An Uncommon War: The US Air Force in Southeast Asia

by Bernard C. Nalty

Shortly after the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the Air University's Airpower Research Institute at Maxwell AFB, Ala., commissioned a series of studies of the aerial aspects of that conflict. Some 40 airmen who had served in the Vietnam War helped write and edit the volumes. Known as the USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series, the project produced a series of brief studies, subsequently published by the Office of Air Force History, that enjoyed a fair measure of popular appeal, principally because they reflected the experiences of the participants in the fighting. The essay that follows addresses those monographs dealing with air operations against North Vietnam, resistance to the North Vietnamese invasion of the South in 1972, and the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Instead of concentrating on the experiences of individuals, the author, Bernard C. Nalty, searches for larger themes underlying the combat activity that the monographs describe.

In what ways did the Vietnam conflict prove to be an uncommon war? First and most obvious, it was America's longest war against a foreign power, with overlapping advisory, combat, and support phases that lasted from the establishment of a training mission in December 1954, to South Vietnam's final collapse in April 1975. Only the French and Indian War and the American Revolution rivaled the Vietnam involvement in duration, but neither approached it in violence, forces involved, casualties, or treasure expended. The length of the war, its frustrations, and its cost provoked changes in the American objective and the means employed to attain it, in the relationship between the United States and South Vietnam, and in public and Congressional support for the war. One constant in American policy toward North Vietnam remained a refusal throughout the fighting to use nuclear weapons. The relations of the major communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, to each other and to North Vietnam also changed over the years, affecting the degree of violence the United States could direct against the North.

In contrast to the fluctuating American goals, which demonstrate that the truly vital interests of the United States did not include the fate of South Vietnam, the Communist leadership at Hanoi never lost sight of its goal, the unification of all of Vietnam under its rule. North Vietnamese strategy and tactics varied, but the ultimate objective remained the same.

The Air Force officers, all of them veterans of the Vietnam conflict, who contributed to the USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series and the editors who shaped their material deal with various aspects of an air war launched in February 1965. The first raids, Operation FLAMING DART, served as retaliation for specific attacks on Americans in South Vietnam, but had the ultimate purpose of bending the will of North Vietnam's leaders by demonstrating that the destruction the United States could visit on the North outweighed the benefits of continuing the war in the South. In the initial stages of actual combat, as in the mainly advisory period that preceded it, the United States sought to pre serve the independence of a non-Communist South Vietnam.

When Hanoi ignored Operation FLAMING DART, the United States, on March 2, 1965, undertook Operation ROLLING THUNDER, a bombing campaign against the North initially described as a sustained reprisal for waging war against the South. If North Vietnam pursued its war of conquest, air power would serve as the coercive stick, as the intensity of the bombing gradually escalated. The bombing also provided a carrot, for the United States could reward Hanoi for reducing the level of military operations, or calling them off entirely, by limiting or ending the ROLLlNG THUNDER attacks. To the civilian architects of the bombing offensive, the military value of targets destroyed seemed less important than the impact on morale, undercutting Hanoi's resolve and encouraging Saigon to resist.

The early Rolling Thunder strikes, painstakingly orchestrated by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, failed to accomplish their purpose. The North Vietnamese continued the campaign of conquest, and the South Vietnamese, though they took heart when ROLLING THUNDER began, proved incapable of defeating the enemy. Since American prestige and interest seemed inter twined with South Vietnam's survival, President Johnson felt compelled to introduce American ground forces. By the end of December 1965, 184,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen had, in effect, taken over the war from the South Vietnamese; and within three years, American strength exceeded a half-million.

The President and his advisers considered the air war and ground campaign complementary efforts that, together, would provide a shield behind which the South Vietnamese armed forces could prepare to defend their country once the Americans had reduced the Communist threat to manageable proportions. Until the danger declined to a level the South Vietnamese could handle, Americans would do most of the fighting. General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, acknowledged at the end of 1965 that "we would have to take the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] even more under our wing and earn for them greater victories." Taking the South Vietnamese under the wing of the American forces proved easier said than done; South Vietnam's rapidly expanding armed forces had difficulty absorbing the training and equipment that the United States provided, arousing in their nominal allies an impatience that some times verged on contempt.

