United States Military Operations in the Vietnam War

 (Rolling Thunder Operation, 1965–1968)

Rolling Thunder Operation, 1965–1968


Many wars have been recorded in the history of civilization among the nations of the world. Many things can cause a country to wage war with another country. Various reasons prompted the war to occur, ranging from economic issues to political issues to religious issues. Even though war actually brings losses such as lives and materials that are countless, war is a physical and non-physical action between two or more groups of people to carry out dominance. In a narrow sense, war is a state of hostility characterized by the use of violence. This understanding can also be interpreted as an armed conflict.

The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, erupted in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. The history of the Vietnam War is part of the history of the Cold War between the two strong ideologies at that time, namely communism and capitalism. The Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, is pitted against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam. South Vietnam was supported by anti-communist countries such as the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, New Zealand, and other western countries. Meanwhile, North Vietnam was supported by pro-communist countries such as the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Cuba, North Korea, the People's Republic of China, and several other eastern bloc member countries. This war claimed one million lives for North Vietnam and nearly three hundred thousand lives for South Vietnam. During this war, there was a massive exodus, primarily to the United States and other western countries. France's withdrawal from Vietnam after the Geneva agreement in 1954 opened a wide opportunity for the United States to exert influence in Vietnam. The United States, which was trying to stem communism, then chose South Vietnam as a base to fight communism, which had become the ideology of North Vietnam. Even though South Vietnam's political situation was very unstable, the United States still insisted on carrying out its plan and began to strengthen the country in the military field.

Entering 1960, the United States and South Vietnam began to face threats in the form of acts of terror launched by the Viet Cong. The organization was supported by North Vietnam as well as being an extension of that country to realize Vietnam's unification. Due to the increasing threat in South Vietnam, the United States was forced to intervene by sending a growing number of troops. The role of the United States changed from being a military adviser to South Vietnam to being a security guard for that country.

The involvement of the United States in the conflict in Vietnam continued to increase in line with the increasing acts of terror carried out by the Viet Cong. Terrorist acts and the political situation in South Vietnam, which showed no signs of improvement, sparked a debate among policymakers in the United States Government about the best solution. Finally, in early 1965, a program was agreed upon to suppress North Vietnam in the form of an air attack operation called Operation Rolling Thunder.

Based on the background that has been described, the author focuses on Operation Rolling Thunder, which began in 1965 and ended in 1968. This topic aroused the author's interest because, in the protracted Vietnam War, the United States experienced a "multidimensional" failure when trying to apply the Water Supremacy Doctrine.
This case proves that the United States is not capable of fighting a guerrilla war with its superior war equipment. There are several stages that must be carried out in reconstructing historical events.


Background of the United States' Involvement in the Vietnam War As an implementation of the Truman Doctrine, the United States began providing assistance to the French Colonial Government in Vietnam since 1950. This assistance was not only financial assistance, but also assistance in the form of military advisors and war equipment. The move by the United States marked the first time the United States was involved in the conflict in Vietnam. This assistance to France was stopped after France withdrew from Vietnam after the Geneva agreement on July 20, 1954.

After the Geneva Agreement, Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam, which has a communist wing, received support from the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union, while South Vietnam received support from the United States. The two countries are separated by 17° North latitude. The political situation in South Vietnam was still not as stable as in most newly established countries. The United States overcame the situation by supporting an anti-communist figure named Ngo Dinh Diem. Ngo Dinh Diem, who had previously served as prime minister, won the election in 1955 and was elected President of South Vietnam. The Diem regime then carried out various brutal and repressive actions to quell various demonstrations and various subversive actions involving groups supporting North Vietnam. The repressive actions of the Diem Regime were exacerbated by the state of the South Vietnamese government, which was filled with corrupt and incompetent officials.

The situation in South Vietnam became even more chaotic after the Ngo Dinh Diem government ended in a bloody coup in November 1963, masterminded by the United States, which was tired of Diem's attitude. The chaos that followed Diem's death was caused by the election of incompetent politicians and a series of protests by various organizations in South Vietnam. This situation continued throughout 1964. The chaos was exacerbated by the increasing activity of the Viet Cong, which was building its power base in the rural areas of South Vietnam. The chaos in South Vietnam was followed by a North Vietnamese attack on two United States Navy destroyers in August 1964.

