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Operation Rolling Thunder was the codename for an American bombing campaign during the Vietnam War. military aircraft attacked targets throughout North Vietnam from March 1965 to October 1968. This massive bombardment was intended to put military pressure on North Vietnam’s communist leaders and reduce their capacity to wage war against the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder marked the first sustained American assault on North Vietnamese territory and represented a major expansion of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
American Involvement in Vietnam
Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. provided military equipment and advisors to help the government of South Vietnam resist a communist takeover by North Vietnam and its South Vietnam-based allies, the Viet Cong guerrilla fighters.
In 1962, the American military initiated limited air operations within South Vietnam, in an effort to offer air support to South Vietnamese army forces, destroy suspected Viet Cong bases and spray herbicides such as Agent Orange to eliminate jungle cover.
President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded American air operations in August 1964, when he authorized retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam following a reported attack on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Later that year, Johnson approved limited bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of pathways that connected North Vietnam and South Vietnam by way of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The president’s goal was to disrupt the flow of manpower and supplies from North Vietnam to its Viet Cong allies.
America Launches Operation Rolling Thunder
The Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign began on March 2, 1965, partly in response to a Viet Cong attack on a U.S. air base at Pleiku. The Johnson administration cited a number of reasons for shifting U.S. strategy to include systematic aerial assaults on North Vietnam.
For example, administration officials believed that heavy and sustained bombing might encourage North Vietnamese leaders to accept the non-Communist government in South Vietnam. The administration also wanted to reduce North Vietnam’s ability to produce and transport supplies to aid the Viet Cong insurgency.
Finally, Johnson and his advisers hoped to boost morale in South Vietnam while destroying the Communists’ will to fight.
U.S. Ground Troops Arrive
The Operation Rolling Thunder campaign gradually expanded in both range and intensity. At first, the airstrikes were restricted to the southern portion of North Vietnam; however, U.S. leaders eventually moved the target area steadily northward to increase the pressure on the Communist government.
By mid-1966, American planes were attacking military and industrial targets throughout North Vietnam. The only areas considered off limits for the bombing raids were the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong and a 10-mile buffer zone along the border of China.
Shortly after the operation began in 1965, Johnson committed the first U.S. ground troops to the Vietnam War. Although their initial mission was to defend air bases in South Vietnam that were being used in the bombing campaign, the troops’ role soon expanded to include engaging the Viet Cong in active combat.
As the North Vietnamese army became more heavily involved in the conflict, Johnson steadily increased the number of American forces in Vietnam.
Was Operation Rolling Thunder a Failure?
Although North Vietnam did not have much of an air force, its leaders managed to mount an effective defense against the bombing raids. With assistance from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese constructed a sophisticated air-defense system.
Using surface-to-air missiles and radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery, the North Vietnamese shot down hundreds of American planes over the course of the bombing campaign. As a result, pilots and aircraft weapon systems operators accounted for the majority of the American prisoners of war who were captured and held by North Vietnam.
North Vietnamese leaders also took a number of other steps to reduce the impact of the American bombing raids. They constructed networks of bombproof tunnels and shelters, and dispatched crews by night to rebuild the roads, bridges, communication systems and other facilities struck by bombs.
Additionally, the communists used the destructive air strikes for propaganda purposes to increase anti-American sentiment and patriotism among North Vietnamese citizens.
Legacy of Operation Rolling Thunder
The sustained bombing of North Vietnam lasted for more than three years, with occasional brief interruptions. Johnson finally halted the campaign on October 31, 1968, in order to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Communists.
Historians differ in their assessments of the strategic value of Operation Rolling Thunder. Some claim that the bombing campaign came close to crippling North Vietnam’s capacity to wage war. However, critics contend that the campaign’s effectiveness was limited.
They argue that rules of engagement put in place to avoid provoking communist China and to minimize damage to Hanoi and Haiphong made it impossible for the U.S. air strikes to hit a number of important targets, including airfields, shipyards, power plants and oil storage facilities. They also assert that U.S. leaders failed to coordinate the bombing campaign in North Vietnam with the ground operations in South Vietnam.
Despite the difficulties encountered by the Johnson administration during Operation Rolling Thunder, President Richard M. Nixon, Johnson’s successor, resumed the bombing of North Vietnam shortly after taking office in 1969. In 1972, Nixon unleashed another massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam called Operation Linebacker.
By the time the last American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, the U.S. military had dropped some 4.6 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, destroying a large percentage of the nation’s towns and villages and killing an estimated 2 million Vietnamese people.
Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder was the name given to America’s sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Operation Rolling Thunder was a demonstration of America’s near total air supremacy during the Vietnam War. It was started in an effort to demoralise the North Vietnamese people and to undermine the capacity of the government in North Vietnam to govern. Operation Rolling Thunder failed on both accounts.
Operation Rolling Thunder was given government approval and officially started on February 24 th 1965 though the first attack did not occur until March 2 nd when 100 US and VNAF planes attacked an ammunition base at Xom Bang. The bombing campaign lasted until October 1968, despite the fact that it was meant to have been no more than an eight-week campaign.
The execution of the operation was blurred from the start. The US Air Force was restricted as to what it could bomb out of fear of provoking a Soviet/Chinese response. Whereas the US military wanted a bombing campaign that had clear military results (such as severely limiting the way the NLF could operate in South Vietnam) the ‘hawks’ in Washington DC wanted to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese government the awesome military power the US could muster – a military power that the North could not hope to match. The failure of Operation Thunder to undermine the government of Ho Chi Minh in its first few weeks led to a change of strategy. By the end of 1965, the bombing raids were used against the supply lines that the North used into the South as opposed to specific targets in the North itself. However, Haiphong and Hanoi remained targets.
One of the results of the opening phase of the operation was that Vietcong forces attacked US air bases in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland told Washington that he could not defend these bases with just the 23,000 men that were under his command. Westmoreland claimed that unless he received more troops, the Vietcong would overrun these air bases. As a result, President Johnson ordered the sending of 3,500 US Marines to South Vietnam – the first official troops to be sent there.