The ultimate American objective‹an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam capable of defending itself‹remained unchanged, but to achieve this goal, American divisions would seek out and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist) formations, while air power carried the war to the North, attacking both the will of Hanoi's leaders to continue the fight and, to an increasing extent, their ability to do so. The list of targets expanded to include transportation, oil storage, and the nation's few industries. In theory, Westmoreland's strategy of search and destroy would force the Communists to expend supplies and thus make the logistics establishment in North Vietnam all the more vulnerable to bombing. Meanwhile, the destruction caused by air strikes in the North would reinforce the blow to morale resulting from the loss of North Vietnamese lives on the battlegrounds of the South. In practice, however, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong retained the initiative, choosing a level of violence that the supply lines could support, and the disciplined society of North Vietnam did not break.

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.

After the departure of Chinese troops from North Vietnam in 1968, the government in Beijing still feared an attack by the United States and continued the policy, begun in 1964, of shifting industries to the interior and dispersing the plants to reduce vulnerability to air attack. After a half-dozen years of tension with the Soviet Union, punctuated by armed clashes along the common border, China in 1969 recognized that the imminent threat came from its Communist neighbor and not from the United States. Indeed, the Chinese saw the advantage of making overtures to Washington, which was in the process of normalizing relations with Moscow. As the 1970s began, China considered the Soviet Union to be the source of gravest danger and approached the old enemy, the United States, in the hope of isolating the new one.

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. To resolve the Cuban missile crisis, the United States had a variety of options ranging from mobilization, through invasion, and ultimately to nuclear warfare. One of the least dangerous courses, naval blockade, had proved effective, and President Johnson and his advisers, after excluding nuclear weapons, believed they could increase conventional military pressure to a level that would compel Hanoi to back down.

The precedent of the Cuban missile crisis, in which members of the Johnson administration had played key roles, obscured the example of a previous experience in limited war, the Korean conflict, when President Harry S Truman tried to employ force enough, without recourse to nuclear weapons, to cause China to accept a truce while he built up the defenses of western Europe. President Johnson failed to remember that the American people had refused to support a long, costly, and indecisive effort in Korea and forced Truman to abandon the hope of reelection, precisely what would happen to Johnson in the Spring of 1968.

As ROLLING THUNDER shifted from strategic persuasion to outright interdiction, the campaign neither altered the course of the ground war nor triggered a response from China. Secretary McNamara, at a time when the Beijing government still associated itself with Hanoi and considered the United States the likely enemy, rejected the conclusion that China would accept still heavier bombing of the North, reviewed the cost of the campaign in aircraft destroyed and American lives lost, and decided that ROLLING THUNDER had failed. Still determined to preserve the independence of South Vietnam, he proposed to use air power to attack the supply and infiltration routes leading into South Vietnam by way of southern Laos, tactics that, in his opinion, would have a more direct impact than ROLLING THUNDER on the battlefields of South Vietnam. The bombing of the North would become a bargaining chip to be traded for the commencement of negotiations to end the war and ensure the survival of the government in Saigon.

Air Force losses during ROLLING THUNDER‹ 531 aircraft destroyed and 547 airmen killed, captured, or missing over the entire campaign‹ distressed Secretary McNamara. Ironically, his gradual application of air power contributed to the toll by giving North Vietnam time to improve its defenses with weapons imported from China and the Soviet Union. In the Spring of 1968 the North Vietnamese manned thousands antiaircraft weapons. Roughly 30 active surface-to-air missile sites formed a part of the defensive array, along with 57-mm, 37-mm, and 23-mm weapons, and machine guns. Some two dozen late-model, Soviet-designed interceptors served as the aerial component of the integrated, radar-directed defensive network.

McNamara launched a two-part program of interdiction, but he could not yet persuade either the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the President to abandon or curtail Operation ROLLING THUNDER. According to his interdiction plan, a series of interlocking strongpoints, linked by barbed wire and minefields, would seal the demilitarized zone, while electronic sensors monitored the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the maze of roads, streams, and trails through southern Laos that bore the name of the leader of Communist North Vietnam. A computer-equipped infiltration surveillance center would receive the sensor signals, analyze them, and convert the data into targeting information for air strikes. North Vietnamese artillery fire prevented completion of the defenses along the demilitarized zone, but the air-supported electronic barrier underwent operational testing in late 1967 and early 1968.

