Operation Rolling Thunder: Facts & Summary

Operation Rolling Thunder: Facts & Summary
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  • 0:02 Background to the Operation
  • 1:07 Origins of Rolling Thunder
  • 3:16 Successes & Failures…
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Almeria
In this lesson, we'll be learning about Operation Rolling Thunder, the first American bombing campaign of the Vietnam War. We'll summarize it, its failures, and some basic facts about it, and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Background to the Operation

Strategic bombing campaigns in war are designed to break the will of the enemy, to persuade them into thinking that continuing the war effort will be painful, costly and futile. This playbook was designed in 1917 and 1918 with U.S. Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell and Italian General Giulio Douhet, and then put into action over the skies of occupied Europe during the Second World War. The basic idea is to go directly to the centers of your enemy's industrial might: factories, assembly plants, and even population centers if need be. But what if your enemy lacks these features in a classical sense?

Such is the story of Operation Rolling Thunder, the first major sustained bombing campaign in the war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. It was a classic bombing campaign, designed with the same features of the World War II attack, only with a few twists. It was noted that, as a plan, it was truly excellent. But as an actual tactic in the war in Vietnam, it was a colossal misjudgment.

Origins of Rolling Thunder

North Vietnam never had the kind of industrial might that would present a target-rich environment, such as envisioned by a classic bombing campaign. Radar sites, bridges, rail lines and roads comprised the target list, despite the fact those and other classical industrial complexes were very few and far between, too small in number to be a major factor. Nearly all of the military equipment they used were supplied by their allies, China and the Soviet Union. Nearly everything in fact would come from these two major sources.

Operation Rolling Thunder focused heavily on the distribution nodes of these supplies, but the nature of the terrain would prove to be an issue just as much as the political restrictions. The main network used by the North, and a primary point of focus for Rolling Thunder, was the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Yet, this trail was a network of simple roads, mostly under a thick, jungle canopy for most of its length though the country. Since you cannot attack what you cannot see with a great measure of success, the trail proved to be a continuing source of supply from the North, nearly impervious to effective bombing attacks.

Secondly, political restraints on the campaign itself raised several objections from the military leadership at the Pentagon. A major political concern was to avoid any direct or near-direct confrontation with either the Chinese or the Russians. As such, any strikes against airfields in which Chinese or Russian personnel may be present were forbidden, along with a 25-mile buffer zone from the Chinese border. Furthermore, dikes that dammed water for rice paddies as well as the two major cities in the North, Hanoi and Haiphong, were placed off limits.

The results would prove to be tragic. Knowing these off-limit areas, the North Vietnamese simply placed the most valuable fighting assets, up to 1,000 guns and surface to air missiles, in these no-strike zones, leaving them free to attack U.S. forces with no threat of return fire. Adding to the missteps in strategy, defined routes were prescribed for U.S. aircraft: they took the same way in and the same way out every time. Some 922 U.S. aircraft would be lost in this campaign.

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