Operation Rolling Thunder, Agent Orange and Napalm

The US response to guerrilla tactics: Operation Rolling Thunder; ‘Hearts and Minds’; Agent Orange and Napalm; Search and Destroy

Guerilla warfare is incredibly difficult to defend yourself against. For starters, you can’t see the enemy until the last minute. The US response to the increased use of Guerilla tactics involved a massive expansion of their involvement in the war. They decided to launch a huge bombing offensive against North Vietnam which was intended to wreak havoc on the North’s capacity to wage war and to have a significant impact on public opinion in the north. This bombing campaign was called Operation Rolling Thunder. Operation Rolling Thunder began in March 1965. Initial targets were largely designed to have a psychlogical impact but soon the list of targets was extended to include military bases, factories and the transportation network in North Vietnam. If these targets could be destroyed the supply of Guerilla’s in South Vietnam would have to halt, or at least be significantly weakened. The bombing campaign was limited though. President Johnson was wary of upsetting the Chinese or Soviet Union. To try and ensure that these two communist superpowers did not become directly involved in the war, Johnson insisted on a number of restrictions to the bombing. There was a ‘no fly’ corridor along the Vietnamese border with China and bombing would not take place in the vicinity of Hanoi, the Capital City, or the port of Haiphong. The bombing campaign lasted until November 1968. Historians have mixed views about how successful the operation was. Some argue that the North was on the verge of economic meltdown as a result of the campaign whilst others say that the evidence suggests that the campaign had a limited impact on the Norths impact to wage war. The US military suffered heavy losses of aircraft and crews with the US Airforce losing 506 planes, the Navy 397 and the Marine Corps 19.

Another response to the Guerilla tactics was to try and remove the foliage that enabled the Vietcong to hide. The logic here being that if there is nothing to hide behind, the tactics are not possible. To try and achieve this the US dropped herbicides and defoliants in huge quantities. The most famous of these chemicals was referred to as ‘Agent Orange’ due to its colour. The objectives behind the use of these chemicals were clear. First they would reduce the cover available to the Vietcong, making it easier to fight them. Second, it would force peasants to move into urban areas as the use of these weapons would make it impossible for them to farm: and if they moved to US dominated urban areas, they couldn’t feed and support the Vietcong. Over 5 million acres of land were destroyed through use of chemicals in Vietnam. The side effects of the use of these chemicals turned out to be horrific. Almost 5 million people were exposed to the chemicals. 400,000 of these people were killed or Mymed by their exposure and half a million babies were born with defects caused by the chemicals.

To reduce the risk of patrols being ambushed by hidden Vietcong the US made use of Napalm. Napalm is a chemical agent that burns at approximately 800 degress. The chemical sticks to skin and is virtually impossible to remove. Napalm would be fired from a flamethrower into tunnels and areas where the Vietcong were thought to be hiding. It was also dropped from aircraft into areas where the Vietcong supply lines or forces were thought to be.

Napalm explosion

A Napalm bomb exploding, 1966.

The use of Napalm was controversial. US forces weren’t just targeting precise military targets such as the tunnel complexes. As shown in the photograph above, the substance was also dropped in large quantities on villages. Whilst the aim was to to exterminate the threat of the Vietcong in these villages, the tactic also led to many civilian injuries and deaths.

Conflicts in Asia, 1950-1975  
Theory behind Guerrilla WarfareVietcong TacticsOperation Rolling Thunder, Agent Orange and Napalm
Mai Lai MassacreTrial of Lieutenant CalleyMedia Coverage of the Vietnam War
Anti-Vietnam War Protests in the United StatesKent State University Protest, 1970Fullbright Hearings, 1971
Tet OffensiveLaos and CambodiaParis Peace Conference: End of the Vietnam War

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