As the air-supported barrier was seeing its first action, the North Vietnamese laid siege to the Marine Corps combat base at Khe Sanh, near the intersection of the demilitarized zone and South Vietnam's border with Laos. The need to concentrate air power in defense of the base contributed to a decision to entrust operational control of Marine Corps tactical aviation to Gen. William W. Momyer, commander of the Seventh Air Force. The change to a single manager did not take place, however, until after safety of Khe Sanh had been assured, and Momyer's successors tended to relax their control over the Marine air craft wing.

Although the Air Force exercised varying authority over Marine airmen, it did not bring all its own aircraft operating in Southeast Asia under the control of a single manager. The B-52s and tactical airlift served as the principal exceptions. Indeed, the absence of centralized control over Air Force activities may have contributed to the confusion at Kham Duc in May 1968, when a three-man airlift control team landed at the air field after it had been abandoned to the North Vietnamese. Fortunately for the team members, a heroic rescue extricated them.

While the North Vietnamese kept General Westmoreland's attention riveted on Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive of 1968, erupted throughout South Vietnam as the nation celebrated the lunar new year. Whereas Westmoreland had exuded optimism in televised statements during a recent visit to the United States, television now showed the bodies of Viet Cong who had blasted their way onto the grounds of the American embassy at Saigon and marines fighting building by building to recapture the city of Hue, where the enemy held out for 25 days. Except at Hue, the American and South Vietnamese defenders succeeded in beating back the attackers within a few days, and everywhere the enemy suffered grievous losses. The daring of the Tet Offensive and its scope nevertheless demoralized the President and his advisers and shook public confidence in him and his policies. Some Americans advocated pulling out of South Vietnam, but others favored intensifying the war, as the President's approval rating sagged to a mere 26 percent, reflecting insufficient support to sustain a bid for reelection.

In reaction to the Tet Offensive, the Johnson administration decided to limit the bombing of North Vietnam as a means of inducing the Hanoi government to enter negotiations; talks rather than bombing would lead to an arrangement preserving South Vietnamese independence. The new strategy, essentially that advocated by Secretary McNamara, did not take effect until after he had left the cabinet at the end of February 1968. On March 31, President Johnson announced that he would not seek another term of office and that he was restricting ROLLING THUNDER to the panhandle of North Vietnam. Limiting the air campaign led to preliminary discussions in Paris, but not until after he halted the bombing of the North, effective Nov. 1, did negotiations with the Vietnamese Communists begin. Besides cutting back and finally eliminating ROLLING THUNDER, the Johnson administration in effect placed a ceiling on American participation and proposed to reverse the trend since 1965, by gradually handing the war back to the South Vietnamese.

President Richard M. Nixon, who defeated Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson's vice president, took over the conduct of the war in January 1969. Facing antiwar dissent, which had surfaced during the Johnson presidency and erupted at times in organized demonstrations, the new chief executive embarked on a policy of Vietnamization‹ training and equipping the South Vietnamese to assume increasing responsibility for fighting the war‹as American combat troops withdrew. Nixon continued the negotiations begun in Paris and soon opened a secret channel to the Hanoi government, using his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger. At this time, the President intended to negotiate an agreement ensuring both the survival of a non-Communist South Vietnam and the release of the Americans held prisoner by the Communists. When the cease-fire took effect, South Vietnam would be able to defend itself with a minimum of help from the United States.

Beginning in 1969, American air power provided the shield for Vietnamization and withdrawal. To this end, the Seventh Air Force continued attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the series of operations known as COMMANDO HUNT, which sought to prevent the enemy from amassing the troops and supplies needed to launch an offensive timed to hit the departing American ground forces before the South Vietnamese were ready to replace them. On the debit side, COMMANDO HUNT yielded wildly unrealistic claims of damage done, but to its credit, the sensor-directed interdiction effort proved less costly in lives and aircraft than ROLLING THUNDER. While hacking away at the lines of supply and reinforcement through southern Laos, the Nixon administration in March 1969, began the secret bombing of North Vietnam's Cambodian bases, using B-52s, and, in April 1970, invaded Cambodia to destroy the stockpiles and disrupt the enemy's command structure for South Vietnam. Unfortunately, neither the secret bombing, concealed by a screen of false reports, the invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent aerial and ground operations, nor a South Vietnamese raid into southern Laos, in early 1971, succeeded in preventing a North Vietnamese invasion of the South in March 1972.

