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WASHINGTON'S MANAGEMENT OF THE ROLLING THUNDER CAMPAIGN
by
Dr. Mark Jacobsen
Naval Historical Center

Rolling Thunder began in March 1965 and ended in October 1968. During this time, American aircraft dropped more than a million tons of ordnance, more than on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The tactical commanders wore uniforms, but the overall commander did not, because he was the commander in chief himself, Lyndon Johnson. Unlike more recent Presidents, who delegated tactical military decisions to the service commanders involved, Lyndon Johnson kept the reins of power firmly in his own grip. You may recall his boast that the Air Force couldn't bomb an outhouse in Vietnam without his say so.

In company with a handful of civilian advisers and cabinet members who lunched together almost every Tuesday and talked over national security affairs, Johnson determined not only which targets would be struck but the weight of effort of the total air war. Over this meal in the family quarters of the White House, he and his official family hashed over the issues and came up with a consensus on how the air war should be managed. The lunch group consisted of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and his successor Walt Rostow, and his Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, and then his successor, George Christian. After 1966, at Rostow's instigation, the lunch group expanded to include CIA Director Richard Helms and the Chairman of the Joint chiefs, Army General Earle Wheeler, the first and only member of the JCS to sit in on these meetings.

McNamara or Wheeler conveyed the decisions of the Tuesday lunches to the Joint Staff, which passed the execute orders to the Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) at Pearl Harbor. In turn, CINCPAC, a joint commander, distributed the execute orders to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and the Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Force. In turn, these service commands informed the relevant tactical commanders, the Seventh Fleet and the 2nd Air Division (later 7th Air Force). And down it went to the airmen.

The process by which the military made known its wishes operated in reverse, with CINCPAC coordinating requests for targets, sending a recommended list of targets and sorties required to the JCS, who in turn proposed this to Secretary McNamara, who in turn sought the approval of the Tuesday Lunch Group. We have the testimony of Admiral David McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations for the period, that the Joint Chiefs frequently scaled down CINCPAC's requests to minimize friction with the administration. In practice, the lengthy chain of command did not work well. A 1975 Navy study of Intelligence Lessons Learned in Vietnam, now declassified, observed:

Target lists issued by CINCPAC and JCS did not include those targets for which targeting materials had been produced [by tactical commanders]. Other [approved] targets were included that had been rejected on the scene. The lists [of approved targets) also included targets unknown to the strike forces that had been developed in Washington from photography and other sources not available to fleet intelligence.

Mechanics aside, I want to spend the remainder of the available time to examine to what ends Washington guided the bombing of North Vietnam.

Coercive Diplomacy

I want to make one fundamental point at the outset. When the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam in February 1965, it was not trying to smash North Vietnam through air power. Neither was it seeking merely to interdict the movement of supplies through North Vietnam and Laos into South Vietnam. Rather, the purpose of Rolling Thunder was to signal North Vietnam that the United States was serious about resisting Hanoi's sponsorship of the Viet Cong in the South. The general belief was that the mere use of American air power would convey this resolution unambiguously.

President Johnson and his advisers also tried to demonstrate American concern not to destroy North Vietnam itself or to endanger the lives of innocent civilians. In addition, the management of the bombing campaign aimed throughout to appeal to the court of world and national opinion. For example, at first, the choice of targets for bombing reflected a determination to strike back tit-for-tat at North Vietnam. The reprisal targets after the mortaring of the Green Beret base at Pleiku in South Vietnam were barracks in southern North Vietnam. The decision a few weeks later to strike at North Vietnamese railroads stemmed not from a determination to destroy the enemy's transportation system but to counter a wave of bombs laid along the Saigon to Hue railroad. For a time, the American Embassy in Saigon kept a book on all terrorist incidents in the South so that these episodes could be trotted out not only to justify but to select reprisal targets in North Vietnam.

