McNamara on the Bombing of North Vietnam

McNamara on the Bombing of North Vietnam

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The secretary of Defense Robert McNamara appeared before the press to defend the bombing of the Major North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. The bombings were supposed to deprive the military from essential supplies. The bombings showed the United States the resilience of the North Vietnamese, and that the war wasn't going to end as quickly as they hoped.

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Award-winning streaming service of full-length docs for the likes of history buffs, royal watchers, cinema aficionados & train enthusiasts. Visit British Pathé now represents the Reuters historical collection, which includes more than 136,000 items from 1910 to 1984. Start exploring!

June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes Pentagon Papers

The New York Times publishes excerpts from a secret Pentagon study leaked by Daniel Ellsberg of the RAND Corporation to journalist Neil Sheehan. Ellsberg had worked in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The study, later known as the “Pentagon Papers,” had been commissioned by McNamara and completed in 1968. It focused on how policy and tactical decisions had been made during the war. Between 30 and 40 writers and researchers participated in the 40-volume project, producing 3,000 pages of analysis and compiling 4,000 pages of original documents. After the Times publishes its first article on the papers, the US government goes to great lengths to block additional stories. But on June 30, the US Supreme Court rules in a 6-3 decision in favor of the New York Times. [New York Times, 6/13/1971 National Security Archives, 6/29/2001 Vietnam Veterans of America, 4/15/2004] The June 13 Times article reports that the Pentagon Papers included the following conclusions:
“That the Truman Administration decision to give military aid to France in her colonial war against the Communist-led Vietminh ‘directly involved’ the United States in Vietnam and ‘set’ the course of American policy.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That the Eisenhower Administration’s decision to rescue a fledgling South Vietnam from a Communist takeover and attempt to undermine the new Communist regime of North Vietnam gave the Administration a ‘direct role in the ultimate breakdown of the Geneva settlement’ for Indochina in 1954.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That the Kennedy Administration, though ultimately spared from major escalation decisions by the death of its leader, transformed a policy of ‘limited-risk gamble,’ which it inherited, into a ‘broad commitment’ that left President Johnson with a choice between more war and withdrawal.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That the Johnson Administration, though the president was reluctant and hesitant to take the final decisions, intensified the covert warfare against North Vietnam and began planning in the spring of 1964 to wage overt war, a full year before it publicly revealed the depth of its involvement and its fear of defeat.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That this campaign of growing clandestine military pressure through 1964 and the expanding program of bombing North Vietnam in 1965 were begun despite the judgment of the Government’s intelligence community that the measures would not cause Hanoi to cease its support of the Vietcong insurgency in the South, and that the bombing was deemed militarily ineffective within a few months.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That these four succeeding administrations built up the American political, military and psychological stakes in Indochina, often more deeply than they realized at the time, with large-scale military equipment to the French in 1950 with acts of sabotage and terror warfare against North Vietnam, beginning in 1954 with moves that encouraged and abetted the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diuem of South Vietnam in 1963 with plans, pledges and threats of further action that sprang to life in the Tonkin Gulf clashes in August, 1964 with the careful preparation of public opinion for the years of open warfare that were to follow and with the calculation in 1965, as the planes and troops were openly committed to sustained combat, that neither accommodation inside South Vietnam nor early negotiations with North Vietnam would achieve the desired result.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]

August 1967: US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara Testifies that Bombing is Ineffective in Vietnam

Despite a relatively optimistic view of the war at the beginning of 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had taken a very different view of the war’s prospects by the year’s end. In the video below, a recorded telephone conversation between President Johnson and McNamara reveals the source of Johnson’s misplaced casualty figures as well as the pressure McNamara was under to explain the war to the press at the beginning of 1967.

In August 1967, however, during an address to a Senate sub-committee, Robert McNamara testified that pacification was not working and US bombing raids against North Vietnam had not achieved their objectives. McNamara maintained that the movement of supplies to South Vietnam had not been reduced and neither the economy nor the morale of the North Vietnamese army had been broken.

It was a startling revelation, given America’s commitment to the war up until that point. As well as bombing operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder, major ground war efforts such as Operation Cedar Falls in the same year were a huge blow to morale among US citizens already strongly opposed to the war’s escalation. During 1967, American troop strength was recorded at 400,000 men. By the years’ end, it would rise to 500,000 men. With 11,300 American deaths that year, social discord within the US had risen to a breaking point.

By November 1967, McNamara had written a memorandum to President Johnson in which he recommended that the president freeze troop levels, stop bombing North Vietnam and turn over ground fighting to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). McNamara by then believed the US could not win the war in Vietnam. His advice to Johnson at that time was not well received and thus ignored.

Within a few months of his memo to President Johnson – by the end of February 1968 – Robert McNamara was a persona non grata in the Johnson administration. He would resign as secretary of defence and move on to head the World Bank. In his retirement, McNamara admitted to the failure of America’s involvement in Vietnam in his book The Fog of War. To wit: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” In the film documentary version of Fog of War (below), Robert McNamara explained it further:

McNamara & Vietnam

Robert McNamara’s laudable goal, to put the past behind us, will only be achieved by understanding history, not by rewriting it. Unfortunately, both McNamara’s memoir and Draper’s review [“The Abuse of McNamara,” NYR, May 25] have failed us. Even more than McNamara, Draper misrepresents how we went to war with North Vietnam, by belittling the provocativeness of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents.

To be sure, Draper notes that the second “attack,” the one which provoked U.S. retaliation, “was dubious, if not fictitious.” (McNamara still claims that “the second attack appears probable but not certain” almost all historians now agree with Stanley Karnow that it “never happened.”)

But where did Draper ever read that (in his words) the US destroyers under patrol in the Tonkin Gulf “stayed more than twenty-five miles off the North Vietnamese coast to protect themselves from attack?” Even McNamara concedes that “the closest approach to North Vietnam was set at eight miles to the mainland and four miles to the offshore islands,” and that the closest actual approach was no “closer than five miles to the offshore islands.”