During the many months during which Operation Rolling Thunder operated, 643,000 tons of bombs were dropped. However, nearly 900 US aircraft were lost. The financial cost of Operation Rolling Thunder was huge. It was estimated that the damage done to North Vietnam by the bombing raids was $300 million. However, the cost to the US of these raids was estimated at $900 million.
Operation Rolling Thunder ended when President Johnson offered its termination as a way of securing the North Vietnamese to a negotiating table. Peace talks began in earnest in January 1969 just two months after Johnson ordered the ending of Operation Rolling Thunder.
Debates over Bombing Strategy
To many of Johnson’s senior civilian advisors, especially Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, the purpose of Rolling Thunder was to send a message to North Vietnam. Hoping for a diplomatic solution, McNamara preferred gradually increasing pressure on North Vietnam in order to make it clear to North Vietnamese leaders that America was willing to have a negotiated settlement rather than an increasing aerial destruction. This solution also came from the concern that a massive bombardment against North Vietnam might provoke China and the Soviet Union, their Communist allies, to intervene directly in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, many military commanders strongly disagreed with this strategy. They believed that McNamara’s notions of gradual escalation were divorced from reality. In their points of view, the United States should not carry out a long and indecisive campaign which would give time for the North communists to build a responding air defence system. They argued that air power should be used as an overwhelming force to cut off the reinforcement and replenishment into the South instantly. When supply from the North was halted, the war in South Vietnam would wither away quickly.
Operation Rolling Thunder - Definition, Vietnam War and Timeline - HISTORY
I. European imperialism
i. Indochine (French Indochina) established
II. First Indochina War (1945-1954)
i. France under German control
ii. Japan took over Vietnam
1. Viet Minh resisted the Japanese
1. Declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
ii. France returned to Vietnam
1. France defeated in Vietnam
i. Divided into North Vietnam (communist) and South Vietnam (Vietnamese emperor under French control)
ii. 17 th parallel = DMZ (demilitarized zone)
iii. Plans for reunification following 1956 elections
III. United States involvement
i. U.S. feared communism in North Vietnam would spread throughout SE Asia
1. U.S. supported Ngo Dinh Diem
a. Ngo Dinh Diem declared the Republic of Vietnam (1955)
i. Canceled upcoming 1956 reunification elections
a. Very unpopular (corrupt, ruthless, etc.)
b. Resisted by National Liberation Front (Viet Cong)
c. President John F. Kennedy
i. 1962 – Sent U.S. military advisers to train the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam)
ii. 1963 – Supported coup d’état to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem
d. President Lyndon B. Johnson
i. Wanted to keep U.S. involvement minimal
ii. U.S. Navy allegedly attacked in Gulf of Tonkin (1964)
1. Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
a. U.S. troops sent to Vietnam
b. Operation Rolling Thunder (March 2, 1965-November 1, 1968)
i. Aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam
iii. “Americanization” of the war
1. Late 1966 – almost 400,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam
1. Plan to defeat Viet Cong through massive casualty rate
2. Air strikes, napalm, Agent Orange
3. Result – lots of civilian casualties
a. Villagers grew more anti-American
1. Left U.S. with few easy targets
2. American troops could not easily distinguish friend from foe
VI. Bad press for the United States
i. Launched by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army
1. Simultaneous attack on cities and American troops in South Vietnam
i. Hundreds of unarmed civilian villagers murdered by American soldiers
i. War footage viewed on nightly news broadcasts
a. Many members – hippies, protesting students, and mainstream people
i. Many dodged the draft and burned their draft cards
1. Democratic National Convention (1968)
2. Kent State University shootings (1970)
i. Elected U.S. president in 1968
ii. Claimed war support from a “silent majority”
d. Vietnamization of the war
i. Movement to turn war management over to South Vietnam
ii. But meanwhile Nixon illegally bombed Viet Cong bases in Cambodia and Laos (neutral countries)
i. “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”
ii. Published by New York Times in 1971
iii. Revealed less than noble reasons for U.S. involvement
iv. Revealed that successive U.S. presidents had lied to and misled the public
a. Diplomatic and military maneuverings brought a ceasefire in January, 1973
The Viet Minh, established by the communist leader Ho Chi Minh in the year of 1941, was a coalition that was formed during Vietnam’s struggle for independence and decolonization from the French and Japanese. Due to their opposition to Japan, the United States initially helped to fund the Viet Minh’s efforts until Japan’s eventual surrender to the Allies of World War II. At this point, the United States shifted their support to France because of their fear of the domino theory, which essentially captured the belief that the existence of communism in Vietnam would eventually lead to its spread across the rest of Southeast Asia. (Source 14)
Despite receiving a pledge of 15 million dollars from the United States, the French were unable to fend off the Viet Minh, and ultimately suffered a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu. They were accordingly brought to the negotiation table and forced to sign a ceasefire that divided Vietnam into half at the 17th Parallel with a “provisional” military demarcation line. Upon the official establishment of South Vietnam, the United States provided significant financial aid to its non-communist government, which began to show blatant signs of corruption during this time period. (Source 16) President Eisenhower, in fact, reasoned that the division of Vietnam would allow the United States to secure anti-communism in Southeast Asia.
Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh coalition were not deliberately attempting to spread communism like the Soviet Union. They did, however, see communism as Vietnam’s gateway to independence and unification, which was greatly misconceived by the United States as such. Despite being unable to perceive the actual purpose of the Vietnamese effort, the American military sought to involve themselves in the conflict.
The Inception of the Cold War (Immediately after World War II)
While the Cold War possesses an ambiguous “start date,” it can at least be universally agreed upon by historians that the tensions between the USSR and the United States grew most after the end of the World War II, in which both nations fought as allies. The citizens of America observed the Soviet Union’s postwar expansion and accordingly feared that the USSR would spread communism across the world. (Source 4) As such, the United States became increasingly hostile to the Soviet Union and its intentions, and ultimately found itself intervening in several, communism-related foreign conflicts. A widely-held belief known as the “domino theory” was used by both President Eisenhower and President Lyndon B. Johnson to justify the American military’s involvement in Vietnam. (Source 4) When applied to the circumstances at hand, this theory stated that the existence of communism in Vietnam would inevitably lead to its spread across the rest of Asia.
