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The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

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Tracing the use of air power in World War II and the Korean War, Mark Clodfelter explains how U. S. Air Force doctrine evolved through the American experience in these conventional wars only to be thwarted in the context of a limited guerrilla struggle in Vietnam. Although a faith in bombing's sheer destructive power led air commanders to believe that extensive air assault Tracing the use of air power in World War II and the Korean War, Mark Clodfelter explains how U. S. Air Force doctrine evolved through the American experience in these conventional wars only to be thwarted in the context of a limited guerrilla struggle in Vietnam. Although a faith in bombing's sheer destructive power led air commanders to believe that extensive air assaults could win the war at any time, the Vietnam experience instead showed how even intense aerial attacks may not achieve military or political objectives in a limited war. Based on findings from previously classified documents in presidential libraries and air force archives as well as on interviews with civilian and military decision makers, The Limits of Air Power argues that reliance on air campaigns as a primary instrument of warfare could not have produced lasting victory in Vietnam. This Bison Books edition includes a new chapter that provides a framework for evaluating air power effectiveness in future conflicts.


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Tracing the use of air power in World War II and the Korean War, Mark Clodfelter explains how U. S. Air Force doctrine evolved through the American experience in these conventional wars only to be thwarted in the context of a limited guerrilla struggle in Vietnam. Although a faith in bombing's sheer destructive power led air commanders to believe that extensive air assault Tracing the use of air power in World War II and the Korean War, Mark Clodfelter explains how U. S. Air Force doctrine evolved through the American experience in these conventional wars only to be thwarted in the context of a limited guerrilla struggle in Vietnam. Although a faith in bombing's sheer destructive power led air commanders to believe that extensive air assaults could win the war at any time, the Vietnam experience instead showed how even intense aerial attacks may not achieve military or political objectives in a limited war. Based on findings from previously classified documents in presidential libraries and air force archives as well as on interviews with civilian and military decision makers, The Limits of Air Power argues that reliance on air campaigns as a primary instrument of warfare could not have produced lasting victory in Vietnam. This Bison Books edition includes a new chapter that provides a framework for evaluating air power effectiveness in future conflicts.

30 review for The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    The Vietnam War is one of the most disputed events in American History, with multiple waves of interpretation seeking to explain the problems it presents. Mark Clodfelter's examination of the bombing campaign presents an extremely well-written, thoroughly researched evaluation. He concludes that the reason the Linebacker bombings under Nixon succeeded where the Rolling Thunder campaign under Johnson did not was because early in the conflict, the enemy forces were not vulnerable to air attack. He The Vietnam War is one of the most disputed events in American History, with multiple waves of interpretation seeking to explain the problems it presents. Mark Clodfelter's examination of the bombing campaign presents an extremely well-written, thoroughly researched evaluation. He concludes that the reason the Linebacker bombings under Nixon succeeded where the Rolling Thunder campaign under Johnson did not was because early in the conflict, the enemy forces were not vulnerable to air attack. He thus rejects the models of Guilio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, which claim air power can win wars by itself, and instead shows that while air campaigns are effective against conventional military forces, they are powerless to stop guerilla movements like the Viet Cong, hence the title, The Limits of Air Power. Because the goal of the bombing campaigns was to bring North Vietnam to the table for negotiations, this study of the efficacy of air power necessarily spends most of its time examining the ups and downs of the peace talks. While Clodfelter spends ample time on the specifics of the bombing itself in terms of technology and target choices, he spends most of his time narrating the negotiations. Some readers can easily get lost in the bureaucratic forest, although such information is necessary for the story Clodfelter is telling. While each administration had distinct war aims, both positive and negative, which informed the implementation and limits on bombing strategy, the ultimate determining factor in success was out of American hands. In the first part of the war, during the Rolling Thunder campaign, enemy forces were primarily guerilla fighters, not large organized conventional forces. Thus, they didn't rely on an extensive supply train or heavy industrial capability that is typically vulnerable to air attack. In 1972, the nature of the enemy forces changed to the opposite. Using a large convention force with heavy supply requirements made them vulnerable to the Linebacker campaigns. This rejects several other views of the war, including arguments that the war was inherently unwinnable or that the politicians placed too tight a leash on the military. This study is often cited as a key work in military history, which is no accident. What begins as a thoughtful retelling of the political side of the bombing campaigns in Vietnam eventually becomes an insightful examination of the nature of air power and modern warfare in the Cold War period. While Clodfelter's writing is somewhat dense and the shifting politics at times difficult to navigate, readers are well rewarded for their time.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    Clodfelter's Limits of Air Power is an attempt to describe situations where military power, and specifically airpower, can be effective. It is, at the same time, a warning that there are instances where it is ineffective. The primary premise of the book is that there are both positive goals, those that are achieved only through military force, and negative goals which are achievable by limiting military force. Both goals must be met in order to achieve victory and in limited wars, the negative g Clodfelter's Limits of Air Power is an attempt to describe situations where military power, and specifically airpower, can be effective. It is, at the same time, a warning that there are instances where it is ineffective. The primary premise of the book is that there are both positive goals, those that are achieved only through military force, and negative goals which are achievable by limiting military force. Both goals must be met in order to achieve victory and in limited wars, the negative goals become more numerous and significant. This premise is outlined through the examples of air campaigns in the Vietnam War. President Johnson attempted to achieve large positive goals of an independent, non-communist South Vietnam with Rolling Thunder while then negative goal to prevent wider war with China or the Soviets restricted military options. Nixon’s Linebacker I and II campaigns, on the other hand, sought much more limited positive goals of ‘peace with honor’ to maintain the American withdrawal. Detente with the USSR and China had also allowed more freedom and reduced the risk of larger war. Quickly resolving a peace settlement before Congress ending military funding became the driving negative goal. From this reasoning, Clodfelter seems to argue that Rolling Thunder could not have been done more effectively without getting into a larger conflict with the USSR. If this is true, then USAF and military leaders must go to the National Security Council with an admission that military force cannot reach their objectives. I believe, however, that civilian senior leaders also need to realize that military force does not act alone and they must utilize all of the nation’s instruments of power – diplomatic, information, and economic in addition to military – to achieve victory. Nixon did a better job of this with diplomatic relations to China and the USSR which allowed him more freedom to strike in Linebacker II. The extension of the question is whether the United States is using all potential instruments of power effectively in Afghanistan and the larger conflict in with Muslim extremism. The parallels between Operation Enduring Freedom and Vietnam are many, Vietnamization and the transfer to Afghan autonomy being the most recent example. Hopefully we will not have to lose this conflict in a similar way to learn the next lesson of international power.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Relstuart