The ships were on an electronic intelligence spy mission, seeking to obtain prints from North Vietnamese radars. Thus their orders were to simulate attacks on North Vietnamese military bases, in order to “stimulate…electronic reaction,” i.e. induce them to turn their radars on. Far from being twenty-five miles from the islands attacked during the same period by South Vietnamese patrol boats, the destroyers were ordered to focus on this area, repeatedly sailing in toward shore with their own fire-control radars turned on, as if preparing to shoot.

Thus Draper’s factual error has the effect of minimizing how provocative was the destroyers’ mission. It also obscures how deceptive were McNamara’s assurances to Congress in 1964 that this was “a routine patrol,” and in 1968 that “provocative actions were avoided.” We have recently seen a media debate about McNamara’s alleged “silence” about his own doubts after 1967. But at the 1968 hearing he was most vociferous in rebutting other doubters, including those who (in his words) had “mistakenly assumed that there is serious doubt as to whether the ‘second’ Tonkin Gulf attack in fact took place.” At least three of the senators who heard him in 1968 (Morse, Cooper, and Gore) complained, justifiably, that they had been misled.

In his memoir McNamara now admits that “we were wrong, terribly wrong” but he is still trying to sound right about Tonkin Gulf. He certainly strives to defend more than to explain or atone for his crucial misrepresentations that led in 1964 and 1968 to the passage and continuance of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. His apologies, over and over, are for debatable errors of policy but he still refuses to admit, let alone give us insight into, most of these fatal, uncontrovertible misstatements of fact.

Thus it is hard to agree with Theodore Draper that McNamara has now “paid his debt.”

Peter Dale Scott
English Department
University of California
Berkeley, California

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The rise and fall of the “McNamara line”: Enduring lessons from the Vietnam War

At the peak of the Vietnam War, US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced the construction of an electronic anti-infiltration barrier south of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam. By curbing the infiltration from the north, McNamara sought to end the strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam, de-escalate the conflict and thus lay the groundwork for negotiations. However, due to numerous political, technical and military flaws, the “McNamara Line” and its related concepts failed. The rise and fall of the “McNamara Line” offers many pertinent lessons on the relationship between military strategy, technology and politics.

Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder, the air war against North Vietnam, began on March 2, 1965. The first mission was an indication of things to come.

The targets, timing of the attack, and other details of the operation were all decided in Washington, D.C. There were only two targets. Both were relatively minor, located just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam. The enemy’s real strength around Hanoi and Haiphong was not touched, not even threatened. It was a strange way to begin a war.

Air Force F-105s, F-100s, and B-57s struck an ammunition depot at Xom Bang, 10 miles north of the DMZ. Meanwhile, Navy and South Vietnamese aircraft bombed a naval base at Quang Khe, 65 miles from the DMZ.

It would be almost two weeks before the next Rolling Thunder missions took place, again against minor targets not far above the DMZ.

Maxwell D. Taylor, the ambassador to South Vietnam (and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), doubted that the enemy was impressed. “I fear that to date Rolling Thunder in their eyes has merely been a few isolated thunderclaps,” Taylor said.

“The North Vietnamese probably didn’t even know the planes were there,” said Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief of US Pacific Command.

Rolling Thunder would last for more than three years, making it the longest air campaign in US history to that point. More bombs would be dropped on Vietnam than were dropped on all of Europe in World War II.

The campaign ended in 1968 without achieving any strategic results. It did not persuade the North Vietnamese to quit the war, nor did it stop Hanoi’s infiltration of troops and equipment into South Vietnam.

From beginning to end, Rolling Thunder was hampered by a policy of gradual escalation, which robbed air strikes of their impact and gave North Vietnam time to recover and adjust. For various reasons—including fear of provoking a confrontation with North Vietnam’s Russian and Chinese allies—all sorts of restrictions and constraints were imposed.

US airmen could not attack a surface-to-air missile site unless it fired a missile at them. For the first two years, airmen were forbidden to strike the MiG bases from which enemy fighters were flying. Every so often, Washington would stop the bombing to see if Hanoi’s leaders were ready to make peace.

“In Rolling Thunder, the Johnson Administration devised an air campaign that did a lot of bombing in a way calculated not to threaten the enemy regime’s survival,” Air Force historian Wayne Thompson said in To Hanoi and Back. “President Johnson repeatedly assured the communist rulers of North Vietnam that his forces would not hurt them, and he clearly meant it. Government buildings in downtown Hanoi were never targeted.”

Drift to War

Rolling Thunder was not the first combat for USAF airmen in Vietnam. Air Force crews deployed there in 1961 to train and support the South Vietnamese Air Force. By 1962, they were flying combat missions in response to emergency requests. However, Gen. William W. Momyer said in Airpower in Three Wars, they were “not authorized to conduct combat missions without a Vietnamese crew member. Even then, the missions were training missions although combat weapons were delivered.”

The conflict became overt in August 1964 when communist patrol boats attacked US Navy vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the President “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to repel any attack, prevent further aggression, and assist allies.

The Navy promptly launched reprisal strikes, dubbed Pierce Arrow, against North Vietnamese PT boat bases, and the Air Force moved into Southeast Asia in force. B-57s, F-100s, and F-105s deployed to bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. The presence of the newly arrived aircrews was soon challenged.

In November, a Viet Cong mortar attack at Bien Hoa killed four Americans, wounded 72, and destroyed five B-57s. In February 1965, eight Americans were killed and more than 100 wounded in a sapper attack on Pleiku. Navy and Air Force aircraft flew reprisal strikes, called Operation Flaming Dart, against North Vietnam Feb. 7-11.

The Johnson Administration decided that these reprisal missions were not sufficient. A Presidential directive on Feb. 13 called for “a program of measured and limited air action” against “selected military targets” in North Vietnam. It stipulated that “until further notice” the strikes would remain south of the 19th parallel, confining the action to the North Vietnamese panhandle.

In his memoir, The Vantage Point, Lyndon B. Johnson said the decision for sustained strikes was made “because it had become clear, gradually but unmistakably, that Hanoi was moving in for the kill.” The Vietnam Advisory Campaign (Nov. 15, 1961, to March 1, 1965) was over. The Vietnam Defensive Campaign was about to begin. The first Rolling Thunder mission was readied.

