Copyright © 1972 by Fredric Branfman.
15. Beyond the Pentagon Papers: The Pathology of Power by Fredric Branjman
I. THE AGE OF SPEER
Speer is, in a sense, more important for Germany today than Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, or the generals. They all have, in a way, become the mere auxiliaries of the man who directs the giant power machine — charged with drawing from it the maximum effort under maximum strain ... in him is the very epitome of the “managerial revolution.” Speer is not one of the flamboyant and picturesque Nazis. Whether he has any other than conventional political opinions is unknown. He might have joined any other political party which gave him a job and a career. He is very much the successful average man, well-dressed, civil, non-corrupt, very middle class in his style of life, with a wife and six children. Much less than any of the other German leaders does he stand for anything particularly German or particularly Nazi. He rather symbolizes a type which is becoming increasingly important in all belligerent countries; the pure technician, the classless, bright young man, without background, with no other original aim than to make his way in the world, and no other means than his technical and managerial ability. It is the lack of psychological and spiritual ballast and the ease with which he handles the terrifying technical and organizational machinery of our age which makes this slight type go extremely far nowadays....
This is their age; the Hitlers and Himmlers we may get rid of, but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular special man, will long be with us.
—London Observer, April 9, 1944.
My generation—I was nineteen when the first GI was killed in Vietnam in 1961—does not share the same sense of “betrayal” that so many of Dan Ellsberg’s peers have expressed on reading the Pentagon Papers.
Passing our teens in the apolitical fifties, we never really believed in John Kennedy till after he died, nor in his brother till just before he was killed. And a generation immersed in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings responded to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon more as symbols of evil than as men. Whether we called it the System, Capitalism, Racism, Amerika, or were too turned off to try, we felt instinctively that such men were but expressions of a deeper malaise. We felt betrayed by the very existence of a Johnson or Nixon, not because as President they failed our trust in them.
For many of us, then, the real importance of the Pentagon Papers does not lie in the machinations of the McNamaras, McNaughtons, Rostows, Bundys, and Johnsons. It is, rather, in the men who wrote the Papers themselves.
These men, after all, were the real key to American activities in Indochina. The President and his advisers may have made the rules. But it was the Papers’ authors, filling top posts in the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, and Department of Defense, who played the game out. A President and his advisers said “win.” The Papers’ authors designed the Phoenix programs, strategic hamlets, search and destroy missions, B-52 bombing raids, in an attempt to do so. Johnson and Kennedy were safely back in the White House. These younger men between thirty and forty-five, the cream of their generation, were out in “the field” directing military operations, fingering Vietnamese for assassination or torture, spying or being fired at themselves, making studies aimed at breaking guerrilla morale and dismantling an ancient culture.
And so, perusing the Pentagon Papers, one finds oneself pondering the minds of those writing it as they gritted their teeth and ground on through twenty years of trickery and deceit. What is it like to realize that your leaders were simply using you as vehicles for their own vanity and careers? That a cause to which you devoted the best years of your life was a fraud? That an effort for which you risked your very life was only mounted through manipulation and deceit of the people back home for whom you were supposedly fighting? That you have participated in the murder of an officially estimated 2 million Asians and Americans as a result of an aggressive war waged not by the enemy but by your own leaders?
Some of the Papers’ authors, of course, have clearly reacted with a shock and concern which extends beyond themselves. Few who know EUsberg and Russo, for example, doubt their concern for both the suffering of the Indochinese abroad and the assault on democracy at home. But what of the others? Were it not for Ellsberg and Russo, after all, the Papers would never have even been made public. More importantly, few of the other authors have followed their lead by similar revelations, in-depth critiques, public protest, or even public support for Ellsberg and Russo. Is it mere indifference? Cowardice? Or is it, perhaps, something a bit more profound? A feeling of power manque, perchance? Do their real objections to policy—as voiced so obliquely but frequently in the Pentagon Papers—stem from the belief that they could have done it better? Do these men, for all their frustrations over the misuse of power in this particular war, still secretly hanker for some of their own? Are they still holding on within the Pentagon, CIA, law firms, corporations, think tanks, universities, hoping for , their day at the helm?
Well, we certainly won’t all agree on the answers. But, having been asked to write this chapter on the post-Pentagon Papers phase of the Indochina war, I find it necessary to begin with such questions. For any description of what occurred after March 1968 must begin with the following concluding passage from the Papers—surely one of the most remarkable and incomprehensible in the political history of this nation:
The speech Johnson’s announcement of the partial bombing halt] had an electric effect on the U.S. and the whole world ... it was unmistakably clear throughout all this time that a major corner in the war and in American policy had been turned and that there was no going back.... The President’s speech at the end of March was, of course, not the end of the bombing much less the war, and a further history of the role of the limited strikes could and should be undertaken. But the decision to cut back the bombing. the decision that turned American policy toward a peaceful settlement of the war [emphasis added] is a logical and fitting place to terminate this particular inquiry about the policy process that surrounded the air war. Henceforth, the decisions about the bombing would be made primarily in the Pacific by the field commanders. ... A very significant chapter in the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war had come to a close ... partial suspension [of the bombing] in part did produce what most had least expected—a breakthrough in the deadlock over negotiations. And that in the longer view of history may turn out to be its most significant contribution (Gravel edition, IV:275-276).
One is prepared to find John Q. Public, lied to and manipulated by his leaders at every turn, ready to believe the incredible assertion that the March 31 bombing halt over North Vietnam was “the decision that turned American policy toward a peaceful settlement to the war.” But the authors of the Pentagon Papers?
These men, after all, had just completed months of reading tens of thousands of pages of official documents and public records of an Indochina war already more than two decades long. They had learned in intimate detail how no American administration had ever shown the slightest willingness to allow the Indo-Chinese to settle their own affairs, that even Roosevelt, opposing French colonialism at a time when the Viet-Minh was aiding the United States, had never done more than propose the vague idea of a trusteeship. The writers had before them official documentation—top-secret to boot—that not once for twenty years had American leaders ever even considered the idea of withdrawal; that all of those memos, cables, reports, papers, notes, dealt solely with the means of keeping the United States in Indochina.
There was that final State Department cable, which the New York Times later entitled, “Cable to Envoys in Asia on Day of Johnson’s De-Escalation Speech.” It made it as explicit as necessary that March 1968 marked no change in U.S. goals in Indochina: “... air power now used north of 20th can probably be used in Laos (where no policy change planned) and in SVN.”
Surely they must have realized that the bombing halts of March and November 1968 had nothing to do with turning toward “peaceful settlement.” That, in fact, by continuing secret bombing in Laos while decreasing the highly publicized air war in North Vietnam, American policymakers would find themselves free to wage more war than ever. That far from bringing “limited strikes,” March 31 was to mark the beginning of the most indiscriminate bombing in the history of warfare.
The passage quoted above was written March 31, 1968. By March 31, 1972, U.S. bombers had dropped over 4,450,000 tons of bombs on Indochina, twice as much U.S. bombing as was absorbed by Europe and the entire Pacific theater during World War II (2,044,000 tons—source: Pentagon).
