Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966

By Niesen, Paul G. | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966


Niesen, Paul G., Air & Space Power Journal


Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966 by Jacob Van Staaveren. Air Force History and Museums Program (http://www.air forcehistory.hq.af.mil/publications.htm), 200 McChord Street, Box 94, Boiling AFB, Washington, D.C. 20332-1111, 2002, 388 pages, $60.00 (hardcover).

I have a vague recollection of hearing about the early years of the Vietnam War when I was growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. The war was in one of those faraway places, like Chicago or Kansas City-only warmer, and it rained more there. I heard about the first Operation Linebacker years later, as I went through ROTC. At that point, the question of whether Linebacker was a success or failure never made an impression on me. The point my instructors drove home was the intense control exerted by the civilian leadership over military operations. Moving through my Air Force career, I studied further aspects of the first Linebacker as part of my military education and in relation to my various jobs in readiness, weather, and operations. But the best overall coverage I've seen to this date is in Gradual Failure.

Clausewitz reminds us that war is an instrument of politicians. Many orders in-theater originated as decisions in headquarters thousands of miles from the front lines-in the Oval Office, operations centers in the Pentagon, or conference rooms in Hawaii or other locations. Van Staaveren effectively captures the thoughts of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Gen Earle G. Wheeler (then the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff), and other prominent leaders and political figures.

The author's discussion of the attacks against North Vietnamese surface-to-air (SAM) missiles in 1966 is particularly striking. He addresses both the initial indecisiveness of American civilian leaders with regard to striking the SAMs and the subsequent limitations they placed on Air Force and Navy aircrews who targeted the missiles. American air planners realized the threat the SAMs represented and made plans to attack them-something that we take for granted today. But Van Staaveren vividly recounts how President Johnson and Secretary McNamara's desire to limit operations, always under the guise of not wanting to draw China or the Soviet Union into the war, stymied the effectiveness of military operations. …

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