A poorly trained and ill-equipped Air Force was unable to shed its nuclear trappings or its political constraints to fight effectively during the Rolling Thunder campaign. However, by the Linebacker campaigns, an improved Air Force was ready with better training and equipment to exploit the lifting of political constraints, culminating in the most successful air effort of the Vietnam War-and setting the stage for the continual success of airpower. This is the central theme of Wayne Thompson's new book, To Hanoi and Back.
Thompson spent a number of years painstakingly preparing this book-and it shows. Using personal interviews, unit histories and numerous other primary sources-including many previously classified documents and transcripts-Thompson provides much more than a mere chronology of events in Vietnam. He tells the story of what happened, who did it, and why. The book is as much about politicians and policy-making in Washington as it is about the bomb dropping in Vietnam. Instead of approaching the civil-military relationship as a rivalry, as several authors on Vietnam have done, Thompson treats the two as parts of the same puzzle.
In the opening chapters, the author describes the Air Force that fought Rolling Thunder as hobbled by inappropriate equipment, poor training, inter- and intraservice rivalries, and a Johnson administration set on a strategy of gradualism. Thompson blames these problems on the fixation of U.S. policy on nuclear deterrence and preparing to fight the Soviets in the era before Vietnam. Because of this policy, the Air Force had essentially let its conventional capabilities whither to irrelevancy. This may explain why the Navy, who had kept its focus on conventional warfare, outperformed the Air Force in Rolling Thunder. In fact, Thompson argues the only capability setting the Air Force apart from naval aviation was the long-range, all-weather, high altitude radar bombing capability of the B-52 force.
Unfortunately, political constraints early in the war prevented the B-52s from performing strikes against vital centers in North Vietnam that the Air Force considered important. Instead, the bombing of North Vietnam was restricted to politically approved targets designed to "send signals" to the North Vietnamese. Thompson contests the wisdom of the strategy of gradualism employed by the White House during Rolling Thunder. He claims that it gave the enemy time to adapt to the pattern of bombing, to relocate vital supplies and infrastructure away from the bombing, and to build defenses. In a chapter entitled, "Gradualism on Trial," the author introduces the reader to the pressures placed upon President Johnson. Johnson believed gradualism was prudent in order to avert Chinese or Soviet intervention. Other pressures included the need to preserve the impression in the minds of Congress and the American people that the war was not escalating, but was well in hand. In the end, Thompson concludes, "American airmen paid a high price for gradualism." He may be too harsh on gradualism, given the concerns of the president. Certainly, Thomas Schelling makes an excellent case for gradualism.
The author argues that the Air Force that fought the Linebacker campaigns was very different from the one that started Rolling Thunder. By the time Linebacker came about, airmen had already implemented fixes to many of the problems that Rolling Thunder helped them identify. These changes included reinstalling guns on fighter aircraft, the introduction of laser-guided precision munitions, improved aircrew training from the Fighter Weapons Schools and Red Flag exercises, and a new president ready to authorize deep strikes with B-52s. To Hanoi and Back concludes with a brief chapter that credits the success of American airpower in Desert Storm, and later operations, to the lessons learned in Vietnam-particularly in the failures of Rolling Thunder. The air commanders in Desert Storm were Vietnam veterans, and President Bush was careful to avoid micromanaging tactical affairs. Airpower was centralized under a single commander, and precision-guided standoff weapons were fully employed. Moreover, airmen could "go downtown" on opening night. All of these elements were missing in Rolling Thunder, but were present in Linebacker-and Desert Storm. The weakest part of Thompson's book is his strong advocacy that B-52s used in an unrestricted fashion against North Vietnam at the outset of Rolling Thunder might have hastened the war's end, if not an outright victory. Such an argument is counterfactual and does not take into account airpower's inability to affect the independent insurgency fought by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, other than interdicting supplies. Moreover, there is little historical evidence that suggests that airpower can execute a decisive decapitation strategy. Thompson's writing style is highly appealing and reminiscent of some of Tom Clancy's works. He is not only writing a history, he is also telling a story. Over the course of the book, Thompson introduces his readers to several people; politicians, generals, and airmen. He takes the time to provide short biographies of each person he introduces. This helps set the context for the events he discusses, plus adds compelling human interest stories along the way, but none more interesting than the harrowing saga of American prisoners of war. Not only is their story important in its own right, but the author provides insight into the political maneuvering that secured their release.
I strongly recommend To Hanoi and Back to anyone interested in the air war over Vietnam-or politics during this timeframe. It is a marvelous telling of a history that teaches many lessons. This book is particularly fascinating because it discusses the frustrations that airmen faced at the operational and strategic levels of warfare-averted in Desert Storm, but repeated in Allied Force. For those who are interested, also consider adding Thomas Schelling's Arms and Influence, Mark Clodfelter's The Limits of Airpower, Robert Pape's Bombing to Win, John Warden's The Air Campaign, and Ben Lambeth's The Transformation of American Airpower. These books will present arguments and counter-arguments that will help round out an understanding of the issues surrounding modern airpower.