft carrier Kearsarge. Operation Pocket Money was designed to stop ships like this from delivering materiel to North Vietnam. (National Archives)
As Nixon announced the measures being taken against North Vietnam’s ports, the calm pauses in his presentation had a strategic reason.
They were timed to coincide with the takeoff of fighters, attack aircraft and surveillance planes conducting airstrikes while Nixon was still speaking.
The aircraft chosen to carry out Operation Pocket Money were the A-7E Corsair II and A-6A Intruder attack planes based on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea, which was stocked with airborne sea mines.
The Coral Sea, part of the U.S. 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77, was positioned at Yankee Station, an area of the South China Sea where the Navy launched attacks on North Vietnamese targets.
Nixon’s May 8 speech aired at 9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, which was 9 a.m. May 9 in Vietnam.
Hours earlier, a burst of activity had begun among Navy crews responsible for armament, fuel and aircraft maintenance on board the Coral Sea. From the carrier’s lower deck crewmen were preparing mines to be attached to Operation Pocket Money’s aircraft.
The weapons were Mark 52-2 naval mines—magnetic mines that lie on the bottom of the sea, triggered to detonate when a metal-hulled ship passes over them and causes an alteration in the Earth’s magnetic field, which the mines can detect. The mines would be released at ports under Hanoi’s control and form a strong barrier at the entrances of key harbors.
Mineman 2nd Class Robert D. Gill was one of four sailors with his rating on board the Coral Sea. They worked in the bomb assembly division with aviation ordnance men, and “12 hours a day was the norm,” Gill remembers.
In February he was put in charge of the mine assembly team.
“After a 14-hour day I was called up to Ordnance Control,” Gill said. “I walked into the area where the captain of the USS Coral Sea, other officers and chiefs were waiting for me. I was told we had about three dozen Mk 52 underwater mines that had to be assembled in Alpha condition.
“I said: ‘Are you sure you want Alpha condition?’” — which meant the mines would be live and ready to go.'”
“It was very rare,” he continued. “I couldn’t believe it. They handed me a bunch of papers with settings, limits and other info I needed. I would end up working about 44 hours straight to get this done ASAP.”
In the naval mines put together by Gill’s team, an arming device that activated the dropped mines was set for a three-day delay.
“I didn’t know where they were going until the captain announced that President Nixon went on TV to say what this was all about,” the petty officer said.
/>Sailors from the aircraft carrier Coral Sea affix sea mines to an A-7E Corsair II assigned to the Mighty Shrikes of Attack Squadron VA-94. (National Archives)
Nine aircraft were prepared for the mission — three Corsairs from the Fighting Redcocks of Attack Squadron VA-22, three from the Mighty Shrikes of VA-94 and three Intruders from the Fighting Bengals in All Weather Attack Squadron VMA (AW) -224, a Marine Corps unit.
Each aircraft received four 1,000-pound Mk 52 mines.
Some mines were outfitted with special fins and semi-spherical aerodynamic covers in their front sections to reduce drag on the aircraft during flight and improve stability during the mine’s fall.
However, only a few aerodynamic kits were available in the carrier, so some aircraft would have to take off with additional drag.
The armed, fueled and waiting attack fighters received the order for Operation Pocket Money’s takeoff at 8:10 a.m., May 9.
The mission had been kept in absolute secrecy until that moment.
There were 10 launches in sequence. Accompanying the nine attack aircraft carrying the mines was an EKA-3B Skywarrior of the Black Ravens of Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-135, an electronic warfare plane capable of jamming enemy radar.
The attack would take place exactly at 9 a.m. The mines would be planted at the same time that Nixon was talking about them on live national TV.
To synchronize the speech and the attack, the planes took off and circled the Coral Sea until the moment calculated to head to the target.
/>F-4J Phantom II jets wait on the after flight deck of the aircraft carrier Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin to be launched on air strikes in the Haiphong area of North Vietnam, 9 May 1972. (National Archives)
For two weeks Nixon had been reluctant to implement the mining option. At the outset of the communist Easter Offensive, the balance of forces favored the North.
Quang Tri in northern South Vietnam had fallen on May 1, and other important cities, such as Pleiku and Kontum in the Central Highlands, were under siege.
An Loc, only about 60 miles north of Saigon, was partly in the hands of the North Vietnamese Army, and Hue, near the North-South border, was seriously threatened.
It was time for a strong U.S. response, but there was concern — not unfounded — that mining Haiphong and other harbors could escalate the war.
Those ports were filled with ships of Hanoi’s allies, most notably Moscow and Beijing, and had previously been considered off-limits, even though North Vietnam received almost 90 percent of its warmaking materiel through Haiphong.
Both Hanoi and Haiphong had been spared total annihilation essentially for an overriding political reason: the fear of provoking military intervention by the Soviet Union and — as happened in the Korean War in 1950 — communist China.
The Navy’s report on Operation Pocket Money indicated that Haiphong received about 400 ships annually. Some 4,000 tons of supplies went in and out of the port daily, far more than were brought into North Vietnam by land from China using two railroads and eight conventional roads.
The policy of sparing the North’s ports was not popular with some American strategists who argued that mining Haiphong was essential strategic leverage on communist leaders.
Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command 1964-68, addressed the issue in his 1986 book Strategy for Defeat: “Haven in Haiphong. Of all the things we should have done but did not do, the most important thing was to neutralize the port of Haiphong.”
/>President Richard Nixon and cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld, John A. Volpe, Peter Peterson, Melvin Laird, William Rogers, Rogers Morton, Elliott Richardson, Caspar Weinberger, Robert Finch, George Romney, Earl Butz, George Shultz, Spiro Agnew, Richard Kleindienst, James Hodgson, David Kennedy and George H. W. Bush, photographed on 16 June 1972. (National Archives)
In Nixon’s mind, strong action against the North’s ports was a matter of national honor.
Even though Hanoi had been warned throughout the war of the consequences of crossing the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam, Northern forces deliberately made the crossing in March 1972.
Not responding would, in Nixon’s view, be an affront to American credibility. In a memorandum to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the president wrote: “I have determined that we should break it down. … We must punish the enemy.”
The harbor mining decision was made by Nixon during a meeting of the National Security Council on May 6, 1972, and the speech was set for three days later, giving U.S. naval strategists and Mineman 2nd Class Gill’s team on the Coral Sea very little time to refine the details and prepare the operation for execution.
The mining mission, not by accident, fell in the lap of one of the most experienced aviators in the U.S. Navy: Cmdr. Roger “Blinky” Sheets, commander of Carrier Air Wing 15 and a veteran of nearly 300 combat missions.
He had taken command shortly after the air wing’s former leader, Cmdr. Thomas E. Dunlop, was shot down and killed by an anti-aircraft missile on April 6.