Doubts and Redirection

The conventional wisdom, often repeated at the time, was that the United States must not get bogged down in a land war in Asia. Nevertheless, that was exactly what was about to happen.

On March 8, 1965, marines deployed to Da Nang to defend the air base there. They were the first US ground combat forces in Vietnam. “President Johnson’s authorization of Operation Rolling Thunder not only started the air war but unexpectedly triggered the introduction of US troops into ground combat as well,” McNamara said.

By the middle of March, Rolling Thunder consisted of one mission a week in the southern part of North Vietnam. Apparently, the White House expected this to produce fast results and was disappointed when it did not.

“After a month of bombing with no response from the North Vietnamese, optimism began to wane,” said the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the war written in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and leaked to the New York Times in 1971.

Although President Johnson had decided to use ground troops in Vietnam, there was no public announcement. The decision was embodied in an April 6 National Security Action Memorandum. The President ordered that “premature publicity be avoided by all possible precautions.”

The fighting forces were told of the change in strategy at an April 20 Honolulu conference, when McNamara announced that US emphasis from then on would be the ground war in the south. Targets in the south would take precedence over those in the north, and sorties would be diverted from the north to fill the requirement.

“This fateful decision contributed to our ultimate loss of South Vietnam as much as any other single action we took during our involvement,” Sharp later charged in his book, Strategy for Defeat.

The President on May 12 called a weeklong halt to the bombing—the first of many such halts—to see if North Vietnam was ready to negotiate. It wasn’t.

Micromanagement of the air war continued. “I was never allowed in the early days to send a single airplane north [without being] told how many bombs I would have on it, how many airplanes were in the flight, and what time it would be over the target,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph H. Moore, commander of the 2nd Air Division and its successor organization, 7th Air Force. “And if we couldn’t get there at that time for some reason (weather or what not) we couldn’t put the strike on later. We had to … cancel it and start over again.”

Thuds, Phantoms, and Others

In Rolling Thunder, the US attacked the North with all sorts of aircraft, but the worst of the fighting was borne by the F-105s and the F-4s.

The F-105—Thunderchief, Lead Sled, Thud—flew 75 percent of the strikes and took more losses over North Vietnam than any other kind of aircraft. When Rolling Thunder ended, more than half of the Air Force’s F-105s were gone.

The F-4 Phantom, better able to handle North Vietnam’s MiGs, flew both strike missions and air cover for the F-105s. As the war churned on, the F-4 became the dominant USAF fighter-bomber. The F-4 also accounted for 107 of the 137 MiGs shot down by the Air Force.

Pilots were credited with a full combat tour after 100 missions over North Vietnam. That was not an easy mark to reach. “By your 66th mission, you’ll have been shot down twice and picked up once,” F-105 pilots said. A report from the Office of the Secretary of Defense in May 1967 said, “The air campaign against heavily defended areas costs us one pilot in every 40 sorties.”

F-105s and F-4s flew mostly from bases in Thailand and worked the northern and western “route packs” in North Vietnam. Navy pilots from carriers at Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf flew mainly against targets nearer the coastline.

Notable among the Navy aircraft was the A-6 Intruder, an excellent all-weather medium bomber. The Air Force did not have an all-weather capability in the theater except on its B-52 bombers, which were not permitted to operate more than a few miles north of the DMZ.

Among those flying north or supporting the operation were tankers, escort jammers, defense suppression airplanes, rescue aircraft, and reconnaissance systems, as well as command and control airplanes.

One of the big operational changes in the Vietnam War was the everyday refueling of combat aircraft. Fighters on their way into North Vietnam topped up their tanks from KC-135 tankers, which flew orbits above Thailand, Laos, and the Gulf of Tonkin, then met the tankers again on the way out to get enough fuel to make it home. Aerial refueling more than doubled the range of the combat aircraft.

USAF fighters flying from Thailand bases were part of a strange organization called 7th/13th Air Force. It was created for several reasons, one of which was to let US Pacific Command keep control of the air war in the north rather than turning it over to the Army-dominated Military Assistance Command Vietnam.

When the aircraft and pilots were on the ground, they were in 13th Air Force, with headquarters in the Philippines. When they were in the air, they were controlled by 7th Air Force in Saigon—which, for these missions, reported to Pacific Air Forces and US Pacific Command, not to MACV.

MiGs, SAMs, and AAA

When Rolling Thunder began, North Vietnam’s air defense system did not amount to much and could have been destroyed easily. US policy, however, gave the North Vietnamese the time, free from attack, to build a formidable air defense.

The system consisted of anti-aircraft artillery, SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, MiG fighters, and radars, all of Soviet design, some supplied by the Soviet Union and some by China.

Although the SAM and MiG threats got more attention, about 68 percent of the aircraft losses were to anti-aircraft fire. By 1968, North Vietnam had 1,158 AAA sites in operation, with a total of 5,795 guns deployed.

The first SAM site in North Vietnam was detected April 5, 1965, but US airmen were not permitted to strike it.

In a memo to McNamara, John T. McNaughton, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said, “We won’t bomb the sites, and that will be a signal to North Vietnam not to use them.” On a visit to Vietnam, McNaughton told Moore at 2nd Air Division, “You don’t think the North Vietnamese are going to use them! Putting them in is just a political ploy by the Russians to appease Hanoi.”

McNaughton must have been surprised on July 24 when a SAM, fired by a Soviet missile crew, shot down an Air Force F-4C.

Almost 5,000 SAMs were fired during Rolling Thunder, bringing down 101 US aircraft. The fighters could avoid the SAMs by dropping to lower altitude, but that put them into the lethal shooting gallery of the guns.

By the rules of engagement, US airmen could attack a SAM site only if it was actually shooting at them. In one instance, Navy pilots discovered 111 SAMs loaded on railcars near Hanoi, but were denied permission to bomb them. “We had to fight all 111 of them one at a time,” one of the pilots said.

The Air Force had two ways of dealing with the SAMs: jammers and “Wild Weasels.”