During these four years, official Pentagon figures say that over 600,000 combatants have been killed (31,205 Americans, 86,101 ARVN, and 475,609 “enemy,” as of February 26, 1972); nearly twice that number has been wounded.
During these four years, well over 3 million civilians have been killed, wounded or made homeless, according to estimates of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees.
During these four years, American leaders have: tripled the bombing of Laos, going from 50 to 100 sorties per day to 200 to 300; invaded Laos in the south with 20,000 U.S.-supported ARVN and the north with 10,000 CIA-funded Thais; resumed the bombing of North Vietnam after the November 1968 bombing halt—hitting it on 328 separate occasions under Nixon; initiated a fullscale, no-holds-barred war in once-peaceful Cambodia; and spent billions on expanding the political control of the Thieu regime through such steps as building new Tiger cages, increasing the secret police, and mushrooming the Phoenix program of CIA assassination and abduction.
What prevented the authors of the Papers from realizing that March 1968 represented just one more change of tactics? That in the perspective of twenty years, Johnson’s commitment of U.S. ground troops was a mere aberration? That whoever followed him would simply correct this error by reverting to a pattern of relying upon massive doses of U.S. materiel, advisers and technology supplied to Asians who would do the dying? That far from leading to a “peaceful setdement,” the March 31 speech would be followed by far more wholesale slaughter in Laos and Cambodia than had ever occurred in North Vietnam? That in April 1972, the American Executive Branch would remain as institutionally committed to interfering in Indochina as it was in 1950 when its present leader was warming up on homegrown Red-baiting? Was it naivete? Unquenchable optimism? A desire to please McNamara and Clifford, who both pushed for the bombing halt? An attempt to share credit for a policy which presumably many of the authors of the Papers themselves had argued for?
I don’t know. I suppose it is all of these things. I think, though, that it was also something more, something which is itself the genesis of the mechanized devastation that was to follow March 1968.
The authors of these papers are, above all, technicians. Critics who claim they lack perspective may be quite right. But not because they lacked more pieces of paper from the White House, CIA or wherever.
They lack perspective because they have come no closer to hearing the screams of the Indochinese than the men they served; because though they may finally have believed the RAND studies which showed high morale and spirit among the “enemy,” they have no more feeling for what that spirit is than do their leaders „ who failed to kill it.
These men are, in a word, still inside the machine. Like gauges, they can measure, quantify, identify breakdowns and trouble-spots; but they cannot step outside and set their own direction; like Ellsberg and Russo they can describe the mistakes in U.S. policy toward Vietnam; but unlike these two men, they are unwilling to do all that really matters anymore: act to stop it.
If there is a pathology of power expressed in American intervention in Vietnam, then, it extends far beyond the top policymakers; and, indeed, the particular fascination of the Pentagon Papers for my generation is the realization that a whole new generation of technocrats is waiting in the wings to replace the Rostows, Bundys, Kissingers and McNamaras; that these men, the authors of the Pentagon Papers, are even now helping to execute new Vietnams at home , and abroad despite all that they know and all they have seen.
The time has long passed for all of us to realize that an editorial on Speer which appeared in the London Observer twenty-eight years ago showed remarkable prescience; that this country has produced its own class of “pure technicians, V classless, bright young men without background, with no other original aim than to make their way in the world, and no other means than their technical and managerial ability”; and that the Johnsons and Nixons we may get rid of, but that the authors of the Pentagon Papers—whatever happens to these particular L special men—will long be with us. That this is, indeed, their age.
It is no quirk of fate that though March 1968 may mark the end for the Pentagon Papers, it was a mere punctuation point in a new and even bloodier chapter in the sorry history of American intervention in Indochina.
II. TRANSITION: MARCH 1968 THROUGH JANUARY 1969
In the region of the Plain of Jars there came to be a lake of blood and destruction, most pitiful for children, friends and old people. For there were airplanes and the sound of bombs throughout the sky and hills.... Every day and every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes to protect our lives. There were bombs of many kinds [and] shooting and death from the planes. ... I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thusly I saw the life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes.... Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid.
—from essays by Laotian peasants from the Plain of Jars (from Voices from the Plain of Jars, Branfman, ed., Harper and Row)
The aftermath of the February 1968 Tet Offensive faced American planners with a tactical dilemma.
Both the first (1946-1954) and second (1961-1968) Indochina wars had been built around large Western expeditionary ground forces, supported by even greater numbers of local conscripts and mercenaries.
Airpower had of course been used lavishly—particularly from 1965 through 1968. But its essential function, even at its peak, when 120,000 tons fell every month in 1968, was to support the half million-man U.S. ground army deployed in Vietnam. Most of the American funds, personnel, and blood went into the ground effort.
Tet proved, however, that this could not continue. This most highly publicized of ground wars had already excited vocal and increasingly powerful domestic opposition on moral grounds; antiwar activities were, moreover, winning increasing support from the public at large due to the high cost of the war ($33 billion in the peak year of 1968) and high American deaths (thirty-men-a-day average through 1967); many factions within the Pentagon itself were not happy with the high cost of supporting the ground army, diverting funds from more expensive and highly technological weapons systems; and, in many ways most importantly, the army itself had begun to fall apart from within—lack of leadership in the field and public disaffection with the war at home had already begun to lead to refusals to fight, fraggings of officers, heightened black-white tensions, and a skyrocketing use of drugs.
Tet proved the coup de grace to any hopes of holding on through ground intervention. It was bad enough that the war was immoral, costly, killing American boys, and supporting a bunch of corrupt Asian generals who showed their gratitude by selling heroin to our soldiers. But that the war was also unwinnable, that all this pain had been endured in a war that could never be won, finally proved too much. The guerrillas might never defeat the United States decisively on the battlefield. But they could exhaust domestic opinion back at home simply by holding on through shows of strength. As Henry Kissinger later put it in an article in Foreign Affairs, “the guerrilla wins as long as he does not lose.”
The U.S. ground army would be withdrawn. It would be a long, slow, painful process. Over 30,000 more Americans would die after Tet; tens of thousands of new men would become addicted to heroin; internal problems would grow to such proportions that by June 1971 a Colonel Robert Heinl would write an article entitled “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” in the Armed Forces Journal, stating that “by every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.” But the American ground troops would come out until, at this writing, there were but a few thousand still left in combat. But while withdrawing U.S. combat troops, American planners could no more rely on their Asian armies in 1969 than the French could in 1945. Poorly led, composed largely of mercenaries and unwilling conscripts, graftridden and dispirited, U.S.-supported Asians were simply no match for their highly motivated guerrilla adversaries.
Much of this remained hidden from the American public. The NLF was to greatly decrease its fighting in South Vietnam following 1968—presumably to allow U.S. troop withdrawals to be completed—and this allowed pro-administration observers to ballyhoo the success of “Vietnamization”; the press on its side did not report military operations by Asian troops in anything like the detail with which it had reported American fighting.