Sheets and Cmdr. Leonard E. Giuliani, executive officer of the VA-22 Corsair squadron, selected the air crew for the Haiphong attack.
When naval officer Sheets became wing commander, he chose Marine squadron VMA(AW)-224 as his “home” to elevate the morale of the Marine air crews. He picked a young Marine captain, William D. “Charlie” Carr, as his bombardier/navigator.
Operation Pocket Money was not their first mission together, but it would certainly be the most memorable one as they participated in one of the landmark events of the air war over Southeast Asia.
/>An A-4 Skyhawk launches off the aircraft carrier Coral Sea earlier in the war during operations in the South China Sea, 24 March 1965. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
The Mk 52 magnetic mines were parachute-braked, purposely chosen because they would be more effective against large-hulled oceangoing merchant ships and had the most advanced delayed-activation system in the Navy inventory.
The selection of the Mk 52, however, put the operation’s planes at risk because it increased their vulnerability to North Vietnam’s MiG fighters and ubiquitous anti-aircraft artillery defenses.
The A-6 and A-7 aircraft would be forced to fly low and slow. They flew low, below 500 feet, to reduce the chances of contact with high-flying enemy MiG fighters and to stay below the tracking system of land-based radar. The slowness came from the large size and high-drag characteristics of the mines they were toting.
But the Mk 52 mine did have a big benefit. Once the operation achieved its goal, that mine was the best option for future deactivation so ships could again pass through the ports without fear.
The order for the Coral Sea’s circling aircraft to head to Haiphong was given at 8:40 a.m., with Sheets, as “Vulture 1 Alpha,” leading the three Marine Intruders, and Giuliani leading the six Navy Corsairs.
The EKA-3B Skywarrior, an electronic warfare plane, was launched from the carrier. At the same time, a four-engine EC-121 Warning Star, specializing in electronic surveillance, took off from Da Nang.
While the aircraft bound for Haiphong were taking off from the Coral Sea, attack sorties of 17 Intruders were launched from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, 20 miles to the southeast, to strike railway lines at Nam Dinh and distract attention from the harbor mining operation.
Due to bad weather over Nam Dinh, the planes went after secondary ground targets at Thanh Hoa and Phu Qui.
The land targets were hit at 8:45 a.m., moving the enemy’s focus away from what would happen moments later on the North Vietnamese coast.
The threats from the North Vietnamese MiG fighters and the dense air-defense network around Haiphong were the U.S. pilots’ primary concern during the mining mission. To mitigate those threats, guided missile cruisers Chicago, Long Beach and Sterett were positioned between Haiphong and the Coral Sea.
Another naval group consisted of the destroyer/guided-missile destroyers Berkeley, Myles C. Fox, Richard S. Edwards and Buchanan, which attacked batteries of anti-aircraft missiles and artillery in the Do Son peninsula, about 6 miles west of Haiphong.
They hit the enemy batteries with more than 900 5-inch projectiles between 8:25 and 8:55 a.m., shortly before the American attack planes arrived.
At 8:49 a.m., the radar screen on the Chicago plotted three MiGs, which had taken off from the the Phuc Yen air base near Hanoi and were flying toward Sheets’ squadron. The ship promptly fired two RIM-8 Talos missiles.
One hit a MiG at 8:52 a.m it caught fire and fell. The other two fighters turned and withdrew. The Do Son air-defense site fired three surface-to-air missiles, but none hit U.S. aircraft.
/>Secretary of the Navy John W. Warner, Lt. Randall H. Cunningham, Lt. j.g. William P. Driscoll and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Russell "Bud" Zumwalt Jr. meet in arner's Pentagon Office, June 1972, to honor the two aviators, the Navy's only Vietnam War air Aces. Lt. Cunningham piloted F-4J Phantom jet fighters, with Lt. j.g. Driscoll as Radar Intercept Officer, when they shot down five enemy MiGs (four MiG-17s and one MiG-21) in January and May 1972. They were members of Fighter Squadron 96 (VF-96), based on board the aircraft carrier Constellation. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
The Intruders of VMA(AW)-224 proceeded into the channel from the southeast, while the Corsair IIs from VA-22 and VA-94 headed for Haiphong’s outer harbor, flying from the east.
The first mines were dropped from Sheets’ Intruder at 8:59 a.m., just as Nixon was starting his speech. One of the Corsair pilots missed the launching point for releasing his Mk 52 mines, but he turned and dropped the mines in a pass from the opposite direction.
Exactly at 9:01 a.m., when the 36 mines were in Haiphong’s waters, Sheets reported the completion of the mission to Adm. Howard E. Greer on the Coral Sea. Greer contacted the White House, which immediately signaled Nixon — who by then was speaking live — to inform him about the end of the Haiphong mining action and the aircrafts’ turn back toward the carrier.
The U.S. aircrews had placed 12 mines in the inner section of the port and 24 outside.
After the Haiphong mining, the port was closed for 327 days. Haiphong was the only harbor mined on May 9, but beginning on May 11 mines were dropped and activated at 10 other ports: Thanh Hoa, Dong Hoi, Vinh, Hon Gai, Quang Khe, Cam Pha, Cua Sot, Cap Mui Ron, Cua Day and Cua Lac Giang.
Nine ships took advantage of Nixon’s three-day warning and left Haiphong, while 27 vessels remained in the harbor for nearly a year.
On Aug. 4, 1972, an aircraft belonging to Task Force 77 sighted between 20 and 25 explosions in an area previously mined near Hon La, an island off the coast of North Vietnam. The explosions were sporadic and occurred within a period of about 30 seconds.
An additional 25 or 30 “mud spots” were seen by other aircraft, indicating that more explosions had occurred. Also, several destroyers in the region reported that they detected shock waves.
There was seemingly no reason for the multiple explosions since no sea traffic was in the area.
Several possible reasons were considered but dismissed by the Navy, which decided at the time that the most plausible culprit — and the one now accepted after additional research— is a huge solar storm that struck in early August, causing variations in the Earth’s magnetic fields and detonating the mines.
President Richard Nixon with Henry Kissinger and John Wayne, 10 July 1972, a photograph by Robert L. Knudsen (Robert LeRoy), now in the National Archives.
Hanoi felt the immediate huge drop in supplies and armament, as its entry doors closed.
The mining action, along with the bombing campaigns of operations Linebacker I (May 10-Oct.23, 1972) and Linebacker II (Dec. 18-29, 1972), was a key reason that North Vietnam agreed to negotiate a peace deal in Paris.
The mining continued until January 1973 as part of both the Pocket Money and Linebacker operations. About 5,200 Mk 52 and Mk 36 Destructor acoustic (sound-activated) mines were seeded in Pocket Money. About 6,500 Destructor mines were dropped during Linebacker flights.