EB-66 jamming aircraft accompanied Air Force strike flights. Eventually, fighters got their own jamming pods to disrupt the radars that guided the SAMs and the AAA.

A more direct solution was the fielding of the Wild Weasels, fighter aircraft especially equipped to find and destroy the Fan Song radars that directed the SAMs. The original Weasels, which demolished their first SAM site in December 1965, were F-100Fs. Subsequently, they were replaced by two-seat F-105Gs in the Weasel role.

The enemy fighters that operated over North Vietnam were MiG-17s and MiG-21s. There were some obsolete MiG-15s around, but they were used mostly for training. The MiG-19, imported from China, did not make its appearance in Vietnam until Rolling Thunder had ended.

The MiG-17 was no longer top of the line, but it performed well as an interceptor, especially effective at lower altitudes where it used its guns to good advantage. Three of North Vietnam’s 16 aces flew MiG-17s.

The MiG-21 was North Vietnam’s best fighter and a close match in capability with the F-4. It was equipped with a gun but relied primarily on its Atoll missiles.

“The North Vietnamese were able to expand and develop new airfields without any counteraction on our part until April 1967 when we hit Hoa Loc in the western part of the country and followed with attacks against Kep,” Momyer said. “The main fighter base, Phuc Yen, was not struck until October of the same year. Gia Lam remained free from attack throughout the war because US officials decided to permit transport aircraft from China, the Soviet Union, and the International Control Commission to have safe access to North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, of course, used Gia Lam as an active MiG base.”

The best known air battle of the war was Jan. 2, 1967, when pilots of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing from Ubon, Thailand, led by Col. Robin Olds in the famous MiG Sweep, shot down seven MiG-21s over the Red River Valley in North Vietnam.

“MiG killing was not our objective,” said Maj. Gen. Alton D. Slay, deputy chief of staff for operations at 7th Air Force. “The objective was to protect the strike force. Any MiG kills obtained were considered as a bonus. A shootdown of a strike aircraft was considered … a mission failure, regardless of the number of MiGs killed.”

Lines on the Map

Key parts of North Vietnam were off limits to US air strikes. For the first month of Rolling Thunder, the operations were confined to a stretch of the panhandle south of the 19th parallel, which runs just below Vinh. The first targets around Hanoi and Haiphong were not approved until October and November.

The boundary line for “armed reconnaissance”—the area in which such targets as trucks and trains could be hit when they were found—gradually crept north but very slowly.

“This east-west bomb line was joined by a north-south line at 105 degrees 20 minutes east that permitted armed reconnaissance in northwestern North Vietnam (so long as the bombs stayed at least 30 nautical miles south of the Chinese border),” said Air Force historian Thompson. “The two lines fenced off Route Package 6 (the ‘northeast quadrant’ containing the major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong) from armed reconnaissance until the spring of 1966, when rail and road segments were targeted there.”

Even after that, Hanoi and Haiphong were surrounded by large doughnut-shaped areas on the map which were protected from air strikes by US policy. The outer sections—the “doughnuts” themselves—were restricted zones, in which strikes required special permission (which was seldom given) from Washington. The “holes” in the doughnuts were prohibited zones, in which the limitations were more severe.

60 miles wide, encircling a 20-mile prohibited zone. The restricted zone at Haiphong was 20 miles wide and the prohibited zone, eight miles.

“Knowing that US rules of engagement prevented us from striking certain kinds of targets, the North Vietnamese placed their SAM sites within these protected zones whenever possible to give their SAMs immunity from attack,” Momyer said. “Within 10 miles of Hanoi, a densely populated area that was safe from attack except for specific targets from time to time, numerous SAM sites were located. These protected SAMs, with an effective firing range of 17 nautical miles, could engage targets out to 27 miles from Hanoi. And most of the targets related to the transportation and supply system that supported the North Vietnamese troops fighting in South Vietnam were within 30 miles of Hanoi.”

The White House held firm control of the targeting.

“The final decision on what targets were to be authorized, the number of sorties allowed, and in many instances even the tactics to be used by our pilots was made at a Tuesday luncheon in the White House, attended by the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, Presidential Assistant Walt Rostow, and the Presidential Press Secretary (first Bill Moyers, later George Christian),” Sharp said. “The significant point is that no professional military man, not even the Chairman of the JCS, was present at these luncheons until late in 1967.”

Taking obvious pride in the process, LBJ said, “I won’t let those Air Force generals bomb the smallest outhouse … without checking with me.” On another occasion, he said that “I spent 10 hours a day worrying about all this, picking the targets one by one, making sure we didn’t go over the limits.”

The President and his advisors were reluctant to bomb the ports and supply centers around Hanoi and Haiphong, preferring to target the infiltration routes farther south. That was the hard way to do it.

“To reduce the flow through an enemy’s supply line to zero is virtually impossible, so long as he is willing and able to pay an extravagant price in lost men and supplies,” Momyer said.

“To wait until he has disseminated his supplies among thousands of trucks, sampans, rafts, and bicycles and then to send our multimillion-dollar aircraft after those individual vehicles—this is how to maximize our cost, not his,” he said.

The POL Strikes

McNamara’s growing unhappiness with Rolling Thunder was hardened by the results of the POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) strikes in the summer of 1966.

North Vietnam had no oil fields or refineries. All of its petroleum products were imported, mostly from the Soviet Union, and arrived through the port at Haiphong. From there, they were taken by road, rail, and waterways to large tank farms, only a few of which had been bombed.

On June 29, 1966, US aircraft attacked the Hanoi and Haiphong POL complexes for the first time. The Air Force struck at Hanoi, the Navy at Haiphong. More than 80 percent of the storage facilities were destroyed.

It was a strong operation, but it had come too late. North Vietnam, anticipating that the POL facilities would eventually be struck, had dispersed some of its supplies and had developed underground storage facilities.

“It became clear as the summer wore on that, although we had destroyed a goodly portion of the North Vietnamese major fuel-storage capacity, they could still meet requirements through their residual dispersed capacity, supplemented by continued imports that we were not permitted to stop,” Sharp said. “The fact that they could disperse POL stores in drums in populated areas was a great advantage to the enemy. We actually had photos of urban streets lined with oil drums, but were not allowed to hit them.”

