Terrorizing the Vietcong: The Rand Corporation and the U.S. Air Campaign in South Vietnam

One of the first uses of U.S. airpower in South Vietnam was as a terror weapon against the Vietcong.

Terror had long been an instrument of U.S. military policy. During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force regularly targeted German and Japanese civilians. In just one bombing raid against Tokyo in March 1945, American planes, loaded with incendiary bombs, killed an estimated one hundred thousand civilians. By the end of World War II, U.S. aircraft had devastated nearly every city in Japan.

Purposely killing civilians is by definition terrorism. But American political and military leaders, including presidents Roosevelt and Truman, believed targeting civilians weakened enemy morale and hastened the end of the Second World War. Surveys conducted by the U.S. government after the war proved otherwise. Bombing civilians had had the reverse effect, it convinced the German and Japanese people of American barbarity and stiffened their will to resist, possibly prolonging the conflicts in Europe and Asia.

It was no mere coincidence that the dramatic increase in bombing sorties in South Vietnam occurred with Robert S. McNamara at the helm of the Department of Defense. During World War II, McNamara served as a statistician under Army Air Force General Curtis Lemay. Lemay directed the strategic bombing of Japan and the fire-bombing of its population centers. Incidentally, LeMay admitted after the war that had the Japanese defeated the United States, he would have been tried as a war criminal and hung from the gallows for his involvement in the destruction of Japan’s cities.

As a colonel in LeMay’s command, McNamara studied how to decrease the U.S.’s aircraft loss rate over Japan, while at the same time increasing the accuracy of U.S. bombers. He and his systems analysts discovered the optimum elevation for U.S. bombers flying missions over Japan, an elevation that minimized losses and maximized bomb damages. McNamara believed his work, and LeMay’s targeting of civilians, hastened the end of World War II in the Pacific.

Although McNamara’s faith in airpower would be shaken by the time he left the Pentagon in early 1968, the Secretary of Defense still believed strongly in the efficacy of airpower during the early stages of the Vietnam War, both as a terror weapon and as a weapon against Communist main forces and guerrillas.

McNamara’s attitudes toward bombing were reinforced by a Rand Corporation study, paid for by the U.S. Air Force, that examined the use of airpower within South Vietnam. Rand analysts conducted the study in the latter half of 1964. The results of the research pleased Air Force commanders because according to Rand, airpower, in the new age of insurgent warfare, remained militarily relevant; and if properly deployed, U.S. airstrikes could play a significant role in the defeat of the Vietcong in South Vietnam.

Rand’s argument in favor of the use of airpower against the Vietcong rested on several startling observations. For instance, Rand’s analysts concluded, “…civilians in Vietnam are less prone to adverse behavior on account of air attacks than is generally supposed…Americans interviewed on the scene generally agreed that air strikes are at most a minor factor in motivating people to join or actively support the Vietcong…These initial findings appear to challenge the widespread belief that collateral damage to property or the killing of civilians by air attacks inevitably result in “making more Viet Cong.”[1] Simply put, Rand argued that the U.S. could bomb the South Vietnamese countryside with impunity because the civilian population subjected to U.S. bombing would not, as a matter of course, turn against the United States and Saigon government (GVN).

In another alarming conclusion, Rand insisted that the South Vietnamese peasantry expected physical and psychological abuse from both the GVN and Vietcong. The peasants had been so thoroughly beaten down by French colonialism and Vietnamese governmental abuse that they had normalized their subjugated status. Consequently, the peasantry would accept U.S. bombing as merely one more example of ill-treatment that did not require any political or military response. In other words, having long been battered about by more powerful forces, South Vietnam’s rural residents would meekly consent to the destruction of their world. Rand further stipulated that the peasantry would likely blame the Vietcong for any U.S. bombing; and that counterintuitive result would assist the U.S. in pacifying the rural population.

According to Rand, airstrikes terrified the Vietcong’s peasant soldiers, particularly when U.S. planes dropped napalm on them. The study noted, “Captured documents and interrogation reports indicate that Viet Cong fighters fear aircraft more than any other weapon system used against them…Air operations seriously aggravate the hardships of Viet Cong life.”[2]

