When the United States entered the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, it had
the world’s most powerful air force. But unlike past wars when the enemy
was clearly defined, the nature of this war was much murkier and there
was hesitation to use airpower to "bomb them back into the Stone Age" as
one general irresponsibly recommended. Throughout the years of the
conflict, generals and government officials often misconstrued the
situation or solution, leading to a confusing policy and eventual
The United States promised to support former French Indochina when the
French pulled out of its colony in 1954 after a nine-year war for
independence. Indochina was divided into four countries: Laos, Cambodia,
North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. But North Vietnam quickly became a
communist nation, as one of the leaders of the independence movement,
the charismatic Ho Chi Minh, took control of the nation. In 1959, he
announced he was going to reunify Vietnam as a Communist nation. To
achieve this goal, he gave military assistance to the Viet Cong
(Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam) and began a civil war in South
what was called the "domino theory," the United States believed that if
South Vietnam fell to the Communists, the other democratic nations in
Asia would follow, creating a massive Communist empire. To prevent this,
the United States sent the Military Assistance Advisory Group to the
region in the early 1960s to train the South Vietnam Army to defend
itself. Air force advisors arrived with a variety of planes on which to
train the South Vietnamese Air Force in aerial tactics and techniques.
However the boundaries of this "advisory" capacity began to blur as the
Americans themselves were allowed to fly reconnaissance and close air
support flights against the Viet Cong as long as at least one South
Vietnamese was aboard the plane.
August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, a U.S. Navy destroyer on electronic
intelligence patrol in the Tonkin Gulf, was attacked by three communist
patrol boats. Although the details of the incident were sketchy and
sometimes incorrect, this was the excuse the United States was looking
for to become fully involved. On August 7, Congress passed the Tonkin
Gulf resolution, authorizing President Lyndon B. Johnson to "take all
necessary measures" to repel attacks on the United States. Jets from the
aircraft carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation took off for the first
bombing raids against patrol boat bases and an oil storage depot. The
raids were considered successful, but a plane was lost. The pilot,
Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, Jr., became the first of nearly 600 downed
American airmen who would be held as prisoners of war (POWs) by the
Communists. Alvarez was not released until the peace treaty was signed
eight years later.
Viet Cong raids against American installations began to increase. As a
result, in March 1965, Johnson ordered a bombing campaign, Rolling
Thunder, to break the will of the Communists. U.S. Air Force units
stationed in South Vietnam flew the first raids. The air force requested
two units of Marines to protect their bases. The build-up of U.S.
military units was beginning.
From the beginning, there were many problems with the organization of
Rolling Thunder, making success almost impossible. The targets were
selected during Tuesday lunches at the White House in Washington.
Attending the meetings were President Johnson and his civilian advisors
and beginning in 1967, military representatives. These advisors chose
the targets, tactics, timing, number of aircraft, and ordnance.
Personnel in Vietnam could request targets, but by the time the request
worked its way through Washington, the quick-moving Viet Cong would have
left the area. This micromanagement from across the world by civilian
personnel angered many. Curtis LeMay likened it to a hospital
administrator performing brain surgery.
Aerial photo of bomb damage to a
1965, jet aircraft also began to arrive. The first were the Republic
F-105 Thunderchiefs, large fighter-bombers with limited manoeuvrability.
They were soon replaced by McDonnell F-4 Phantom IIs. Descended from the
McDonnell FH-1 Phantom, a single-seat carrier-based jet fighter, design
changes made the F-4 the air force’s main jet-engine fighter. These
two-seaters allowed for weapon system officers (WSOs) who could manage
the planes’ radar systems, especially for air-to-air missiles. The
Phantoms were the only equal to the aircraft the Soviet Union supplied
to the North Vietnamese Air Force with--the MiG-21 Fishbed.
During the Vietnam War, MiG-21s
were often used against U.S. aircraft. Between April 26, 1965, and
January 8, 1973, USAF F-4s and B-52s downed 68 MiG-21s.