On one occasion in September 1970, for example, I was visited by a former U.S. Special Forces operative named Ed Rasen. Rasen had just spent two weeks with a massive ARVN operation up near the Laotian border as a freelance photographer. He had been the only American actually out in the field with the Asian troops. For several evenings he regaled me with stories of the failures of the operation: ARVN troops deserting, ARVN troops running away at the sight of a possible enemy soldier, ARVN commanders calling in airstrikes on their own positions. The most bizarre tale was that of one platoon which found a large enemy cache of weapons, was told to carry them to the top of a hill where they could be brought back to Saigon for a display of captured enemy weapons, refused, and finally left the weapons where they had found them.
Rasen spoke with some contempt of American journalists who never actually went out in the field with the troops to observe them, but wrote their stories based on visits to the forward base of operations where they received rosy briefings by Vietnamese officers and U.S. advisers.
Sure enough, several days later opened up a New York Times “News of the Week in Review” to read an article by James Sterba describing that very ARVN operation as one of the great successes of Vietnamization until that point.
Despite such public-relations successes, however, it was as clear to U.S. military planners in 1969 as it is today that neither the ARVN, RLA (Royal Lao Army) nor FANK (Armed Forces of the Khmer Nation) could do a job that half a million U.S. foot soldiers could not do. Casual readers of the newspapers may have been surprised when “Vietnamization” proved so conspicuous a failure during the ARVN invasion of southern Laos in February 1971, the Thai/Lao attempt to hold the Plain of Jars in December 1971, the operations in Cambodia 1970-72, the collapse at Quang Tri in April 1972. To anyone living in Indochina, not to mention U.S. tacticians, such debacles were to be expected.
The Nixon administration’s accession to power in January 1969 thus set into motion a changed tactical situation. Forced to withdraw U.S. ground troops and unable to rely on Asian allies, hut fully committed to remaining on in Indochina, the administration had but one alternative: to place a new priority on the use t of airpower. January 1969 saw the focus of U.S. military involvement gradually begin to shift from the ground to the air.
There was ample precedent for this change. The Johnson administration had earlier initiated a fullscale mechanized war in Laos, one which involved but several hundred U.S. foot soldiers. Beginning in May 1964, the air war had by January 1969 already seen tens of thousands of American airmen involved in delivering 410,000 tons of bombs into Laos (see The Air War in Indochina [Beacon Press, 1972], p. 281, the revised edition of the Cornell Air War study); thousands of villages had been destroyed; tens of thousands of civilians had been killed or wounded; and hundreds of thousands had been driven underground or into refugee camps (see “Presidential War in Laos: 1964-1970,” by F. Branfman in Laos: War and Revolution, Adams and McCoy, eds.. Harper and Row).
This war had already proved eminently successful from the point of view of our Executive branch. It was relatively cheap in dollars and American lives, and —most importantly—free from domestic criticism due to a highly successful policy of news management. As Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson was later to testify to Congress, “The only U.S. forces involved in Laos are the air. We have no combat forces stationed there. And I personally feel that although the way , that the operation has been run is unorthodox, unprecedented, as I said, in many ways I think it is something of which we can be proud of as Americans. It has involved virtually no American casualties. What we are getting for our money there ... is, I think, to use the old phrase, very cost effective” (Hearings of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, July 22, 1971, p. 4289).
And this shift to the air in no way implied any change in the real focal point of American involvement: control of the cities and towns of South Vietnam. By 1969, as today, the only tangible goal of American leaders was to keep a pro-U.S. regime in power in South Vietnam at least until the next American election. Doing this meant ever-increasing repression in the urban centers. During Nixon’s first two and one half years in office, for example, the State Department officially admits that the CIA-run Phoenix program murdered or abducted 35,708 Vietnamese civilians, 4,836 more than the Pentagon claimed the NLF had assassinated or kidnapped during the same period, and a monthly increase in murder of 250 percent over the 200 killed by the CIA every month under Johnson; and the greatly increased arrests of political prisoners by the Thieu regime reached a crescendo after the one-man October 1971 election. As the New York Times reported on April 2, 1972 “University and high school students ... charge that their leaders have been disappearing from the streets and ending up in prison. ... ‘I cannot remember a period since Thieu came to power when so many student arrests have been made,’ a university student said.... Tales of torture and beating proliferate. Articles in student publications report violent treatment during captivity.”
But despite this continued focus on political control in Vietnam, the sum total of the Nixon administration’s military tactics is a new form of warfare.
By continuing the bombing while withdrawing American ground troops, the administration has come to wage the most fully automated war in military history; in waging such war, it has inevitably been led into total war, one which cannot distinguish between military and civilian targets and winds up destroying everything in its path.
And, most importantly, the administration has come to wage the most hidden war in history. If domestic opinion was the main obstacle to continuing the war, then, clearly, hiding the war from the American people would become a major goal; and troop withdrawals, diminishing dollar cost, lower U.S. casualties and an unseen use of airpower afforded the means. In a sense, the Nixon administration has launched the most ambitious attempt in history to reverse Kissinger’s doctrine: through secrecy, it is today the administration which wins if it does not lose.”
This automated, total, secret war is not merely more of the same. For until Nixon, foreign interveners in Indochina had always depended on ground armies. We prefer to think of this new war under Nixon as a third Indochina war.
III. FROM THE NIXON INAUGURAL TO THE 1972 SPRING OFFENSIVE
In the defense report which I made to Congress this year, I tried to point out that we would be continuing air and sea power and the presence of air and sea power in Asia for a good time.... This idea that somehow or other the Nixon Doctrine means that we will not have air or sea power in Asia is a great mistake....
—Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” November 14, 1971
Do I think that a war that has gone on for 30 years is going to end? The answer is no ... our policy is to get U.S. troops out of the war.
—Secretary Laird, Washington Post, April 11, 1972
The secrecy of Mr. Nixon’s war-making in Indochina is most dramatically illustrated by the fact that the three events which sparked the greatest domestic debate during his first three years in office were relatively unimportant to the Indochinese. The U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, the Son Tay prison raid in November 1970, and the invasion of southern Laos in February 1971 were all most significant, to be sure. But they were all relatively short-term, conspicuous in their failure, and did little to affect the overall course of events. And, most importantly, all were of relatively little consequence compared to Mr. Nixon’s most serious escalations: his expansion and increasingly sophisticated use of the United States’ highly technological air power: his permanent use of the ARVN for fullscale fighting in Cambodia and Thais for the war in Laos; and his increasingly flagrant disregard for the rights of civilian populations in times of war.
The full extent of the Nixon administration’s war-making in Indochina can only be appreciated by recalling the situation when Mr. Nixon first took office.
The war was primarily a contracting ground war within South Vietnam on January 20, 1969. The bombing of North Vietnam had ceased three months earlier; Cambodia was still at peace under Prince Sihanouk; and though the bombing of Laos had tripled with the bombing halt over North Vietnam, such heavy bombing had only been going on for three months at that point.
