The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

By Mark Clodfelter | Go to book overview

Preface and Acknowledgments

On April 10, 1988, Richard M. Nixon told NBC's Meet the Press that his greatest mistake as President was not Watergate but his failure to bomb and mine North Vietnam early in 1969 as he later did in 1972. "If we had done that then," he said, "I think we would've ended the war in 1969 rather than in 1973."

The former President's sentiments are not unique. Indeed, most of the war's high-ranking air commanders share them. The conviction that massive bombing of the North could have won the war in 1969—or 1965—has permeated today's Air Force and reinforces a doctrine that emphasizes victory through strategic bombing. The signing of the peace treaty less than a month after Nixon's "Linebacker Π" bombing offensive, in which B-52s and fighter aircraft dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam's heartland in eleven days, indicates to many that air power alone ended the conflict. An excerpt from a staff sergeant's 17 March 1988 letter in Stars and Stripes typifies the current Air Force perception of the December 1972 air campaign: "In retrospect, Linebacker II erased all doubts that the Vietnam War could have been won. Unfortunately, there was nothing done in 1972 that could not have been done in 1965."

The President and the staff sergeant both ignore the essence of why bombing "worked" in 1972—because it was the proper instrument to apply, given Nixon's specific goals and the political and military situation that then existed. The President had two aims in 1972, and both were limited: an American withdrawal that did not abandon South Vietnam to an imminent Communist takeover and, after October, convincing South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would back the South if the North resumed hostilities. Having received a free hand in Vietnam from the Chinese and Soviets, Nixon could apply air power without many of the restraints plaguing his predecessor. Moreover, for the first time

-xiii-

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The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
  • I - From Unconditional Surrender to Flexible Response 1
  • II - The Genesis of Graduated Thunder 39
  • III - An Extended Application of Force 73
  • IV - Restraints and Results, 1965–68 117
  • V - Nixon Turns to Air Power 147
  • VI - Persuading Enemy and Ally: the Christmas Bombings 177
  • VII - Assessment 203
  • VIII - Epilogue 211
  • Notes 225
  • Bibliography 277
  • Index 299
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