#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

Ross Mahoney's picture

In the first article in our #AirWarVietnam series, Dr Michael Hankins provides an overview of the historiography of the air war in his article '#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam.' You can find the article here:- https://balloonstodrones.com/2019/05/01/airwarvietnam-contested-skies-a-brief-guide-to-the-historiography-of-the-air-war-in-vietnam/

If you would like to contribute to our series of articles on the air war over Vietnam, then please see the call for submission here:- https://balloonstodrones.com/2019/02/05/call-for-submissions-air-war-vietnam/


Dr Ross Mahoney

Editor, From Balloons to Drones

Am beginning to wonder if there is any point to arguing for a particular position since it is unlikely not only will any minds be changed by such but assertion of such leads to further divides such as those already known to be. Example, no more aggressive air war would have brought about victory in Vietnam without the ability of So. Vietnam's military and govt. to exercise authority and rule over So. Vietnam as a viable , independent nation. That observation is more than affirmed by the subsequent collapse of So. Vietnam after Vietnamization had taken place. The South's ability to stand up against their Northern opponent was simply not a historical nor practical truth. A 50 or 100 years war in S E Asia with US aircover alone would not have changed this reality given the demands of Democracy as political truth.

Given that Vietnamization in fact worked, as demonstrated by the repulse of the Easter Invasion, the distribution of hundreds of thousands of weapons to the RF/PF forces and their eventual effectiveness in combating the remaining VC/NVA attacks, it is a very reasonable argument that a continued US commitment to the survival of RVN, with both ample supplies and the promise of air power in the case of invasions, would have eventually led to the "Korean" solution. However, we know from both the Hanoi records and the testimony of others like Bui Tin that Hanoi and Moscow watched closely the burgeoning antiwar movement in the USA. Once it was clear that the support was no longer there, Le Duan said in a famous speech that "the Americans will not come back now, even if we offer them candy". Russia resupplied the North with far more resources than we ever gave RVN, while the resources of the South deteriorated, and the end was inevitable.
Could the South govern itself? Prior to the Fall of Saigon there were well over dozen newspapers being printed, with lots of debate and criticism of the government, with a lot more freedom than existed in the North or anywhere else since the Fall. The economy was a mess, but if the war had ever simmered down that could have improved.
Examine the situation in South Korea before, during, and after the war there. A very imperfect government, an horrendous mess by war's end, and a slow rebuilding and evolution of a more honest and effective democratic government. Free societies with free press can improve, totalitarian states cannot. Today Viet Nam is run by a tiny elite, infamously corrupt, with no concern for civil rights, nor the environment, working conditions, etc.
The bottom line is that Russia was a much better, committed ally to the North than we were to the South, and the leaders of the North had no trouble sacrificing half a generation of their young men to serve their communist agenda.

Arguing "positions" is one thing, but if one's position is really an analytical postulation about what worked and what didn't work, I think there's nothing lost in venturing "once more into the breach, dear friends."

I think there are a few things that are worth postulating about the penultimate phase of the Vietnam War. US tactical airpower applied on a massive scale did enable the ARVN to hold the line, despite giving some ground. Also, Linebacker was a well-executed strategic air campaign that achieved coercive results. By the end of 1972 the North Vietnamese leadership knew the "Easter Offensive had failed and their homeland infrastructure was methodically being shredded. As historian Ronald Spector concluded in his book After Tet, the Hanoi Politburo surely realized that they had to get the US out of the war at any price. So, we had our "Peace with Honor." President Nixon famously promised the President of South Vietnam that the US would reengage with airpower if Hanoi violated the Paris Accords. However, Watergate rapidly ensured that he could not keep that promise.

What US airpower could not do was successfully interdict the NVA's most crucial and robust LOC -- the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The NVA field engineers defied US air supremacy and won a long, hard-fought, and ultimately decisive victory in eastern Laos, and I'm not sure this campaign has been adequately studied, or the NVA victory given sufficient recognition.

If I am wrong about this, I know you guys will set me straight.

Dear Ralph,

Would agree you have some of it right and have missed some of it, the history and of course, arguing about what the history is and is not; that was the observation about arguments. They are based upon the differing analysis that have been given to explain the history of Vietnam; most likely, a general condition about almost all else as well.

You are not wrong, just incomplete in the analysis of this history and what it turned upon as the outcome for all. Best to yourself and all. That arguably is the history.

having said that, your specific about the early success in air war, after withdrawal leaves open two salient important matters. First, your quite correct airpower was insufficient to overcome and knock out the Ho Chi Minh Trail thru Laos, etc. In very important ways, this Trail proved the key to the North's success during the entire Vietnam war history, not just at the last under Vietnamization, while also proving the North's commitment to ending their 1954 partition in the favor of the Communist desire to defeat western democracy.

