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Operation Rolling Thunder

Posted on Wednesday, December 6, 2023
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by Matt Kane
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21 Comments
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U.S. Navy A-7B Corsairs armed with Shrike anti-radiation missiles, 1969
Two U.S. Navy Douglas A-7B Corsair II from attack squadron VA-25 Fist of the Fleet during an Ironhand mission over North Vietnam in 1969. VA-25 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing 16 (CVW-16) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) for a deployment to Vietnam from 1 February to 18 September 1969. Both aircraft are armed with Mk 82 bombs and AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles.

The Vietnam War is one of the most famous conflicts the United States has ever been involved with. It was a war that was very unpopular amongst the American public and resulted in mass casualties of countless young and brave Americans. While that is the cold, hard, unfortunate truth, the war itself still had many developments worth looking at through a historical lens.

Operation Rolling Thunder

Beginning in 1965, the United States military rolled out an operation called Operation Rolling Thunder, which was a codename for an American bombing campaign where U.S. military aircraft struck targets throughout Northern Vietnam. The purpose of this operation was to put military pressure on communist leaders in Northern Vietnam to weaken their ability to continue their war efforts. Operation Rolling Thunder was most significant because it was the first American attack on Northern Vietnam, which signaled a major escalation in United States involvement in the war was underway. The operation would eventually conclude in October of 1968.

Before Operation Rolling Thunder

Before Operation Rolling Thunder commenced, U.S. involvement in Vietnam began with supplying military equipment, aid, and other resources to Southern Vietnam to help in their efforts. In 1962, the U.S. began assisting in battle in a limited manner through the air when the Air Force began targeting Viet Cong bases by spraying chemicals, most notably Agent Orange throughout the jungle. In 1964, U.S. involvement expanded when President Johnson authorized retaliation strikes after U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin were attacked.

Controversy Around Rolling Thunder

The debates surrounding Operation Rolling Thunder over the years have been intense and complex, with historians offering various perspectives on the operation’s effectiveness and overall impact it had on the war. These viewpoints span from considerations for political constraints and gradual escalation, to the limited impact on North Vietnam’s ability to acquire war materials, its agricultural economy, and the unsuitability of conventional warfare approaches.

Many argue that officials in Washington, D.C. imposed numerous roadblocks, impeding the operation’s effectiveness due to their apprehensions about provoking China and the Soviet Union. Additionally, it is asserted that the gradual progression of efforts allowed Hanoi the time to adapt and formulate strategies to counter the evolving air defense system. Ultimately, critics contend that the bombings proved ineffective in impeding North Vietnam’s receipt of materials from China and the USSR. Some also question the U.S.’s reliance on conventional warfare strategies against an adversary with limited industrial bases.

North Vietnam’s Response to the Bombings

One of the controversies surrounding Operation Rolling Thunder was the gradual escalation in the plan, which afforded the opposition more time to devise a combative response. According to vietnamwar50th.com, in response to the bombings, North Vietnam implemented a plan to disperse its military assets throughout the country, making it more challenging for U.S. bombers to target on a large scale. Additionally, other government allies of Vietnam, such as the Hanoi government, were successful in delivering more materials that mitigated the structural damages resulting from the bombings. They quickly created bypasses and alternate routes for bridges, roads, and routes that had been disrupted by the bombings. Ultimately, China and the USSR supported North Vietnam with supplies, ammunition, weapons, and aircraft.

What Operation Rolling Thunder Led To

According to History.com, Operation Rolling Thunder eventually resulted in the expansion of the United States presence in Vietnam. While the U.S. was previously only targeting the southern portion of North Vietnam, they eventually began to target more northern areas. Just months after Operation Rolling Thunder began, the U.S. attacked much of northern Vietnam. In fact, by this time there were only a few areas considered “off-limits,” which signaled a noticeable increase in U.S. involvement compared to its initial strategy earlier on in the war.

Conclusion

Operation Rolling Thunder concluded on Halloween in 1968 after years of sustained bombings through numerous regions in Vietnam. There are differing opinions regarding the operation’s success, some crediting it with harming North Vietnam, while other’s claim it was largely ineffective in the grand scheme of the war. The Vietnam war continues to be considered one of, it not the most unpopular wars in U.S. history. Regardless, it is still a piece of American history that is important to look back on.

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Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
6 months ago

Vietnam was winnable IMHO. They did not bomb Hanoi or Haipong Harbor and bombings were run by he McNamara Whiz Kids from the Situation Room in DC not the military in the field. Instead of “shock and awe”, the war was dragged out over nearly 10 years.

Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
6 months ago

Important, well written article Mr.Kane, I am 73, something observed many times is that the truth of many issues can be obscured, distorted , twisted like a corkscrew by just not including certain information when the issue is discussed or reported by a news organization. There were people in South Vietnam who did not want communism in their government.There were some countries ,such as the United States, Australia, South Korea that tried to help South Vietnam keep the communists out of South Vietnam. The situation was complex on many levels and often made even more complex by the omission of facts when those facts should have been presented in the right way , at the right time in a responsible manner. You have done good with this writing here Matt , Well Done ! With respect.
. .

Melinda
Melinda
6 months ago

Hesitation to act, fear of offending other countries, and gradual escalation remind me that the Biden administration is trying to convince Israel to adopt this approach. It didn’t work then, it won’t work now. I hope Israel is strong enough and wise enough to not listen to the naysayers and just decimate Hamas et al.

Chris Pandel
Chris Pandel
6 months ago

Today, December 7th, is Pearl Harbor Day. Not much mention or commemorating of This day that will live in infamy anymore.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
6 months ago

I agree: tell Putin and Hamas to lay down their arms… Walla! Peace on earth.

Terrence Sheehan
Terrence Sheehan
6 months ago

I was on the USS Ranger in 67,68,69 in the Naval Air Wing for VA-147 an A7A Squadron. It was a political war not meant to be won. The cost was to great like every war since, get the politicians out of the way if you are not in it win stay out.

anna hubert
anna hubert
6 months ago

Vietnam war was not meant to be won Countless lives were lost all for naught Mostly of those who could not hide in college or behind orthodontics Those who returned were treated as murderers of civilians Hard to fight the enemy who is hiding amongst women and children like hamas today

Tommy
Tommy
6 months ago

The point of “Rolling Thunder” is what Nixon executed Christmas 1972 with Rolling Thunder II bombed N Vietnam back to stone age ~ ended the War ~ brought our POWs home ~ Congressional Pirates both sides of aisle pulled funding for our brave allies in South Vietnam ~ Read “Easter Offensive” before you sully rep of S. Vietnam Army ~ X-Marine who was there
Author of this article clueless

Jack
Jack
6 months ago

The primary reason Americans did not support this war was due largely to North American media coverage. There absolutely had to be Russian and/or Chinese ‘collusion’ to get such negative coverage night after night into American homes. . . for years! North American news media was NOT user-friendly to families of soldiers and sailors. It wasn’t until later (after most of the brainwashing and ‘peace protests’) that returning vets added gasoline to the fire by criticizing politicians. It turned into a war that could not be won after that.

Part of the truth that is usually not spoken of is manipulation of selective service which put poor kids on top of the list while kids with wealthier parents were able to avoid the draft. This DID happen and if you were a soldier drafted with other kids from poor families, you soon realized where you stood as an American fighting on a foreign battleground. Regardless of how this issue is sliced & diced, America lost that war and over 58,000 lives ( and counting ) largely because of misguided, useless, pig-headed and gutless politicians who had zero respect for their oath of office. And, America will likely lose the next war for the same damned reasons. Plan accordingly.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
6 months ago

It’s all on the up-n-up: like Hunters checks to the Big Guy, IT’S JUST A LOAN!

Steve
Steve
6 months ago

The Vietnam war was started based on lies by LBJ and the CIA. He also tried to have the USS LIBERTY sunk by the Israelis and say Egypt did it.

Casey C Matt
Casey C Matt
6 months ago

Man, the US has been doing “Operation Thunders” since…….the bogus ship blowing up in Havana Harbor that we turned into the Spanish American War. Our latest soon to be television mini series fodder has been done in a truly unique fashion in Ukraine. We don’t even use our fat, stupid, trans or gay soldiers to commit to our Operation Thunders now, instead we throw proxy armies into a bloody woodchipper of death on our behalf as in Ukraine.
God bless America.

Larry
Larry
6 months ago

Not sure if this article is totally correct. I never went to VN but a guy I knew who did was a Navigator on a Bomber. He said they had strict orders on targets they could not bomb in NVN. When they finished their primary targets they wanted to hit strategic targets in NVN. He said they were refused and just had to jettison their remaining bombs.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
6 months ago

Nixon should have revived Rolling Thunder since he did more post 1968 in Vietnam which lead to Peace talks
The 1972 Christmas bombings

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