The last of the approximately 11,711 mines were dumped near Vinh, about 150 miles south of Hanoi, by an Intruder of the VA-35 Black Panthers from the aircraft carrier America on Jan. 14, 1973.
The peace treaty was signed Jan. 27.
During all eight months of the mining campaigns, only one aircraft was lost. A Corsair of the VA-113 Stingers, based on the aircraft carrier Ranger and piloted by Navy Lt. Philip Spratt Clark Jr., was destroyed on Dec. 24, 1972, during a mining action.
/>The aircraft carriers America, Enterprise and Oriskany cruise together in close formation in the South China Sea, soon after the end of U.S. participation in Vietnam hostilities, 28 January 1973. (National Archives)
From the outset, the U.S. government planned to deactivate the harbor mines after the desired strategic and diplomatic effects had been achieved.
Between February and July 1973, U.S. ships and aircraft conducted Operation End Sweep, scouring the waters of Haiphong and the other ports to locate all the mines, which were deactivated or purposefully detonated.
The deactivations ended one of the most daring, unexpected and successful actions of the American military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Operation Pocket Money proved to be a critical mission in the history of the war, one carried out with skill, precision and complete synchronization with a presidential speech being given half a world away.
/>During Operation End Sweep, a Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion of HMM-463 with a magnetic orange pipe in tow, sweeps Hon Bay, North Vietnam, on 18 March 1973. (Photographer 1st Class George Norris, now in the collections of the National Archives)
Marcelo Ribeiro da Silva is a Brazilian journalist and military aviation history researcher with a special interest in the Vietnam War and Cold War. He writes for military aviation history magazines in Brazil and abroad.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Vietnam magazine, a sister publication of Navy Times.
Haiphong was originally founded by Lê Chân, the female general of a Vietnamese revolution against the Chinese led by the Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) in the year 43 C.E. The area which is now known as Duong Kinh District was once known as Hai tan Phong thu ("defensive coastal area"), and served as the second capital of the Mac dynasty (1527–1592). At the end of Nguyen Emperor Tu Duc's reign, the headquarters of An Duong District was also moved to Hang Kenh Communal House, which now belongs to Le Chan district.
In 1881, the city was the site of a devastating typhoon which claimed up to 300,000 lives.
Haiphong was one of Vietnam's major ports and trading centers. When the country was invaded by the French, the city became France's main naval base in Indochina. After World War II, when Vietnam attempted to regain its independence, Haiphong was the site of the first military action undertaken by the French, as punishment for the death of three French soldiers. Some sources claim that the French heavy cruiser Suffren bombarded the city, while others claim it was not Suffren but 3 avisos or sloops, supported by Suffren, the ships that bombarded the city and adjacent fields in an aggression that contributed to the start of the First Indochina War. French infantry forces under the command of Jean-Étienne Valluy invaded the city and fought house to house with support from armored units and jet fighters.
The Christmas Bombing
IF THE MANY CONTROVERSIES THAT SWIRL around the American role in the Vietnam War, one of the most contentious centers on the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in December 1972. This event followed Henry A. Kissinger’s October news conference in which he said, “Peace is at hand,” and President Richard Nixon’s triumphant reelection in November. It preceded the signing of the armistice in January 1973 and the release of the American POWs.
According to Nixon and his supporters, the Christmas bombing forced the North Vietnamese to make concessions, accept an armistice, and release American POWs. It was a great U.S. victory that brought peace with honor.
According to Nixon’s critics, the armistice agreement signed in January 1973 was identical to the one reached in October 1972. The bombing brought no concessions from the enemy, nor was it intended to its purpose was to persuade the South Vietnamese to go along with an armistice to which they were violently opposed. The bombing ended not because the enemy cried “enough” but because American losses of B-52s were becoming intolerable. In addition, conservative critics called the bombing an American defeat that brought a temporary cease-fire at the cost of a free and independent South Vietnam.
Like so much else in the Vietnam War, the issue of the Christmas bombing was divisive and remains so. To the pro-war hawks, it was done with surgical precision, sparing civilian lives to the antiwar doves, it was terror bombing, pure and simple. These differences in view cannot be reconciled or settled, but they can be examined.
FOR THREE YEARS, KISSINGER, AS NATIONAL security adviser, had been engaged in secret talks with Le Duc Tho in Paris, seeking a negotiated peace. In the spring of 1972 the Communists had launched their largest offensive ever and had almost overrun South Vietnam. Nixon had responded by bombing Hanoi and mining Haiphong Harbor. The offensive was stopped. In October Kissinger and Le Duc Tho finally reached an agreement. Its basic terms were a cease-fire in place the return of POWs total American withdrawal from South Vietnam and a National Council of Concord and Reconciliation in South Vietnam to arrange elections, its membership to be one-third neutral, one-third from the current government in Saigon, one-third Communist. Nixon was satisfied that this agreement met his conditions for peace with honor.
President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, however, felt betrayed. He perceived the agreement as a surrender: it gave the Communists a legitimate role in the political life of his nation, it allowed the Viet Cong to hold on to the territory it controlled in South Vietnam worst of all, it permitted the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to continue to occupy the two northern provinces and retain more than 150,000 troops in his country. Thieu absolutely refused to agree to the cease-fire. In early December Kissinger went to Paris to persuade Le Duc Tho to remove the NVA from South Vietnam Le Duc Tho adamantly insisted on going through with the October agreement.
On December 13, 1972, Kissinger flew back to Washington to meet with Nixon and an aide, General Alexander Haig, to discuss the options. The doves urged them to make a separate deal with Hanoi for the release of the POWs in return for a total American withdrawal, leaving Thieu to sink or swim on his own. This proposal had no appeal to Nixon and his aides. To abandon South Vietnam now, after all the blood that had been shed, all the money that had been spent, all the uproar that had overwhelmed the American political scene, would be wrong, cowardly, a betrayal. To abandon Thieu would amount to surrendering the fundamental American goal in the war: the maintenance in power of an anti-Communist government in Saigon.
To get Thieu to sign the agreement, and to force Le Duc Tho to give just a bit more, some dramatic action by the United States was necessary. With fewer than 25,000 U.S. troops remaining in South Vietnam, down from a high of 550,000 when Nixon took office, there was no possibility of escalating on the ground. The only real option discussed was to expand the bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
There were, however, powerful arguments against that course. Sending the B-52s over Hanoi meant risking those expensive weapons and their highly trained crews, because the Soviets had been rushing SA-2 SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) to North Vietnam. The SAMs fired a 10-meter-long missile that U.S. airmen ruefully called “the flying telephone pole.” Each missile carried a 286-pound warhead with fuses that could be set to detonate close to a target, on impact, or on command. Guided by a radar tracking beam that honed in on its target, they traveled at a speed of Mach 1.5. The range was up to thirty horizontal miles and about 11 miles up. Fighter-bombers could evade the missiles by diving toward them and then veering off sharply, but that technique was not possible for B-52 pilots.
