How The U.S. Air Force Won WWII

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber named after its pilot’s mother, was well above the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Its bomb bay opened and it released the infamous payload codenamed “Little Boy”. 53 seconds later and the city of Hiroshima resembled hell. This first ever wartime use of a nuclear weapon arguably expedited the Japanese decision to surrender the war. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “The Bomber Mafia” chronicles the renegade group of pilots who went well beyond the call of duty leading up to this point in history. They redefined military strategy that would become the foundation for the Air Force to eventually separate from the Army as an independent military branch. They utilized precision bombing tactics and creative strategy to attack the enemy from ever-changing angles at breathtaking casualty and destruction rates. While the nuclear attack on Hiroshima resulted in about 4.7 square miles of damage, the Bomber Mafia devised and executed incendiary air raid missions that destroyed ten times more enemy infrastructure and killed hundreds of thousands more. During Operation Meetinghouse, the single most deadly bomber attack in human history, as much as 16 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed and over one million left homeless. Gladwell presents the impossibility of choice these men were faced with in a page-turning fashion. 

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is unlike his previous books. He doesn’t introduce unknown facts or thought-provoking theories but instead zooms in on a specific moment in WWII history. Gladwell tries to answer the question what does it mean when technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war? All wars present a moral conflict. What allows Bomber Mafia to stand out is the impossibility of choice that these US military officials and soldiers were faced with: invasion by land, timed-precision bombing of high-value targets or relentless sorties dropping an inferno on enemy cities? Win at all cost versus a more humane approach to war. Like most of Gladwell’s books, its insights are easily transferable into our modern times. The Bomber Mafia takes place in the context of WWII but the moral dilemma it describes is relevant for 21st-century technology, for example when we think about artificial intelligence and human medicine or algorithm structure and social media.

“Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

The paperback’s metrics are 9 chapters plus author’s note and conclusion divided into two parts and spread across 206 pages. Apparently this book was conceived as an audiobook. The paperback only functions as a second addition. I didn’t miss anything noteworthy, but I have read the audiobook has more flesh to it. 

Bomber Diplomacy

Operation Rolling Thunder was a highly controversial aerial assault on key infrastructures under control of North Vietnam. Notwithstanding its failures, the bombing campaign offers important lessons on the concept of coercion. A recent UCLA research paper shows that an escalating exercise of airpower can unlock vital information to inform and revise coercive military campaigns. 

tl;dr

Operation Rolling Thunder’s failure has been widely blamed on the strategy of using force to send “signals.” It discredited the associated theory of coercion among a generation of military officers and scholars. In this paper, I show that whatever its other failures, Operation Rolling Thunder did successfully signal a threat. I rely on the latest research to demonstrate that Hanoi believed the bombing would eventually inflict massive destruction. I also show that Washington accurately ascribed the failure of the threat to North Vietnam’s resolve and continued the operation for reasons other than signaling. These findings show that Operation Rolling Thunder can be productively understood as an exercise in both signaling and countersignaling. Rather than discrediting the theory of coercion, these findings modify it. They show that failed threats can be informative and that coercive campaigns can become prolonged for reasons other than a lack of credibility.


Make sure to read the full paper titled Was Airpower “Misapplied” in the Vietnam War? Reassessing Signaling in Operation Rolling Thunder by Ron Gurantz at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09636412.2021.1915585

(Source: Robert Taylor)

Operation Rolling Thunder was an aerial assault during the Vietnam War designed to gradually escalate in force. It started on Mar 2, 1965 and ended on Nov 2, 1968. Rather than to pursue a shock and awe strategy then commander-in-chief and 36th President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson opted for a limited-force strategy to signal the enemy American resolve and to coerce a truce. From the American perspective, the Vietnam War was a war with limited objectives, so it made sense to use limited means. North Vietnam, however, viewed it as a total war, so it made sense to resist any military strategy. Its failure to achieve a truce by compelling a cease of supplies to the Vietcong or stop infiltration into South Vietnam created a narrative among military strategist that the airpower was misused or misapplied.

The theory of coercion directs to “influence the enemy’s behavior to compel a certain outcome by means of anything short of brute force”. Applied to the Vietnam War, Operation Rolling Thunder was a means to influence North Vietnam’s behavior, notably to cease support of the Vietcong. It signaled a threat of grave devastation to North Vietnamese infrastructure and potentially civilian lives. Continued fighting does not contradict this conclusion, but indicates that North Vietnam understood the American approach of restraint, adapted to it, and accepted the threatened consequences. These actions taken by North Vietnam acted as a sort of countersignal. Furthermore, The United States recognized the effects of its signals early on, but nevertheless continued the bombing campaign under the calculus that a gradually escalating bombing campaign would erode North Vietnam’s resolve until it would reach a breaking point where the threat of heavy bombing would meet a vulnerable North Vietnamese leadership. Therefore coercing them to consider ceasefire, truce or pursue non-military alternatives such diplomacy.

As history tells, LBJ’s bomber diplomacy would not bode well for the United States. Nevertheless, the US military sent and received vital signals to inform and revise military strategy. Even though the threat of total destruction was accepted by the North Vietnamese, this countersignal was correctly interpreted by the United States as a willingness to accept consequences rather than a lack of credibility. So, why did the United States continue to gradually escalate rather than turn brute force when it became clear that North Vietnam was willing to accept heavy bombing? Coercion may benefit from restraint because an instant destruction of critical infrastructure would have left nothing to protect but also set back Vietnam’s faltering economy hundreds of years. Furthermore, coercion may benefit from restraint because the longer the bombing campaign lasts, the more it wears down the enemy’s will. The takeaway for military strategists may lie in the finding that signaling and restraint in warfare to allow for a gradual escalation will remain powerful alternatives to a blitzkrieg strategy. Sending and receiving signals has the power to inform and revise coercive military campaigns.

PBS offers an intriguing learning series on Operation Rolling Thunder and its wider impact on the Vietnam War. C-Span recorded a class by Douglas Kennedy of the U.S. Air Force Academy on Vietnam’s War’s “Operation Rolling Thunder” air campaign. Both complement and support the findings in Gurantz’ paper.