No one can conclude, after looking carefully at the impact of our military strategy in Southeast Asia, that we are fighting a war against an army. Instead, we are waging a war against a people and the land they live on. The enormity of our attack upon the Vietnamese environment has, for me, changed entirely the logic with which one evaluates the morality and even the efficiency of our operation there…. The central question is now a simple one: How can we claim to be acting on behalf of people when our action itself is prohibiting a future for them?
Donald Kennedy, chairman of the department of biological sciences at Stanford University, introduced a 1971 study on the effects of the American chemical war in Vietnam with these words:
Public opinion shifted during the war. In the fall 1964 election, a majority of Americans voted for a presidential candidate who promised not to send “our boys” to Vietnam. Once combat troops were sent, however, the majority endorsed the war, in keeping with patriotic support for American troops abroad. A Gallup poll taken in June 1965 reported that 66% favored continued U.S. military involvement as opposed to 20% who favored withdrawal. Only one year later, support for the war had begun to wane. A Gallup poll taken in June 1966 reported 48% in favor of continued involvement and 35% in favor of withdrawal.
South Vietnam suffered in more ways. Some 1,200,000 people were forcibly relocated through “pacification” programs and five million became refugees between 1964 to 1975. The urban population swelled from 15 percent in 1964 to 40 percent in 1968, to 65 percent in 1974, undermining the social fabric of the country. Normally a rice exporter, South Vietnam had to import 725,000 tons of rice in 1967. Hunger and starvation were side effects of the war. The U.S. also conducted its chemical war in the south, spraying nineteen million gallons of toxins on five million acres, with some parts of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia sprayed as well. The debilitating effects of this chemical war still linger.
Reorienting American thinking about the war was an uphill climb. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War was raised on heroic World War II stories, pumped full of national pride, and indoctrinated to believe in the benevolence of American foreign policies. Still, the purported “threat” of a communist-led government in a small country halfway around the world did not elicit the same fighting spirit as defending the nation in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This was true for the general population as well – the necessity of the war was not obvious. Hence, the administration had to work assiduously to persuade the public that developments in Vietnam did indeed pose a dire threat to the security of the United States as well as to the survival of the so-called Free World.
U.S. pilots also had to evade surface-to-air missiles and sometimes MiG-17s, which made precision bombing even less likely. North Vietnamese encryption specialists were often able to intercept American communications, resulting in foreknowledge of attacks. An estimated 900 U.S. warplanes were shot down or lost over North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder. Luu Huy Chao, a North Vietnamese fighter pilot trained in China, personally shot down four U.S. aircraft with his twenty-year-old MiG-17, which flew half the speed of American F-105s but was more maneuverable. This earned him a meeting with Ho Chi Minh, who told him, “don’t be overconfident. You must be extra careful when you fight the Americans. They come from a very advanced country and their aircraft are much faster and more powerful. Even so we can deal with them if we keep up our spirit and never lose courage.”
Following raids in Dai Lai village in the rural Thai Binh province (southeast of Hanoi) in October 1967, French journalist Gerard Chaliand witnessed men and women weeping as they swept debris from the floors of destroyed homes and recounted how their neighbors had been burned alive by the fires. Bui Van Nguu, age forty-six, told Chaliand that he had been outdoors making brooms for the cooperative when a bomb exploded in his kitchen, burying his three children. The only thing left of them was mangled limbs, shreds of flesh, and the ear of his eldest daughter which was found in a garden seven yards away. Rescue teams in the village dug out many other children who had been buried alive, burned to shreds, or asphyxiated in the bombing massacre that was one of many in the war. A woman who had lost her parents and six siblings in the bombing of Phy Le told visiting peace activist David Dellinger to “ask your president Johnson if our straw huts were made of steel and concrete” (as LBJ claimed) and to ask him if “our Catholic church that was destroyed was a military target….Tell him that we will continue our life and struggle no matter what future bombings there will be because we know that without independence and freedom, nothing is worthwhile.”
Twenty-seven months of US bombing of North Vietnam have had remarkably little effect on Hanoi’s over-all strategy in prosecuting the war, on its confident view of long-term Communist prospects, and on its political tactics regarding negotiations. The growing pressure of US air operations has not shaken the North Vietnamese leaders’ conviction that they can withstand the bombing and outlast the US and South Vietnam in a protracted war of attrition. Nor has it caused them to waver in their belief that the outcome of this test of will and endurance will be determined primarily by the course of the conflict on the ground in the South, not by the air war in the North.
On October 31, 1968, with the antiwar movement in full-swing and public opinion having turned against the war, President Johnson ended Operation Rolling Thunder, hoping to boost the presidential prospects of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Republican candidate Richard Nixon won the election and continued this official halt, while increasing the bombing of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He nonetheless wanted DRV leaders in Hanoi to believe that he was ready to employ all means necessary to win the war, perhaps even nuclear weapons. According to Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon had confided to him:
National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy claimed in Foreign Affairs (January 1967) that the bombing of the North was “the most accurate and restrained in modern warfare.” Eyewitnesses, however, pointed to the bombing of hospitals, schools, Buddhist pagodas, agricultural cooperatives, administrative buildings, fishing boats, dikes, and a leper colony and sanitarium, resulting in the death of an estimated 52,000 to 180,000 civilians. Nam Dinh, Vietnam’s third largest city in North Vietnam, was “made to resemble the city of a vanished civilization,” according to New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury, despite being a center for silk and textile production, not war-related production. In Vinh (population 72,000), the destruction was akin to the German city of Dresden in World War II. This included nearly all homes, thirty-one schools, the university, four hospitals, the main bookstore and cinema, two churches, an historic 18th century Buddhist pagoda that served as the cultural center of the city, a museum of the revolution, and the 19th century imperial citadel.
While U.S. policymakers agonized over the decision to bomb the North out of fear of drawing in the Soviets or Chinese, there was no such constraint on bombing the South. The United States dropped almost twice the tonnage of bombs on its ally, South Vietnam, an area two-thirds the size of Great Britain, as it did on all countries in World War II. According to the historian and former U.S. Air Force pilot, James P. Harrison, “Most of the bombs (about 4 million tons) and virtually all of the defoliants were dropped on our ally … In South Vietnam over half of the forests and 9,000 or 15,000 hamlets were heavily damaged.