On 2 March 1965, the US Air Force, the US Navy, and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) began Operation Rolling Thunder, a gradual and sustained bombing campaign over North Vietnam that lasted for three years and eight months, ending on 2 November 1968. This massive bombardment was intended to put military pressure on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) leaders and reduce their capacity to wage war against the US-supported Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Operation Rolling Thunder marked the first sustained American assault on North Vietnamese territory and represented a major expansion of US involvement in the Second Indochina War.
By the end of Operation Rolling Thunder, US aircraft had flown 153,784 sorties against North Vietnam, with the Navy and Marine Corps adding another 152,399 attacks. Towards the end of the campaign, the US Department of Defense announced that 864,000 tons of American bombs had been dropped on North Vietnam during the operation.
However, in general, Operation Rolling Thunder succeeded most in exposing key problems in US military strategy. Perhaps of greatest importance was American underappreciation of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) defences throughout North Vietnam. According to author and former national security correspondent Stephen Budiansky in his book Code Warriors (2016), “…captured documents showed that the North Vietnamese had at least thirty to forty-five minutes’ warning of 80 to 90 per cent of Rolling Thunder missions.” The North Vietnamese signals intelligence staff of 5,000 “proved as adept at exploiting traffic analysis as the NSA was. Every US bombing mission was preceded by an upsurge of traffic involving logistics, ordnance loading, weather flights, and aerial refuelling tankers, and even if none of the content of the signals was readable, the pattern was a dead giveaway.” Additionally, “nearly all radio communications of the US air operations used unencrypted tactical voice.”
Before Operation Rolling Thunder even began, the DRV leadership knew what was coming. It issued a February 1965 directive to the military and the population to “maintain communication and transportation and to expect the complete destruction of the entire country, including Hanoi and Hai Phong.” The communist leadership declared “a people’s war against the air war of destruction…each citizen is a soldier, each village, street and plant a fortress on the anti-American battlefront.” All except those deemed “truly indispensable to the life of the capital” were evacuated to the countryside.
By 1967, Hanoi’s population had been reduced by half.
On 8 March 1964, shortly after Operation Rolling Thunder had started, President Johnson committed the first 3,500 US Marines as ground troops to the Vietnam War (fig. 1). Although their initial mission was to ostensibly defend air bases in South Vietnam that were being used in the bombing campaign from Đà Nẵng air base, the troops’ role soon expanded to include engaging the Vietnamese communists in active combat. From that point onward, the aerial campaign became a secondary operation, overwhelmed by troop deployments and the escalation of ground operations in South Vietnam.