Thus, due to the fear of a communism pandemic, the United States military boldly entered a conflict that has been the center of debate for many historians and politicians. In fact, it is commonly argued that the American military should not have intervened in the Vietnam conflict, as the United States did not even fully recognize the purpose of the war and was incapable of fighting off an insurgency. (Source 14)(Source 16) So despite its massive arsenal of advanced technology and weapons, the United States’ utilization of conventional warfare against the North Vietnamese resulted in attrition, which in turn sparked media and public protest. The military quickly withdrew thereafter.
Establishment of the Viet Cong (After Geneva Conference, 1954)
The Viet Cong was formed after the declaration of the 1954 Geneva Accords, in which a ceasefire line was drawn cross Vietnam for the withdrawal of opposing troops. Under the orders of the Agreement, Ho Chi Minh evacuated most of the Viet Minh cadre to the North, but left around 10000 units in the South to establish a clandestine army. (Source 12) Upon Ngo Dinh Diem’s refusal to sign the Geneva Accords, the newly-formed Viet Cong received orders to carry out insurgent activities in the South (Source 12), including a massive assassination campaign that resulted in the deaths of over 400 South Vietnamese officials.
The United States conflict with the Viet Cong was one of attrition, as frequent insurgent attacks from the guerillas resulted in gradual increases in United States and ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) casualties. Furthermore, due to the “Ho Chi Minh trail” that ran through Laos and Cambodia, the Viet Cong received a steady stream of supplies from North Vietnam. The United States consequently executed several bombings throughout the 1960s, including the notorious Operation Rolling Thunder and covert Operation Menu, in an attempt to reduce the movement of supplies to the Viet Cong’s endeavors in the South. These bombings were eventually found to be ineffective and were generally criticized by the American public for their attrition and bloodshed. (Source 14)
In other words, the Viet Cong proved to be a great adversity to the United States in terms of physical and psychological warfare.
The Beginning of the Geneva Conference (April 26, 1954)
The Geneva Conferences first took place in April 26, 1954 as a result of the French colonialists’ major Indochina War defeat at Dien Bien Phu. After a ceasefire was signed between the French and the Vietnamese, the Geneva Accords were drafted and a temporary demarcation line was formed to divide Vietnam reunification was set to take place in 1956 through free elections. However, South Vietnam refused to sign the accords, leading to the eventual cancellation of the elections by South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. (Source 2)
It was South Vietnam’s refusal to oblige to the Geneva Accords that resulted in the Vietnam War, as Ngo Dinh Diem’s decision divided the nation and caused communist insurgencies in the South. Furthermore, the formation of communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam was followed by American involvement when the United States donated funds to Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. (Source 16) Simply put, if the Geneva Accords had been accepted by both sides of Vietnam, the Vietnam War would not have even occurred and United States commitment to the conflict would not have escalated.
The Start of Ngo Dinh Diem’s Presidency (October 26, 1955)
Ngo Dinh Diem, an outspoken anti-communist, rose to power as the President of South Vietnam by winning a rigged election. Once he assumed office, he quickly developed a reputation as an autocrat and nepotist, as he tampered with elections and decimated the communist population of South Vietnam throughout his term – much of the populace resented Ngo Dinh Diem and his reign, causing a massive insurgency that resulted in his overthrow and assassination in 1963. (Source 2)
This insurgency movement, which was led by the Viet Cong, was aided by the Ho Chi Minh Trail and involved many guerilla attacks against the South Vietnam and American forces. These attacks, in turn, resulted in further United States military escalation and several bombing operation in the 1960s. Operation Rolling Thunder, in particular, was denounced by much of the American public for the needless bloodshed and attrition it caused. (Source 11) As such, support for the war fell and United States involvement in Vietnam was forced to be ceased.
Establishment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (1959)
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was first established as a North Vietnamese supply route in the year of 1959. Maintained by Group 559, a transportation and logistical unit of the Vietnam People’s Army (North Vietnamese Army), the Ho Chi Minh trail was a system of mountain and jungle paths that cut through Cambodia and Laos. In North Vietnam’s efforts to reunify the nation, supplies and troops were sent through this trail and delivered to communist rebels in the South, such as the Viet Cong. (Source 5)
This trail greatly benefitted the Viet Cong, which utilized guerilla warfare to fight a war of attrition with the United States Due to the stream of supplies they received, the guerillas were able to remain persistent in their endeavors, thus provoking bombing raids by the United States that eventually proved to be ineffective and rather wasteful. Much of the American public despised these operations for the pointless attrition and bloodshed they induced.
Death of President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963)
The tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy occurred on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. This also marks the beginning of Lyndon B. Johnson’s rise to power, as he was required to step into the presidential seat of the former incumbent. (Source 16)
Lyndon B. Johnson was responsible for the United States military’s escalations throughout 1964 – 1968 in terms of involvement in the war, as he pushed for and eventually signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the United States to utilize conventional warfare against the North Vietnam forces. (Source 7) As a result, he proceeded to oversee Operation Rolling Thunder and its bombing raids against North Vietnam civilians and soldiers. The media reported the President’s acts from an anti-war perspective, thus influencing the minds of many American civilians. Support for the war drastically plummeted throughout Lyndon B. Johnson’s term, until the President was eventually forced to begin peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident (August 2, 1964)
The Gulf of Tonkin incident took place in August 2, 1964 when the United States destroyer USS Maddox was engaged by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. As a result, President Lyndon B. Johnson helped to pass the consequent Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the use of conventional military force in Vietnam.
This incident was essentially the “tipping point” of the United States in the Vietnam conflict, and basically marks the beginning of the United States military’s physical involvement in the war. Although the Pentagon Papers reveal that Lyndon B. Johnson planned to launch bombings on Vietnam prior to 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin occurrence provided a final push that convinced the United States to become fully involved in the Vietnam Civil War.
However, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution specifically stated that the United States was only authorized to wage conventional warfare in the battlefields of Vietnam. (Source 7) The military consequently suffered under the hands of North Vietnamese guerilla warfare and insurgency, which seemed to be impervious to conventional warfare such as bombing raids. The Vietnam War accordingly grew to be a conflict of attrition, and met the disapproval of many American citizens.
The Start of Operation Rolling Thunder (March 2, 1965)
Operation Rolling Thunder began in March 2, 1965 with a bombing attack against an ammunition storage near the area of Xom Bang. It took place shortly after the approval of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the use of conventional military force in Vietnam. (Source 7)
In an effort to reduce the movement of supplies to communist rebels in the South and lower the morale of the North Vietnamese, the United States conducted bombings on specifically targeted areas in North Vietnam. However, the operation ultimately proved to be ineffective, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara delivered a report to the Senate in 1967 stating that the bombing campaign had not achieved its goals – according to McNamara, the movement of supplies from the North to the South via the Ho Chi Minh trail had not been reduced, and the morale of the North Vietnamese remained unscathed. (Source 14)
Moreover, as the operation dragged on until 1968, much of the American public denounced the bombings for the needless civilian deaths it caused – approximately 182,000 North Vietnamese noncombatants were killed. (Source 2) Many people also criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson, who claimed that he did not wish to seek a wider war. As such, public support for the Vietnam conflict drastically decreased over these years.
The Tet Offensive (January 30, 1968)
The Tet Offensive was a campaign that was launched by North Vietnam and Viet Cong forces in the form of surprise attacks. Within several months, the NVA (North Vietnam Army) and Viet Cong invaded numerous vital cities and provinces in South Vietnam, including the capital, Saigon. Despite this, the United States and South Vietnam forces were able to resist the offensive and regain control of cities within weeks, inflicting over 100,000 casualties on the Communist forces in the process. (Source 11)
Although the Tet Offensive was a loss for the NVA and Viet Cong on a military standpoint, reportings of the event by American media only continued to spread anti-war propaganda, as the citizens of United States gradually began to see that the Vietnam War would not be as “winnable” as President Lyndon B. Johnson had claimed it to be. (Source 11)
The Offensive also revealed the media’s role in the war, which had not been nearly as prominent in the preceding Korean War. Newspapers began to openly challenge the American military’s involvement in this perpetual, 20-year conflict by publishing propaganda or information that would place the American government in a negative light, such as the Pentagon Papers that contained over several thousand pages of “sensitive” intelligence.
My Lai Massacre (March 16, 1968)
The My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, occurred when a company of soldiers were sent to the South Vietnam hamlet of My Lai for a search and destroy mission, as it was believed that the Viet Cong were at the hamlet. However, despite not finding any Viet Cong, the United States soldiers proceeded to kill all the civilians at My Lai. Although the massacre was initially concealed, it was eventually reported to the American public and followed by a mass outrage. (Source 16)
The My Lai incident revealed that much of the Vietnam War was psychological, as the United States soldiers were clearly being driven into hysteria – Captain Ernest Medina is quoted as having said “They’re all V.C., now go and get them.” Furthermore, in response to the massacre, the American public continued to display fervent protest against nearly every aspect of the war.
The Release of the Pentagon Papers (June 13, 1971)
The Pentagon Papers, which was first published in June 13, 1971 by the New York Times, was essentially a written record of the Vietnam War that was created by a team of historians organized by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. As the historians received access to government files, they were able to discover certain aspects of the war that had been concealed from the American public, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s plans to bomb North Vietnam before 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (Source 7)
The release of the Pentagon Papers enraged many opposers of the war, with the New York Times stating that it “demonstrated, among other things, that the Lyndon Baines Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
1. Anderson, David L. Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-1961. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print.
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3. Buzzanco, Robert. “Vietnam War.” Vietnam War. John Hopkins University Press, 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.
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6. Hughes, Ken. “Fatal Politics: Nixon’s Political Timetable for Withdrawing from Vietnam.” America: History and Life. EBSCO, June 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
7. McMahon, Robert J. “The Politics, and Geopolitics, of American Troop Withdrawals from Vietnam, 1968 – 1972.” America: History and Life. EBSCO, June 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
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11. Schwartz, Thomas. “America and the Vietnam War.” Osher Lifelong Lecture Series. Vanderbilt University, Nashville. 14 Feb. 2013. Lecture.
12. “Viet Cong (VC) (Vietnamese Military and Political Organization).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
13. “Viet Minh (Vietnamese Revolutionary Organization).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
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16. Young, Marilyn Blatt., John J. Fitzgerald, and A. Tom. Grunfeld. The Vietnam War: A History in Documents. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
Biggest shooting gallery on Earth [ edit | edit source ]
SAMs and Wild Weasels [ edit | edit source ]
North Vietnam's deployment of SAMs forced American pilots to make hard choices: either approach targets at higher altitudes (to avoid anti-aircraft fire) and become prey to SAMs, or fly lower to avoid the missiles and become the target of anti-aircraft batteries. Due to altered tactics and the increased use of electronic radar jamming, the record of SAM kills decreased over time. The already dismal missile success rate fell from one kill for 30 launches to less than one kill for 50. ⏗] Those figures do, however, say a great deal about the inefficiency of Rolling Thunder, since North Vietnam's SAM batteries never lacked sufficient stocks of missiles, regardless of efforts to interdict the supply system.
U.S. Navy A-7B Corsairs armed with Shrike anti-radiation missiles, 1969.
The nature of the gradual escalation had given Hanoi time to adapt to the situation. By 1967, North Vietnam had formed an estimated 25 SAM battalions (with six missile launchers each) which rotated among approximately 150 sites. ⏘] With the assistance of the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese had also quickly integrated an early warning radar system of more than 200 facilities which covered the entire country, tracking incoming U.S. raids, and then coordinating SAMs, anti-aircraft batteries, and MiGs to attack them. ⏙] During 1967 U.S. losses totaled 248 aircraft (145 Air Force, 102 Navy, and one Marine Corps). ⏚]
To survive in this ever more lethal air defense zone, the U.S. had to adopt newer, more specialized tactics. Large-scale strikes, known as force packages in the Air Force and multi-carrier "Alpha strikes" by the Navy, were assigned numerous support aircraft to protect the fighter-bombers. First into the target areas were specialized Iron Hand flak suppression missions. These consisted of F-105 Wild Weasel hunter/killer teams configured with sophisticated electronic equipment to detect and locate the emissions associated with SAM guidance and control radars.