Second, and more to the point, Nixon's Watergate should not have stood in the way of any US pledges after Vietnamization. VP Ford's elevation to the Presidency could have continued the air war quite easily but he choose not to do this. Question is why not ? Submit the answer is still the same a nation divided by the war itself would not tolerate any further US participation and efforts. In this sense, history had turned against the western democracies under US leadership, for domestic and other reasons. Ford wisely did not attempt to prolong the shredding of US civil and governmental life.

Wyatt & Ralph, Was not Rolling Thunder and the so-called Air War in general a campaign of indiscriminate bombing in violation of the law of war ? One would think on reflection of WWII's firebombing of civilian populations that the Air Force Brass would have learned something

Walter McIntosh
Bluff , New Zealand
former Chief Vietnam Operations , CIA

Wyatt, I'm glad to see someone else agree with me about the strategic importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the prolonged logistical campaign waged by the NVA that we were never able to successfully counter. Air supremacy and advanced technology availed us nothing in this campaign, which is why I so often find my mind turning to Harry Summers' "Gordian knot" solution. That this strategy (also examined by others during the war) has been so emphatically rejected by most historians as well as many of my fellow veterans has never completely extinguished my wistful interest in the possibility of a fortified line from the South China Sea to the Mekong River. There it is, as we used to say.

But, Wyatt, I do think your argument that "Nixon's Watergate should not have stood in the way of any US pledges after Vietnamization" and the notion that President Ford could have resumed the air war "quite easily" is mistaken, and may follow the general trend of Vietnam War scholars in trivializing the impact of Watergate. I see that scandal as a "body blow" to the US political system -- the executive branch in particular -- from which it took many years to recover. And even before Nixon resigned, Congress had powerfully asserted itself in a direction that effectively precluded any resumption of America's role in Vietnam. The War Powers Act and the drastic cuts in military aid to the Saigon regime made that clear, and Gerald Ford was not the politician that Richard Nixon was, pre-Watergate.

Am thinking Mr. Del Vecchio has made my previous point for me. Once Nixon declared the US was leaving So. Vietnam and the boming of North Vietnam commenced as a screen for withdrawal of the final 3 divisions troops in So. Vietnam, it was probably unlikely the US would even bother to be at the Paris Peace talks, leaving the North to talk only directly to the South. Hence no agreement would have been possible for North Vietnam with the US.

Anti-war movement ws tearing the US aprat internally and Nixon was aware enough to realize this outcome; recognizing ending US phase to participation in So. Vietnam would reap substantial political benefits[Clausewitz; war is politicsl by other means]. In any event the US participation was over.

Also, the US simply abandoned 12 Billions worth of military equipment in Vietnam. The reason for walking away from this equipment was introduction into the US operating inventories of new equipment, more modern and of the next generation surpassing the outmoded Vietnam era supply.

So. Vietnam may have sustained some early success but did not have the economy nor means to sustain their supposed country. As Mr. Del Vecchio notes "if" the war, which was not an option so long as South Viet could not defeat the North. Communist allies in Vietnam was no longer a US concern.

Democracies always face the dilemma of how much blood and treasure to sacrifice for freedom; Vietnam was no exception.

[Historical note: photos is USS New Jersey, BB-62, America's last Battleship, firing salvo, am fairly certain against North Vietnam after its entry into the war effort. Only other exception was the Missouri in Kuwait Gulf war. New Jersey is today a Naval public museum at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in Penns.]

Ralph , I agree with the strategic importance of the Ho Chi Minh trail , But in my opinion bombing was never the answer. As part of the 1954 cease fire agreement if the USA and perhaps others had taken the responsibility to prevent infiltration from North Vietnam , and had left domestic terrorism issues to the South Vietnamese government USA and South Vietnam would have had a much better outcome, The war , from the American point of view was essentially lost the minute Henry Cabot Lodge engineered the murder of the President of South Vietnam and his family.
Walter McIntosh
Bluff, New Zealand

Ralph, the War Powers Act was not the crucial issue; that act had some wiggle room in it. What was relevant was an entirely separate law passed a few months before the War Powers Act. Congress passed that one at the end of June 1973, and it went into effect August 15. It clearly and flatly forbade military operations , including air operations, in or over Indochina.

A strong president might have been able to get away with violating that law, but Ford was very weak. Nixon had picked him as vice president, after Agnew resigned in disgrace. Then Nixon resigned in disgrace, and Ford replaced him without having been elected by the people even as vice president. He did not hav the clout to get away with violating the law that forbade a resumption of bombing, and he did not have the clout to prevent Congress from cutting US military aid for Saigon down to a level comparable to the level of Chinese and Soviet military aid for Hanoi.