    Well written and thought out though certainly one should be cautious to note what is opinion and what is fact. This book has been required reading for some Air Force educational courses.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rowdy

    A very comprehensive history lesson of the Vietnam War. Attempts to give the reader the historical context in which civilian and military leaders made national security decisions leading up to, during, and at the end of the war. An excellent read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chris McInnes

    A classic. Clodfelter’s analysis of air power’s effectiveness is equally applicable to other forms of military power.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Barry Hunte

    A good read about the failure of Air Power in Vietnam

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Z.

    His concepts of positive and negative political goals really helped my understanding of how airpower's effectiveness can wax or wane in a given conflict.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bill Yancey

    Too scholarly to finish....

  9. 5 out of 5

    Raj Agrawal

    Clodfelter uses the Vietnam War as the context for analyzing American airpower’s utility as a political instrument. He demonstrates that the US Air Force organized, trained, and equipped for a worst-case scenario (general) war. Air Force leaders believed that by preparing for general war, it would be inherently prepared to fight limited wars. Clodfelter argues that the Vietnam experience created “a modern vision of air power that focuses on the lethality of its weaponry rather than on that weapo Clodfelter uses the Vietnam War as the context for analyzing American airpower’s utility as a political instrument. He demonstrates that the US Air Force organized, trained, and equipped for a worst-case scenario (general) war. Air Force leaders believed that by preparing for general war, it would be inherently prepared to fight limited wars. Clodfelter argues that the Vietnam experience created “a modern vision of air power that focuses on the lethality of its weaponry rather than on that weaponry’s effectiveness as a political instrument” (203). I found the author’s argument to be well organized and useful as a means to employ airpower in less-than-general war; however, his lesson learned appears to be a bit skewed against the reality of politics. If war is, as Clausewitz offers, an extension of politics, then the application of airpower will naturally be at the changing whim of politicians. Even more importantly, a tactical or operational win does not always equate to a strategic win, and it is the strategic win that has the highest value. More than likely, the strategic battlespace may change dramatically even within the course of an operation. When Clodfelter assigns “positive” value to the application of airpower, and “negative” value to the restraint of airpower, he joins those leaders who have failed to see that constraints and restraints have always been a part of warfare. Given the US’s experience in WWII, airpower without restraint gave American leaders great hope in airpower’s potential; however, it was this lack of restraint that has tainted American airpower with some of the most horrific slaughters in modern history. I would rather Clodfelter have called these objectives “constraints” and “restraints” versus “positive” and “negative,” if only to show that military leaders do not have the luxury of assigning value to objectives handed down by the principals (see Feaver). I agree with the author when he paints the distorted vision of airpower, that “the direct, independent application of air power seems to work best for a belligerent with no negative objectives,” as well as his caveat, “– provided a suitable type of enemy wages a suitable type of war in a suitable type of environment free of significant military restrictions” (220). If airpower is only effective without restraint in a permissive environment, then it is not effective at all. Airpower must be shown to have utility as a political instrument, either on its own or in concert with other capabilities/powers. For most of this book, I found myself to be in violent agreement with the author. Despite his categorization of objectives, Clodfelter provides a helpful roadmap to bring airpower to its proper place as a political instrument.