The Wild Weasels also carried electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment to protect themselves. They directed flak suppression strikes and carried AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles (another Navy development), which homed in on the radar systems of the SAMs. The SA-2 had greater range than the Shrike, but if the Shrike was launched and the radar operator stayed on the air, the American missile would home in on the signal and destroy the radar source. A sophisticated cat and mouse game then ensued between North Vietnamese radar operators and the Wild Weasel pilots. The Navy also utilized aircraft in a similar role, but did not create a specialized unit like the Wild Weasels to conduct SAM suppression.
An USAF "Iron Hand" SAM-suppression team late in the war.
Next came the bomb-laden strike aircraft protected by escort fighters (Combat Air Patrol or MIGCAP) and electronic jamming aircraft to degrade enemy radar. New ECM devices had hurriedly been deployed to protect aircraft from missile attacks, but they remained subject to frequent breakdowns because of climate conditions in Southeast Asia. Also included in the missions were KC-135 aerial tankers and Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters, which were, in turn, protected by propeller-driven A-1 escorts.
From mid-1966 until the end of 1967, President Johnson continued to dole out sensitive targets one by one to the generals while simultaneously trying to placate the doves in Congress and within his own administration with periodic cutbacks and half-hearted peace initiatives. ⏛] In the end, this erratic course satisfied no one and did little to alter the course of the war. ⏜]
The nature of the targets and the risks involved in striking (and re-striking) them began to take a toll. Chief of Naval Operations David McDonald reported to his co-chiefs after a trip to South Vietnam in September 1966, that Rolling Thunder aircrews were angered with the targeting process and that they faulted the campaign due to "guidelines requiring repetitive air programs that seemed more than anything else to benefit enemy gunners." ⏝] During 1967, the second full year of Rolling Thunder operations, 362 U.S. aircraft had been lost over North Vietnam. (208 Air Force, 142 Navy, and 12 Marine Corps). ⏞]
MiGs and interdiction [ edit | edit source ]
Rolling Thunder reached the last stage of its operational evolution during 1967 and 1968. The chief purpose of the American air effort in the higher Route Packages of North Vietnam was slowly transformed into that of interdicting the flow of supplies and materiel and the destruction of those segments of the north's infrastructure that supported its military effort. Although most U.S. aircraft losses continued to be inflicted by anti-aircraft fire, U.S. Air Force F-105s and Navy A-4 Skyhawks increasingly encountered SAMs and MiGs. North Vietnamese fighters also became a particular problem because of the lack of radar coverage in the Red River Delta region, which allowed the MiGs to surprise the strike forces. Airborne early warning aircraft had difficulty detecting the fighters at low altitudes and the aircraft themselves were difficult to see visually. ⏟]
A missile-armed VPAF MiG-21PF landing.
While F-105s did score 27 air-to-air victories, the overall exchange ratio was near parity. In January 1967, the Americans sprang a surprise on the MiGs when they launched Operation Bolo. F-4 Phantoms, using the same radio call signs, direction of approach, altitude, and speed as a typical flight of bomb-laden F-105s, lured the MiGs toward what the MiG pilots thought would be easy prey. The result was seven MiGs shot down within 12 minutes. ⏠]
Later in the year, the U.S. launched its most intense and sustained attempt to force North Vietnam into peace negotiations. Almost all of the targets on the Joint Chiefs' list had been authorized for attack, including airfields that had been previously off limits. ⏡] Only central Hanoi, Haiphong, and the PRC border area remained prohibited from attack. A major effort was made to isolate the urban areas by downing bridges and attacking LOCs. Also struck were the Thai Nguyen steel complex (origin of the Pardo's Push), thermal and electrical power plants, ship and rail repair facilities, and warehouses. North Vietnamese MiGs entered the battle en masse, as their capital was threatened and kill ratios fell to one U.S. aircraft lost for every two MiGs. ⏢] During 1968, MiGs accounted for 22 percent of the 184 American aircraft (75 Air Force, 59 Navy, and five Marine Corps) lost over the north. ⏣] As a result, operations against the last of North Vietnam's airfields, previously off-limits to attack, were authorized.
Despite the best interdiction efforts of Rolling Thunder, however, the NLF and PAVN launched their largest offensive thus far in the war on 30 January 1968, striking throughout South Vietnam during the lunar new year holiday. The Tet Offensive concluded as a military disaster for North Vietnam and its NLF allies, but it also adversely affected U.S. public opinion, which in turn affected the will of Washington. ⏤] Fortunately for North Vietnam, many U.S. bombing advocates (including Air Force Chief of Staff McConnell) did not want to risk the one aircraft capable of delivering a lot of bombs in bad weather – the B-52. Without them, there was little that could be done over the north in response to Tet, since bad weather minimized fighter operations until the beginning of April. ⏥]
General Khanh seizes full control of South Vietnam's government. Johnson aides, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, send a memo to the President stating that America's limited military involvement in Vietnam is not succeeding, and that the US has reached a 'fork in the road' in Vietnam and must either soon escalate or withdraw.
A US helicopter base and advisory compound in the central highlands of South Vietnam is attacked by NLF commandos. Nine Americans are killed and more than 70 are wounded. President Johnson immediately orders US Navy fighter-bombers to attack military targets just inside North Vietnam.
"I've had enough of this," President Johnson tells his National Security advisors. He then approves Operation Flaming Dart, the bombing of a North Vietnamese army camp near Dong Hoi by US Navy jets from the carrier Ranger. Johnson makes no speeches or public statements concerning his decision. Opinion polls taken in the US shortly after the bombing indicate a 70 percent approval rating for the President and an 80 percent approval of US military involvement in Vietnam.