According to the Pentagon Papers, “Bulk imports via oceangoing tanker continued at Haiphong despite the great damage to POL docks and storage there. Tankers merely stood offshore and unloaded into barges and other shallow-draft boats, usually at night, and the POL was transported to hundreds of concealed locations along internal waterways. More POL was also brought in already drummed, convenient for dispersed storage and handling and virtually immune from interdiction.”

“The bombing of the POL system was carried out with as much skill, effort, and attention as we could devote to it, starting on June 29, and we haven’t been able to dry up those supplies,” McNamara later told the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees, adding that “I don’t believe that the bombing up to the present has significantly reduced, nor any bombing that I could contemplate in the future would significantly reduce, the actual flow of men and materiel to the South.”

Hanoi Hangs On

One of many snide observations in the Pentagon Papers—written at the behest of Assistant Secretary McNaughton, the official who had seen no threat in the SAMs—was that “1967 would be the year in which many of the previous restrictions were progressively lifted and the vaunting boosters of airpower would be once again proven wrong. It would be the year in which we relearned the negative lessons of previous wars on the ineffectiveness of strategic bombing.”

A number of important targets were struck for the first time in 1967. Among them were the Thai Nguyen steel complex (in March), key MiG bases (in April and October), the Doumer Bridge, over which the railroad entered Hanoi (in August and December), and several other targets inside the Hanoi and Haiphong restricted areas (in July).

As always, though, political considerations were trumps. An approved strike on Phuc Yen air base was called off in September because the State Department had promised a visiting European dignitary that he could land there without fear of bombing.

“In 1967, we were allowed better targets than in ’66 and were allowed to use more strike sorties, so that the air war progressed quite well,” Sharp said later. “Of course, ships were still allowed to come into Haiphong, and we weren’t allowed to hit close to the docks. We were able to cut the lines of communication between Haiphong and Hanoi so that it was difficult for them to get materiel through. If we had continued the campaign and eased the restrictions in 1968, I believe we could have brought the war to a successful conclusion.”

For his part, McNamara had already given up on the air war, and in cooperation with McNaughton and a group of civilian consultants, was pursuing plans—later abandoned—to build a 160-mile barrier of minefields, barbed wire, ditches, and military strong points across Vietnam and Laos.

Disheartened, McNamara left office Feb. 29, 1968. In his memoir, In Retrospect, he said, “I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired.”

End of the Thunder

President Johnson visited the war zone in December 1967, spent a night at Korat, Thailand, where he met with aircrews and commanders, and seemed buoyed by the contact.

In January, however, North Vietnam launched its Tet Offensive, the biggest attack of the war, striking bases and cities all over the South. The offensive was not a military success, but it jolted the American public. Support for the war fell severely.

Challenged by fellow Democrats in the Presidential primaries and losing ground in the opinion polls, Johnson at last decided that he had had enough. On March 31, he announced that he would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination for another term as President.

He also announced a partial bombing halt, which ended Rolling Thunder operations north of the 19th parallel. The partial halt merged into an overall halt of bombing in North Vietnam on Nov. 1.

Rolling Thunder was over. During its course—over three years and eight months—the Air Force and the other services had flown 304,000 fighter sorties and 2,380 B-52 sorties.

Earl H. Tilford Jr., writing in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, stated one view of the campaign, saying that: “Rolling Thunder stands as the classic example of airpower failure.”

A Senate Armed Services subcommittee, which held hearings on Rolling Thunder in August 1967, reached a different conclusion.

“That the air campaign has not achieved its objectives to a greater extent cannot be attributed to inability or impotence of airpower,” the panel said. “It attests, rather, to the fragmentation of our air might by overly restrictive controls, limitations, and the doctrine of ‘gradualism’ placed on our aviation forces, which prevented them from waging the air campaign in the manner and according to the timetable which was best calculated to achieve maximum results.”

The campaign’s failure is beyond dispute, but laying the fault to airpower is questionable. There is no way to know what an all-out bombing effort in 1965 might have achieved. Perhaps no amount of bombing would have done the job, but when Rolling Thunder ended, our best chance of knocking North Vietnam out of the war was gone. Rolling Thunder had not been built to succeed, and it didn’t.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Strategic World of Russell E. Dougherty,” appeared in the February issue.

McNAMARA: Specters of Vietnam

OVER THE BRIDGE it came, writhing and roiling toward him, like a primeval sea snake. There were cameras and helicopters and TV cars and protesters by the thousands. Some of their names he knew: Norman Mailer and Jerry Rubin and Dave Dellinger and Benjamin Spock and the poet Robert Lowell. But there were names that sunny afternoon Robert McNamara would never know, people who had ridden buses all night from Montpelier and Bellingham and a thousand other places in between. There was a young black man with a placard that said, "No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." They had come to protest what author Mailer called Uncle Sam's Whorehouse War.

It was the March on the Pentagon.

It was Oct. 21, 1967, and from his command post on the roof, the secretary of defense could see it all.

And then, "You know, there wasn't one shot fired. I'm very proud of that to this day. Our troops didn't even have ammunition in their guns."

His voice is oddly soft. "How many of them were there?"

"Okay, 50,000. I thought it was 40,000. But can you imagine? Christ, yes, I was scared. You had to be scared. A mob is an uncontrollable force. It's terrifying. Once it becomes a mob, all the leaders are useless. It was a mess. But there was no question I would be up there. You don't delegate something like that. I was up there with Cy Vance and Warren Christopher and General Buzz Wheeler."

There was still something far back and strange in his voice, like a phone going fuzzy. He came forward and slapped his fist.

"They did it all wrong. I mean, the marchers. The way to have done it would to have been Gandhilike. Had they retained their discipline, they could have achieved their ends. My God, if 50,000 people had been disciplined and I had been the leader, I absolutely guarantee you I could have shut down the whole goddam place. You see, they didn't set up proper procedures for maximizing the force of the day."

