The US government’s bombing campaign across Northern Vietnam was tightly controlled and never given the freedom to strike targets that would cripple communist supply lines.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, devised a plan for the sustained bombing of Northern Vietnam. The bombing campaign would gradually increase in intensity with the view of putting the Northern Vietnamese government under sufficient pressure that they would be forced to come to the negotiating table to end the fiery rain from above. Bundy’s plan would come to be known as “Rolling Thunder”. The initial plans outlined 94 targets that would be targeted across a period of 11 weeks.
Johnson imposed strict limits on McGeorge Bundy’s bombing campaign. Johnson refused to allow the destruction of targets within 30 miles of Hanoi, the Northern capital. He also refused to allow the bombing of targets within 10 miles of Haiphong, the industrial heart of Northern Vietnam. Finally, Johnson did not want targets selected anywhere near the Chinese border. He was fearful of drawing Chinese forces into the conflict. Despite destroying 77% of Northern Vietnamese ammunition depots and 66% of power plants by the end of 1965, Johnson’s bombing campaign was ineffective. The Northern Vietnamese continued to fight on.
Johnson’s bombing campaign was not ineffective because of its limited scope. The widespread destruction of Northern Vietnamese ammunition depots and power plants demonstrates this. It was ineffective at disrupting weapon supplies for two reasons. Firstly, the communists could import Chinese and Soviet-made AK47 rifles across their northern border. Even with their ammunition depots destroyed, a steady stream of weapons and bullets entered the country through China uninterrupted. No amount of bombing could stop the communists’ international allies resupplying depleted ammunition stocks. Johnson’s bombing was also ineffective against Vietnamese supply routes because the leadership in Washington were clueless about how these routes operated. Around the planning table in Washington, the military advisers believed the Ho Chi Minh trail was a single, well-travelled route south that communists used to transport weapons and goods. This was not the case. The Ho Chi Minh trail was an extensive network of jungle paths. As soon as one bridge or path was destroyed in a US bombing raid, the supplies were simply diverted onto another path. This style of logistical support is almost impossible to destroy from aerial attacks alone. Makeshift bridges were erected overnight, and the flow of weapons, ammunition, and explosives continued unhindered. In 1965, the head of the communist army, General Giap, signed an agreement with the Chinese government that saw the Chinese army send some of their best engineering units to help repair bridges, roads, and railways. Similarly, the Northern Vietnamese government’s headquarters were not one single established facility. They were a constantly moving, mobile unit of individuals, who carried out their meetings in tunnels within the jungle. This made the leadership like ghosts. Immune to the falling American bombs.
If Johnson had not limited the scope of the bombing campaign and allowed the air force unlimited freedom to strike targets in Northern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the US could have bombed the communists to the negotiating table.
There was logic behind the decision to limit the aerial campaign. The Chinese put tens of thousands of military personnel in Vietnam, illustrating their willingness to fight. Had the Chinese government interpreted bombing raids near their borders, or across the border in Laos and Cambodia, as an act of aggression, it is not beyond the realms of plausibility that it would have entered the war on the side of the Vietnamese. Many argue that the Chinese were in no position in the 1960s to wage war with the Americans for the second time in just over a decade. But China was in far worse shape in 1950, coming off the back of its own civil war, yet it entered the Korean conflict on the side of North Korea. The Chinese had also invested large sums of money moving their own industries away from the coastline, into the mountains in an attempt to make the economy less vulnerable to bombing. There were clear signs that Johnson had to be wary of irking the Chinese government lest he found himself fighting two enemies instead of one.