Within South Vietnam, the situation was more susceptible to a negotiated settlement than at any time since the buildup of American ground troops began in 1965. It was clearly in the NLF’s interest to permit Mr. Nixon to withdraw gracefully, but completely, and it is an open secret that they offered such a solution. As a high-ranking official in Undersecretary of State John Irwin’s office was later to tell me in March 1971, “the NLF offered the President a facesaving formula for withdrawal when he first took office. They told him they would not embarrass him, that they would allow him to play any charades he wished with Vietnamization, as long as he set a fixed date for total withdrawal within a reasonable amount of time. But the President said no.”
Instead, the focus of the fighting was gradually shifted from South Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia. In this way the war became less visible and—coupled with U.S. ground troop withdrawals—served to give the illusion that things were “‘winding down.”
The heavy bombing of Laos continued at a rate double that of 1968. Between January 1969 and December 1971, according to the Cornell Air War study, over L3 million tons of bombs were dropped on that tiny land. This was four times as much bombing as had occurred between 1948 and 1968, eight times more bombing than that absorbed by Japan during World War II.
This bombing is particularly characterized by the heavy civilian toll it has taken. As a September 1970 staff report of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees has reported, ‘The United States has undertaken ... a large-scale air war over Laos to destroy the physical and social infrastructure in Pathet Lao areas.... The bombing has taken and is taking a heavy toll among civilians” (p. 19).
Between 1969 and March 1972 the bombing is estimated to have created some 3,500,000 refugees (including those who were brought into the U.S.-controlled areas, and those who remained in Pathet Lao zones but were forced to retreat underground); I interviewed several thousand of these people during my years in Laos, and each one said that his or her village had been partially or totally destroyed by American bombing, and that he’d been forced to live underground for weeks and months on end.
Civilian killed and wounded were also high. In the summer of 1970 the U.S. Information Service conducted a survey among 30,000 refugees from the Plain of Jars in Northeastern Laos. The Plain of Jars, formerly inhabited by 50,000 people, was totally bombed out between January and September 1969. The USIS survey took a wide opinion sample among more than 200 refugees from 96 separate villages spread throughout the Plain. The report found that 95 percent of the people had had their villages bombed, 68 percent had seen someone wounded, and 61 percent had seen a person killed (reprinted on p. 15, U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearings on Laos, April 1971; see also a survey of civilian casualties from the Plain of Jars, prepared by Walter Haney, and reprinted in the July 1971 hearings of the same subcommittee).
Equally striking, civilian casualties have vastly outnumbered military killed and wounded in Laos. The same USIS survey, for example, found that 80 percent of the casualties were civilian and 20 percent Pathet Lao.
The heavy bombing of the civilian population in Laos was in part due to the fact there are no “strategic” targets—such as factories, large bridges, petroleum refineries; and those “military” targets that do exist—soldiers, trucks, truck parks, or whatever, are rarely locatable from the air. The guerrillas sleep by day, move by night, through the forest, in small groups; trucks also move at night, are camouflaged during the day; and the mobile, small units of the guerrilla forces simply do not depend on large fixed storage areas or base camps. When American pilots did go up over Laos in the hundreds, they were simply not prepared to dump their bombs at random out in the forest; they inevitably wound up striking at such signs of human life which could be found: footprints, cut grass, smoke from fires, plowed or cultivated fields. Invariably, such signs of life were in and around villages; invariably they were provided by civilians.
There are also many indications that the CIA continually pushed for bombing of villages in Laos as a matter of deliberate policy. Former targeting officers I have interviewed have stated time and again that the CIA exerted constant pres-I sure beginning in 1967 to have villages removed from the restricted target listing. This appears primarily due to the fact that the CIA had created its own Secret Army in Laos, based originally on Meo tribesmen in northern Laos. As the tides of war began to turn against the Meo in 1966 and 1967, the CIA apparently decided that bombing the Pathet Lao “economic and social infrastructure” was necessary to save its position. Although these pressures from the CIA were resisted in the beginning, the Nixon administration eventually acceded entirely to CIA demands.
A third reason for the heavy civilian casualties under Nixon is the vastly in-creased use of antipersonnel weaponry. Such weapons, which cannot destroy a truck, bridge or factory, are only meant for human beings.
Although the figures are classified, all of the airmen we interviewed have noted a heavy increase in the use of antipersonnel bombs and antipersonnel mines in the late 1960s.
The antipersonnel bombs include the pineapple, which has 250 steel ball-bearing pellets in it which shoot out horizontally. One planeload carries 1,000 such bombs, which means that one sortie sends 250,000 steel pellets shooting out horizontally over an area the size of four football fields; the guava is an improvement over the pineapple in that it is smaller and its pellets shoot out diagonally; one planeload of guava bombs shoots out 300,000 to 400,000 pellets diagonally so that they will go into holes where the peasants are hiding; the plastic bomb, which breaks into thousands of slivers one-eighth of an inch by one-sixteenth of an inch, will not show up on an X ray; the fragmentation anti-personnel bombs, like the BLU/63, which breaks into dozens of jagged fragments, are larger and calculated to do far more damage than the steel ball-bearing pellets. Similarly, flechettes are tiny steel arrows with larger fins on one end which peel off the outer flesh as they enter the body, enlarge the wound, and shred the internal organs. They are fired from rockets and M79 grenade launchers.
Antipersonnel mines differ from the bombs in that they are not dropped with a specific target in mind. Rather, they are part of an officially designated “area denial” program. Under the Nixon administration, hundreds of square miles have been flooded with hundreds of thousands of such tiny mines as the Gravel, Dragontooth and button bomblets, in an attempt to make areas under attack uninhabitable for human life. In the November 1970 Electronic Battlefield Hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example. Air Force representatives testified that the area denial program had been instituted in half of southern Laos. This is an area of some 20,000 square miles inhabited by — according to the American embassy in Vientiane—over 200,000 people. These mines are camouflaged to look like leaves and animal droppings, and include such I items as the WAAPM (wide-area antipersonnel mine), which emits eight strings each eight yards in length. The individual tripping on the WAAPM cords will blow himself up.
It is common knowledge in Indochina that the percentage of U.S. ordnance dei livered which is explicitly antipersonnel in nature has greatly increased in recent years. During a visit to Udorn Air Force Base in the fall of 1969, for example, the man in charge of stockpiling munitions at Udorn told me that about 80 per cent of the ordnance stocked on base for use in Laos was antipersonnel in nature; he said that this was considerably higher than it had been even at the height of the war under Johnson in 1968.
It is clear that the use of such weapons has considerably increased the numbers of civihans killed and wounded by the bombings.
But although the administration’s bombing has reduced most of the U.S. embassy estimated 3,500 villages in Pathet Lao zones to rubble, erased whole societies like the Plain of Jars off the face of the earth, and driven most of the 800,000 people still living in Pathet Lao zones (by estimate of U.S. Ambassador Godley underground, the bombing has been as spectacular in its military ineffectiveness as in its depredations.
Although the Nixon administration spent over $4 billion bombing Laos between January 1969 and April 1972, flew over 400,000 sorties against it, and devoted from 30,000 to 50,000 American airmen to the effort at any given time, the astonishing fact is that the Pathet Lao now control far more territory than when the bombing began.