President Johnson authorizes Operation Rolling Thunder, a limited but long lasting bombing offensive. Its aim is to force North Vietnam to stop supporting Vietcong guerrillas in the South.
Another military coup in Saigon results in General Khanh finally being ousted from power and a new military/civilian government installed, led by Dr. Phan Huy Quat.
General Westmoreland requests two battalions of US Marines to protect the American air base at Da Nang from 6000 Viet Cong massed in the vicinity. The President approves his request, despite the "grave reservations" of Ambassador Taylor in Vietnam who warns that America may be about to repeat the same mistakes made by the French in sending ever-increasing numbers of soldiers into the Asian forests and jungles of a "hostile foreign country" where friend and foe are indistinguishable
Operation Rolling Thunder begins as over 100 American fighter-bombers attack targets in North Vietnam. Scheduled to last eight weeks, Rolling Thunder will instead go on for three years. The first US air strikes also occur against the Ho Chi Minh trail. Throughout the war, the trail is heavily bombed by American jets with little actual success in halting the tremendous flow of soldiers and supplies from the North.
The first US combat troops arrive in Vietnam as 3500 Marines land at China Beach to defend the American air base at Da Nang. They join 23,000 American military advisors already in Vietnam.
President Johnson authorizes the use of Napalm, a petroleum based anti-personnel bomb that showers hundreds of explosive pellets upon impact.
At the White House, President Johnson authorizes sending two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel to Vietnam. The President also authorizes American combat troops to conduct patrols to root out Viet Cong in the countryside. His decision to allow offensive operations is kept secret from the American press and public for two months.
President Johnson delivers his "Peace Without Conquest" speech at Johns Hopkins University offering Hanoi "unconditional discussions" to stop the war in return for massive economic assistance in modernizing Vietnam. "Old Ho can't turn that down," Johnson privately tells his aides. But Johnson's peace overture is quickly rejected. Two weeks later, President Johnson raises America's combat strength in Vietnam to more than 60,000 troops.
US forces invade the Dominican Republic to prevent a communist takeover like the one that occurred in Cuba. This event is one of many actions taken by the United States in Central, Caribbean, and South America to remove regimes which would be open to Communist influence.
The first US Army combat troops, 3500 men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrive in Vietnam.
The first bombing pause is announced by the US in the hope that Hanoi will now negotiate. There will be six more pauses during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, all with the same intention. However, each time, the North Vietnamese ignore the peace overtures and instead use the pause to repair air defenses and send more troops and supplies into the South via the Ho Chi Minh trail.
US bombing of North Vietnam resumes.
Nguyen Cao Ky takes power in South Vietnam as the new prime minister with Nguyen Van Thieu functioning as official chief of state. They lead the 10th government in 20 months.
General William Westmoreland launches the first purely offensive operation by American ground forces in Vietnam, sweeping into NLF territory just northwest of Saigon.
During a noontime press conference, President Johnson announces he will send 44 combat battalions to Vietnam increasing the US military presence to 125,000 men. Monthly draft calls are doubled to 35,000. "I have asked the commanding general, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. And we will meet his needs. We cannot be defeated by force of arms. We will stand in Vietnam."
After a deserter from the 1st Viet Cong regiment reveals that an attack is imminent against the US Marine base at Chu Lai, the American army launches Operation Starlite. In this, the first major battle of the Vietnam War, the United States scores a resounding victory. Ground forces, artillery from Chu Lai, ships and air support combine to kill nearly 700 Viet Cong soldiers. US forces sustain 45 dead and more than 200 wounded.
President Johnson signs a law criminalizing draft card burning. Although it may result in a five year prison sentence and $1000 fine, the burnings become common during anti-war rallies and often attract the attention of news media.
Vietnam War: Air Power
Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign conducted by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, ended in November 1968. Beginning in 1965, the operation involved over 300,000 sorties conducted by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. By November 1968, American pilots had dropped 864,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam and caused $370 million in damages, though the operation was ultimately determined to be a strategic failure.
Rolling Thunder was far from the only major aerial operation of the Vietnam War. Thousands of United States military personnel participated in and contributed to aerial operations, including Operation Bolo, Linebacker I and II, Ranch Hand, Arc Light and others. Many of those personnel—pilots, navigators and support crew—have shared their stories with the Veterans History Project.
Miguel Encinias in front of an F-105 Thunderchief in Vietnam. Miguel Encinias collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/34287.
The very first American troops in Vietnam were not combatants they were advisors to the South Vietnamese military. One of these advisors was Miguel Encinias, a pilot who had flown combat missions in WWII and Korea. During the course of his duties, Encinias was approached by a South Vietnamese official who asked him to take him for a flight in a light aircraft. Encinias shared during his VHP interview,
He asked me to fly down swamps and the delta at ground level. He was sitting in the back with a shotgun shooting at Viet Cong.
Encinias said the next time he saw that man, it was in a photograph in Life Magazine. That man was none other than General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, and the photograph of him executing a North Vietnamese prisoner became one of the most iconic and controversial images of the Vietnam War.
The view from Lewis Chesley’s cockpit. Paul Lew Chesley collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/27118.
During Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile batteries (SAMs) were a serious threat to United States and South Vietnamese pilots. To combat this, the U.S. Air Force created the “Wild Weasels,” groups of pilots who would purposefully allow the SAM sites to spot them so that they could then deploy radar seeking missiles to destroy the missile sites. Wild Weasels had one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, jobs in all of Vietnam. In the words of Vietnam veteran Lewis “Cool Bear” Chesley,
The Air Force realized at the early days the Weasels had a hundred percent attrition, and asking people to volunteer for a suicide mission was not well welcomed. I went, recognizing at that point nobody had ever finished a tour. Without exception, you’d been shot down as a Weasel.
In his VHP interview, Chesley also speaks about being ambushed by 8 MiG fighters and how he managed to escape.
Herbert Metoyer in the cockpit of his helicopter. Herbert R. Metoyer, Jr. collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/58363.
