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Vietnam War - Air Campaign

The first of several inquiries into the feasibility of going big in Vietnam began in January 1964. This was a high-level interagency, supersecret evaluation of a thesis championed by Walt Rostow, at the time head of State's Policy Planning Staff, that systematic US bombing of the DRV would "convince the North Vietnamese that it was in their economic self-interest to desist from aggression in South Vietnam."

In mid-1964, JCS wargame Sigma I-64, played by working-level CIA, State, and military officers, ended with the United States hung up when the bombing strategy did not work. In this wargame, the United States progressively escalated but then came to a dead-end dilemma. Its options had narrowed to either seeking a military decision by significantly expanding hostilities against the DRV, at a believed risk of war with China, or beginning the process of de-escalation at a believed cost of lowered US credibility and prestige. By the wargame's theoretical end, 1970, the US had 500,000 troops in Vietnam but was still faced with a stalemate and with draft riots at home. This game's successor, Sigma-II-64, which was played in mid-September 1964 by command-rank officers. Like Sigma-I, Sigma-II came to a similarly doleful ending.

The NSC Working Group on Vietnam [Section I: Intelligence Assessment: The Situation in Vietnam, 24 November 1964, Pentagon Papers (Gravel ed.), Volume III, pp. 654, 655], an NSC-commissioned panel of CIA, State, and Pentagon intelligence officers took a skeptical view of going North. They held (1) that Hanoi's leaders appeared to believe that the difficulties facing the United States were so great that US will and ability to maintain resistance could be gradually eroded; (2) that because North Vietnam's economy was overwhelmingly agricultural and to a large extent decentralized in a myriad of more or less economically self-sufficient villages, airstrikes would not have a crucial effect on the daily lives of the almost all of North Vietnam's population; (3) that air attacks on industrial targets would not exacerbate existing economic difficulties to the point of creating unmanageable control problems; and, therefore, (4) that North Vietnam "would probably be willing to suffer some damage to the country in the course of a test of wills with the US over the course of events in South Vietnam."

Those most confident that bombing the North would significantly assist the war effort included Dean Rusk, MACV chief Westmoreland, former President Eisenhower, Walt Rostow, and McGeorge Bundy. Of those who disagreed with the solution of moderate, graduated bombing, one of the most forceful was DCI John McCone. In McCone's view, for maximum shock effect we should hit the North extremely hard at the outset. Without this, he held, committing US ground forces in the South would end up becoming "mired down in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win, and from which we will have extreme difficulty in extricating ourselves."

Air Force and Marine Corps leaders firmly believed that an all-out air offensive would compel Hanoi to cease and desist in its efforts to take over South Vietnam but the US Army did not share this view. In September 1964 Gen. Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff, argued that the rationale for airstrikes was gravely flawed, and that a growing body of evidence showed "the VC insurgency in the RVN could continue for a long time at its present or an increased intensity even if North Vietnam were completely destroyed." In March 1965 General Johnson shocked President Johnson by telling him that it would probably take 500,000 US troops five years to win the war.

While the civilians were concentrating on the use of airpower to demonstrate resolve, send diplomatic signals, and influence North Vietnamese will, the military had a different perspective. The cigar-chewing chief of staff of the US Air Force, Gen Curtis LeMay, would write, "My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."

Douglas Pike, probably the leading authority in the West on the mind and mood of North Vietnam, believes that the North Vietnamese were truly shocked by Linebacker II [B-52 raids in 1972] and has written: "Had a similar campaign of all-out bombing been made in early 1965" (when General LeMay and Gen John P. McConnell began calling for it), Lyndon Johnson probably could have achieved his goal of "moving Hanoi's forces out of South Vietnam." Pike argues that although Hanoi would have maintained its objective of unifying Vietnam (just as Kim Il Sung retained his goal of "reunifying" North and South Korea), Ho would have had to reassess the wisdom of seeking that goal through violence. The Korean paradigm is informative in other ways. Massive bombing in the spring of 1953, on a scale never before experienced by the North Koreans, forced a long truce-one that continues to this day-and has allowed the people governed from Seoul to prosper. But such was not to be the case in Vietnam.