There were other technological problems for the big bombers. Built in the 1950s, they had been designed to drop nuclear weapons over the Soviet Union. They had only four 4.5mm tail guns—and, in any case, the SAMs came on too fast to be shot down. The B-52s’ best defense was altitude: They usually dropped their bombs from 30,000 feet. But the SAMs were able to reach almost 60,000 feet.
And there were political as well as technological problems. Because of the strength of the antiwar movement in the United States, the government—under both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon—had imposed many restrictions on targets in the air war, which, naturally, infuriated the airmen. This policy had little effect on public opinion—the doves and foreign critics still charged that the U.S. Air Force was carrying out a barbaric, terrorist campaign—but it was a great help to the North Vietnamese. They knew what was off-limits and could concentrate their SAMs around such predictable targets as railroad yards and radar sites.
The technological advantage was with the enemy for this reason, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, his deputy Kenneth Rush, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer, were opposed to using B-52s over Hanoi, and they so advised the president. Many of Nixon’s political advisers were also opposed, because to escalate the bombing after Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” statement would drive the Nixon-haters in Congress, in the media, on the campuses, and among the general public into a frenzy.
But something had to be done to convince Thieu that, whatever the formal wording of the cease-fire agreement, he could count on Nixon to come to the defense of South Vietnam if the NVA broke the cease-fire. And Le Duc Tho had to be convinced that, despite the doves in Congress, Nixon could still punish North Vietnam.
That made the bombing option tempting. Although the B-52s were relatively slow and cumbersome, they packed a terrific punch. They carried 84 500-pound bombs in their bomb bays and 12 500-pound bombs on their wings. They could drop those bombs with relative accuracy, much better than World War II bombers. (The Seventh Air Force commander, General John Vogt, complained that the internal radar systems of the B-52s were “notoriously bad” and that “misses of a thousand feet or more were common.” However, in World War II, misses of 1,000 meters—three times as much—had been common.) They flew from secure bases in Guam and Thailand. They had been used with devastating effect in the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968 and again to stop the WA spring offensive of 1972. The temptation to use them against Hanoi was great, and growing.
Kissinger tried to resist it. He recommended more bombing south of the 20th parallel, against NVA units that were not as well protected by SAMs as Hanoi was, and reseeding the mines in Haiphong Harbor. On the other hand Haig, always a hard-liner, argued forcefully for an all-out bombing campaign by the B-52s against Hanoi itself.
Nixon later said that ordering the bombing was “the most difficult decision” he had to make in the entire war. But, he added, “it was also one of the most clear-cut and necessary ones.” He issued an order on December 14 to reseed the mines, from the air—and also to send the B-52s against llanoi. He told Kissinger he was prepared “for new losses and casualties and POWs,” and explained, “We’ll take the same heat for big blows as for little blows.”
To Kissinger, the president seemed “sullen” and “withdrawn.” Nixon “resented” having to do what he did, because “deep down he was ready to give up by going back to the October draft” of the armistice agreement. His bombing order, according to Kissinger, was “his last roll of the dice…helpful if it worked a demonstration to the right wing if it failed that he had done all he could.”
Once Nixon set the policy, public relations became his obsession. John Scali, White House adviser on foreign affairs information policy, put the problem succinctly to Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, in a telephone conversation: “We look incompetent—bombing for no good reason and because we don’t know what else to do.” On May 8, 1972, Nixon had gone on television to explain his reason for bombing Hanoi and mining Haiphong: it was in response to the Communists’ spring offensive. Scali had thought the television appearance unnecessary in May, as the justification for Nixon’s strong action was obvious then. But in December, when his critics and even some of his supporters could not figure out his reasons, Nixon refused to go on television to explain his actions.
Kissinger badly wanted Nixon to make a broadcast he had been urging it for days. But Nixon, according to Kissinger, “was determined to take himself out of the line of fire.” Nixon feared that any attempt to rally the people to support more bombing after “peace is at hand” would fall flat.
On the evening of December 14, four days before the bombing was set to begin, Nixon told Kissinger to hold a news conference to explain the status of the negotiations. The president followed up with a five-page, singlespaced memo on December 15 and another of two pages on December 16, instructing Kissinger on what to say. He told the national security adviser to “hit hard on the point that, while we want peace just as soon as we can get it, that we want a peace that is honorable and a peace that will last.” Kissinger should admit the U.S. goals had been reached “in principle” in the October agreement, but add that some “strengthening of the language” was needed “so that there will be no doubt on either side in the event that [the agreement] is broken.” He should accuse Le Duc Tho of having “backed off’ some of the October understandings.
Kissinger should emphasize that with the Christmas season coming on, the president had a “very strong personal desire to get the war settled.” But he should also point out that the president “insists that the United States is not going to be pushed around, blackmailed or stampeded into making the wrong kind of a peace agreement.” Finally, he should say that “the president will continue to order whatever actions he considers necessary by air and sea”—the only reference to the bombing order, which had already gone out.
In his memos, Nixon was repetitious to a degree unusual even for him, an indication of the strain he was under, due perhaps to the difficulty of his position. As an example of his dilemma, it was the Americans—in response to demands from Thieu—who had backed off the October agreements, not the North Vietnamese. But Nixon could not have Kissinger straightforwardly tell the American people his administration was bombing Hanoi to convince Thieu to sign. Thieu was increasingly seen in the United States as the sole obstacle to peace and thus was increasingly unpopular. On December 15 Senator Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Republican and one of the toughest hawks, said that if Thieu “bucks much more” the United States should proceed with its withdrawal and “to hell with him.”
Kissinger held his briefing on December 16 and said what he had been told to say. He stressed the president’s consistency, unflappability, firmness, patience, and farsightedness. He mentioned Nixon 14 times (he had been criticized by Haldeman for referring to the president only three times in his October news conference).
By this time the tension in the Nixon-Kissinger relationship was threatening to lead to an open break. Kissinger was unhappy with his boss because of his interference, and his back-and-forthing on the negotiations. Nixon was furious with Kissinger for his “peace is at hand” statement, which had raised public expectations to a high level, expectations that were going to be dashed when the bombing began. Nixon also resented the way Kissinger had thrust himself onto center stage, his constant leaks to reporters, and the way the reporters responded by giving Kissinger credit for the huge margin of the election victory. Further, earlier in December Time magazine had named Nixon and Kissinger “Men of the Year,” with their pictures on the cover Kissinger correctly feared that Nixon resented having to share the honor.