Rand recommended increasing the “hardships” of the Vietcong to induce more defections. Leon Goure, the primary author of the study, believed the benefits of saturating the skies above South Vietnam with U.S. aircraft far outweighed any possible negative consequences. A massive application of U.S. airpower in the South would go a long way toward achieving a wide range of U.S. military and political objectives, including: lowering Vietcong morale; hindering the Vietcong’s consolidation of areas under its control; impeding Vietcong cross-country movement; enabling the U.S. to strike at Vietcong base areas normally off-limits to Allied ground forces; destroying Vietcong crops; preventing the concentration of enemy forces; restricting the ability of the Vietcong to recruit new members by keeping cadre out of villages; and projecting U.S. military power everywhere within South Vietnam – which would visibly display U.S. military might and contribute to enemy demoralization. Most importantly, airpower would separate the peasants from the guerrillas because those civilians exposed to bombing would flee to GVN areas, leaving the Vietcong without an important source of taxes, safe-haven, and recruits. Goure argued that U.S. airpower could conceivably, “…create the favorable conditions for an effective pacification program.”[3] Goure did not explain how bombing peasants, and displacing them, would actually facilitate the winning of their hearts and minds.

The second part of the Rand study provided U.S. air commanders with specific tactical recommendations. It proposed that the United States fill the skies of South Vietnam with light observation planes. Each airplane and its two-man crew would have responsibility for a 1,000 square-mile area of the South Vietnamese countryside. Pilots and forward observers were advised to become intimately familiar with their assigned piece of rural real estate. Rand stated, “To be effective, visual reconnaissance must be performed systematically, by the same crew always flying the same area.”[4]

After becoming thoroughly knowledgeable of their assigned territory, the aircrews would be able to learn the daily work routines of the peasantry, their movements, and their regular interactions with one another and the landscape. Such knowledge would enable the forward air observers to detect the presence of the Vietcong and call in airstrikes. Rand admitted that the biggest challenge likely to be encountered by the forward observers would be finding the armed guerrillas in the midst of a large civilian population, but Rand did not believe that problem should curtail air operations because, “Although the Viet Cong cannot be distinguished from other Vietnamese by clothing, stature, or color, they behave differently from the peasants and these small differences permit trained observers to distinguish friend from foe.”[5]

Goure and his colleagues did not explain how the Vietcong behaved “differently” from the unarmed peasantry. Thus, U.S. Air Force personnel reading the study were left guessing as to how they were supposed to determine whether someone was Vietcong or just a peasant walking along a country trail. However, Goure and his colleagues provided a hint as to how forward observers might find the Vietcong. They described one American forward observer who discovered the Vietcong after sunset by looking for cooking fires. When the forward observer spotted a cooking fire in a suspected Vietcong area he determined that it had to be a Vietcong cooking fire, since innocent civilians would not cook with an open flame after dark. Whether Rand’s analysts knew it or not, every rural Vietnamese household cooked its meals with kindling and charcoal, frequently after sundown.

The Rand study stated that locating the Vietcong in solidly Vietcong areas would not present any problems, because even if airstrikes hit civilians, those civilians would be Vietcong sympathizers, “Certain areas in Vietnam are wholly occupied by the Viet Cong – for example, the notorious Zone D. Here Forward Air Controllers can call strikes without fear of hitting loyal citizens.”[6]

The Rand analysts suggested that small ground units of between sixty and eighty men scour the countryside, searching for the Vietcong. Any Allied unit larger than eighty troops would travel too slowly and make too much noise, alerting the Vietcong to its presence. Once the infantry found the Vietcong, it should try and hold the guerrillas in place long enough for airstrikes to be brought to bear against them. After a successful airstrike against a Vietcong unit, the peasantry in that specific locale would realize that it was in their best interest to side with the Allies against the guerrillas because if they did not switch their loyalties, they risked being bombed again and again. The newly-acquired peasant allegiance to the GVN resulting from bombing would be revealed through the acquisition of solid intelligence on the local guerrilla apparatus. That intelligence would then enable follow-on Allied ground units to successfully clear a region of the insurgents. According to Rand, airpower would serve a vital function in the counter-insurgency war – bombing would break the grip of the Vietcong over rural South Vietnam. The report proclaimed, “Local success [in air operations] is sufficient to start getting intelligence from the largely uncommitted villages, and this intelligence of Viet Cong activities is needed for combat forces to operate most effectively.”[7]

The importance of the Rand study to the subsequent air war in South Vietnam cannot be overstated. Rand provided President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, MACV Commander William C. Westmoreland, and Air Force Chief of Staff John P. McConnell with the intellectual justification for the saturation bombing of rural South Vietnam.

