In 1969, author Tim O’Brien witnessed firsthand the destruction wrought by American firepower in South Vietnam. “I was in Quang Ngai Province, out in the middle of this bombed out mess. The whole province was wasted…By the time I got there…our bombing and artillery fire had destroyed basically ninety percent of the dwellings. The villages were sometimes almost deserted…We were really hated. It was just so patent. You see [sic] the hostility in everybody’s eyes.” [Appy, Patriots, p.543]
Reporter Jonathan Schell, who visited Quang Ngai Province two years before O’Brien, saw similar scenes of destruction. Schell chronicled his experiences while in Quang Ngai in the book, The Military Half. In the book, Schell recounted an interview he had with an American pilot who flew bombing missions over Quang Ngai. The pilot told Schell, “It’s a lovely countryside…One of my favorite activities is following waterfalls up through the valleys. It’s a shame we have to destroy it.” [Schell, The Military Half, pp. 119-120]
John Merrell, who like Tim O’Brien served as a grunt in South Vietnam, saw firsthand what a B-52 arc light raid could do to the South Vietnamese jungle, “…we went down into the valley after the raid was over and we walked down the lanes created by the bombs, and there were massive lanes. A B-52 drops big bombs and they just clear out the jungle. It was like a four-lane highway – it was just that big. You could walk down into a bomb crater and not see out the top standing down in the bottom. That’s how deep they were. That was probably one of the neatest things I saw when I was there.” [Ebert, A Life in a Year, p.323]
In the mid-1970s, General Douglas Kinnard interviewed dozens of U.S. Army officers who had been deployed to South Vietnam during the years of major U.S. involvement. Kinnard’s questions, and the officers’ answers, appeared in the highly readable book, The War Managers. Kinnard asked the career military men whether they believed the U.S. air campaign in South Vietnam had been beneficial or harmful to the overall U.S. effort. One respondent remarked that the deployment of heavy bombers, such as the B-52s, had not been “…worth the effort when considered in light of what it did to the people and territory of South Vietnam.” [Kinnard, The War Managers, p.48]
From 1964 to 1973, U.S. aircraft dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam. In contrast, the U.S. dropped a million tons of bombs on Communist North Vietnam. South Vietnam thus ranks not only as the most heavily bombed area in the world, it also ranks as the most heavily bombed former U.S. ally. Never before, nor since, has the United States bombed a friendly country, let alone an enemy nation state, so intensely.
The majority of the aerial bombs dropped across South Vietnam were 500-pound fragmentation bombs. But the U.S. also utilized 250-pound bombs, 750-pound bombs, 1000-pound bombs, 2000-pound bombs, and an earth-shattering 15,000-pound bomb known uncharacteristically as the “Daisy Cutter.” The Daisy Cutter was so big and weighed so much that not even a B-52 could carry it. It had to be hauled to its target zone by a C-130 Hercules and then rolled out the open back end of the plane. When the Daisy Cutter detonated, it wiped clean an area the size of a football field. How many bombs actually fell on South Vietnam remains unknown. Yet, it is possible to calculate an approximate number. For example, if half the bombs dropped were 500-pounders, and the other half consisted of the great variety of bombs in the U.S. arsenal, it can safely be assumed that the U.S. detonated about fifteen million bombs in South Vietnam.
In addition to bombs, the United States splashed ample amounts of napalm upon the jungles, rice paddies, and hamlets of South Vietnam; while artillery crews, helicopter gunners, and the pilots of ground attack planes fired an astronomical number of artillery rounds, aerial rockets, and exploding 40-mm cannon shells against known and suspected Communist positions. According to Arthur Westing, author of The Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War, the United States fired 229 million artillery rounds during the war. The vast majority of those shells detonated in South Vietnam. [Westing, Ecological Consequences, p.21]
A central question of the Vietnam War is this: if American political and military leaders were so intent on saving South Vietnam from Communism then why did they destroy that country’s already tenuous social, political, and economic cohesion through the overwhelming application of firepower? In other words, why did the United States bomb South Vietnam back to the Stone Age when its publicly stated objective had been to create a modern, integrated, prosperous nation-state capable of defending itself against its northern neighbor?
As early as mid-1965, three of the key men involved in Vietnam policy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, doubted whether the U.S. could achieve its primary objective in South Vietnam – the preservation of a non-Communist state south of the 17th Parallel. On June 21, 1965, in a conversation with McNamara, the president stated, “I don’t believe they’re [the Vietcong and North Vietnamese] ever going to quit. And I don’t see…that we have any…plan for a victory – militarily or diplomatically…. You and Dean [Rusk] have got to sit down and try to see if there’s any people that we have in those departments that can give us any program or plan or hope.” [Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, p.365.] Neither McNamara’s Department of Defense nor Rusk’s State Department provided the president, then or later, with a winning formula for the war in South Vietnam.
Although McGeorge Bundy supported the deployment of combat troops to South Vietnam, as well as the intense bombing and shelling of the South Vietnamese countryside, he did not believe the U.S. could win a military confrontation with the Communists in South Vietnam. According to Bundy biographer Gordon M. Goldstein, “The historical record demonstrates that during his years as national security advisor Bundy was never confident that the United States could achieve a battlefield victory in Vietnam….” [Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p.232]. McNamara shared Bundy’s doubts. In December 1965, the Secretary of Defense told President Johnson, “The chances of achieving a military victory are one in three…At best one in two.” [McNamara, Argument Without End, p.278] The president then queried McNamara, “Then no matter what we do in the military field, there is no sure victory?” [McNamara responded] “That’s right.” [McNamara, In Retrospect, pp.224-225.]
Even with the chances of U.S. victory in South Vietnam estimated to be one in three or at best one in two, Johnson went ahead and ordered a massive commitment of U.S. ground, air, and naval forces to South Vietnam. In an interview in early 1965, President Johnson explained why the U.S. needed to try and hold South Vietnam, regardless of the unfavorable odds. “I don’t believe I can walk out [of South Vietnam]…If I did, they’d take Thailand…They’d take India…They’d come right back and take the Philippines…I’d be another Chamberlain and…we’d have another Munich.” [Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, p.238]
According to McNamara, everyone of Johnson’s closest advisors believed in a version of the Domino Theory. [McNamara, Argument Without End, 22] The most common articulation of the Domino Theory, and the one adhered to by the majority of top U.S. officials, stipulated that the fall of South Vietnam would quickly lead to the loss of Laos and Cambodia. Later, Thailand and Burma would go Communist, followed by Malaysia, Singapore and ultimately Indonesia.
To prevent the dominoes from tipping over across Southeast Asia, President Johnson did two things: 1) he sent ground troops into the rice paddies and jungles of South Vietnam to rack up Communist dead; 2) and he unleashed America’s mighty air forces against the Vietcong guerrillas and their millions of supporters in the South Vietnamese countryside.
Johnson believed American troops and bombs slowed the Communist seizure of South Vietnam and therefore bought time for the countries of Southeast Asia to develop the economic prosperity, political unity, and military strength to resist further Communist expansion. In other words, the destruction of South Vietnam’s landscape, the killing of hundreds of thousands of Vietcong guerrillas, and the generation of millions of South Vietnamese refugees stalled Communist momentum and saved a string of countries across Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In a live televised address to the nation on March 31, 1968, Johnson asserted, “…the progress [in Southeast Asia] of the past three years would have been far less likely – if not completely impossible – if America’s sons and others had not made their stand in Vietnam.” [Gettleman, Vietnam and America, p.407] In other words, a bombed and cratered South Vietnam had served as America’s speed bump on the road to Communist expansionism.