On December 17 Nixon wrote a letter to Thieu. Usually the president signed drafts of letters to foreign heads of government prepared by Kissinger in this case, he wrote the letter personally. Nixon had Haig fly to Saigon to hand-deliver it. In the letter Nixon made a threat: unless Thieu accepted the agreement, the United States would go it alone. “You must decide now whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves U.S. interests alone.”
Although Nixon himself would do anything possible to avoid a break, the threat was not meaningless because, as Goldwater’s statement indicated, Congress might carry it out regardless of the president’s wishes. Thieu knew that, and he also knew how to read between the lines of Nixon’s letter. After reading it, he told Haig it was obvious he was being asked to sign not a peace agreement but rather an agreement for continued American support.
ON DECEMBER 18 THE AIR FORCE LAUNCHED its B-52s and fighter-bombers against Hanoi. The orders were to avoid civilian casualties at all costs for example, a missile-assembly plant manned by Russian technicians in the heart of Hanoi was off-limits, partly because of fear of Soviet casualties, partly to avoid near misses that would devastate residential areas. Still, Linebacker II, as the operation was code-named, greatly damaged railroads, power plants, radio transmitters, and radar installations around Hanoi, as well as docks and shipyards in Haiphong.
It was not Nixon but Johnson who had imposed the restrictions on targets in fact, they frustrated him. The day after the bombing began, he read a report about targets that had been avoided for fear of civilian casualties, and he called Admiral Moorer. “I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one,” Nixon said. “This is your chance to use military power effectively to win this war, and if you don’t, I’ll consider you responsible.” But the armed forces, concerned about their reputation and perhaps doubtful of the effectiveness of area bombing, continued the restrictions.
Nevertheless, a French reporter in Hanoi referred to “carpet bombing,” a line repeated by Radio Hanoi. As a result, there was an immediate worldwide uproar and many expressions of moral revulsion. There had been no presidential explanation or announcement of any kind. People everywhere had taken Kissinger at his word, that only a few t’s needed to be crossed and a few i’s dotted and the negotiations would be wrapped up. The shock when the bombing was announced was even greater than that following the Cambodian incursion of 1970.
The adverse congressional and editorial reaction was unprecedented. Senator William Saxbe, an Ohio Republican, said Nixon “appears to have left his senses.” Democratic Senate leader Mike Mansfield of Montana called it a “Stone Age tactic.” Democratic senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said it was an “outrage.” In an editorial the Washington Post charged that the bombing caused millions of Americans “to cringe in shame and to wonder at their President’s very sanity.” James Reston, in the New York Times, called it “war by tantrum.”
Nixon did have supporters, including Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California and Republican senators James Buckley of New York, Howard Baker of Tennessee, and Charles Percy of Illinois. John Connally, former governor of Texas and treasury secretary, called Nixon daily to encourage him and assure him that, regardless of what politicians and the media said, the people were behind him.
That was probably an exaggeration, but not as gross as the exaggerations of Nixon’s critics. They charged that he had ordered the most intensive bombing campaign in the history of warfare. That was nonsense. In comparison to the human costs at Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, and Tokyo—not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki—in World War II, the bombing of Hanoi during the Christmas season of 1972 was a minor operation. Under the severe targeting restrictions followed by the air force, civilian casualties were only around 1,500, and at least some of those were caused by SAM missiles falling back on the city after missing their targets. In World War II, a bombing raid that killed fewer than 2,000 German or Japanese civilians was not even worth a minor story in the newspapers, not to mention expressions of moral outrage from opinion leaders and prominent politicians. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi was not terror bombing, as the world had come to know terror bombing in the 20th century.
Nixon’s private response was to personalize it and assign to his critics the lowest possible motives. In his diary he wrote that they “simply cannot bear the thought of this administration under my leadership bringing off the peace on an honorable basis which they have so long predicted would be impossible. The election was a terrible blow to them and this is their first opportunity to recover from the election and to strike back.”
That was by no means the whole truth. The most basic cause for the moral revulsion was the nature of the war itself. Few in the United States had protested the firebomb raids of World War II, which set out deliberately to kill civilians. Why the difference three decades later, especially when the air force was doing its utmost to avoid killing civilians? Because from 1942 to 1945, the United States was fighting for its life against a foe who was not only pure evil but also powerful enough to threaten the entire world. In World War II there had been no ongoing negotiations with the Germans and Japanese, only a demand for their unconditional surrender. In 1942—45 the Americans were bombing in order to hasten that surrender.
But in 1972, no one believed that the United States was fighting for its life, or that the NVA could conquer the world, or that there could be no end to the war until Hanoi surrendered and few believed that more bombing would bring a quicker end to the war.
Despite the protest, Nixon continued to send the B-52s and fighterbombers, and the battle raged in the sky above Hanoi. If Hanoi was far from being the most heavily bombed city in history, it certainly was one of the best defended. The SAMs shot down six of the 90 B-52s that flew missions on December 20 the following day, two of 30 were destroyed. The air force could not long sustain such losses on the other hand, the Soviets could not long continue to supply SAMs in such quantity to the North Vietnamese (they were shooting a hundred or more per day at the attackers).
Nixon felt his resolve was being tested he was determined to prevail. Kissinger, however, broke under the pressure of the protest and began leaking to reporters, especially Reston, word that he had opposed the bombing. This infuriated Nixon. He instructed his aide Charles Colson to monitor all Kissinger’s telephone calls and contacts with the press. The president, according to Colson, “was raving and ranting about Henry double-talking.” Colson did as instructed and discovered that Kissinger was calling Reston and others, “planting self-serving stories at the same time he was recommending Nixon be tough on Vietnam.”
When Haldeman confronted Kissinger, the national security adviser simply denied the facts. “I have never given a personal opinion different from the president’s,” he claimed, and said he had not given an interview to Reston. Haldeman got him to admit that he had called Reston on the telephone, just before Reston wrote a column stating that Kissinger had opposed the bombing and implying that Kissinger was the one moderate, sensible man among Nixon’s advisers. Kissinger concluded his conversation with Haldeman by suggesting that it was time for the president to give him a vote of confidence: a letter from Nixon giving Kissinger backing and credit for the progress in the negotiations.
Nixon went to his home in Key Biscayne, Florida, for Christmas. He ordered a 24-hour halt in the bombing for the holiday. In his diary he complained he was “more and more” a lonely individual. “It is a question not of too many friends but really too few—one of the inevitable consequences of this position.” He received very few Christmas salutations, even from Republicans on Capitol Hill and members of his cabinet. As a result, he told interviewer David Frost four years later, “it was the loneliest and saddest Christmas I can ever remember, much sadder and much more lonely than the one in the Pacific during the war.” He did make some telephone calls, including one to Ronald Reagan, who complained about CBS News coverage of the bombing and said that under World War II circumstances the network would have been charged with treason.