He had said he'd be back in town at 5:30 p.m., and sure enough, there he came, into the lobby of his office building at 5:31, just off a flight from O'Hare, his raincoat turned inside out and swinging in one hand, his single piece of soft luggage in the other. The small suitcase was all he had for three days of travel, and half of it probably held paperwork. There were deep furrows sawing down from his cheekbones. Robert McNamara was tired. He looked old. Sometime in the last three days he had lost his wire glasses. Sometime in the last three days, the 67-year-old first-cabin man had been to:

His interviewer had spoken to him the day before at 7:20 a.m., West Coast time. McNamara had just gotten into San Francisco from Boston the night before, flying across a continent's dark, but by 7:20 he had already had his run on Nob Hill. How many people had he eaten for breakfast? "Oh, it's beautiful out here this morning," he had said, full of beans. "God, I love this town. I still think of San Francisco as my home town, even though I haven't lived here for 40 years. I was born here, you know."

In another eight hours he would be gone--on a plane to Chicago and some other who-knows-what meeting. McNamara says he needs eight hours of sleep, like almost anybody else, but when he gets it is anybody's guess. When he's traveling at night, he tries to have a sandwich and a drink and a sleeping pill about an hour before take-off. That puts him out.

Some of his old associates wonder if he isn't mistaking movement for action.

Some of his old associates wonder if something isn't tearing at his soul. The something they refer to but don't like to say is Vietnam, little men in black pajamas in a far-off dreamscape.

One day he tells you, "I knew as early as 1966 there were lessons to be learned. Of course I did. I started the Pentagon Papers and goddammit, that's why I did it. I never read the Pentagon Papers, by the way."

Push that subject a cubic centimeter further, and an iron gate comes down. His face gets stony.

How deeply Vietnam is troubling him only Robert McNamara knows--or maybe doesn't. But on a given day he can knock you flat-footed with his willingness to talk of it, or around it. It doesn't seem to bleed out as much as pass spiritlike through his body, as if free of all matter and spatial constraint. Suddenly Vietnam is in the room. It is hydra-headed and heinous, the country's grievous error, his own.

He is telling you about the man who immolated himself on a wall outside his Pentagon office. "He wasn't 40 feet away from my window," he says, looking out his own office window. "He was a Quaker, you know. It was a personal tragedy for me."

Are his eyes glistening? Can't tell. But his voice is squishy--even looking away can't hide that.

And the man was insane enough to have a baby in his arms, the visitor hedges, trying to keep it going.

"No, not insane," he says quickly. "I don't like that word. That's a value judgment. In some ways he may have been correct. If by such actions he could bring to bear the attention he sought."

By the way, has he ever been down to the Vietnam memorial?

"I don't want to talk about it. That's Vietnam."

His fingers have come up in front of his face, as if to interpose them between himself and the world. The iciness in his voice is almost scary. And why not: It was a transparent question, the kind that has quagmires and guerrillas waiting at the back of it. Who could win that kind of war, who could win that kind of question?

Some of his old associates tell you they cannot bring up the word or the subject in his presence. (Invariably they go off the record when they acknowledge this.) They would like to talk about Vietnam with McNamara, for his sake as much as their own. But it's as if there were a kind of electronic barrier around him when it comes to the subject. It's as if you start to say "Viet . . ." and he sends a shock of hot juice through your body.

Once, in 1966, when the war was going so badly, McNamara got nearly obsessed with the idea of an electronic barrier for Vietnam as a means of stopping the infiltration. They had even started building it. Some wondered if he was sane.

Vietnam is our great myth now. It has superseded every other 20th-century American fable. What makes it so terrible a tragedy and fine a myth is its impenetrability. It is a puzzle without pieces, a riddle without rhyme. How could it have gone so wrong, all those lost American lives, nearly 60,000? And who was the enemy, exactly?

It was the first war in American history in which the majority of the casualties were impersonal: Men blown into pieces by booby traps, by mines, by rockets. Men stepping on Pongee sticks, which were razor-sharp pieces of bamboo hidden in the ground. (The Army would later insert a steel shank into government-issue boots.) Men stepping on Bouncing Bettys, which were only the size of a fruit juice can, but which blew away buttocks and tore off arms and sent heads flying out ahead of their bodies. You stepped on a Bouncing Betty and in a billionth of a second the world was forever different.

And the mortars and B-40s whumping and spattering around you, turning night to day. For many who fought, they still whump and spatter, unquiet demons.

And the devastation to them: as if benevolent America were demonically bent on the annihilation of an entire country. Operation Rolling Thunder, a name given to the American air strikes against North Vietnam, was conducted almost daily from March 1965 until November 1968. The U.S. dropped a million tons of bombs, rockets and missiles. This works out to roughly 800 tons per day for 3 1/2 years. And it didn't work.

McNamara had been an architect of the air offensive, but in a closed session of the subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1967, he could say that ". . . enemy operations in the south cannot, on the basis of any reports I have seen, be stopped by air bombardment--short, that is, of the virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people."

So we circle Vietnam in these closing years of the century as if it were a sphinx we had just come on in the desert. What does it mean how do we get in? Almost a decade since the fall of Saigon, and our disgrace from that botched, dirty little Asian effort seems more primitive and brutish and naked than ever, naked as a Hemingway story, confusing as a Magritte painting. Some people wish their myths to have clear-cut lines, limpid villains and incorruptible heroes.

So which one is Robert McNamara?

"Look," he says, talking of why he will not ever write a book, "I don't need wealth as my measure of success. I don't need a big fat book as my measure of success. It doesn't matter to me whether people write about me or not. I am my own judge. I know what I did and I don't really give a damn beyond that."

Which sounds terribly defensive, though not on the day or in the tone in which he says it.

And before you can scribble it down, he has said something else: "I picked up a book the other day to look for my name in the back. By the way, I do pick up books to look in the index. I keep in touch with what . . . they're writing."

What was the book? Was it Stanley Karnow's best-selling "Vietnam: A History," the most detailed account of the war yet?

"Well, I'm not going to say, because an awful lot of the premises were . . . incorrect."