Even though North Vietnam's torpedoes missed, the United States still took action to deal with similar incidents in the future. The United States then launched a counterattack by destroying the Vietnamese Navy bases. The United States' response to the North Vietnamese attack was later confirmed in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was used as the justification for starting to attack North Vietnam and increasing its involvement. However, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks continued, and the United States did not take final, decisive action until 1964.

The unfavorable political situation in South Vietnam forced the United States government to delay increasing military action. A series of bloodless coups and demonstrations by Buddhists in South Vietnam occurred in early 1965. This unresolved problem continued to be a topic of debate between civilian and military circles within the United States government. The protracted chaos in South Vietnam was then followed by a surprise attack launched by the Viet Cong on a United States military installation in the Pleiku area. The attack that occurred on February 7, 1965, killed eight people and destroyed 20 aircraft.

The attack sparked a heated debate within the United States government regarding how to respond to the Viet Cong attack. Counterattacks were launched in early February, but the results were not satisfactory. On February 13, 1965, President Johnson approved the start of a new program to attack North Vietnam after considering the increasingly dire situation in South Vietnam and the increasing intensity of Viet Cong attacks. 9 The program was an air attack operation called Rolling Thunder.

Implementation of Operation Rolling Thunder

After going through various lengthy debates and a series of delays, Operation Rolling Thunder was launched for the first time on March 2, 1965. The first attack on several targets in North Vietnam was initially intended as an effort to counterattack in the event of a North Vietnamese attack. On March 15, 1965, the orientation of Operation Rolling Thunder was changed to a permanent programlaunched for the first time on March 2, 1965. The first attack on several targets in North Vietnam was initially intended as an effort to counterattack in the event of a North Vietnamese attack. On March 15, 1965, the orientation of Operation Rolling Thunder was changed to a permanent program. 11 This operation ran until the end of 1965, with relatively stagnant results. Operation Rolling Thunder continued and began to increase in June 1966 with the start of attacks on fuel storage centers in the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong.

Implementation of Operation Rolling Thunder

This new innovation in Operation Rolling Thunder lasted about a month and resulted in a reduction in North Vietnam's fuel storage capacity by up to 60 percent. Despite experiencing a large reduction in fuel capacity and more infrastructure being destroyed than the previous year, North Vietnam's fuel reserves were still more than sufficient to meet the needs of the war. As a result, Operation Rolling Thunder was seen as a failure by civilians.

The failure of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1966, which was followed by civil pessimism, did not immediately stop the operation. President Johnson nevertheless decided to continue the operation. The military, which is the main supporter of the program, continues to pressure the government to increase the level of Operation Rolling Thunder. Finally, the military's request was granted in March 1967. The orientation of Operation Rolling Thunder, which was originally only to destroy military targets, now includes targets in the form of various modern industries. These additional targets include power plants and factories. As a result of the destruction of modern industrial infrastructure, North Vietnam lost up to 87 percent of its power generation capacity. In addition, North Vietnam's reduced power generation capacity has also halted steel and cement production, which the country absolutely needs. Even so, North Vietnam still showed no signs of weakening, and even the infiltration of troops into South Vietnam had doubled compared to the previous year.

The End and Impact of the Implementation of Operation Rolling Thunder

Disputes between civilians and the military in determining how to end the Vietnam problem did not end, and bigger problems emerged in 1968. North Vietnam successfully launched a large-scale offensive in January 1968, which became known as the Tet Offensive. North Vietnam, which deployed up to 80,000 troops in the attack, was able to occupy half of the cities in South Vietnam. Although North Vietnam failed, having lost half of its troops, the offensive was politically successful as the United States was humiliated and proved a failure in protecting South Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive forced the United States to conduct a review of various war policies and various programs that had been carried out during the war. Various institutions and related agencies within the United States government were given the task of evaluating war policies. The results of various evaluations stated that Operation Rolling Thunder was deemed irrelevant and a waste, even though the military remained in its position that the operation was the main means that could be increased in order to obtain significant results.

