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After more than a decade of providing assistance to the government of South Vietnam, the United States expanded its involvement in the Vietnamese conflict with the start of Operation Rolling Thunder on March 2, 1965. The bombing raids escalated the scope of destruction approved by President Lyndon Johnson, allowing the US Air Force (USAF) to strike strategic targets within North Vietnam and suspected hideouts for the Communist-backed Viet Cong rebels, a prelude to wider participation by ground forces.
During the mid-1950s, Vietnam existed as two separate nations divided by a demilitarized zone put in place at the close of the First Indochina War in 1954. Stretching across the landscape just south of the 17th parallel, the line gave the Viet Minh-led Communist government in Hanoi control of the North and allowed the US-allied South to have its own administration in Saigon. By 1956, groups of Viet Cong guerillas hoping to unite the two halves into a Communist whole were undermining the South Vietnamese, driving President Dwight D. Eisenhower to offer military and financial aid to the fledgling government.
Following World War II, the US established a policy of containing the spread of Communist ideology anywhere in the world. Believing Southeast Asia particularly susceptible to the domino effect, Eisenhower acted within his power to send American advisers in support of the South Vietnamese armed forces in 1957 with the provision more units would become available as the government stabilized. Once it became clear during late 1963 that supply lines from the North provided the Viet Cong with a decided advantage in the quest to topple Saigon, President Lyndon Johnson had little choice but to offer further assistance -- the main question would be how to do so.
Though many in his Cabinet were behind a bombing campaign to roll back Communist advances and keep the democratically-elected South Vietnam government intact, reservations about an intervention by the Soviet Union prevented Johnson from going forward. In the summer of 1964, aggression against the US Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin forced his hand. When he ordered bombing sorties carried out in retaliation, the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the US military pushed for more.
Johnson refused to budge. Small-scale missions continued periodically as the Viet Cong launched attacks on American air bases in February 1965, but there was no real strategy in place for bombing. Three days after a second assault on US personnel in less than a week, Johnson assented to the military’s request for a larger campaign on February 13th. Code-named Operation Rolling Thunder, the plan called for two months of raids on Viet Cong camps and aid stations along the southern edge of North Vietnam.
Two weeks later, a hundred aircraft from the USAF and South Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) launched the first bombing runs against a munitions dump in Xom Bang on March 2, 1965. Within hours, another squadron of VNAF planes hit Quang Khe Naval Base. While suffering heavy damage from the air, the North Vietnamese defenders managed to down six enemy aircraft, an ominous sign for the future of Rolling Thunder.
Early on, Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara exercised close control of target approval and mission density, much to the chagrin of officers sending pilots into harms way over Southeast Asia and arguing around conference tables in Washington, DC for attacks on specific sites. Among several inexplicable decisions by the President, bombing of North Vietnamese airfields was strictly prohibited, a counterintuitive choice according to even the least experienced military commanders -- dominating the skies would make bombing easier.
At the beginning of April, the situation changed rapidly for both sides. The North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) started organized defensive patrols using MiG-17s manufactured in the Soviet Union. And, with 3,500 Marines on the ground near Da Nang from March 8th, Air Force and Navy pilots were soon diverted into support roles for men cutting through the thick jungle in pursuit of the Viet Cong.
With the mission constantly evolving from then on, patrols over roadways in search of targets of opportunity and missions to cut off North Vietnamese communications were added to the list. Initially launched in a bid to push leadership in Hanoi to the negotiating table, Operation Rolling Thunder never managed to force more than a half-hearted proposal for talks from Pham Van Dong, the Premier of North Vietnam.
During the course of Operation Rolling Thunder, more than 643,000 pounds of munitions were dropped on North Vietnam. Even though it was designed as an eight-week mission, the bombing effort continued with brief pauses until public pressure forced Johnson to halt the attacks for good on October 31, 1968 -- three-and-a-half years later than intended. With heavy artillery fire and surface-to-air missiles elevating the danger as the months passed, Americans could not stomach the loss of some 900 planes and dozens of pilots. The shifting tides of sentiment amongst the people were a wake-up call for politicians: anti-war protests would become increasingly common in the coming months and years.
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