McNamara wouldn't talk to Karnow about Vietnam. Karnow went up to McNamara at a cocktail party and asked if they could meet to discuss it, but McNamara said no. Karnow is not particularly easy on McNamara in "Vietnam: A History." One of his themes is the disparity between what McNamara said publicly and seemed to feel privately. No one knows for sure just when McNamara secretly turned against the war, but Karnow suspects it was as early as November 1965. Three months later, in Honolulu, he would say in an off-the-record session with reporters, one of whom was Karnow, "No amount of bombing can end the war." But it kept up--and so did his public assurance. Karnow used the quote because he felt enough time had passed.

Like everything else in his life, McNamara has worked out the rational reasons for refusing to write his own book about Vietnam.

"A, because I don't like the idea of writing memoirs

"B, because I don't like kiss-and-tell books

"C, because I don't like to write nonpersonally

"D, because my memory is faulty and I don't have a staff for research

"E, because in particular I don't believe the participant can ever be objective. I don't believe a participant in Vietnam should be the one to write the story. Let the scholars and the historians take the raw material of the decision-makers, reflect on the lessons, see what can be learned. Participants tend to write of their experiences in a way that supports their decisions in hindsight."

There, he has gotten them out, all neatly lettered and presented. And you tag on: Would be pretty hard to do it, wouldn't it?

"Of course, it would be hard, but that isn't why I refuse."

But if not Vietnam, couldn't you write about other things--say the Cuban missile crisis? "I really couldn't improve on Bobby Kennedy's account," he says flatly. And yet, on another day, talking of why a leader cannot delegate the crisis decisions, he says, "I slept 10 days in the Pentagon during the missile crisis. I was there!" You think he's going to say something else, but no.

He can talk vividly about the '67 March on the Pentagon, as if there were no particular connection in his mind between the march and Vietnam.

"There's no natural means of defending the Pentagon, you know. There's an asphalt drive around the perimeter. We put troops shoulder to shoulder on the drive"--he is up out of the chair, at attention, trying to mimic soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with unloaded guns--"and at the very top of the stairs the TV crews had all their cameras. So the troops are right there and the girls in the mob are trying to make them flinch. They're rubbing their naked breasts in the soldiers' faces, they're spitting on them, they're taunting them. God, it was a mess. My impression is that the mob lost public support. All we had was that one thin line around the edge of the building. The Pentagon is hollow inside, as you recall. We'd brought in some troops by helicopter."

And what if it had gotten out of his control?

"We had plans. I guess we would have used tear gas. We had plans."

Some people tell you today that what may have damaged McNamara irreparably at Defense was his statements on the bombing. Generals were going up to the Hill to say they were dropping bombs on steel factories in North Vietnam. McNamara said, no, they were really iron ore foundries, not steel mills, and what's more, he had had more foundries at his disposal when he was head of Ford than there were in all of North Vietnam. That did not sit particularly well with the White House.

Lyndon Johnson, who had once been so proud of his man Bob, would later allow, "I forgot he had only been president of Ford for a week."

There was never a formal embargo on Vietnam in the conversations resulting in this series of articles, but it was perfectly obvious McNamara began each conversation with the intention of talking of something else--such as the nuclear problem or South Africa or illegitimacy and poverty in the District of Columbia, a topic he is eloquent on. ("We are breeding maladjustment as strongly as though it were passed along through the genes," he says. And he has firm ideas about how we can begin remedying the problem.)

But Vietnamese memory would come, would wash into the room, because he had let it, because he had willed it. Someone who worked for McNamara for a decade and a half, both in the Pentagon and at the World Bank, says that it was one of his routine jobs to turn down interview requests for his boss. "So many tried to wedge in with something else, but really only wanted Nam," remembers the aide, who didn't want to be identified. McNamara knew.

This past February Robert McNamara spent a week at the University of Pennsylvania as the university's second Pappas Fellow. (Norman Mailer inaugurated the fellowship last year.) He came up to Penn on a train in a well-used tweed sports coat and his penny loafers. He went into seminars and stood behind podiums and slugged off his coat and flexed his knees and danced on the forward end of his feet like a rangy middleweight.

And almost nobody brought up Vietnam. It was as if the president of Penn, who had introduced McNamara at the opening speech, had muzzled the entire school, which of course he didn't and couldn't. But how had McNamara somehow conveyed to an ivy university that Vietnam was off-limits? And anyway, why would students, being students, be respecters of that?

You could go down into a basement video game room in the student union and interrupt collegians playing Punk and Amazon Hunt to ask them something about a man who had been sworn in as secretary of defense before they were even born, and some of them would say, as one did, "Oh, yes, I know him, Mr. We've-Stopped-Losing-the-War-But, right?"

And yet it came up at least once, in an interview with the student editors of The Daily Pennsylvanian. At the front of the published interview, which was in a Q&A format, there was this disclaimer: "McNamara consented to the interview on the condition that Vietnam would not be discussed."

But they raised it in an oblique way anyhow. "Are there any decisions you regret?" they asked. (They said afterward they were referring to Vietnam.)

"Oh, sure. All kinds of things. I'm not going to mention them today," he said.

Sometimes in conversations with McNamara, there almost seems operating a willful naivete'. For instance, you can find his phone number listed in the District directory, and when you ask why that is so, he says, "It was unlisted when I was secretary, of course, but isn't it kind of an act of arrogance to unlist it now?" And yet he tells you himself that people have called him up late at night, have misrepresented themselves in order to see him. A man did that a while ago when he wanted to serve McNamara a subpoena.

Once, this interviewer called him late at night. McNamara answered with a kind of coiled wariness. He was in bed reading and had picked it up on the first ring. Almost immediately, he warmed. He talked about Memphis, from where he had just come, and Martha's Vineyard, where he was just going.

One day, speaking of personal security, he says, "During the entire Pentagon years, I never had any security at all in terms of bodyguards."

"Because I didn't need it, of course."

People who worked with him at the Pentagon will tell you that security in his part of the E Ring was almost lax. There were two civilian secretaries and just beyond them two Marine secretaries, usually females. There was no sergeant-at-arms nearby, though a secretary had some kind of buzzer under her desk. The door to McNamara's office was unmarked and unlocked. If a distraught mother or worried priest or man with a derringer had walked by the secretaries and tried the handle on the wooden door at the side of the room, that person might have found himself face to face with an embodiment of the Vietnam war.