Given the inability of the air force to locate Pathet Lao guerrillas, the bombing may even have been counterproductive. My interviews with hundreds of former Pathet Lao soldiers indicate that—as in North Vietnam—the bombing strengthj ened military morale rather than crushing it. This was not an unimportant fact in an arena where American planners had to rely on the ground on unmotivated Asian conscripts and mercenaries and their corrupt officers.
Since January 1969, the Pathet Lao have solidified their control throughout north and northeastern Laos, moving to the outskirts of Luang Prabang in the north and forcing the evacuation of Long Cheng in the northeast; in central Laos they have moved as far west as Dong Hene, and in southern Laos they have taken control of the Bolovens Plateau. At this writing, administration control in Laos does not extend much farther than Luang Prabang itself, plus half a dozen major towns in the Mekong Valley.
The Nixon years have been characterized by mushrooming escalation on the ground in Laos, as well as in the air.
While the administration was talking withdrawal to the American public at home, it was actually transforming what had been regarded as a temporary U.S. infrastructure in Laos into a permanent one. The Quonset huts in the U.S. AID compound and the unprepossessing U.S. embassy building in Laos, once seen as a symbol of American ability to pack up and leave in twenty-four hours if necessary, were replaced by giant cement structures. Between 1969 and 1971 over $2 million was put into new American buildings for an expanding U.S. presence: a giant windowless building for USAID with a helicopter pad on the roof, a large American embassy, new apartments for American officials in the American community known as “Kilometer Six,” and new U.S. AID compounds at Houei Sai, Luang Prabang, Long Cheng, Savannakhet and Pakse.
This U.S. entrenchment in Laos, and the increased numbers of Americans contracted to the CIA after 1969, have been occasioned by the Nixon administration’s most far-reaching escalation in Laos: its transformation of the Secret Army from one based on Meo tribesmen into one based on Thais.
Due to endemic corruption within the regular Lao armed forces, the CIA began setting up its own army in the late 1950s, known as the Armee Clandestine, or Secret Army. Recruitment was begun among the Meos in northern Laos, and Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, July 22, 1971, p. 4287. by July 1961 CIA Colonel Edward Lansdale reported in a memo to Ambassador Maxwell Taylor that “About 9,000 Meo tribesmen have been equipped for guerrilla operations.... Command control of Meo operations is exercised by the chief CIA Vientiane with the advice of Chief M.A.A.G. Laos.” Although later supplemented by Burmese, lowland and highland Thais, Nationalist Chinese, black Thais and Vietnamese, the Meo people remained the core of the army until 1968. Trained, directed, and paid by Americans under contract to the CIA, this secret army did the bulk of the fighting during the periodic rainy season offensives carried out by the CIA, and did the bulk of the defending during the Pathet Lao dry season offensives.
As a result, they had already suffered devastating losses by 1968, and a decision was made to step up the import of Thais to make up these losses. Recruiting at Udorn in northeast Thailand under the aegis of the 4802nd Joint Liaison Detachment, CIA station chief Pat Landry began systematically sending in regular Thai army units. Thai special forces, and Thai youths recruited on an individual basis into Laos. During the Nixon administration’s first three years in office, the number of Thais fighting in Laos grew from a few thousand to nearly 20,000.
But if Laos has represented the most prolonged and widespread of the Nixon administration’s escalations, Cambodia has proved the most sudden and dramatic. As suggested above, the American invasion of Cambodia which began April 30, 1970, and lasted two months, was a relatively minor incident. Far more important was the fullscale air war initiated by the United States one month before the invasion began, and which has continued until this very day.
It took five and one half years in Laos before outsiders were able to begin documenting the effects of the air war on the civilian population, due to highly successful news management by the American government. The situation is even more diflficult in Cambodia, where few outsiders speak Cambodian due to a decision by the Nixon administration not to send in volunteers and AID officials trained in the language.
Nonetheless, as the earlier edition of The Air War in Indochina noted in October 1971, “The relationship between air power and civilian casualties and refugees in Cambodia is not as clearly defined as it is in Laos or South Vietnam, but the evidence available suggests a similar pattern. The use of air power in close air support of South Vietnamese and Cambodian ground operations, is, according to the Refugee Subcommittee, ‘contributing much to the rising toll being paid by civilians.’ Many towns and villages were totally destroyed or severely damaged by American air power during the first weeks of the invasion in May 1970, including Snoul, Mimot, Sre Khtum, and Kompong Cham. The list grows longer as the air war drags on: Skoun in July and August 1970, and Prey Totung in December.”
On December 5, 1971, the New York Times reported that, according to an official study of the U.S. Government Accounting Office, “more than two million Cambodians have been driven from their homes ... since ... the spring of 1970.... Bombing is a very significant cause of refugee and civilian casualties.” The same report revealed that 26 percent of Cambodian territory had come under saturation bombing. Numerous interviews with Cambodian refugees, including stories in the New York Times on December 4 and 5, 1971, have made it clear that American bombing was the major reason for the generation of Cambodian refugees.
A striking aspect of the Nixon administration’s policies in Cambodia has been its total disregard of refugee needs. Unlike Laos and South Vietnam, where at least some minimal attention was given to providing enough food to keep refugees alive, the administration has made no funds available for the relief of Cambodian refugees.
And, as in Laos, [As Senator Edward Kennedy, chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, noted on May 3, 1972: . . there are approximately 2 million people who are refugees in Cambodia today, and yet the United States fails to provide even one dollar of help and assistance for the refugees in Cambodia.... Today, after two years of heavy batde—which began with an American-sponsored invasion from South Vietnam— a [Government Accounting Office] report on Cambodia documents: ‘That it is the policy of the U.S. “to not become involved with the problems of civilian war victims in Cambodia.’” “(See Congressional Record, May 3, 1972, S 7183-7184).] the Nixon administration has carried out parallel escallations on the ground. The Lon Nol army has been enlarged from some 40,000 at the time of the coup to well over 150,000 today; a polyglot Secret Army, part of the CIA’s 100,000-man force stretching throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam, has been pressed into action in Cambodia, with the brunt of the heaviest fighting born by Cambodian mercenaries who had been living in South Vietnam and fighting under the name of the Komphong Khrom; and ARVN forces have made continuous sweeps through Cambodia, carrying out widespread looting and raping, and giving every sign of planning to occupy portions of southeastern Cambodia permanently, to the consternation of Lon Nol officials.[These ground and aerial escalations have been no more successful in Cambodia than they were in Laos. At this writing the Lon Nol regime controls little more than Phnom Penh and a few other provincial capitals. Guerrillas officially control about two-thirds of Cambodia, and move at ease through most of the rest of the land.]
And in addition to taking the war into Laos and Cambodia, the Nixon adminis-tration also resumed the bombing of North Vietnam. Between January 1969 and March 30, 1972, North Vietnam was struck on more than 325 admitted occasions. These occasions included at least nine “limited duration protective reaction strikes.” Though sold to the public as defensive in nature, these “limited reaction” strikes in reality involved hundreds of aircraft striking throughout the southern portion of North Vietnam for periods ranging from several days to one week, As visitors to North Vietnam subsequently discovered, these raids were as destructive to the civilian population as had been those carried out between 1965 and 1968.