The day after Christmas, despite urgings from some of his aides and much of the media that he extend the Christmas Day truce, Nixon ordered the biggest bombing raid yet, 120 B-52s over Hanoi. Five were shot down, but that afternoon Nixon received a message from Hanoi. The Communists, who had evidently exhausted their supply of SAMs, proposed that the talks resume in Paris on January 9. Nixon replied that he wanted technical talks resumed on January 2, and he offered to stop the bombing of Hanoi if the Communists agreed. Hanoi did so.
General Haig was furious. He did not want to stop the bombing when Hanoi was all but on its knees. He was incensed when he discovered that every single adviser of the president…[was] calling the president daily, hourly, and telling him to terminate the bombing.” But even Haig realized that Nixon had little choice, because if he continued the bombing after the congressional session began on January 3, “there would have been legislative restrictions which would have been national suicide from the standpoint of ever negotiating a settlement.”
Nixon decided to call off the bombing. On December 29 he announced that he had suspended offensive operations north of the 20th parallel and that the Paris talks would resume.
SO WHO WON THE 11-DAY BATTLE? The North Vietnamese had shot down 15 B-52s, and 11 fighter-bombers had gone down. Ninety-three American airmen were missing—31 became known POWs. The enemy had fired 1,200 missiles and lost three MiG jets to achieve these results. Some 40,000 tons of bombs had fallen on Hanoi—40 kilotons, or the equivalent of two Hiroshima-size bombs. However, visitors to Hanoi soon after the battle ended, including Americans, all testify that although great destruction was done to military and industrial targets—such as the airfieids, railroad network, and factories—residential areas were mostly untouched.
There was no clear-cut winner. Thus, the last American action in the Vietnam War was characteristic of all those that had come earlier—cursed by half measures. From 1964 to 1969 Johnson’s actions, as described by Nixon, were always “too little, too late.” That had also been true of Nixon’s ultimatum in November 1969 of his Cambodian incursion of 1970 of his Laotian operation in 1971 of his May 8, 1972, air offensive and now of his Christmas bombing. He had taken the heat for an all-out offensive without delivering one. It was not that he did not want to, but rather that it was overwhelmingly obvious the American political system would not allow him to do so.
Nixon called Hanoi’s willingness to resume the talks a “stunning capitulation,” one presumably brought about by the bombing. But it had been Saigon, not Hanoi, that had created the stalemate in the talks. In his message to Hanoi, Nixon had referred to the October agreements going back to them represented an American, not a North Vietnamese, concession. Kissinger’s reference to “normalization” of relations continued the hints he had been secretly making to Le Duc Tho that when peace came the United States would aid in the reconstruction of North Vietnam, just as it had helped Germany and Japan after World War II.
On December 30 Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, called Nixon to ask the president to go on television and explain that “we bombed to get them back to the table.” Nixon passed the message along to Kissinger with a note: “He is right—but my saying it publicly would seriously jeopardize our negotiations.”
Nixon had another reason to hesitate to make the claim that Jackson wanted him to make. It would have been extremely difficult to get informed observers to believe that Nixon had bombed Hanoi in order to force North Vietnamese acceptance of terms they had already agreed to. It was much easier to believe that Nixon’s real target was not Hanoi but Saigon. And as 1972 came to an end, there was no indication that Thieu was prepared to sign.
On January 2, 1973, the House Democratic Caucus voted 154 to 75 to cut off all funds for Vietnam as soon as arrangements were complete for the withdrawal of American armed forces and the return of the POWs. On January 4 the Senate Democratic Caucus passed a similar resolution, 36 to 12.
Nixon passed the pressure on to Thieu. Initially he tried to do so through Anna Chennault, the widow of General Claire Chennault, whose influence on the right wing of the Republican party was considerable. He had her friend John Mitchell, his former attorney general, ask her to use her influence with Thieu, but the “Dragon Lady,” as she was commonly called, refused. There was irony here. In 1968 Mitchell had persuaded Mrs. Chennault to intervene with Thieu to get him to refuse to help Johnson in his election-eve bid for peace, which if successful might have given Hubert Humphrey the presidency. Now Nixon wanted her to persuade Thieu to cooperate with the president and accept an unsatisfactory peace. She would not.
Nixon again wrote directly to Thieu. The letter, dated January 5, was less threatening than previous ones and contained a more explicit promise: “Should you decide, as I trust you will, to go with us, you have my assurance of continued assistance in the post-settlement period and that we will respond with Kill force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.”
Nixon was not in a position to give such a promise. Without congressional appropriations, he could not come to Saigon’s aid.
That same day he had a meeting with the leaders of both parties. The atmosphere was cold. He spoke briefly about Vietnam. He said he knew many of the men in the room disagreed with his policies but added that he was determined to persist.
Nixon concluded, “In any event, you have indicated your own positions—some of you—which is in direct opposition. I understand that. I have the responsibility. Gentlemen, I will take responsibility if those negotiations fail. If they succeed, we all succeed.”
On January 6 Nixon went to his retreat at Camp David, where he met with Kissinger, who was flying to Paris the next day. The president said that if Kissinger could get Le Duc Tho to go back to the October 8 agreement, “we should take it.” Kissinger demurred, but Nixon insisted. He did want Kissinger to get some wording changes so that “we can claim some improvement,” but the point was that the war had to end, on whatever terms, in this round of negotiations otherwise the 93rd Congress would force the administration to end it on even worse terms.
The president did agree that Kissinger could threaten the North Vietnamese with a resumption of the bombing of Hanoi if they did not cooperate, but Nixon then warned him that “as far as our internal planning is concerned, we cannot consider this to be a viable option.” As for Thieu, Nixon referred to Haig’s report of his December visit to Saigon: Thieu was saying that “it is not a peace agreement that he is going to get but a commitment from the United States to continue to protect South Vietnam in the event such an agreement is broken.” Nixon said that was exactly right.
JANUARY 9 WAS NIXON’S 6oTH BIRTHDAY. In an interview, he gave his formula for living: “Never slow down.” He admitted that he had many problems, “but boredom is the least of them.”
He also wrote by hand a piece of self-analysis: “RN approaches his second inauguration with true peace of mind—because he knows that by his actions, often in the face of the most intense sort of criticism, what he is bringing to the world is a ‘peace of mind’—that is, a peace formed by the exercise of hard reason and calm deliberation, and durable because its foundation has been carefully laid.” Nixon instructed Haldeman to pass the piece along to the staff and called it “an excellent line for them to take” when talking to the press about the president.
