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.
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
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.