The charge of "indiscriminate" and "carpet" bombing has been heard numeous times in discussions of the war. The simplest answers are first, the tremendous controls that Johnson and MacNamara put on bombing, down to the selection of specific targest and putting other targets off limits (e.g., the dike system of the North), all of which has been testified to widely by the pilots: and secondly, the statistics of the massive Christmas bombings, during which something like 3X the tonnage dropped on Dresden was dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong. By the figures released from Hanoi, the total civilian casualties were about 1500, compared to well over 30,000 in Dresden. French journalists touring Hanoi later that month were impressed by the lack of widespread damage in the city, due to the very precise bombing.
At times various villages in the North were hit badly, mostly due to being near AA installations. Had the US forces really dropped those tonnages of bombs delberately on population centers, the world would have heard about it and the toll would have been many hundreds of thousands of dead, as it was from conventional bombing of Japan. But that was not the case. There are no pictures of bombed out cities in the North, as there were in Germany and Japan. The evidence is simply not there, yet the myth survives.

Well absolutely go with your description of Congress; the daily debates and anti-war wing of Congress reasserted a 'presence' in policy long neglected and the struggle between Legislative and Executive power. There is an entire book possible just on this subject alone.

But am still holding to the deepness of divisions within the body politic as determining influence; Nixon, the Republican was for withdrawal from Vietnam and ending the war. Not only did he win election based upon this policy but he delivered, however slowly, an extremely badly needed remedy to what had happened in domestic affairs of the US which was a vital act of Statesmanship. Its expression found many outlets which am not going to particularize here. Suffice, it brought the US almost to the brink of a 2nd Civil War and that is fact, as can attest, having been a witness to it and the matter of how close US[we] came. None of this, doubtful, was known by the forces in the field.

Troops in the field did not lose the war; it was lost politically and historically in the streets of DC and will leave it there for now. As for your wall, remember McNamara did attempt to create and electronic barrier at the North Viet-South Viet border with electronic sensors dropped into the border zone east to west. It proved futile. The 'body blow' is another subject having to do very much with domestic politics.

For Walt -- I would take issue (some issue, at least!) with the term "indiscriminate bombing" to describe Rolling Thunder, and the subsequent bombing campaigns, Linebacker and Linebacker II were far from indiscriminate. Military and industrial targets were explicitly identified and bombed with better accuracy than was achieved in the Allied bombing campaigns of World War II. In South Vietnam, close air support bombing (& other weapons delivery) was normally directed by Forward Air Controllers and not indiscriminate. I also believe the term "indiscriminate" should not be applied to the B-52 Arc Light strikes, which put bombs on very precise locations, identified by intelligence as containing enemy troops or bases. That this intelligence may in many cases have been wrong is certainly a valid criticism of Arc Light missions, and a "jus in bello" argument might be raised. But overall, I can't quite see our application of airpower in the Vietnam War as a violation of the laws of war.

I first arrived in Vietnam in 1961 speaking fairly decent Vietnamese and left in 1975 . during that time I saw many instances of indiscriminate bombing. For example : C-130's would load up with contaminated jet fuel , and drop in over tunnel complexes and then bomb the area , resulting in massive causalities. . I think it was Guenter Lewy who published estimates of deaths in the Vietnam as being one point three million . Much if not most of the tonnage of bombing was in South Vietnam , . I woul;d also seriously question the accuracy of the bombing in North , As in many instances , the target was a bridge and photos taken soon after show that the bridge was still there with no or only minor damage.

Walter McIntosh
Bluff, New Zealand .

" Act. Congress passed that one at the end of June 1973, and it went into effect August 15. It clearly and flatly forbade military operations , including air operations, in or over Indochina."

This was crucial, if South Vietnam was not doomed already from aid cuts, this certainly doomed it.
And I am sure the act was passed openly and thus Hanoi could read about it, and I am sure Le Duan did.

"Vietnam was rich in the lessons we never learned." Anthony Zinni, General, USMC, Retired, 2012.

John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
Professor of Military History
Department of Military History
Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027

Your position may have made your more knowledgeable on this subject. But, wasn't Rolling Thunder the Johnson practice ? Seem to recall this.

If this is remembered correctly would like to refer yourself to Pres. Jonson's autobiography, "The Vantage Point": Perspectives on the Presidency 1964-1968[think this is correct title..do not have immediate access but will forward a pix of the volume separate].

"So. Vietnam may have sustained some early success but did not have the economy nor means to sustain their supposed country."
This is of course a valid point, but one could just as validly point out that No. Vietnam did not have the economy or means to sustain their economy and certainly not their aggression against the South. China and Russia spent more money in supporting the North than the US did in the South, the figures include over 5000 trucks, over 1500 tanks, the thousands of SAMs, thousands of AA guns, millions of small arms, many hundreds of pieces of artillery better than anything we left the South, oceans of fuel, medical supplies, uniforms, and billions of rounds of various kinds of ammunition. When the South was supplied and supported, they could and did fight effectively to protect their nation.
As said already, the difference was simply that Russia was a more committed and consistent ally to Hanoi than we were to Saigon.
For ten years after the Fall of Saigon it was Russian aid that kept Viet Nam going, even so there was widespread hunger, poor medical care, and very slow rebuilding. Once Russian aid ended, Hanoi was forced to finally abandon Marxist economy and switch to the form of state controlled crony capitalism that has brought them comparative prosperity today.

