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Chapter Six
Rolling Thunder

On 5 March, 1965, on orders from President Lyndon Johnson, the United States initiated a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment against North Vietnam under the code name ROLLING THUNDER. Less noticed, but of comparable military importance, U.S. air forces immediately thereafter started an air interdiction campaign, under the code names STEEL TIGER and TIGER HOUND, against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the communist supply lines running from North to South Vietnam through southern Laos. From then until the final withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Vietnam in 1973,under President Richard Nixon, the use of U.S. air power against North Vietnamese targets was a major aspect of the war. In the event, America's seemingly overwhelming aerial might proved indecisive for reasons which remain as controversial today as was the bombing campaign at the time. Apparently mounted in response to renewed communist provocation - the Viet Cong attack on Pleiku air base on 7 February that had killed eight Americans and wounded 106 - ROLLING THUNDER and, to a lesser extent, the air campaign in Laos were the result of a prolonged debate within the inner circles of the Johnson Administration.

The decision to unleash American air power, a decision urged by the joint chiefs of staff and senior military leaders, had been hotly debated on military as well as political grounds. Some of Johnson's advisor who were the staunchest backers of American commitment to South Vietnam questioned the military efficacy of air attacks on the north and were reluctant to pay the diplomatic price that these would inevitably entail. Others, less willing to pay a heavy price for South Vietnam's independence, saw American air power as a quick and politically inexpensive way out. The military commanders charged with planning and executing the attacks saw the problem from yet another perspective: given the American policy of preserving South Vietnam's independence and presidential willingness to bomb North Vietnam, they looked at the air offensive in classic military terms: How could air power most effectively influence the outcome of the war in the south? Like many of the President's civilian advisors, they started from the assumption that the war in the south would quickly wither away in the absence of reinforcement and replenishment from the North. They thus envisioned the air campaign as an attack on enemy sources of war materiel and on the lines of supply along which materiel and manpower moved south. To them, ROLLING THUNDER STEEL TIGER and TIGER HOUND were part and parcel of the same effort. To many of Johnson's senior civilian advisors, however, they were not. To Secretary of Defense McNamara, in particular, the purpose of ROLLING THUNDER was to deliver a message to North Vietnam. By gradually increasing the pressure on the north, the United States would firmly, and in a controlled and precisely graduated manner, make it clear to Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues that a negotiated settlement was preferable to an increase in aerial destruction. At what point that final, decisive increase would come was uncertain, but there could be no doubt that come it would. America's overwhelming might left no doubt on that score. In the meantime, theimportant thing was to proceed deliberately and non-provocatively, to telegraph to Communist China and the Soviet Union that the United States was in pursuit of a negotiated settlement in the south, and not an overthrow of the regime in the north.

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