Thereafter, the United States struck targets further north and of greater political sensitivity, including the North Vietnamese oil and fuel storage system in 1966. In 1967, Rolling Thunder began to strike selected targets in Hanoi and Haiphong, notably North Vietnam's power plants but also key bridges. The United States also now struck MiG-capable airfields. It's been a temptation for military writers, such as Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC in these years, to see in this trend the slow success of their powers of advocacy. The JCS themselves seemed to think that by this gradualistic approach of their own, by repeating their initial demands often enough, slowly but surely the full weight of American air power was unleashed over the North. Thus, they at last brought the White House to accept the correct approach.

I'm not so sure. To me, the guiding idea behind Rolling Thunder in 1965 and 1966 was a "slow squeeze," a program of steadily increasing pressures that would increasingly bend and finally break the will of North Vietnam to continue its war against South Vietnam. A key element in this supposedly carefully controlled air warfare was the notion that the United States could always at some unspecified time in the future strike harder than it had. That is, certain key targets would remain unstruck, rather in the way that the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was off limits to bombing during the Second World War. With each week, it was thought, the North Vietnamese would realize that certain high-prestige targets were purposely left unstruck. For example, its showcase heavy industries remained off limits for the first two years, so that North Vietnam would have an incentive to negotiate.

The very gradualism of it all, so widely condemned then and since by military men, was thought not only to be a more effective but a safer means of signaling North Vietnam than simply bombing all militarily significant targets in one short burst. The gradual approach preserved control and minimized the chances of confrontation with China, the USSR, and NATO allies who continued to trade with North Vietnam. The difficulty that the United States faced throughout Rolling Thunder was that the most lucrative targets, the ones that had the potential truly to bring home to North Vietnam the error of its ways, were those that carried with them the highest risks of triggering a confrontation with either or both of North Vietnam's patrons --China and the Soviet Union.

Everyone in the Johnson Administration, as well as regulars at these seminars, remembered what had happened when U.S. troops got too near the Manchurian border in 1950. And the Communist Chinese in 1965 did threaten to intervene both publicly and through diplomatic channels. In addition, the Johnson Administration believed that the United States, in fighting North Vietnam, was really fighting Red China, but no one wanted literally to go to war with China. Consequently, bombing was carefully regulated to insure that China did not feel threatened, and this meant avoiding airfields that held Communist bloc-supplied MiGs. In effect, this decision surrendered control of the air, but it avoided bombing that might appear to threaten the existence of North Vietnam and hence provoke Chinese intervention and sour relations with the USSR. Thus, throughout the war bombing was largely prohibited in zones encircling Hanoi and Haiphong and along the Chinese border to a depth of 25 to 30 nautical miles.

If we can jump ahead slightly in time, we can see how the administration's understanding of America's relations with the Soviet Union and China helped guide Rolling Thunder. After 1965, CINCPAC steadily advocated mining Haiphong, North Vietnam's main port, and systematically interdicting the two railroads from southern China to cut North Vietnam off from foreign supply. President Johnson turned down both ideas. During 1965 and 1966, he feared that bombing these railroads might trigger Chinese intervention. Not until 1967, when it was apparent that the Cultural Revolution would prevent the Chinese from mobilizing for war, did he permit Air Force and Navy aircraft to strike these two lines. He found it much harder to cut of f North Vietnam's supplies via Haiphong. The administration thought that mining Haiphong would impair détente with the USSR, a more powerful fear in that it existed only in the minds of policy makers. How it could be that the USSR, which supplied North Vietnam with surface-to-air missiles and with the trucks and munitions that sustained the war in the South, could be a valued friend of peace, a possible via media for ending the war, is a question I leave to you. For President Johnson, the reason not to bomb Haiphong was that to curtail Soviet supply was to diminish Soviet influence in the councils of North Vietnam and thereby to increase that of China, a nation with whom no reasoned discourse was possible. Thus, he could accept the desirability in 1967 of bombing the northwest and northeast railroads but not approve the sealing of Haiphong except through the inefficient and costly bombing of heavily defended land lines of communications.

