Yet the campaign failed, utterly. As in World War II, and for similar reasons, air power could not deliver on the modern version of the age-old dream of victory without the butcher's bill. Targets proved elusive. From The Second Indochina War: "The bombs had to fall on roads, bridges, and transportation complexes. Such targets could be quickly repaired, moved, or circumvented, and so had to be bombed again and again." The North Vietnamese were able to disperse urban populations and also, to some degree, industrial capacity to the countryside. It proved impossible to stanch the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam to the South on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. China and the Soviet Union kept the Communists supplied with food and materiel.
And the price was staggering. Again, bombing turned out to be perilous for the bombers as well as for the bombed. The North Vietnamese air defenses, augmented by Russian and Chinese support, turned out to be unexpectedly robust, and by the time Johnson ordered an end to the bombing, the United States had lost 818 airmen and 918 aircraft. And bombing proved no substitute for troops on the ground. The United States was forced into a series of escalating troop commitments; from 1964 to 1973, the main period of conflict, more than 8.7 million Americans served in the war. More than 57,000 Americans died in the conflict, and 313,616 were wounded. South Vietnam saw more than 185,000 of its soldiers killed and nearly half a million wounded; North Vietnam and the Viet Cong reported losses of 924,048 in combat.
Overarching all of this was the moral problem—the problem bombing posed for a civilized democracy. Precision bombing still did not exist in any real sense. From the beginning the American air campaign was broad and brutal in its destruction. Estimates of civilian deaths in Vietnam differ, but they are all large. Hanoi claims that two million civilians were killed in North Vietnam in twenty-one years of war; a more objective estimate puts the civilian death toll for all of Vietnam at 415,000—still appalling.
Moral opposition to the war was fueled by revulsion at the effects of bombing. Over time this opposition came to undermine the will of the war makers and, finally, the ability to continue waging war. By October 31, 1968, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was privately horrified by a campaign that, he estimated, was costing a thousand civilian lives a week; the former presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy had publicly called for an end to bombing; and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was running to succeed his boss in office, had all but promised to stop it. Johnson's decision to end the bombing reflected, as Turley puts it, "the tacit acknowledgment that the United States could not go on pulverizing a society that was so much smaller, weaker, and poorer than itself without provoking moral outrage at home and abroad."