The Rand study reinforced McConnell’s own beliefs about the use of airpower in Vietnam. The Air Force general firmly believed that only airpower could defeat the Vietcong. He thought U.S. ground troops would encounter too many tactical difficulties in the countryside and never be able to find and kill enough of the enemy to win the war. Airpower, contended McConnell, would rack up enemy dead in far greater numbers than the ground pounders. Writing in his personal journal at the time, McConnell stated that the use of overwhelming airpower in the South would be expensive, and it might entail deploying four fighter-bombers against every Vietcong squad, but President Johnson wanted the Air Force to kill Vietcong, and that’s what McConnell intended to do.[8]

The Goure study offered President Johnson and his underlings an answer to the problem posed by the insurgency in the South – that is, how to defeat it even though the Saigon regime had so little popular support amongst the South Vietnamese peasantry. Only a week before he learned of the study’s conclusions, Johnson articulated to McNamara his frustration with the direction of the war and the inability of the U.S. to find a way to achieve a military victory. He had then ordered McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk to try and come up with ways to defeat the Vietcong.[9]

McNamara and Bundy responded to the president’s plea. In the following days, both of them read the Goure report. The two presidential advisers accepted the study’s primary conclusion – the application of massed airpower in South Vietnam presented the United States with a solution to the Vietcong’s insurgency. On June 28, 1965, Bundy passed on the study’s conclusions to the president. He wrote Johnson, “The RAND Corporation has recently completed studies of Vietcong motivation and morale based on interviews with Viet Cong PWs [prisoners of war] and defectors…Morale of the VC armed units has been significantly affected by air attacks within South Vietnam…On the basis of interviews of Viet Cong captives and defectors, RAND suggests that air harassment should be a major objective of our operations in Vietnam.[10]

Bundy also informed Johnson that Rand had learned that the Vietcong greatly feared Allied artillery fire. Bundy wanted to further exploit that fear by making Allied artillery barrages less predictable, suggesting to the president that the location of Allied artillery batteries and their targets should be constantly shifted across the rural landscape in order to maximize their effectiveness as terror weapons. Such a tactic would not only kill more Vietcong, it would demoralize the frightened survivors, who would have to be constantly on the alert against a surprise artillery barrage. On the advice of Bundy and McNamara, President Johnson ordered every branch of the U.S. military in Vietnam to implement the Goure study’s proposals.

In the first half of 1965, indiscriminate bombing and harassment and interdiction (H and I) artillery fire became two key tactics in America’s counter-insurgency war against the Vietcong.

Even before the Goure study had worked its way through America’s Byzantine national security bureaucracy to the White House, the U.S. Command in Vietnam was implementing its recommendations. In early spring 1965, the United States launched its first WWII-style firebombing raid against the Vietcong. The target was the Boi Loi Woods, a 330,000-acre woodland twenty-five miles northwest of Saigon. The Boi Loi Woods had been a Vietcong stronghold since the 1940s. General Westmoreland wanted to incinerate the Boi Loi Woods and suffocate or burn to death the Vietcong thought to be hiding in tunnels and bunkers beneath the forest floor. Westmoreland envisioned the raid, and the prospect of more like it, crushing Vietcong morale and hastening an end to the war. The White House hoped such raids would preclude a major troop build-up by quickly terrorizing the Vietcong into submission.

On March 31, 1965, seventy U.S. aircraft dropped incendiary bombs on the dead and dying forest, which had previously been defoliated with Agent Orange. When flames started to consume the dry timber, crews aboard low-flying C-123s rolled drums of fuel oil out of the planes’ rear cargo doors. Upon hitting the ground, the drums broke open, spilled their contents on the ground, and spurred on the flames. Soon though, the intense heat and smoke from the fires wafted skyward, stimulating the formation of thunderclouds. Those clouds in-turn produced a light rain that at first weakened the fires and then extinguished them altogether. When the rains stopped, the Boi Loi Woods remained standing.[11]

Two weeks later, the U.S. launched another terror raid, this time in a remote, jungle-covered area of Tay Ninh Province, where U.S. intelligence believed the Vietcong had established its headquarters for its operations across South Vietnam. Westmoreland hoped this raid would kill the Vietcong’s top leaders; and in doing so demonstrate to the Vietcong’s regular foot soldiers the U.S.’s tremendous military power. Westmoreland also thought that such a dramatic U.S. military success might crack enemy morale and precipitate an early end to the war.