Vietnam marked the end of the legend of the ace. There were only five
aces in Vietnam. This was a result of the North Vietnamese pilots
avoiding situations that might involve dogfighting. The rules of
engagement also demanded that U.S. pilots have visual confirmation of
any enemy aircraft before engaging, which was too close for air-to-air
missiles to be effective, and until late in the war the fighters were
not armed with guns. And both the U.S. Air Force and the navy found
their training programs were not good enough for jet-age fighting. After
the war this was remedied with the creation of the Navy Top Gun and the
U.S. Air Force Red Flag programs.
The B-52D, shown dropping bombs
in this photo, was used extensively in Southeast Asia beginning in the
mid-1960s. Operating from Andersen AFB, Guam, and later U-Tapao Royal
Thai Air Base, the B-52 was a major component of many operations
including Arc Light, Iron Hand, Rolling Thunder, Linebacker and
Electronic warfare became extremely important in Vietnam. The United
States used large numbers of laser and television-guided bombs to hit
difficult targets. And in 1965, the North Vietnamese began to build a
massive surface-to-air missile (SAM) arsenal. SAM sites were always the
first facilities rebuilt after bombings, although the strict rules of
engagement allowed bombing them only if they were at least 30 miles (48
kilometres) outside a city and their radar was turned on. The American
response was the Wild Weasels. Originally modified F-100 Super Sabres
but later F-4Gs, the Wild Weasels carried equipment to detect
electromagnetic energy in order to identify and destroy SAM sites.
Because they could only detect radar that was turned on, their success
forced the North Vietnamese to discover other ways to aim the SAMs that
would not require activating the radar.
F-105. This Wild Weasel F-105 is
returning from its 100th mission over North Vietnam in November 1968
Airborne warning and controls system (AWACS) planes were also an
essential component of the air war. The first AWACS planes were Lockheed
EC-121s that had been designed to spot Soviet nuclear bombers as they
approached North America. In Vietnam their mission changed to finding
enemy fighters, through radar and interrogating radio transponders, to
determine location and nationality of each plane. They also directed
U.S. aircraft to aerial refuelling tankers and guided rescue planes to
downed pilots. In October 1967, an EC-121 guided a U.S. fighter to the
successful interception of a North Vietnamese MiG-21, the first time an
airborne controller had directed a successful kill.
For many, the Vietnam War evokes the sound of helicopter blades
whirling. Helicopters were involved in all aspects of the war. Bell,
manufacturer of the Bell UH-1 Huey, had hoped to sell 500 of the
helicopter; instead it sold more than 15,000. The Huey was flexible
enough to be used for everything from rescuing downed airmen to cargo.
Airmobile units, considered the most significant ground war development
since tanks, consisted of ground troops transported by helicopters.
Although they demanded a large fleet of helicopters, this style of
warfare made ground troops extremely mobile and effective. Helicopters,
as well as transport aircraft, were also given heavy armament so they
could serve as gunships, which could fly over a target and blast away at
it, relieving pressure on ground troops.
But the question of bombing never went away, even though Rolling Thunder
had ended in November 1968, when North Vietnam agreed to certain
concessions. Bombings did not start up again until North Vietnam sent
mechanized units into South Vietnam in spring of 1972. President Richard
Nixon suspended peace talks and ordered the Linebacker raids to slow
down the enemy’s advance and ruin its logistical support by bombing fuel
depots, bridges, and power plants. By the fall, the North Vietnamese
were severely hindered in its ability to fight but Linebacker was halted
when peace negotiations began again in October. When North Vietnam left
the negotiations in December, Nixon again ordered a bombing campaign.
But this time he brought in B-52s to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong. These
bombings, named Linebacker II, lasted for 11 days until January 1973
when the peace talks resumed. The cease-fire was signed on January 23,
1973. Except for a small contingent to protect American interests,
American troops went home.
Flight from Saigon as
Communists take over in 1975.
1975, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam again, conquering the country
in two months. The United States refused to intervene. As the Communists
approached Saigon, the U.S. ambassador ordered all Americans and some
Vietnamese to evacuate. For 18 hours on April 29, 70 Marine helicopters
evacuated 1,000 Americans and 7,000 Vietnamese from Saigon to aircraft
carriers in the South China Sea. The largest helicopter evacuation in
history closed the book on America’s most disastrous overseas action.