America Launches Operation Rolling Thunder
Starting 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 guerilla 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 defoliants to eliminate jungle cover.
President Lyndon Johnson (1908-73) 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.
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, the president and his advisors hoped to boost morale in South Vietnam while destroying the Communists’ will to fight.
Operation Rolling Thunder: U.S. Involvement Expands
The Operation Rolling Thunder campaign gradually expanded in both range and intensity. At first, the air strikes 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.
Operation Rolling Thunder Fails to Achieve Its Goals
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.