After going through various considerations, President Johnson decided to reduce the attack in Operation Rolling Thunder on March 31, 1968. The area of operation was also limited to the 20O LU line, until finally Operation Rolling Thunder was fully stopped on October 31, 1968, in an effort to meet the requirements put forward by Hanoi to start negotiations.

Since 1966, Secretary of Defense Mc Namara has proposed a program to replace the ineffective Operation Rolling Thunder by constructing an anti-infiltration fence. This proposal began to be considered after a research institute called the Jason Division issued a report stating that Operation Rolling Thunder was completely unable to stop the infiltration of soldiers and logistics from North Vietnam. The Jason Division offered an alternative similar to Secretary McNamara's proposal to the United States Government.

The plan is for the anti-infiltration system to include a network of minefields covering tens of kilometers, the deployment of weapons on a large scale, and the installation of sensors that are entirely integrated with an air attack system. The proposed program was approved and realized in 1967 under the name "Operation Muscle Shoals," covering the areas of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Simultaneously with the end of Operation Rolling Thunder, various air attack operations in North Vietnam were diverted to Cambodia and Laos. The existence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in both countries was the main reason for diverting various air raid operations from North Vietnam.

Operations in Laos and Cambodia aim to destroy various targets in the form of traffic logistics systems, army camps, and mobile targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These operations were combined with Operation Muscle Shoals and became a continuous program until the time of President Richard Nixon. As a follow-up to the Vietnam War policy evaluation results, the United States Government, after ending Operation Rolling Thunder, immediately undertook the development of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces.

As a result of Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnam suffered very severe physical and non-physical destruction. Although there is no accurate data regarding the level of damage caused by various air attacks during the Rolling Thunder operation, Leslie J. Cullen stated in her thesis that the destruction really damaged the economy and infrastructure of North Vietnam. As a general illustration regarding the impact of Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnam suffered losses in the form of the destruction of 65 percent of fuel storage areas, a reduction of 41 percent of power generation capacity, and the destruction of 55 percent of the main crossing bridges. Apart from that, until October 1968, other losses were in the form of the destruction of 77 percent of the ammunition depots, 40 percent of the railway workshops, and 12,500 water transportation, 10,000 land vehicles, and 2,000 carriages and their locomotives.

Thanks to the Tet Offensive, followed by the cessation of Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnam was increasingly convinced that victory was on their side. Various reports in Hanoi stated that the United States had lost the will to go to war. If Hanoi succeeds in expelling the United States, Vietnam's unification goals can be realized.

The termination of Operation Rolling Thunder also provided a huge military advantage for North Vietnam. The end of Operation Rolling Thunder opened up a huge opportunity for North Vietnam to continue distributing logistics and troops to South Vietnam in larger numbers. Apart from that, the construction of infrastructure damaged by US airstrikes and the distribution of fuel, which had faltered, can finally be resumed. North Vietnam's airfields and air defense systems also saw an increase in numbers after Rolling Thunder ended. Improvements in air defense systems also occurred not only in North Vietnam but also in the Ho Chi Minh Trail region in Laos and Cambodia.


The various attacks launched by the Viet Cong and the political situation in South Vietnam that did not improve were the main triggers for the United States' full involvement in the Vietnam War. The United States finally overcame this problem by launching Operation Rolling Thunder as an effort to cut off the infiltration of troops and logistics from North Vietnam.

During its implementation, Operation Rolling Thunder underwent many changes. Originally, the operation tended to be counterattacking in nature. The nature of the operation changed to that of a regular, continuous operation in early 1965. Although Operation Rolling Thunder continued to increase in intensity during its implementation, it failed to achieve its objectives of stopping incursions and pressuring North Vietnam into negotiations.

The implementation of Operation Rolling Thunder ultimately brought various consequences for both the United States and North Vietnam. The operation in the United States hampered the domestic development program of President Lyndon B. Johnson and sparked the growth of the anti-war movement in the country. For North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder on the one hand caused very severe material and non-material damage to the country, but on the other hand, it also strengthened political conditions and increased North Vietnam's military strength during the Vietnam War.

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