Operation Thunder

Military intelligence officers working in Vietnam believed that without the support of the Ho Chi Minh government, the National Liberation Front would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF.

Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted "back to the Stone Age." Others pointed out that "terror" raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots.

Three months after being elected president, Lyndon B. Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder. Unlike the single bombing raid in August 1964, this time the raids were to take place on a regular basis. The plan was to destroy the North Vietnam economy and to force her to stop helping the guerrilla fighters in the south. Bombing was also directed against territory controlled by the NLF in South Vietnam. The plan was for Operation Rolling Thunder to last for eight weeks but it lasted for the next three years. In that time, the US dropped 1 million tons of bombs on Vietnam.

The response of the NLF to 'Rolling Thunder' was to concentrate its attacks on the US air bases in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland, the person in charge of the military advisers in Vietnam, argued that his 23,000 men were unable to defend adequately the US air bases and claimed that without more soldiers, the NLF would take over control of South Vietnam.

On March 8, 3,500 US marines arrived in South Vietnam. They were the first 'official' US combat troops to be sent to the country. This dramatic escalation of the war was presented to the American public as being a short-term measure and did not cause much criticism at the time. A public opinion poll carried out that year indicated that nearly 80% of the American public supported the bombing raids and the sending of combat troops to Vietnam.

As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 pounds for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam.

As well as explosive bombs the US air force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin. The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death.

The US also made considerable use of anti-personnel bombs. The pineapple bomb was made up of 250 metal pellets inside a small canister. Gloria Emerson, a reporter in Vietnam, witnessed their use: "An American plane could drop a thousand pineapples over an area the size of four football fields. In a single air strike two hundred and fifty thousand pellets were spewed in a horizontal pattern over the land below, hitting everything on the ground."

The United States also experimented with the use of plastic rather than metal needles and pellets in their anti-personnel bombs. The advantage of plastic was they could not be identified by X-Ray machines. Dropped on highly populated areas, anti-personnel bombs could severely disrupt the functioning of North Vietnam. It has been claimed that the major objective of the US bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its 17 million population but to maim them. As was pointed out at the time, serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead.

One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the NLF hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the NLF hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. 'Agent Orange', the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people.

Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called 'Agent Blue'. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.

In economic terms, the bombing hurt the economy of the United States more than North Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, it was estimated that $300 million of damage had been done to North Vietnam. However, in the process, 700 US aircraft, valued at $900 million had been shot down. When all factors were taken into consideration it was argued that it cost the United States "ten dollars for every dollar's worth of damage inflicted."

Primary Sources

(1) President Lyndon B. Johnson, speech (July 28,1965)

Its goal is to conquer the south, to defeat American power and to extend the Asiatic domination of Communism ... Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise or protection . . We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

(2) Townsend Hoopes, Under Secretary of the US Air Force memorandum (March 1968)

We believe the enemy can be forced to be 'reasonable', i.e. to compromise or even capitulate, because we assume he wants to avoid pain, death, and material destruction. We assume that if these are inflicted on him with increasing severity, then at some point in the process he will want to stop the suffering.

(3) Felix Greene, Vietnam! Vietnam! (1966)

The mounting fury of the richest and most powerful country is today being directed against one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world. The average income of the people of Vietnam is about $50 a year - what the average American earns in a single week. The war today is costing the United States three million dollars an hour. What could not the Vietnamese do for their country with what we spend in one day fighting them! It is costing the United States $400,000 to kill one guerrilla - enough to pay the annual income of 8,000 Vietnamese. The United States can burn and devastate; it can annihilate the Vietnamese; but it cannot conquer them.

(4) Eqbal Ahmad, The Nation (30th August,1965)

I prefer the term 'maternalism' for American policy in countries like Vietnam, because it reminds me of the story of an elephant who, as she strolled benignly in the jungle, stepped on a mother partridge and killed her. When she noticed the orphaned siblings, tears filled the kind elephant's eyes. 'Ah, I too have maternal instincts,' she said, turning to the orphans, and sat on them.

(5) In 1967, the journalist Martha Gellhorn visited Vietnam. Her reports were published in the Ladies' Home Journal.

In the children's ward of the Qui Nhon province hospital I saw for the first time what Napalm does. A child of seven, the size of our four-year-olds, lay in the cot by the door. Napalm had burned his face and back and one hand. The burned skin looked like swollen red meat; the fingers on his hand were stretched out, burned rigid. A scrap of cheesecloth covered him, for weight is intolerable, but so too is air.

(6) A housewife from New Jersey, the mother of six, decided to go to Vietnam and adopt three Vietnamese children. While she was there she visited several hospitals.

I had heard and read that napalm melts the flesh, and I thought that's nonsense, because I can put a roast in the oven and the fat will melt but the meat stays there. Well, I went and saw these children burned by napalm, and it's absolutely true. The chemical reaction of this napalm does melt the flesh, and the flesh runs right down their faces onto their chests and it sits there and grows there... These children can't turn their heads, they were so thick with flesh... And when gangrene sets in, they cut off their hands or fingers or their feet.

(7) Joseph Buttinger attempted to document the effect that the war had on the people of Vietnam in his book A Dragon Defiant (1972).

The total tonnage of bombs dropped between 1964 and the end of 1971 was 6.2 million. This means that the US has dropped 300 pounds of bombs for every man, woman, and child in Indochina, and 22 tons of bombs for every square mile. Enormous craters dot the landscape in many regions covering dozens of square miles. Hundreds of villages were totally destroyed by bombs and napalm, forests over vast areas defoliated, making the land infertile for years, and crops destroyed, with little or no consideration for the needs of the people, merely on suspicion that some of the crop might benefit the enemy... The total number of people made refugees is more than 5 million... The rise of the refugee population in South Vietnam was partly due also to the past American policy of removing from countless villages, for strategic reasons, the entire population, and of putting these unfortunate people in what were called refugee camps or relocation centres.

(8) Jeff Needle was a Vietnam Veteran who protested against the war. When he returned to the United States he published and distributed a booklet called Please Read This.

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive.