Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder was a frequently interrupted bombing campaign that began on 24 February 1965 and lasted until the end of October 1968, the longest aerial-bombardment campaign in the history of American air power. During this period US Air Force and Navy aircraft engaged in a bombing campaign designed to force Ho Chi Minh to abandon his ambition to take over South Vietnam. The operation began primarily as a diplomatic signal to impress Hanoi with America's determination, essentially a warning that the violence would escalate until Ho Chi Minh "blinked," and secondly it was intended to bolster the sagging morale of the South Vietnamese. The Johnson administration also imposed strict limits on the targets that could be attacked, for China and the Soviet Union were seen as defenders of communism who might intervene if the North Vietnamese faced defeat. Consequently, the administration tried to punish the North without provoking the two nations believed to be its protectors.
By the beginning of 1965, the situation in South Vietnam was rapidly reaching crisis proportions. The three basic choices available to the United States were not particularly palatable. The United States could continue with a role essentially limited to aid and advisory action and risk humiliation if the situation continued to deteriorate and South Vietnamese resistance collapsed. Alternatively, the United States could recognize that the situation was irretrievable and cease to support the South Vietnamese. Such a “cut-and-run" strategy, many believed, might cast other American collective defense commitments in doubt and undermine important alliance arrangements. Finally, the United States could become more deeply involved and bring its military might to bear against the enemy to salvage the situation.
Air power seemed to offer a middle ground between continuation of the aid of advisory effort on the one hand and full-scale military involvement on the other hand. Using air power against North Vietnam would bring the war home to the North Vietnamese, would strike closer to the heart of the problem, and yet would avoid the bane of all Western military experts — involvement in a land war on the Asian continent. Air power seemed to offer the possibility of war at arm’s length and on the cheap, although most policymakers realized that the use of air power would be cheap only by comparison with a manpower intensive land war.
A campaign of graduated pressure intended to signal “resolve" to the North Vietnamese, Rolling Thunder failed to persuade the North Vietnamese and it failed to destroy their ability to prosecute their war in South Vietnam. In the view of the Air Force leadership, the campaign had no clear-cut objective nor did its authors have any real estimate of the cost of lives and aircraft. General LeMay and others argued that military targets, rather than the enemy's resolve, should be attacked and that the blows should be rapid and sharp, with the impact felt immediately on the battlefield as well as by the political leadership in Hanoi.
The failure of the American military to develop an air power doctrine consistent with the constraints that cannot be avoided in wars fought for limited objectives precipitated the crippling clash between doctrine and perceptions. As a result, air power was unwillingly tasked to perform a mission for which it was ill-equipped and doctrinally unprepared.
When Rolling Thunder failed to weaken the enemy's will after the first several weeks, the purpose of the campaign began to change. By the end of 1965, the Johnson administration still used air power as an attempt to change North Vietnamese policy, but bombing tended to be directed against the flow of men and supplies from the North, thus damaging the enemy militarily while warning him of the danger of greater destruction if he maintained the present aggressive course.
To persuade the North Vietnamese to negotiate, President Johnson restricted the bombing of North Vietnam to the southern part of the country on 31 March 1968, in effect, bringing Operation Rolling Thunder to an end. Preliminary discussions began in Paris in May but bogged down over trivial issues. In November, Johnson made another concession, ending the bombing throughout the north, and serious negotiations began in January 1969.
Some have argued that had air power been “turned loose" in 1965 as it was in 1972 during the Linebacker campaigns, the conflict could have been brought quickly to an end. This line of reasoning may is a red herring, as there were significant differences in the situation. By 1972, the conflict had the familiar trappings of a conventional war involving large numbers of North Vietamese regular army units brandishing the implements of mechanized warfare, all demanding considerable logistical support from North Vietnam, and all presenting attractive targets for air power. In 1965, by contrast, direct North Vietnamese involvement in the South was much more limited and the indigenous Viet Cong comprised the bulk of the hostile forces (and would continue to do so until the Tet Offensive in 1968).
The United States had structured, trained, and equipped its air power to prosecute major, unlimited wars against industrialized enemies and to do so by relying on nuclear weapons. The doctrine began to shift in the early 1960s, but not to a significant degree and not to the degree at which the fundamental assumptions were seriously challenged. As a result, the military had few air power alternatives to offer in Vietnam except those based on their existing doctrine, and those alternatives were politically unacceptable.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list