Comment May 2002

Slow Squeeze

One legacy of Vietnam that we continue to live with is the idea that air power cannot win a war

Last month, in the first of these columns devoted to the new American way of war and its application in Afghanistan and potentially in Iraq, I discussed the failure of air power in World War II to satisfy the age-old dream of ideal warwar in which the other side quits after a minimum of fighting. In this second installment I had meant to trace the use of air power through the conflicts in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, showing the eventual (and in the end sudden) arrival of air power's revolution. However, as the reader will see, I got bogged down in Vietnam, as has happened to others.

The Vietnam War evolved—or, rather, muddled along—over a long time, at least from 1954 to 1975, and to a great degree American strategy in Vietnam was always reactive, ad hoc, and confused. But at the core of the strategy there was a theory, and this theory was a revival and a refinement of the World War II dream of victory through bombing. The theory was called by various names, "graduated response" and "phased escalation" among them, and it held that a calibrated and predictably increasing use of bombing against North Vietnam would eventually force the Communists to abandon their efforts to take over South Vietnam and to accept a negotiated peace that would leave Vietnam partitioned between the North and the South, as it had been since the close of the first Indochina war, in 1954.

To its supporters this seemed quite an elegant idea: a limited approach to war in pursuit of a limited goal, with limited casualties on both sides. It was to be a rational war, and bombing was to serve as the chief instrument of rationality. As the American Brigadier General Dave Palmer later wrote,

Civilian planners wanted to start out softly and gradually increase the pressure by precise increments which could be unmistakenly recognized in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh would see the tightening pattern, the theory went, and would sensibly stop the war against South Vietnam in time to avoid devastation of his homeland. Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton dubbed the strategy "slow squeeze," and explained it in musical terms—an orchestration of activities which would proceed in crescendo fashion toward a finale.

In time "phased escalation" would be widely seen as the very epitome of insanity in strategy, and it had its detractors from the beginning—notably among those people who knew something about war. (The theory was always much more beloved by the civilians than by the generals in the Pentagon.) Still, there was a logic to the madness. Then as now, the United States was the wealthiest and most militarily advanced nation in the world, and its air power, it would seem, was more than capable of overcoming North Vietnam's defenses; North Vietnam's limited industrial, communication, and transportation infrastructures ought to be easily destroyable from the air; destroying them would quickly reduce an already desperately poor nation to a terrible state; the United States sought to persuade North Vietnam only to cease its aggression, not to surrender unconditionally; ergo, North Vietnam would do the rational thing: choose a limited loss over ruination, and accept peace.

The air campaign in Southeast Asia was the most colossal display of bombing might in history—and also the most ambitious test of the theory of air power. It began in earnest in December of 1964, and continued in its main phase until President Lyndon Johnson ordered an end to bombing, on October 31, 1968; President Richard Nixon ordered two lesser campaigns in 1972. All told, American warplanes dropped nearly eight million tons of bombs on an area about a third the size of France—four times the amount dropped in World War II and seventeen times the amount dropped in the Korean War. In the campaign's peak year, 1967, American planes flew 108,000 sorties. The campaign succeeded in wreaking devastation. As noted in William S. Turley's history The Second Indochina War (1986), the Communists later said that bombing had destroyed almost all the industrial, transportation, and communication facilities built since 1954, had wrecked three major cities and twelve of twenty-nine provincial capitals, and had set any hope of economic progress back ten to fifteen years.

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