That afternoon Nixon got what he called “the best birthday present I have had in sixty years.” Kissinger cabled from Paris that there had been a major breakthrough in the negotiations. In sum, we settled all the outstanding questions in the text of the agreement.”
Le Duc Tho had accepted Kissinger’s revised wording on the demilitarized zone. But it made no practical difference the accord that had been reached was basically the same as in October. Kissinger aide John Negroponte was disappointed. He told friends, “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concession.”
Getting the Communists to avow the accord had never been the problem the problem was Thieu, and that remained. Nixon was eager to have the situation resolved before Inauguration Day, January 20, but he worried that Thieu would refuse to cooperate.
On January 13 Kissinger returned from Paris. He flew down to Key Biscayne to brief the president. They talked until 2:00 A.M. Nixon walked out to the car with Kissinger to say good night and to tell him that the country was indebted to him for what he had done. Nixon later wrote that it is not really a comfortable feeling for me to praise people so openly but “Henry expects it, and it was good that I did so.” Kissinger replied it was only Nixon’s courage that had made a settlement possible. In his memoirs Kissinger wrote that he felt “an odd tenderness” that night toward Nixon.
The next morning they turned their attention to Thieu. Nixon wrote him another letter and told Haig to fly to Saigon to deliver it. The letter was hill of threats: “I have therefore irrevocably decided to proceed to initial the Agreement on January 23, 1973, and to sign it on January 27, 1973, in Paris. I will do so, if necessary alone.” There were also promises. If Thieu would sign, Nixon would make it “emphatically clear that the United States recognizes your government as the only legal government of South Vietnam that we do not recognize the right of any foreign troops to be present on South Vietnamese territory that we will react strongly in the event the agreement is violated.” Of course, there was a big difference between not recognizing the right of the WA to stay in South Vietnam and requiring the WA to leave the country when the American armed forces left. Nixon concluded, “It is my firm intention to continue kill economic and military aid.”
Nixon feared that his words would not be enough, but he was determined to prevail. “Brutality is nothing,” he told Kissinger. “You have never seen it if this son-of-a-bitch doesn’t go along, believe me.” To add to the pressure on Thieu, Nixon had Senators John Stennis, a Mississippi Democrat, and Goldwater warn publicly that if Thieu blocked the agreement he would imperil his government’s chances of receiving any further aid from Congress.
Still Thieu would not yield. He sent a letter to Nixon raising the same complaints he had made in October—naturally enough, since it was the same agreement. Nixon replied on January 20 with an ultimatum.
On the public relations front, meanwhile, Nixon was also busy. On January 19 he told Haldeman, “We need to get across the point that the reason for the success of the negotiations was the bombing and the converse point that we did not halt the bombing until we had the negotiations back on track.” He instructed Kissinger to brief the staff on the settlement: “The key to this briefing will be to get a lot of people out selling our line.” Nixon wanted “an all-out effort with inspired leaks, etc.”
On January 20 Nixon was inaugurated for his second term. He had hoped to be able to announce that peace had been achieved, but Thieu’s intransigence made that impossible. Under the circumstances, the hoopla that ordinarily occurs at inaugurations was distinctly absent, and Nixon’s inaugural address was short and somber.
The parade following the ceremonies was marred by small groups of demonstrators chanting obscenities and throwing eggs and debris, but it was nowhere near as bad as four years earlier. If Nixon had not quite yet brought peace, he had gone a long way toward achieving that objective. The madness and hatred that had been so prominent in 1969 had abated by 1973. Sadly, in part it had been replaced by a bitterness because of the Christmas bombing and a suspicion because of the growing furor over the Watergate break-in. If Nixon deserved credit for the gains, he also deserved blame for the bitterness and suspicion.
ON JANUARY 22 WORD ARRIVED THAT THIEU had finally bowed to the inevitable and consented to the agreement. The following evening Nixon went on television to announce that on January 27 the formal signing ceremonies would be held in Paris. A cease-fire would begin at midnight that day.
After this announcement Nixon met with Kissinger. Nixon said he did not want to have any hatred or anything of that sort toward “our enemies”—by which he meant the American doves, not the Vietnamese Communists. “On the other hand,” he continued, Nixon’s foes had to recognize that they “are disturbed, distressed, and really discouraged because we succeeded. ”
Nixon later wondered whether commentators would appreciate what he and Kissinger had accomplished he decided “probably not.” He told Kissinger that every success was followed by a “terrific letdown,” and he urged Kissinger not to let it get to him. There were many battles left to fight he should not be discouraged.
For his part Nixon wrote later that he had expected to feel relief and satisfaction when the war ended, but instead was surprised to find himself with feelings of “sadness, apprehension, and impatience.” Kissinger was struck by Nixon’s being “so lonely in his hour of triumph.”
Beyond the letdown he always felt after a crisis, Nixon had reasons for his negative feelings. In the weeks that followed, he often and vehemently maintained he had achieved peace with honor, but that claim was diffcult to sustain. Seven years earlier, when pressed by reporters to explain what of settlement he would accept in Vietnam, he had held up the Korean armistice of 1953 as his model. What he finally accepted was far short of that goal.
The Korean settlement had left 60,000 American troops in South Korea the Vietnam settlement left no American troops in South Vietnam. The Korean settlement left no Communist troops in South Korea the Vietnam settlement left 150,000 Communist troops in South Vietnam. The Korean settlement had established the 38th parallel as a dividing line, and it was so heavily fortified on both sides that 20 years later almost no living thing had crossed it the Vietnam settlement called the 17th parallel a border, but the NVA controlled both sides of it and moved back and forth without interference. The Korean settlement had left President Syngman Rhee firmly in control of his country, to the point that the Communist party was banned the Vietnam settlement forced President Thieu to accept Communist membership on the National Council of Concord and Reconciliation.
Small wonder that Thieu regarded the settlement as little short of a surrender, and feared that the cease-fire would last only until the Arnericans got their POWs back and brought their armed forces home. Small wonder, too, that he worried about his future, as his army was woefully inferior to Rhee’s army (not to mention the NVA).
Thieu did have one asset to match Rhee’s: a promise from the American president that if the Communists broke the agreement the United States would come to his aid. But in South Vietnam, in the spring of 1975, that promise proved to be worthless, because by then Nixon had resigned to avoid impeachment. In some part the resignation was brought on by the Christmas bombing. Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” promise, followed by Nixon’s triumphant reelection, and then by the bombing, created feelings of bitterness and betrayal and led many Democrats to want to punish Nixon. Nixon gave them their excuse with Watergate.
Nixon’s defenders assert that had it not been for Watergate, the North Vietnamese would not have dared to launch their offensive in 1975. Or, if they had, that Nixon would have responded with the fury he showed in the spring of 1972, and the American bombing support would have made it possible for the South Vietnamese to turn back the invaders once again.