In 1965, US air strikes were ordered against North Vietnam. By late 1965, such air strikes became part and parcel to daily activities of those stationed in Vietnam. In December 1965 the United States halted air attacks against North Vietnam. Again, it invited the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the fighting. And again, the North refused. Ho Chi Minh's conditions for peace were firm. He demanded an end to the bombing and a complete American withdrawal. Withdrawal would mean defeat for the South. It would mean that all of Vietnam would become Communist. President Johnson would not accept these terms. So he offered his own proposals. The most important was an immediate cease-fire. Neither side would compromise, however. And the fighting went on.

In 1966 President Johnson renewed the bombing attacks in North Vietnam. He also increased the number of American troops in south Vietnam. He condemned those who opposed his policies. He said: "The American people will stand united until every soldier is brought home safely. They will stand united until the people of south Vietnam can choose their own government."

But US forces were not permitted to attack some targets for fear of Chinese retaliation. The perceived danger from Communist China influenced President Johnson's choice of means for ensuring the survival of a South Vietnam independent of the North. In 1950, when United Nations forces threatened to overrun North Korea, China had come to the aid of its Communist neighbor. As the Vietnam War intensified in 1965 and 1966, so, too, did the Chinese commitment to the survival of North Vietnam. By the spring of the latter year, some 50,000 Chinese troops served in North Vietnam, a total that may have tripled before China began to withdraw its forces in 1968.

Until President Johnson limited ROLLING THUNDER to southern North Vietnam, effective April 1, 1968, China gave refuge to North Vietnamese fighters when airfields in the North came under aerial attack, and reports surfaced of Chinese pilots flying North Vietnamese interceptors. During this period of involvement, China made no secret of its sympathy for the Hanoi government; prudence therefore required that the Johnson administration consider the possibility of further Chinese intervention. Concern that China might react as it had fifteen years earlier in Korea argued powerfully for relying on air power rather than invasion to convince Hanoi to call off the war in the South. Having turned to air power, the Johnson administration chose to apply it in a gradually escalating fashion. President John F. Kennedy's recent success in compelling the Soviet Union to with draw bombers and ballistic missiles from Cuba bred confidence in the gradual application of force.

The individual services, for the most part, controlled their own air arms. The Army maintained control of its large helicopter fleet as organic air assets. Marines followed their traditional organizational path of assigning an Air Wing to each Marine division. The Navy maintained complete control of its air assets and Admiral Sharp, as Commander in Chief of Pacific Command (CINCPAC), implemented the Route Pack system for all air operations over North Vietnam. General Clay, the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) commander, was assigned coordinating authority for deconflicting air operations, but he felt that the existing command arrangements (route packaging and assigning the air component only coordinating authority) did not provide a sound means to control the overall air effort.

The Route Pack system divided responsibility within North Vietnam into seven different geographic areas, with the Air Force and the Navy each receiving responsibility for portions of the route packs. Commander in Chief of Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), the naval component of Pacific Command (PACOM), maintained control of carrier air assets. Even within the Air Force there was no single air commander. Seventh Air Force was responsible for Air Force air operations in Vietnam, while Thirteenth Air Force was responsible for Thailand, and Strategic Air Command (SAC) never relinquished command or control of its B-52 bombers.

The targeting process further complicated this patchwork of responsibility. Targets were selected in Washington by a small team on the joint staff and approved only at the presidential level. The result was a major misuse of air power. Air power application came to be simply the servicing of targets, with little regard for whether or not they were the "right" targets, and without an air campaign plan. Service parochialism dominated the air effort. Lacking a single responsible air commander, a clear set of objectives, and a common concept of operations, even the most skilled operations of the separate components tended to work at cross-purposes and give respite to the enemy.

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