"Well, I did get in trouble once," he is saying. "Not at the Pentagon. At Harvard. You probably know all about it. That one was pretty rough. The demonstration against me occurred when I went up there to speak to Henry Kissinger's classes. He was still teaching at Harvard then. And when I came out of one of the houses down by the river--I can't remember the name of it just now, what was it, Lowell House, oh, it doesn't matter--well, anyway, I was supposed to be driven in a car to Henry's seminar and that's when it happened."

It didn't happen at Lowell House, but as he tried to leave Quincy House on Nov. 7, 1966. Students gathered outside the house and threw themselves under his car. They shouted obscenities at him. He shouted back. "When I was at the University of California at Berkeley, I was both more tough and courteous than you are," he said to a heckler. "And I'm still tougher than you are." University and city policemen led him away through Harvard steam tunnels.

But his mind has left Harvard and already leapt to something else. When you talk to McNamara, you must be ready for quick jumps. You also must be prepared for him to start talking before your question is fully out. His tendency is to go once he has enough.

"Sam Brown used to come over our house in the '60s. You know who he is, don't you? Well, here it is in the midst of all the goddam rioting and activist Sam Brown is eating dinner in our house and standing in the study with all these Barbara Ward books everywhere, and I guess maybe we'd been talking of mountain climbing during dinner, and he says, 'Mr. McNamara, anybody who loves the mountains as much as you do can't be all bad.' That's just what he said. And the whole goddam country's rioting. See, you've got to keep your channels open. I mean, you might learn something."

At the feet of the late Barbara Ward is where McNamara's gold may really be buried. In the early '60s he began reading that eloquent British international economist and humanitarian. Ward's view of the world, not unlike Jesus', was that crumbs for Lazarus aren't enough--society's responsibility is far greater. "You commit yourself to where your attachments are," she once said, which may have touched Robert McNamara at dead bottom. She also said that in the Third World, "if a man asks you for bread and you give him a pill, he'll spit in your eye." McNamara himself says that Ward acted as a kind of catalyst to his growing thinking about development as the true security. He and Ward became close friends in the torn '60s and remained so until her death in 1981. But it is clear, if you study only the history of Barbara Ward and Robert McNamara's connection to her, that he could not have gone to the World Bank, as the slickmeisters would have us believe, to do penance for Vietnam. The bank was a logical progression of his thinking.

Wives of Washington men can suffer quietly and greatly. When Margaret Craig McNamara died three years ago, something happened in the complicated character of her widower. Perhaps Margy had lugged around more of her husband's emotional baggage than anyone knew. And when the luggage carrier is gone, who is to suffice? Marg, her husband once said, got his ulcer over Vietnam.

For a time there had been much stress in the McNamara family, not all of it hidden. There are three grown children, a son and two daughters. The daughters live in Washington. The son is a farmer in California the Potomac is far away.

In the '60s Marg's health seemed to be deteriorating on a pace with Vietnam. Later, Craig McNamara, the youngest child, would publicly protest the Vietnam war at Stanford, and still later leave the country, riding a motorcycle 10,000 miles into Chile and then worked on a cooperative dairy on Easter Island. Afterward he went to Mexico and worked in the sugar fields of Padre Ivan Illich. Today Craig runs a 250-acre walnut ranch set into the rim of the Coast Range, and his father is co-owner. Father and son are long reconciled, and Craig himself is the first to say that. Craig and his dad personally made the arrangements for Margy's funeral three years ago. They spread her ashes high in a snowy pass in Colorado. Craig, who is 34 and can talk about his feelings in a way his father apparently cannot, is married to a woman named Julie, and five months from now, the two of them will present Robert McNamara with a grandchild.

"Nobody can get anywhere on Vietnam with my father, including me," Craig says softly one noontime on the phone. He has just come in from the fields for a break. His voice sounds nothing like his father's. But he is out of the house every day at 7, like his dad.

"It's just not in his scope to communicate his deepest thoughts and feelings to me. I keep hoping for a change, a change in both of us. I tend to believe the truth should be out. I think he can stand the truth. He must want that, he must want everything, finally, to rinse and wash. I know I do. I don't want to hurt him, and I know that things hurt him, but I want the truth out, for all of us. I mean, I felt the contradictions of the Vietnam war. It was my father's war and I was his son. Our generation seeks that therapeutic response, my father's couldn't.

"I think we've always maintained a bottom line that I used to think every marriage had. We've always had a basic love and respect for one another, even when it was at its worst between us. I'm sure, for instance, it deeply hurt my mother and father when they came up to my room and saw me reading a copy of 'The Best and the Brightest.' Or saw my American flag turned upside down on my wall.

"It's terribly hard sometimes to be his son. There is the deepest river of love between us, and it goes dry over Vietnam."

And what does the father say of this bond?

"Oh, I was talking to him last night, no, not last night, night before last. We were discussing how you must produce a surplus in this society and then make it available to everyone else. That's how our economy works, you know."

But he also says this: "Craig learned valuable lessons when he went to South America. And . . . maybe I did, too. Did you ever hear that line--I can't remember who said it--but it goes like this: If you can't be a socialist at 20, you had no heart and if you were one at 50, you had no head. I love that."

The word "heart" has taken him again to Marg. "God, she was one of God's loveliest creatures." He has said this exact sentence at least a half-dozen times over the course of four interviews.

Craig McNamara will try to get up to the Vineyard this year to see his dad's new house. It's on land Marg tramped many times, searching for the best site. She didn't live long enough to see the house, but her husband is sure she found it in her imagination. There are 2,200 feet of south beach on the property and you can see the whole of Oyster Pond to the east. There is a lovely pond off to the west, too, and when Robert McNamara stands up there alone on the highest point and positions himself east by south, he can look across spiky grass into the huge Atlantic and know there is "nothing between me and London." Vietnam seems a long time ago.

Watch the video: Fog of War: Errol Morris and Robert McNamara interview 2003


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