Not all pilots flew fixed-wing aircraft. The Vietnam War was the first time helicopters had been used to transport large numbers of ground troops to combat zones. The Bell UH-1 “Huey” series of helicopters were ubiquitous in the war, and were used for numerous roles in addition to troop transport, including medevac and offensive strikes. Herbert Metoyer overcame racial prejudice in the Army to earn his pilot’s wings and flew a Huey gunship in Vietnam and Thailand. In his VHP interview, he also speaks about a tense mission to pick up a cargo load from the jungle while under heavy fire.
A photograph of two of Fred Gosnell’s enlisted men resupplying an aircraft. Fred Gosnell, Jr. collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/51998.
Of course none of these pilots could fly at all without a dedicated ground crew to repair, refuel and reload their aircraft. For every one pilot in Vietnam, there were dozens of support staff, from mechanics to weather specialists. As a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force, Fred Gosnell oversaw the enlisted operations of his airbase in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. He ensured that all the aircraft got the supplies and maintenance they needed, and was the voice of his enlisted men when speaking to command staff. Fred Gosnell donated to VHP a large collection of photos from his time in Vietnam, which provides a fascinating look at life in the 510 th TAC Fighter Squadron.
No matter their roles, it is undeniable that air power played a huge role in the Vietnam War. In addition to the stories highlighted here, the Veterans History Project has hundreds of collections featuring Vietnam veterans in aviation roles. We encourage you to search our archives at www.loc.gov/vets to find out more about these veterans, and to submit your own story if you served in Vietnam or during any other war or conflict in the United States military.
Thanks for some filler on the most hideous undertaking of that era of the United States’ imperialist ambitions masquerading as bringing Democracy to the heathens.
Yes…. ”The very first American troops in Vietnam were not combatants they were advisors to the South Vietnamese military. One of these advisors was Miguel Encinias, a pilot who had flown combat missions in WWII and Korea. During the course of his duties, Encinias was approached by a South Vietnamese official who asked him to take him for a flight in a light aircraft. Encinias shared during his VHP interview,
He asked me to fly down swamps and the delta at ground level. He was sitting in the back with a shotgun shooting at Viet Cong.
Encinias said the next time he saw that man, it was in a photograph in Life Magazine. That man was none other than General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, and the photograph of him executing a North Vietnamese prisoner became one of the most iconic and controversial images of the Vietnam War.”
is advising. A monster picking off peasants from a low flying aircraft is advisory. And war is peace, and not a crime.
Gee whiz, were you constrained in your story?
Thank you for your comments. The Library of Congress does not verify the accuracy of the accounts described by participants in the Veterans History Project. Individual stories are voluntarily submitted to the Veterans History Project and are placed in the Library’s permanent collections as received. These histories are the personal recollections and perspectives of participating individuals and are not intended as a substitute for an official record of the federal government or of military service.
Top photograph, the aircraft in the background is not an F-4 Phantom, it’s an F-105 Thunderchief.
You are absolutely correct, that is an F-105 in the photo. Thank you for pointing that out.
Actually, the first “American” casualties were CIA pilots James McGovern and Walter Buford, shot down while parachuting howitzer shells into Dien Bien Phu on the day before the French surrender. The “first American troops” were with the OSS during World War II or serving with the French Foreign Legion. Or you could count from June 1861, when the paddle steamer sloop USS Saginaw under John Schenck bombarded Qui Nohn in the middle of the French invasion of Vietnam.
Operation Rolling Thunder was a March 1965 to 1 November 1968 air war that rates a full chapter in American history… the Aviators who carried the war to the heartland of a heartless enemy 50 years ago played vital roles in supporting the incredibly ill-advised policies of the Johnson Administration… the courageous service of the Rolling Thunder warriors–Air Force, Navy and Marine — especially the several hundreds of those who spent as many as 8 years undergoing brutal torture at the hands of Cat, Bug, Pig Eye, et.al., in Hanoi Hilton–should never be forgotten. Hundreds of others are still missing… The Nation’s library must do better in recording the “Vietnam air war” called Operation Rolling Thunder than is the current case… for some of what you are missing try this website: http://www.rememberrollingthunder.com
Thank you for your heartfelt comment. We would absolutely love to have more Rolling thunder vets share their stories with us so that we can have a more complete history of the air war in Vietnam.
Would you consider allowing us here at the Veterans History Project to write a guest post on your website asking for more Rolling thunder vets to share their stories with us so that we can have a greater knowledge base and fill in some of the gaps you mentioned?
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VIETNAM WAR STATISTICS
Longest war in US history until the war in Afghanistan
“War” was never officially declared by the United States
A Cornell University study placed the over-all total U.S. cost of the Vietnam war at $200 Billion
Total U.S. bomb tonnage dropped during:
World War II = 2,057,244 tons
Vietnam War = 7,078,032 tons (3-1/2 times WWII tonnage)
Bomb tonnage dropped during the Vietnam War amounted to 1,000 lbs. for every man, woman and child in Vietnam.
An estimated 70,000 draft evaders and “dodgers” were living in Canada by 1972.
An estimated 3 million people were killed by the war, and over 1 million were wounded.
When Narratives Clash: The Vietnam War as History
Louis F. Cooper, the author of this guest post, is a longtime reader and commenter at the U.S. Intellectual History blog.
A couple of months after the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration’s bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the U.S. halted the bombing for five days, from May 13 to May 18, 1965. According to an account by Townsend Hoopes (then a Defense Department official), after the bombing resumed Secretary of State Dean Rusk “explained by analogy that the pause had been a phone call to Hanoi, but that they had failed to pick up the instrument at their end of the line.” Hoopes adds that Rusk “did not explain why we did not let the phone ring a little longer, recognizing the possibility that the NVN [North Vietnam] government might have been in the basement taking cover from our earlier raids.”[i]
The problem ran deeper than not letting the telephone ring long enough. Hanoi did not answer the phone because at that time it had no compelling reason to do so. The bombing was not substantially affecting North Vietnam’s ability to do what it was doing.