When the North Vietnamese invaded, air power, hurriedly reinforced, provided the only weapon available to President Nixon, since the American public, conditioned by three years of Vietnamization and withdrawal, would not have supported the reintroduction of American ground forces. As the nation accepted the Nixon policy of removing Americans from combat on the ground, resistance to the war had diminished. The anti war movement had intensified in the spring of 1970, after the invasion of Cambodia, when angry students shut down college campuses all over the country, and members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded six during a demonstration at Kent State University. Protests continued into 1971, but abated after President Nixon's troop withdrawal resulted in reduced draft calls, and he approved a plan to shelve the Selective Service System in the future and rely on volunteers, except in times of national emergency. The President's reaction to the invasion of South Vietnam triggered no demonstrations on American campuses, in part because of the obvious North Vietnamese aggression, but also because reliance on air power placed comparatively few American lives in jeopardy. Moreover, with the possible exception of a few marines, volunteers rather than draftees faced the danger.

Although unable to renew the ground war, had he wished to do so, President Nixon nevertheless occupied a position of strength when North Vietnam invaded. Troop withdrawals and the diminishing number of draftees reduced the likelihood of involuntary service in Southeast Asia and brought peace to the campuses. The plight of the Americans held captive by the Communists aroused sympathy, perhaps guilt among some, and helped rally flagging support for the war. More important, the Soviet Union had replaced the United States atop China's list of enemies; indeed, because of the rivalry between the two Communist powers, each was trying to improve relations with the United States in the hope of isolating the other. Consequently, neither the Soviet Union nor China would react as strongly to attacks on North Vietnam as they might have a half-dozen years earlier.

The Nixon administration taking advantage of changed circumstances, mined North Vietnamese harbors, attacked the rail line from China, and dropped some 150,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, along with the additional tonnage directed against supply lines and battlefields in the South. A number of restrictions, among them a buffer zone along the border with China, governed the renewed air war against North Vietnam, called Operation LINEBACKER, but President Nixon did not exercise the close super vision over individual missions that President Johnson had maintained during ROLLING THUNDER.

After disheartening initial reverses, the South Vietnamese fought hard enough to force the invading North Vietnamese to mass and present targets vulnerable to aerial attack. At An LOC and elsewhere, a stubborn defense on the ground enabled American air power to check the enemy with crippling strikes. Although an occasional South Vietnamese commander proved competent or even inspiring, too many of them abdicated their responsibilities and placed blind reliance on American advice and aerial firepower. The average soldier did not get sound leadership from his officers, and in some instances senior American advisers had to exercise command. The lack of initiative in the officer corps affected South Vietnamese performance and further weakened the bond between American airmen and the troops they supported. No longer could the South Vietnamese depend on the sheltering wing that Westmoreland had described a few years earlier. Typical of a reordering of priorities that placed Americans first, the Seventh Air Force in April 1972 suspended operations in support of a South Vietnamese division in danger of destruction and went to the aid of one American, who had parachuted from a doomed aircraft.

During the autumn of 1972, the American objective again underwent change. President Nixon agreed to accept what his security adviser, Dr. Kissinger, had negotiated‹a cease-fire in place. This arrangement would allow North Vietnam to hold onto all its recent conquests and maintain, though not reinforce, perhaps 100,000 troops on what had been South Vietnamese soil. When Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's president, learned that the Americans proposed to legitimize the results of North Vietnamese aggression, he insisted upon modifying the agreement to eliminate the North Vietnamese presence, even though his nation was receiving hundreds of tanks and aircraft as an earnest of a continuing American commitment. In effect, the United States no longer pursued a settlement designed to ensure South Vietnam's survival but instead offered weapons for defending the nation's independence after an imperfect cease fire.