I have a question for Walter McIntosh regarding the contaminated jet fuel. I had not heard of its use as described. Was it sprayed or dumped in containers over tunnel complexes and then bombed (presumably to set it afire)? Why would that be preferred to napalm? It seems much less effective, and also a good way to upset the supply officer who might want to reclaim the fuel.

All the American intelligence estimates show Chinese and Soviet spending on support for North Vietnam a small fraction, repeat small fraction, of American spending on support for South Vietnam. I am a bit suspicious of the figures on Chinese spending between 1965 and 1969, but even if I assume Chinese spending in those years was substantially higher than showed in the US intelligence estimates, I can't see any way to get the total Chinese and Soviet spending up to half the level of American spending.

In regard to comparative expenditures of nations in Viet Nam, one has to consider not calculated dollar amounts, but internal costs related to GDP. Example- one might say AK-47 cost $50 while an M-16 cost $150, but the cost to Russia or China of an AK-47 in terms of their own economy was at least as high. This then applies to the tanks, trucks, SAMs, AA guns, oceans of fuel, uniforms, medical supplies, etc, etc. The strain on the Russian economy was certainly higher than it was on America's. And that cost to Russia continued for the ten years of support after the war ended. The truly significant cost differential of the war was not in materiel, but in the blood of our men, and the effects on our national psychology, which continue to this day.

Larry Grant,

For a number of years I tried to interview most NVA POW's , Many survived both Napalm attacks or these jet fuel attacks , From their point of View the Jet fuel attacks were much more effective, in that the jet fuel tended to soak into the earth before being set on fire where as napalm tend to stay on the surface and was therefore less effective. In general , I think indiscriminate is a good term for bombing , as the bombers really have no idea who they are bombing . It is just a form of terrorism. Just as the rocket and artillery attacks by the Communist forces were also just a form of terrorism and against the law of war.

Again I would make the point that talk of air air war affecting the outcome of the war is nonsense , as from the Vietnamese people's point of view, the USA lost all credibility when the US Ambassador engineered the murder of the President of South Vietnam and his family . And that was before a single US combat troop arrived in Vietnam .

Ralph , In WWII , high level bombing had an accuracy of more or less a mile from the target, By the time Vietnam came along accuracy had improved by only a few hundred feet. I recall a time in Quang Tri city in 1969 while I was holding a training class for South Vietnamese police while an Arc Light mission was going on . It was supposed to be more than 2 1/2 kilometers away yet several bomb landed in the city. , also I sent men on elephants to assess bomb damage in 1971 , they were reporting in real time by satellite . Selsom did the bombing hit the assigned target. No matter how good the planning , the results are what counts.

Responding to R. J. Del Veccio's post of May 24: There was never an ocean, or even a large lake, of fuel provided to North Vietnam.

I have been unable to find in the US estimates any year in which Soviet spending on North Vietnam got as high as the equivalent of US $1 billion. There were quite a few years when US spending on South Vietnam was over $15 billion. I do not believe $1 billion was more of a strain on the Soviet Union than $15 billion was on the United States.

ED, In Andrew & Gordievsky's book on KGB, and In Stanislav Lunev book on GRU , they both claim that over 1 billion dollars was spent supporting the anti-war movement worldwide, and that per their accounts more was spent on supporting the anti-war movement than on directly supporting the communists in Vietnam . So , while the Soviets certainly spent more than a billion but I think you are totally correct in saying the amounts spent by USA were far more costly .

First, again comparing Russian expenditures to American expenditures is truly apples and oranges, it's more meaningful to consider expenditures compared to GDP, and there was an enormous difference there. Secondarily, there were no oil fields in North Vietnam, nor a huge coal industry, so where did all their fuels, lubricants, etc, come from? Running a fleet of over 5000 trucks, 1500 tanks or so, the bulldozers used to clear the jungle paths in preparation for the '75 invasion, the ships of their navy, the MIG fighters, all the generators, over the years of the war and remember, for a decade after the war, took a lot more than a lake of fuel. There is little question that the overall tonnage of materiel shipped into the North to build up and keep supplying their military and their society in general was at least comparable to what the USA supplied to the South, but our resources were greater than that of Russia.
It is impossible to assemble really detailed cost comparisons between US and Russian expenditures in Viet Nam, but it should be understandable that the cost to Russia overall was far from trivial, and the US economy was much more able to absorb costs than theirs.