To sum it all up, then, the Nixon administration had dropped over 3.3 million tons of bombs on Indochina, more bombs than had been dropped by any govern-ment in history, before their adversaries began their offensive on March 30, 1972. Its term in office had already seen over 3 million civilians killed, wounded or refugeed, according to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees; and, while most of this carnage had occurred in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, even civilian and military casualties within South Vietnam were running at roughly the same levels as 1967, a year in which there were 450,000 American ground troops in that country.
Much of this information had been hidden from the American public; reporters had not been allowed out on bombing raids or flown to the front lines outside of South Vietnam during the Nixon years, and so the war had slowly been disappearing from the TV screens and newspaper front pages; all information which might cause domestic repercussions, such as the incidence of use of antipersonnel weapons and their effects on the human body, had been “classified” out of public reach; and the administration had successfully created its own Orwellian image of a sterile, antiseptic air war, one in which only military targets are bombed, villages are rarely if ever hit, and only defensive “protective reaction” strikes are carried out against North Vietnam.
But their import was not lost on the guerrillas of Indochina. They knew all too well that the war was not “winding down,” that, on the contrary, the ground war had merely been transformed into an even more vicious and indiscriminate air war; that the Nixon administration had no more intention of withdrawing than had the Truman administration when it first massively intervened twenty-two years earlier. Unless they wished to submit to a permanent American occupation of the southern half of Vietnam and the populated areas of Laos and Cambodia, they had no choice but to launch an offensive.
Events had exploded one by one the rationales used by American leaders to justify their intervention in Indochina: the Pentagon Papers, following hundreds of newspaper and TV reports over the years, followed by Thieu’s one-man election in October 1971, had successfully exposed the myth that American involvement was designed to bring about a democratic and fuller life for the Vietnamese; Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972 had weakened the argument that the United States had to remain in Indochina for fear of China; and there was growing awareness that not only would continued fighting indefinitely prolong the internment of American pilots who had already been captured and create new prisoners daily, but that there was a good chance that captured pilots could return home if the United States would commit itself to total withdrawal.
There was but one last substantive rationale that had to be destroyed, from the guerrillas’ point of view: the rationale that “Vietnamization” was working, that somehow the loss of 50,000 American lives, 300,000 American wounded, and 200 billion American dollars, could be redeemed by a pro-American regime that could remain in power, that not only would the people of the United States have to decide if their leaders were war criminals, but whether it was these leaders — or domestic antiwar forces—who had betrayed their country by causing it to lose in Vietnam.
And so, on March 30, 1972, guerrilla forces began their most ambitious offensive since Tet 1968, an offensive which would force the American people to choose between a President committed to indefinite warfare in Indochina or an opponent who would at least give greater hope of finally withdrawing—not because he necessarily wanted to, but because he had to.
IV. THE BOMBING OF HAIPHONG AND BEYOND
USAF personnel in Southeast Asia may now outnumber Army troops for the first time in the 11 -year war in Vietnam. Under administration withdrawal plans, total U.S. strength “in country” in South Vietnam was to drop to 69,000 by May ... most of the withdrawals were expected to be Army.... The Air Force had only 20,300 members in Vietnam on April 6....
AF has moved additional units into South Vietnam to counter the new enemy offensive, so the total personnel strength in-country is higher than on April 6.... The Pentagon’s “in-country” strength figures—the ones the President cites in his withdrawal announcements—do not count the AF forces in Thailand or Guam or Navy men off shore aboard ships. Thus, the additional B-52s AF has sent to Guam and the Navy carriers and other vessels added to the offshore fleet technically do not count in the withdrawal arithmetic.
—Air Force Times, April 26, 1972, p. 2
When John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson chose to escalate in Vietnam, they sent in more ground troops; nothing revealed the Nixon administration’s commit-ment to automated war more than the fact that its escalations have been carried out by the dispatch of more machines.
Between 1969 and 1971 the administration’s main innovation in the air war — besides the “area denial” program—had been the increased use of electronic gun-ships. These gunships, including the A-119 “Shadow” and A-130 “Spectre,” are characterized by highly sophisticated electronic devices. Oscilloscopes on board, picking up signals from acoustic and seismic sensors down below, infra-red scopes designed to pick up heat emissions, and radar to track moving objects, provided the intelligence for immediate strikes. On reception of such intelligence, the gunships— which only go out at night and fly at a level of about 5,000 feet—would spew out a withering rain of fire from six guns, each shooting at a rate of 6,000 rounds per minute. Bullets would put a hole every square foot in an area the size of a football field down below.
Although exact figures are not available, the Nixon administration is known to have dispatched dozens of new gunships to the Indochina theater between 1969 and 1971.
Nixon’s major escalations in the air war, however, began in February 1972 two months before the guerrilla offensive began. In that month the administration doubled the number of B-52s operating in Indochina from forty to eighty, doubled aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin from two to four, and dispatched several new squadrons of F-4 Phantoms and gunships.
But February 1972 is also noteworthy for another reason: this is the month in which the Nixon administration resumed heavy bombing of South Vietnam. While the administration had steadily escalated the bombing in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam between 1969 and 1971, it had decreased the bombing within South Vietnam. By resuming heavy B-52 and jet bombing within the South in February 1972, the model of Laos was finally applied in a massive and relentless manner throughout the Indochinese peninsula.
The March 30 offensive soon saw a flagrant commitment to automated war so obvious that none could miss it. The number of B-52s was raised again, up to 130; a flood of new jets and gunships was unleashed, until by May 6 the number had nearly tripled to 900-1,000; aircraft carriers were once more increased, from four to six; and the administration even chose to re-activate Takhli Air Base in Thailand.
The ultimate outcome of this escalated air war is not yet clear at this writing. The guerrilla victory at Quang Tris made it clear that they will make much progress on the ground against a demoralized ARVN. But it is difficult to see how the guerrillas can hold large swatches of politically significant territory in the face of saturation B-52 bombings designed to destroy towns and villages in order to save them.
It seems safe to predict, though, that this offensive will have serious political effects. Nixon will no longer be able to claim that he seriously intends to with draw, or that “Vietnamization” can work.
Like Tet 1968, whatever happens on the battlefield the 1972 spring offensive may launch political ripples back here in the United States which will eventually lead to withdrawal. Once more, it may well be the guerrillas who win if they do not lose.
Whatever happens in the long run, however, one thing is assured for the foreseeable future: continued American devastation of Indochina, perhaps going beyond anything seen to date.
At this writing, in early May 1972, the Nixon administration’s giant armada of 900 strike aircraft, 150 B-52s, four to six carriers, and several dozen destroyers are—after a decade of practice in Vietnam—unmatched in technological sophistication in the history of warfare.
More importantly, all indications are that this force is poised on the brink of unprecedented devastation in Indochina.
