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 Communists 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, for instance, and also 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.
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 air fields, 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 Nixon (1913-94), 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.