The Air War: Events and Key Operations

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  • 0:02 Over North Vietnam
  • 3:01 In South Vietnam
  • 4:09 Targeting Laos
  • 4:56 Carrot-&-the-Stick Diplomacy
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The United States fought a two-front war in Vietnam consisting of both air and ground operations. Learn about the American air war in Vietnam, including its overall objectives, main operations and successes and failures in this lesson.

Air War Over North Vietnam

Curtis LeMay, a general in the United States Air Force, believed that the United States had the capability to bomb the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, 'back to the Stone Age'. President Lyndon B. Johnson likewise hoped that a punishing air war from 1965 to 1968 would persuade the North Vietnamese to accept a negotiated settlement.

Air operations against North Vietnam and its adherents began as a retaliatory campaign in response to actions conducted against American servicemen by the National Liberation Front, or NLF, and the People's Army of Vietnam, or PAVN. However, on February 12, 1965, the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended an aggressive campaign, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, over North Vietnam. The campaign was designed to be an eight-week program that concentrated on select war-making facilities throughout the region.

It was originally prohibited from striking areas around Hanoi and Haiphong as well as along the border of the People's Republic of China and North Vietnam. It also was required to observe the Laws of War in order to prevent unnecessary collateral damage. Commenced on March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder easily surpassed its eight-week limitation and became one of the largest air efforts in American history, lasting until 1968.

There were three major goals for Rolling Thunder. First, the United States used the campaign to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail and prevent personnel and supplies from infiltrating into the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam. Second, the operation was expected to destroy enough of the infrastructure of North Vietnam to persuade the North Vietnamese to terminate its support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. Finally, the United States hoped that Rolling Thunder could be used as a bargaining tool to force North Vietnam into peace negotiations. This was the notion of carrot-and-stick diplomacy, or bombing North Vietnam while offering the prospect of peace.

Operation Rolling Thunder adopted a graduated policy throughout its infant stages. In March 1965, the priority was to destroy North Vietnamese supply and communication lines. In January 1966, the United States reevaluated Rolling Thunder and Johnson expanded the role of the air campaign. Rolling Thunder was expected to support the ground war. It also began targeting surface-to-air missile sites via Operation Iron Hand, and combating MiG aircraft flown by the North Vietnamese through Operation Bolo.

In 1967, the United States further expanded Rolling Thunder to devastate North Vietnam in the hope of forcing the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. By 1968, Operation Rolling Thunder had dropped over 600,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam and had decimated pivotal components to the North's ability to conduct war. The North Vietnamese, however, never conceded to the demands of the United States and refused to accept a negotiated settlement. The United States' goal of peace through force had failed, and Rolling Thunder was terminated on November 1, 1968.

Air War in South Vietnam

Air mobility played a major role in the ground war in South Vietnam. Helicopters were heavily relied upon to move troops in and out of combat zones, especially during search-and-rescue missions. They were also important in targeting and eliminating enemy combatants. Targeting the enemy was also a primary objective of the Arc Light missions, which began in April 1965. This campaign witnessed the B-52 Stratofortress drop an incredible tonnage of bombs on select enemy targets. These aircraft were also used to assist the American soldiers operating on the ground in combating large divisions of NLF and PAVN soldiers.

The air war in South Vietnam also adopted the use of herbicides and napalm against the enemy. Operation Ranch Hand, which originated under President John F. Kennedy and continued under Johnson, employed herbicides, such as Agent Orange, to destroy crops used to feed the North Vietnamese and eliminate the dense jungle vegetation in order to uncover the enemy sanctuary. In March 1965, Johnson approved the use of napalm. This agent was a noxious gelatin-like substance composed of gasoline and acids. Napalm burned through the skin and suffocated the enemy. Like Agent Orange, it was also successful in clearing vegetation.

Targeting Laos

The American air war was not limited to North and South Vietnam. The United States Air Force also targeted the nation of Laos. Operation Barrel Roll began the air campaign in Laos in December 1964 when it interdicted North Vietnamese personnel and supply movements in the northern Laotian section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and provided support to the Royal Laotian Army.

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