In this respect, the B-52 saturation bombing of the city of Haiphong on the night of April 14, 1972, marks a watershed in the war. By taking this action, the Nixon administration clearly threw down the gauntlet—to its foes at home as well as in Indochina. To understand why, it is important to put the strikes against Haiphong into the perspective of the last eight years.
The significance of the bombing of Haiphong was not only that the sudden, high-level, nighttime, carpet bombing of an area inhabited by 300,000 people was an act of uncommon savagery. It was that until then Haiphong has stood as a symbol of ultimate American restraint in the face of intense domestic and worldwide criticism of the U.S. air war against Vietnam. By bombing Haiphong, the Nixon administration served clear notice that it would stop at nothing in its attempt to maintain its position in Indochina.
Conventional wisdom had held that the administration would keep to a low profile in Vietnam in this crucial Presidential election year. The bombing of Haiphong, however, made it clear that Nixon places a far greater priority on victory in Vietnam. It was no longer unrealistic to suggest that only massive domestic and international protest and resistance may halt the total destruction of Hanoi and Haiphong, the mining of Haiphong harbor, devastation of the North’s dike system, or even more blatant acts of mass murder.
The following facts have been widely noted:
1. THE B-52 BOMBING OF HAIPHONG WAS MASSIVE, INDISCRIMINATE AND UNPRECEDENTED
The Johnson Administration bombed Haiphong regularly from 1966 through 1968. But these strikes were limited in the “Prohibited Areas” of four nautical miles around Haiphong center. As a March 1968 Joint Chiefs of Staff memo noted, “The prohibited areas were created in December 1966. Numerous strikes, however, have been permitted in these areas over the past two and one-half years, e.g., dispersed POL, SAM and AAA sites ...” (Gravel ed., IV: 255).
These past raids, however, were carried out by jet bombers with a relatively limited radius of bombing destruction. April 15, 1972, was not only the first time that B-52s were sent over Haiphong: the use of dozens of these giant bombers ensured that saturation bombing occurred for the first tmie in the Haiphong area.
B-52s are huge eight-engined aircraft with a crew of six and two 2,500 gallon wing tanks. Each sortie carries twenty-five to thirty tons of bombs, either as 108 500-pound bombs or sixty-six 750-pound bombs or some combination thereof, Bombing from 30,000 to 35,000 feet, B-52s leave craters thirty-five feet deep by forty-five feet in diameter with their 500 pounders. A typical B-52 strike involves six B-52s saturating a selected grid square, leaving a swath of destruction half a mile wide by three miles long. (See The Air War in Indochina, p. 25.)
The fact that dozens of these giant bombers were sent out at night ensured il that saturation and indiscriminate bombing of this heavily populated area was carried out. For at night, even the light spotter planes which sometimes guide B-52 raids in the daytime for greater precision were unavailable. Neither, of course, were the ground spotters who made more precise B-52 bombing possible during the siege of Khe Sanh.
2. THE USE OF B-52S OVER HAIPHONG NECESSARILY LED TO HEAVY CIVILIAN CASUALTIES
Even when the air war against North Vietnam was carried out only by jets, the bombing caused heavy civihan casualties. As the Cornell Air War study notes, “targets ... in a strategic bombing campaign are situated near predominately civilian areas.... The bombing inflicted severe civilian damage on the civilian , society as a whole.... In 1967 the noncombatant casualty rate was quoted at 1,000 per week (Robert McNamara).... And the equivalent casualty rate in the U.S. would be more than 600,000 per year” (The Air War in Indochina, p. 48).
The official population of Haiphong and its suburbs in 1960 was 369,248. Although many children and others were removed from the city during the mid-I sixties, many returned after the November 1968 bombing halt. Given the populaj tion growth and surprise of the April 14 bombing attack, there may have been well over 300,000 people in the area hit by the B-52s.
The Pentagon Papers make clear, moreover, that the heavy civilian casualties expected to occur from bombing Haiphong—and the worldwide protest they would entail—were the main reasons that Johnson did not agree to level it. As a memo of the ISA, prepared in Undersecretary of Defense Warnke’s office, reported: “Experience has indicated that systematic operations particularly against repair burdens, while at the same time involving substantial civilian casualties in road and rail routes [in the Hanoi-Haiphong area] adds simply and slightly to the many suburban civilian areas located along these routes” (Gravel ed., IV: 257).
Civilian casualties from the bombing, moreover, are by far the greatest portion. As a summary of the bombing of North Vietnam noted in 1966, “Estimated civilian and military casualties in NVN also went up, from 13,000 to 23-24,000 (about 80% civilians)” (Gravel ed., IV: 136, emphasis added).
But although the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not dispute the heavy damage to civilians, they did not stop pushing for bombing Haiphong in any event. As the Pentagon Papers reported in October 1967, “in addition to mining the harbors, the chiefs requested that the comprehensive prohibition in the Hanoi/Haiphong areas be removed with the expected increase in civilian casualties to be accepted as militarily justified and necessary” (Gravel ed., IV: 215).
The attitude of the military was put somewhat more pungently by Marine Commandant General Wallace Greene in testimony before the Senate Prepared-ness Investigating Subcommittee, October 23, 1967: “We are at war with North Vietnam right now, today, and we shouldn’t be so much interested in their anger as we are in bringing the war home to everyone of them up there.” Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson was even more explicit: “I put ‘innocent’ civilians in quotation marks,” he stated.
The B-52 bombing of Haiphong clearly illustrates that the military had sue-ceeded beyond its wildest dreams. Even at the height of the air war in 1968, there was no talk of loosing B-52s on the Hanoi/Haiphong area.
There was no need to wait several months for the inevitable reports by American visitors to Haiphong of heavy civilian casualties from the April 15 raids. The official report of widespread use of B-52s in the most heavily populated area of Indochina is evidence enough.
3. THE B-52ING OF HAIPHONG SERVED NO USEFUL MILITARY END; ITS PRIMARY GOAL WAS TO TERRORIZE THE VIETNAMESE INTO SUBMISSION
The Haiphong bombing was of limited military significance and could have little effect on the fighting in the South.
An October 1967 CIA study clearly stated that a bombing campaign against lines of communication (LOCs)—such as roads and railroads—leading out of Haiphong would be useless. “Prospects are dim that an air interdiction campaign against LOCs leading out of Haiphong alone could cut off the flow of seaborne imports and isolate Haiphong” (Gravel ed., IV: 215).
The same report went on to conclude that even mining Haiphong Harbor would be militarily ineffective: .. the combined interdiction of land and water routes, including the mining of the water approaches to the major ports and the bombing of ports and trans shipment facilities ... would ... not be able to cut off the flow of essential supplies and, by itself, would not be the determining factor in shaping Hanoi’s outlook to the war” (Gravel ed., IV: 215).
The reason is simple. Most of North Vietnam’s military supplies do not come through Haiphong, but through China. As a study carried out under Defense Secretary Clifford noted in March 1968, “the remaining issue on interdiction of supplies had to do with the closing of the port of Haiphong. Although this is the route by which some 80 percent of NVN imports come into the country, it is not the point of entry for most of the military supplies and ammunition. These materials predominately enter via the rail routes from China. The closing of Haiphong port would not prevent the continued supply of sufficient materials to maintain North Vietnamese military operations in the South” (Gravel ed., IV: 251).