Nixon’s detractors call this scenario nonsense. They assert that all he ever wanted or expected from the cease-fire was a “decent interval” before the NVA overran Saigon. That decent interval was until Nixon had successfully completed his second term. They argue further that Congress was never going to give Nixon the funds to resume bombing in Vietnam and that he knew it, even as he made his promises to Thieu.
No one can know what might have been. Everyone knows what happened. MHQ
STEPHEN E. AMBROSE, is a professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center at the university of New Orleans. This article is adapted from his book Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (Simon & Schuster, 1990).
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Truman Fires MacArthur
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Over its long operational life, the B-52 has undergone an extensive series of retrofits and modernizations. As its role changed from high altitude bomber to low level penetrator, the additional stress of prolonged flight in turbulent air required a number of structural modifications to strengthen the airframe.
In a rapidly advancing technological environment, the Stratofortress has gone through several generations of electronic countermeasures systems, and the G- and H-model B-52s had dual chin turrets added housing low-light television and infrared sensors which allow precise navigation and bombing under any light conditions.
The Hound Dog standoff missile was supplanted in the early ‘70s by the AGM-69 Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM). In the ‘80s, large segments of the fleet were configured to carry the AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
100 Years Ago, World's First Aerial Bomb Dropped Over Libya
circa 1915: Crowds gather to see a birdlike German 'Taube' aircraft, on display at Les Invalides, Paris, at the height of the First World War.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
It was 100 years ago that an Italian pilot dropped the world's first aerial bomb. It happened Nov. 1, 1911 during the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy.
Liutenant Giulio Gavotti flew over Libya on a Taube monoplane and as he approached a Turkish camp at Ain Zara — just on the outskirts of modern-day Tripoli — he tossed over four grenades.
This is how Gerard J. De Groot narrates it in his book The Bomb (Havard University Press, 2005):
[Gavotti] was an experienced reconnaissance pilot but on this particular day, overcome with ambition, he wanted to do something more than merely observe. Unbeknownst to his superior officers, he took with him on his flight a leather pouch containing four grenades, each weighing about two kilos. When he reached the Turkish camp, Gavotti took a detonator from his pocket, methodically screwed it into a grenade, and tossed the grenade over the side, repeating this process four times. No Turks were injured in this first instance of aerial bombardment, but they were mighty angry.
Gavotti officiated at the wedding of air transport and bombs. The marriage has been enormously successful. At the time, however, this first bombing raid was widely condemmed as a gross defilement of the gentlemanly art of war.
Groot writes aerial bombings took off quickly: Three years later, Zeppelins dropped bombs on Antwerp during World War I.
Ian Patterson, at The London Review of Books, notes that at the time of the Italian attack, the international press talked extensively about "collateral damage," which was called "frightfulness." The Ottoman Empire said the bombs fell on a field hospital, while the Italians celebrated the demoralizing effect it had on their enemy.
Patterson then turns to look at what's going on today: The Western allies say the targets they've picked minimize collateral damage, while Moammar Kadhafi's regime claims the attacks have killed innocent civilians:
A hundred years on, as missiles rain down on Gaddafi's defences and sleeping Libyan soldiers are blasted and burned, we hear claims of a similar kind: the might of the western onslaught will dissipate all support for Gaddafi's regime and usher in a new golden age for everyone. Just as Shock and Awe were meant to in Iraq. Or bombing and defoliation were meant to in in Vietnam. Or as the London Blitz was meant to break Britain's spirit. Yet all the evidence suggests that dropping high explosive on places where people live increases their opposition, their solidarity and their resolve.
Vietnam: A Photographic History
“The Associated Press had more reporters, photographers, stringers, and translators than any other news organization in Vietnam,” writes Pete Hamill in his introduction to Vietnam: The Real War (Abrams, 2013). “As a media story, most reporters agreed then (and now) that the Associated Press owned Vietnam. Before the war was over, AP journalists would win six Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest honor. Four would be for photographs displayed in this book.”
The book’s editors mark December 11, 1961 as the beginning of U.S. involvement in the war.
On that day, the aviation transport carrier USNS Core arrived in Saigon, delivering 33 helicopters along with 400 air and ground crewmen to operate and maintain them in support of the ARVN. These H-21C helicopters, known as ‘flying bananas,’ were assigned to quickly airlift South Vietnamese troops into combat, and the surprise element in this new air mobility would set the Viet Cong back for a year or more until the guerrillas learned to adapt.
On November 1, 1964, the Viet Cong shelled the airfield at Bien Hoa Air Base, 12 miles north of Saigon, with mortars. Four Americans were killed, 76 wounded, and 20 aircraft destroyed. It showed the guerrillas that they could disrupt U.S. air operations with direct attacks on bases—and there would be more than 400 such attacks before the war ended.
By 1966, the United States stepped up its air attacks. April saw the first use of B-52 bombers against North Vietnam. In June, oil depots were targeted around Hanoi and Haiphong. And in July, for the first time, the U.S. military bombed NVA troops in the DMZ, the buffer area separating North and South Vietnam.
On November 1, 1968, [President] Johnson ordered a complete bombing halt in return for Hanoi accepting South Vietnam as a partner in the peace talks. During a period of three years, eight months, and 24 days, American pilots had flown 100,000 missions and unloaded almost a half-million tons of bombs across North Vietnam. More than 900 American planes had been lost and nearly 1,500 airmen killed, captured, or listed as missing in action.
Despite [President] Nixon’s pledge [to gradually withdraw troops from Vietnam], U.S. troop strength actually increased in the early months of 1969, hitting an all-time high of 543,482 at the end of April. Meanwhile, in March, Nixon gave the go-ahead to Operation Breakfast, the start of a secret bombing campaign inside neighboring Cambodia that would continue for 14 months.
The Paris peace talks broke off in March 1972, and the North Vietnamese opened what was called the Easter Offensive. In response, the U.S. military resumed bombing North Vietnam, sending B-52s to attack supply dumps and petroleum storage sites in and around Hanoi and Haiphong. This campaign, known as Operation Linebacker, was carried out from May to October and marked the first continuous bombing since [President] Johnson suspended it in November 1968. Nixon also ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor. These U.S. moves succeeded in stopping the North Vietnamese offensive and brought Hanoi back to the negotiating table in Paris. When talks broke down again, Nixon forced the issue by launching an even more aggressive bombing operation, known as Linebacker II or the ‘Christmas bombing.’ This operation, from December 18 to 29, saw the largest heavy bomber strikes by the Air Force since World War II.
The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973. For the war as a whole, the Department of Defense lists U.S. fatalities at 58,220.
Scroll through the gallery, above, to see additional images from the book.
Text and images are from Vietnam: The Real War, and are used by permission of the publisher.