Four U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief aircraft of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, each drop six M117 343 kg bombs over Vietnam during “Operation Rolling Thunder.”
At that point in the war North Vietnam was not mounting large-scale, conventional offensives the NLF (Viet Cong) in the South, supported by the North, was carrying the brunt of the fighting. The bombing of transportation and industrial targets in the North did not much reduce the relatively small stream of supplies that the Viet Cong required, and the North Vietnamese were able to repair damaged infrastructure very quickly. For these reasons among others, one analyst concludes that “North Vietnam during the Johnson years was essentially immune to coercion with air power.”[ii]
The practical or strategic, as opposed to moral, problem with Rolling Thunder, according to this view, was not how it was executed, but the whole conception of the campaign: bombing could not stop North Vietnam from infiltrating supplies and men into the South, nor, at least at this point in the war, force it to the negotiating table. James Willbanks — a soldier and historian interviewed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their documentary film on the war — put the point more bluntly when he called Rolling Thunder “the dumbest campaign ever devised by a human being.”
Willbanks’s remark points to one of the familiar subtexts of the commentary on the American war in Vietnam, i.e., how did smart people do such dumb things? I’m not sure that’s the right question. If one looks at the official deliberations surrounding the decisions for large-scale intervention, one might conclude that mistakes of conception are clearer in hindsight. In 1965, only one member of Johnson’s inner circle of advisers, George Ball, opposed the crucial escalation steps. Exaggeration of threats and overreliance on military means have been persistent features of U.S. foreign policy for at least the past seven decades, and in that light the key Vietnam decisions were not aberrations.
That said, much depended on how the conflict was framed. Was it a civil war, or was it a case of one government trying to subvert another? Viewed through a Cold War lens and through the prism of superficially attractive historical analogies, the conflict might have appeared to be a war of aggression, or at least improper interference, by North Vietnam, which is indeed how it appeared to most of Johnson’s advisers.[iii] Viewed through the lens of Vietnam’s history and local circumstances, however, the framing of a civil war made more sense. The question was important because intervention in a civil war would have been harder – although not necessarily impossible — to justify legally, geopolitically, and morally. All the more so given that the U.S. and South Vietnam had blocked the country-wide elections promised in the 1954 Geneva accords.
Once the conflict was defined as a war of aggression by North Vietnam, it was a short step to the conclusion that the North, as part of a supposedly global wave of Communist expansion, could not be allowed to “take over” the South by force. From this perspective, a failure to prevent it would have the gravest implications. “I feel there is a greater threat to start World War III if we don’t go in,” Henry Cabot Lodge declared in July 1965. “Can’t we see the similarity to our own indolence at Munich?”[iv] Certainly not everyone accepted this very flawed analogy, but it exerted a considerable hold on many, including some key policymakers.
Of several recurring questions about the Vietnam War – was it a crime? was it just? was it necessary? – one is: was it ‘winnable’? Once the die had been cast, if President Johnson and his civilian advisers had given General Westmoreland a precise set of strategic objectives, or exercised more oversight and direction of the ground war, would that have made a difference in the end? What if the U.S. had paid more attention earlier to improving the strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese army? What if the U.S. in the Johnson years had used its ground forces against the sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos? A “strategic concept for counterinsurgency” for Vietnam had been drafted in 1962, but it was never implemented moreover, ‘pacification’ efforts worked at cross-purposes with Westmoreland’s approach and its consequences, since it was virtually impossible to win villagers’ “hearts and minds” while displacing them from their homes in large numbers and laying waste to much of the countryside.[v]
So, once the intervention decisions had been made, might a different U.S. strategy have changed the outcome? Or was a relatively weak, corrupt government in South Vietnam, one that never really attained popular legitimacy, doomed to lose against a highly motivated, determined opponent that grasped the nationalist mantle in a country with a long history of fighting foreigners on its soil?
Though I don’t think the war was ‘winnable’, I also think Burns and Novick might have been right to put such questions, and those of the war’s wisdom and morality (or lack thereof), mostly in the background in their film. That’s because positions on the war have become entrenched and tied to a polarized political spectrum. A documentary with a strong thesis probably would not have succeeded in persuading anyone not already convinced of it. It may be more effective to present some facts, intersperse them with engrossing stories told from various individual perspectives, make an effort to outline the relevant contexts, and then let viewers draw their own conclusions. This is not to say the documentary is flawless – it is far from that – but simply to suggest that its basic approach is defensible.
The American war in Vietnam will always generate debate, both among historians and the public at large. With the passage of time, controversy has increasingly centered on how the war is publicly remembered and represented. By the 1980s, it was already clear that, as Paul Kennedy noted, “the memory of this conflict would continue to prey upon the public consciousness….”[vi] Recent exhibits on the war at the New-York Historical Society and the National Archives signal a fresh wave of memorialization, as does the Burns/Novick film.
Moreover, as Roger Peace mentioned in a guest post here last summer, the Defense Department is in the midst of a multi-year congressionally authorized commemoration of the Vietnam War, and that effort has stimulated an organized response by Veterans for Peace and other groups. Of course, debates over collective memory are often ways of carrying on political contests about the event being memorialized. As Daniel Sherman writes in his detailed study of French memorials to the First World War dead, commemoration can be seen “as a struggle or negotiation between competing narratives….”[vii] In the case of the Vietnam War, the contest between competing narratives, at any rate in the U.S., shows few signs of ending a safe wager is that the last word on the war will never be spoken.
[i] Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (Norton pb. ed., 1987), p. 48.
[ii] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell Univ. Press, 1996), p. 176.
[iii] See Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1992).
[iv] Lodge quoted in ibid., pp. 3, 129. President Truman earlier used the Munich analogy in connection with the Korean War.
[v] See Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention, pp. 66ff. Cf. Larry H. Addington, America’s War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History (Indiana Univ. Press, 2000), ch. 9. For the case that atrocities against Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers were routine, see, e.g., Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves (Henry Holt & Co., 2013).
[vi] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987), pg. 404.
[vii] Daniel J. Sherman, The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 69.