Indeed, the Clifford group concluded that an attack on Haiphong would actually be counterproductive: “Apprehensions about bombing attacks that would destroy Hanoi and Haiphong may at some time help move them toward produc-live negotiations. Actual destruction of these areas would eliminate a threat that could influence them to seek a political settlement on terms acceptable to us” (Gravel ed., IV: 252).
Why then was Haiphong attacked by B-52s on April 15?
The answer was put rather delicately by a New York Times article of April 14, 1972: “In a comment on the report of B-52s going north: administration officials disclosed today that ... ‘the objectives were diplomatic and political as well as military.’”
Since the evidence is overwhelming that the attacks against Hanoi serve little useful military purpose, the only conclusion is that they are primarily “diplomatic” and “political.”
In fact, John McNaughton put it more clearly in a January 18, 1966, memo: I’To avoid the allegation that we are practicing ‘pure blackmail,’ the targets should be military targets and the declaratory policy ... should be that our iObjective is only to destroy military targets” (Gravel ed., IV: 45).
The B-52ing of Haiphong and the later attacks against Hanoi were clearly nettle more than “pure blackmail.”
Faced with a deteriorating military situation in South Vietnam, the Nixon administration responded by launching sneak terror attacks against Haiphong and Hanoi in an attempt to terrorize the Vietnamese into submission.
4. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER THAT THESE ATTACKS COULD SUCCEED; ON THE CONTRARY, THEY PROLONGED THE WAR, BROUGHT MORE POWS, AND OPENED UP THE PROSPECT OF FAR GREATER ESCALATION
The notion that bombing Hanoi and Haiphong would break the will of the Vietnamese is patently absurd. In October 1967, after the United States had already dropped nearly 300,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, a top-level JASON study of the bombing concluded: ‘The expectation that bombing would erode the determination of Hanoi and its people clearly overestimated the per-suasive and disruptive effects of the bombing and, correspondingly, underestimated the tenacity and recuperative capabilities of the North Vietnamese. That the bombing has not achieved anticipated goals reflects a general failure to appreciate the fact, well-documented in the historical and social scientific literature, that a direct, frontal attack on a society tends to strengthen the social fabric of the nation, to increase popular support of the existing government, to improve the determination of both the leadership and the populace to fight back, to induce a variety of protective measures that reduce the society’s vulnerability to future attack and to develop an increased capacity for quick repairs and restoration of essential functions. The great variety of physical and social countermeasures that North Vietnam has taken in response to the bombing is now well documented but the potential effectiveness of these countermeasures has not been adequately considered in previous planning or assessment studies (Gravel ed., IV: 224).
From the Vietnamese point of view, the 1972 spring offensive was not merely a continuation of a struggle of a month, year or even 25 years. It was seen as an integral part of a fight of 1000 years to see their country independent from foreign aggression, free and unified. To suggest that they would—or could— halt their offensive under the threat of saturation bombing was clearly ridiculous.
The desperate and reckless quality of the bombing was, however, no more dramatically illustrated than by its effect on the sensitive issue of captured American pilots.
To begin with, such bombing drastically increases the number of American pilots who are shot down and captured. Over 350 men who were alive and well when Richard Nixon took office were listed as captured or missing in action before the April 15 raids. The escalation in bombing over Hanoi and Haiphong— a heavily defended area—greatly enlarges their number. On April 15 alone Hanoi radio reported shooting down four jets and one B-52, for a total of fourteen men. In the week ending April 11 alone, nineteen men were listed as missing in action, most of them airmen.
In addition, such an escalation of the bombing ensures the prolongation of internment of those men already captured, men who could be brought home were the Nixon administration to negotiate an end to American involvement in Indochina.
And, most seriously, attacks against Hanoi/Haiphong greatly endanger the lives of those pilots now in captivity. As the study prepared under Clark Clifford reported in March 1968 states: “Although the North Vietnamese do not mark the camps where American prisoners are kept ... heavy and indiscriminate attacks in the Hanoi area would jeopardize the lives of these prisoners and alarm their wives and parents into vocal opposition” (Gravel ed., IV:251-252).
The Nixon administration’s willingness to even risk drastically inflaming the delicate POW issue in this Presidential election year ominously suggested that it had abandoned reason.
In this situation, anything was possible.
The most likely possibility in the wake of April 15 was that the administration would wipe Hanoi and Haiphong off the map.
Another prospect, more remote but still possible, was that it would go so far as to bomb North Vietnam’s dike system.
By the beginning of June, the waters of the Red River Delta are swollen by rains, and the danger of flooding is at its greatest. North Vietnam’s greatest vuli nerability has always been the ease with which the U.S. bombing could flood , the country’s rice-growing area and cause massive famine which could kill millions of people. High Air Force officers pressed hard for the bombing of the dike systems in the North during the Johnson administration, and although bombing policy never went so far as an all-out effort against the system, the dikes were often hit as part of the effort to raise the cost for the civilian population. In May and July 1966, for example, authorities of Nam Dinh city told New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury that U.S. planes had dropped six bombs on two kilometers of dikes which protected the city against floods, causing damage to many sections. Asked to comment later, the Defense Department did not deny the charge. According to Christopher Beal of the moderate Republican Ripon Society, some “punitive bombing” of Red River delta dikes was reported to him by “reputable non-Communist sources” in the summer of 1961 , when the waters were at their seasonal high.
Whether or not this happened, however, April 15 had seen a dramatic escalaition. Much of what would happen thereafter would be blacked out. On April 12, the Pentagon announced that from now on it would “probably not” give information to the public on U.S. bombing raids on any “regular” basis.
But whatever did happen it was clear that on April 15 the Nixon administration had crossed the Rubicon on Vietnam. It was not only that the bombing of Haiphong committed the administration irrevocably to remaining on in Indochina. It was that millions of Americans learned for the first time that their government had been lying to them for three years when it had implied it was willing to withdraw, that there was a “secret plan” for ending the war. The combination produced by a pathology of power on the part of U.S. officials—together with one of powerlessness on the part of millions of antiwar citizens—had almost torn the country apart in 1968.
If the Nixon administration continues to bomb the North in 1972, the implications seemed even graver.
What was most distressing to many of us as of April 15 was not merely that we had no idea how far the administration will go; it was a growing realization, buttressed by the Pentagon Papers, that the administration did not know either. One thing did seem clear, however: Despite the millions who had already been killed and maimed, the 5 million acres of crop and forest land destroyed, the 10 million refugees, the 100,000 political prisoners, the thousands of villages and towns that no longer exist, the 400,000 prostitutes, the disease and hunger, the 23 inillion bomb craters, the corruption and degradation of ancient cultures and ijocial systems, it was all far from over.
Indeed, at this writing, the pathological destruction of Indochina by American leaders may have only begun.