Initially, Rolling Thunder was limited both geographically and qualitatively. Geographically, the bombing was limited at first to targets south of the 18th parallel. Then, it began to move northwards, a parallel of latitude further north every month. The State Department seems to have originated in the fall of 1964 the approach of moving the bombing slowly north, parallel by parallel, in order more effectively to signal North Vietnam. If North Vietnam failed to heed the warning, then the bombing would proceed further north until at last Haiphong and Hanoi felt the full weight of American air attack.

Similarly, bombing intensified qualitatively. As the bombing crept north, the weight of effort remained south of a specified parallel, but occasional targets north of it were still hit, to impress upon North Vietnam the threat that the United States kept in its pocket. Rolling Thunder was not a strategic bombing offensive any more than it was an effort to paralyze the North Vietnamese war effort by systematically destroying certain key sectors of its economy, the way in which the German economy was struck in 1944 and 1945. Rather, the guiding impulse of Rolling Thunder derived from nuclear targeting, at least as theorized by various civilian analysts and as understood by the second-level personnel who framed the options for President Johnson. The Bundy brothers, McGeorge and William; John McNaughton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, to whom McNamara delegated primary responsibility for bombing policy; Walt Rostow; and others had drunk deeply from this well. In the contemporary writings of such as Herman Kahn or Thomas Schelling, who thought about the unthinkable, targets in a protracted nuclear war could be carefully chosen not so much to "win" the war but to signal resolve while avoiding a "nuclear spasm" and a sort of "On the Beach" war-termination scenario. Military targets could be carefully distinguished from civilian targets and the scope of the deadly conflict thereby limited. So the theorists believed. So thought the civilian policy makers who told LBJ what his choices were. Luckily, we don't know whether Kahn's views about the controllability of nuclear exchanges were correct or not. We do know the results of Rolling Thunder.

The July Crisis

The attraction of Rolling Thunder as approved in February 1965 was that it could be implemented quickly, thanks primarily to the presence of three aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, and it stood a chance of achieving results in the very short term. Of course, as we know, Rolling Thunder did not halt the deterioration in the fortunes of South Vietnam. Contrary to the hopes of Washington, the North Vietnamese leaders were not unnerved by the awesome spectacle of American air power deployed over their cities and countryside.

Thus, Rolling Thunder was quickly seen in Washington to have failed, and something else was tried. The Johnson administration always saw the air war over the North and the ground war in the South as antithetical. The question then became -- If Rolling Thunder couldn't quickly stabilize the situation, what could? The only possible answer at this time was the commitment of sizeable American ground forces. Again, the emphasis was on obtaining quick, decisive results. Because the criteria was speed of decision, Johnson rushed ground forces into South Vietnam and relegated the air war to a secondary role, increasingly that of a bargaining counter that could be surrendered in exchange for North Vietnam's agreement to negotiate.

Armed Reconnaissance

The secondary role chosen for air power was to interdict the movement of North Vietnamese men and material into the South through "armed reconnaissance" missions. Armed reconnaissance means sorties flown not against designated targets but against targets of opportunity (these were carefully specified, of course) along a particular stretch of enemy highway, railroad, or coast or within a given area. By late 1965, Rolling Thunder was an armed recce program.

We can track how Rolling Thunder grew. Initially, in March 1965, American flyers were permitted to fly only three armed recce sorties along specific roads south of the 20th parallel. By May, the Navy and Air Force were flying 200 a week and were reaching north of the 20th parallel. In June, it was 250, and aviators were flying everywhere over North Vietnam except the Red River Delta. After the July decisions on expanding the ground forces in South Vietnam, armed recce increased to 300 sorties a week. By September, it was 600. Armed reconnaissance won support because it was relatively cheap in lives (American and Vietnamese), in aircraft, and in terms of international opinion. By year's end, 70 percent of sorties were armed recce.

In March 1966, the President approved a total of 8,100 sorties monthly for both Laos and North Vietnam -- to be divided between attacks on a handful of fixed targets approved and armed recce. By November, the sortie total had grown to 13,200. As a result, in 1966, armed recce grew to more than 99 percent of all Rolling Thunder and Laotian sorties. In February 1967, President Johnson rejected ambitious proposals from CINCPAC for bombing North Vietnamese target systems but instead awarded 14,500 sorties. And then he rested.

