March 2, 1965 - October 31, 1968

Operation Rolling Thunder was the first massive air campaign of the Vietnam War. The objective of the campaign was to demonstrate the might and determination of the United States military to the North Vietnam Army (NVA), and the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. It was hoped that this display of strength would cause Ho Chi Minh to abandon his attempts at taking control of South Vietnam.

This occured at a time when the United States was still encouraging peace negotiations with North Vietnam, while hoping to avoid confrontation with the North's main supporters (China and the Soviet Union). Strict rules of engagement were built into the bombing campaign. Bombers were not allowed to bomb within 25 miles of the China border, within 10 miles of Hanoi, or within 4 miles of the important North Vietnam sea port of Haiphong. To make things worse, the bombing of enemy air bases was forbidden, for fear of killing Soviet technicians. Basically, Rolling Thunder was designed to blow up the empty North Vietnam jungle.

These restrictions, coupled with the incredible destructive force of saturation bombing techniques, made Operation Rolling Thunder very unpopular. Military leaders considered it a very dangerous waste of resources. Politicians argued against the operation during the entirety of its existence. Worst of all, the shocking reports from New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury, which claimed the United States was deliberately attacking civilian targets, fueled anti-war sentiment in the United States.

As an operation with an unclear purpose, Rolling Thunder achieved no more than could be expected. North Vietnam refused to settle on any peace agreements, and the war in Vietnam continued to escalate. Each bombing halt President Lyndon Johnson ordered for political negotiations only allowed the NVA to rebuild what very few targets Rolling Thunder damaged.

Perhaps as a final proof of the failure of Rolling Thunder, it contributed to the largest single body of American prisoners of war (POW) - shot down aviators.

Following the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Johnson officially ended Operation Rolling Thunder. New bombing campaigns, namely Operation Arc Light, and Operation Linebacker II, pursued different objectives, with varying results.

Sources:
  • Dan's History - Air Power over Vietnam
  • http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil - Operation Arc Light

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