Even though President Nixon, as a gesture of good faith, suspended the Linebacker bombing on Oct. 23, Hanoi lost its enthusiasm for a truce. The North Vietnamese may have felt that Thieu's obvious intransigence, and American determination to get an agreement, might result in renewed negotiations with results even more favorable to the Communist cause. Not even Nixon's triumphant reelection prodded the North Vietnamese into signing, possibly because they believed the new Congress would reflect the obvious war-weariness of the electorate. Before President Nixon could pursue his course toward a cease-fire, he had to remove two roadblocks, one erected by Thieu and the other by the Hanoi government.

The President of the United States used a combination of threat and promise to deal with his South Vietnamese counterpart. After warning that he might, if necessary, agree to a separate peace, Nixon assured Thieu he would react to future North Vietnamese aggression just as he had to the offensive of 1972. The South Vietnamese leader thereupon abandoned his opposition to the cease-fire that Kissinger had negotiated.

To persuade Hanoi as well as Saigon, Nixon renewed the air war, sending B-52s against military targets at or near Hanoi and Haiphong. The operation, LINEBACKER II, tested the discipline of the B-52 crews, for North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles downed fifteen of the bombers during the attacks. These losses came at the time the United States was on the verge of extricating itself from an unpopular war. Because the war lacked public support and the end seemed so close, commanders had to guard against sagging morale, doing whatever seemed necessary to sustain professionalism. These measures, as the two officers writing on LINEBACKER II explain, ranged from Christmas parties to a threat to court-martial any aircraft commander who broke formation to evade a missile and thus disrupted the pattern of electronic jamming. Morale did not break, no one had to be court-martialed, and the 20,000 tons of bombs dropped by B-52s and tactical fighters between Dec. 18 and 29 utterly destroyed North Vietnam's air defenses, exposing the nation's heartland to further devastation. Hanoi resumed negotiations, and a settlement rapidly took shape. Although the cease-fire, signed in January 1973, led to the release of the Americans held prisoner, it did not force North Vietnam to withdraw from the South. Consequently, the survival of South Vietnam might well depend on President Nixon's personal pledge to intervene if Communist forces again invaded.

When North Vietnam invaded in March 1975, the promised American intervention never materialized. Richard Nixon was no longer President; he had resigned rather than face impeachment for, among other things, concealing the fact that members of the White House staff had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building. Watergate proved to be but one in a succession of scandals that undermined support for further involvement in Southeast Asia. Revelation of the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers had murdered unarmed civilians suspected of aiding the Communists, raised questions about the morality of the war. Publication of The Pentagon Papers, essentially a documentary his tory of the American decision-making while McNamara was Secretary of Defense, revealed imprecise thinking and a succession of flawed judgments. The secret bombing of Cambodia came to light, as did a series of unauthorized aerial attacks on North Vietnam prior to the 1972 invasion. Reports of drug use by service personnel in Southeast Asia‹and rumors that South Vietnamese officials profited from dealing in drugs‹also helped turn the American public against the Saigon leadership. Congress reflected the popular mood, halting the bombing in Cambodia effective July 15, 1973, and reducing aid to South Vietnam. Since Thieu intended to fight the same kind of war he always had, with lavish use of firepower, the cuts in aid proved especially damaging.

The American involvement with South Vietnam ended April 29, 1975, in a precipitous escape by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy, an operation that caused mixed feelings in both those who fled and those who conducted the rescue. The successful evacuation aroused feelings of pride, but the United States had failed to honor the promise of a former President to come to the aid of South Vietnam. For each person, Vietnamese or American, who escaped or was rescued, a thousand or more remained behind at the mercy of the victors. This ambivalence may explain why the three authors of the account of the last flight from Saigon chose a quotation that reflects good and evil, success and failure:

Whoever destroys a single life is as though he destroyed an entire universe; and whoever saves a single life is as though he saved an entire universe.

Bernard C. Nalty,  retired in January 1994, after 36 years as an official historian, mostly with the Air Force.

See the AFHSO publication by Bernard C. Nalty:
Air War Over South Vietnam, 1968-1975.