The Capitol Hill Style of Decision-making

Johnson seldom asked the advice of the military, but he knew their views. Just as fear of international repercussions worked to moderate the use of military power in Vietnam, so fear of domestic repercussions pushed Johnson towards utilizing the air weapon, which appeared to the public to offer more decisive results at less cost in American lives than did the ground war. A product of post-1945 America, Johnson believed that the services were immensely popular throughout the country. Throughout the conflict, Johnson worried that the Joint Chiefs and General Westmoreland might go public with their discontent. In terms of congress, he feared a backlash from conservative southern committee chairmen, who could bottle up the domestic legislation upon whose success Johnson had pinned his hopes for political immortality.

Johnson's leadership was nurtured on Capitol Hill, where competing interests are balanced against one another and the solution most acceptable to the most senators is selected and a decision thereby reached. Perhaps the decision does not satisfy everyone, but those on Capitol Hill live in an imperfect world and know it well. In the fashion of the Capitol Hill power broker that he had been, Johnson the President identified parties with an interest in the air war -- the Chiefs, the Army, NATO allies, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, international opinion, the UN, and so forth. Throughout, he strove to preserve relations with as many of the players as possible. He chose the policy options that kept the military "on board" while paying the least domestic and international cost -- and this was armed reconnaissance.

What I want to argue is that, although President Johnson was very cautious in approving strikes at controversial fixed targets, he feared being accused of not using air power to the maximum possible. Thus, he continued to turn down targets and target systems that posed unacceptable risks, but to avoid the danger of the U.S. military going public with its discontent, he steadily awarded more and more armed reconnaissance sorties.

Why didn't the bombing work in 1965?

1) The United States gave mixed signals. At the same time as it threatened North Vietnam with worse, it proclaimed its willingness to negotiate at any time, at any place. What was Hanoi to make of the mailed fist of the 2nd Air Division and the Seventh Fleet when the United States proclaimed that it wanted to negotiate an end to the war? Of course, making war while negotiating was the essence of coercive diplomacy, but the subtleties of the process were apt to be lost on the enemy as well as on domestic opinion.

2) The Johnson Administration radically misjudged the nature of North Vietnam. North Vietnam was and Vietnam today is a state organized solely for warfare and internal control. It had no industrial plant whose destruction would have made its rulers change their minds. No civilian privations would sway its rulers. The American administration thought that merely bombing North Vietnam would so overawe Ho Chi Minh and his associates that they would recognize what folly they were engaged in. Instead, they redoubled their efforts.

Why didn't the bombing work after 1965?

Both the military and civilian leadership of the United States misjudged the vulnerability of North Vietnam to war damage. Its war effort was not sustained by its domestic industry; rather the war industries of Russia and China kept it going, and so long as supply from overseas was ensured, the population of North Vietnam could bear any burden to continue its war. For fighting a "People's War," either as soldiers in the South, AAA gunners in the North, or, most of all, coolies repairing roads and transporting material south, the people of North Vietnam sustained the war effort. But they were off limits. So was crop destruction through the breaching of North Vietnam's dikes.

The thought I want to leave with you is this: as executed, Rolling Thunder amounted to a massive and sustained armed reconnaissance program. The tremendous tonnage figures I quoted at the outset have little meaning and less effect. The North Vietnamese adapted. They moved at night, too, and pressed on. Apart from the famous A-6 Intruder, the United States had no night bombers, and they were reserved for strikes at more important fixed targets. Most U.S. aircraft flew only during the day, so most pilots found nothing worth bombing. Neither are jets best suited to drop small bombs with pinpoint accuracy. It's no surprise to learn that the CIA calculated in late 1966 that it was costing $8.70 to inflict a dollar's worth of damage on the North Vietnamese war effort. Armed reconnaissance kept the numbers up. It delivered the ordnance, racked up the sortie rates and flying hours, but it did not contribute significantly either to the ground war in the South or to persuading North Vietnam. Given the political considerations that were uppermost in the minds of President Johnson and his advisers, it's unlikely that any application of air power would have worked.


11 July 2003