U.S. Air Force, Marine, Navy, and South Vietnamese Air Force planes took part in the mission. For twelve hours on the day of the raids, jets and propeller-driven aircraft dive-bombed the jungle site believed to be harboring the Vietcong’s Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). By mid-afternoon, smoke from bush fires billowed high into the sky, obscuring the target area. When the strikes ended at 7:00 pm that evening, the Americans had flown 417 sorties and dropped 816 tons of bombs on the target area. But COSVN hadn’t been destroyed. The Vietcong had moved away from the area just prior to the operation. The failure of the air raid, rather than diminish Vietcong morale, probably strengthened it, because the guerrillas now recognized they could successfully evade U.S. airpower.[12]

On June 18, 1965, the U.S. carried out the most impressive terror raid of the war to date. A formation of twenty-seven Guam-based B-52s carpet-bombed a suspected Vietcong base area twenty-five miles north of Saigon. In thirty minutes, the big bombers dropped 1,300 bombs, but only half the bombs hit the relatively small two-square-mile target area. The high-explosive fragmentation bombs tore gaping holes in the earth, shattered old jungle trees into splinters, and blew dirt, debris, and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. And yet, the Vietcong suffered few, if any, casualties. A South Vietnamese reconnaissance team airlifted into the bombed area after the raid found no enemy dead.

This first B-52 strike, an operation the Johnson administration hoped would reveal to the Communists the kind of destruction that awaited them if they continued the war, was like the earlier raids, an abject failure. Not only did it fail to kill any Vietcong, two of the big bombers collided in mid-air on their way to South Vietnam, killing both aircrews. A third B-52 had to turn around before reaching South Vietnam because of mechanical problems. American officials explained away the raid’s failure by blaming the South Vietnamese, insisting someone in the Saigon regime with knowledge of the operation tipped-off the Vietcong. That tip allowed the Vietcong to evacuate the target area before the bombs came crashing down on them. Like the earlier raids on the Boi Loi Woods and in Tay Ninh Province, the unsuccessful B-52 strike probably only reinforced Communist resolve, convincing the guerrillas that they could elude the U.S.’s most fearsome, technologically-sophisticated bomber – the B-52 Stratofortress.

Contrary to the findings of the Rand Corporation, the American terror raids during the first half of 1965, and the saturation bombardment of the South Vietnamese countryside that began in the summer of that year, neither broke the Vietcong’s will to resist nor lessened the Vietcong’s support amongst the peasantry. As a matter of fact, Vietcong military strength mushroomed throughout 1965 and early 1966, proof that the peasantry refused to shift its allegiance to the Saigon regime despite heavy American bombing and the intensified application of harassment and interdiction artillery fire.

In February 1965, at the start of the American air campaign, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam’s J-2 (Intelligence) section estimated Communist strength in South Vietnam at between 130,000 and 180,000 regular soldiers and part-time guerrillas. By mid-1966, Vietcong strength in South Vietnam stood at 232,000 main forces and guerrillas. The increase in Communist troop numbers from 1965 to 1966 had occurred despite the loss of tens of thousands of guerrillas to the stepped-up American war effort.

Leon Goure and Rand made a colossal blunder. The Vietcong became stronger, not weaker, under the rain of American bombs and shells. Nevertheless, Westmoreland and his successor at MACV, General Creighton Abrams, continued the practice of saturation bombing and harassment and interdiction artillery fire until the very end of direct U.S. involvement in the war in March 1973.[13]


[1] Leon Goure, “Southeast Asia Trip Report, Part I, The Impact of Air Power in South Vietnam,” Memorandum RM-4400/1, (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, December 1964), v-vi, 3-5.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] W.B. Graham and A.H. Katz, “Southeast Asia Trip Report, Part II-SIAT: The Single Integrated Attack Team, A Concept for Offensive Military Operations in South Vietnam, Rand Corporation Memorandum, RM 4400-PR (Part 2),” (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, December 1964), 2.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam: The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1988), 76.

[9] Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 365.

[10] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June – December 1965, “Document 27, Memorandum from the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1996), 67-68.

[11] New York Times, “Big U.S. Fire-Bomb Hits Vietcong Near Saigon,” Seth S. King, April 1, 1965; New York Times, “Battle is Pressed in Danang Region,” Jack Langguth, April 2, 1965.

[12] Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, 29-30, 50.

[13] New York Times, “Few Casualties Indicated in Raid on Reds By B-52s,” Seymour Topping, June 19, 1965; Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, 52; Central Intelligence Agency Electronic Reading Room, “Strength of Viet Cong Military Forces in South Vietnam, March 15, 1965, Document No. CIA-RDP79T00472A000400030014-0, Collection: General CIA Records, Page 2; Central Intelligence Agency, “The Vietnamese Communists’ Will to Persist, August 26, 1966, in Estimative Products on Vietnam: 1948-1975, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2005), 357.

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