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This was a hard book for me to read. It was not as bad as Into the Quagmire in which VanDeMark described me as he described the protagonists, Johnson, MacNamara, etc., who knew they could not win the Viet Nam War because the government was not a viable government. But I did not know that. Like so many. I was conditioned by WWII, my Hungarian background, anti-Russian, anti-Marxist, etc. But I was smart enough, I think, to realize after my Air Force service that strategic bombers could not be brou This was a hard book for me to read. It was not as bad as Into the Quagmire in which VanDeMark described me as he described the protagonists, Johnson, MacNamara, etc., who knew they could not win the Viet Nam War because the government was not a viable government. But I did not know that. Like so many. I was conditioned by WWII, my Hungarian background, anti-Russian, anti-Marxist, etc. But I was smart enough, I think, to realize after my Air Force service that strategic bombers could not be brought to bear with effect on tactical issues. What I did not fully realize was the political dimension, that limited wars should be kept limited so that we do not have a major war in which strategic weapons could be brought into use without the real desire to use them because opposing sides had lost sight of the need for limited objecties. This book describes the misuse of air power in Viet Nam by Johnson. The Air Force manuals emphasized strategic bombing to bring a country that was an enemy to its knees, and, indeed, atomic bombs. Strategic bombing worked, sort of, in WWII. But it did not work, or was not used, in Korea, leaving a conundrum for Air Force doctrine, which spoke of tactical doctrine after that war but still emphasized strategic bombing. Clodfelter brings out the view that the Air Force generals retained the notion of strategic air power as the epitome of national defense. What was forgotten and only occasionally adumbrated was the notion that there could be limited wars, especially guerilla wars, in which strategic bombing could not be used well tactically, and, whose misuse could lead to global disaster. The author describes Graduated Thunder, a result of the 1964-1965 discussions by Johnson and his defense cabinet. The mission was to raise up an independent South Viet Nam. But this was not possible and air power, even gradually used, did not work. JOhnson wanted contradictory things, the great society and containment, in an area in which containment could not work. He hid his purposes in Viet Nam, leading to his loss of presidential power. The author suggests that the Linebacker campaign which was strategic bombing worked because the mission was far more limited, to withdraw from South Viet Nam, leaving the south to protect itself. [I think there was some cynicism in this] I have to admit here that I gave up after the first 1/3 of the book and read the epilog and quit. This is not because it was a bad book, but I did not have the patience to read of such sorrow, and, yes, such stupidity.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Trav

    A good overview of the political background to, and conduct of the Rolling Thunder and Linebacker campaigns. Clodfelter's main aim is to use the concepts of negative and positive political objectives to explain, at least in part, why Johnson's air campaign against the North was such a failure when compared with Nixon's. In so doing, Clodfelter seeks to dispel the conventional wisdom that if only the Air Force was given free reign in the 60s, it would have brought the war to an end as it did in 7 A good overview of the political background to, and conduct of the Rolling Thunder and Linebacker campaigns. Clodfelter's main aim is to use the concepts of negative and positive political objectives to explain, at least in part, why Johnson's air campaign against the North was such a failure when compared with Nixon's. In so doing, Clodfelter seeks to dispel the conventional wisdom that if only the Air Force was given free reign in the 60s, it would have brought the war to an end as it did in 72. Clodfelter's analysis does not argue against the failures inherent in Johnson's micromanagement, and the inability to form a coherent political aim for the bombing campaign he gradually imposed on the North. There were fundamental flaws in the Johnson administration's approach to the war that directly affected the likelihood of success of any actions taken during the war. However, the external circumstances imposed by the legitimate concerns over Chinese and Soviet involvement did place a real and substantial limitation on the advisability of waging unrestrained air war in the North Vietnamese. Also, Johnson's positive objectives of ensuring a stable non-Communist South Vietnam could not easily be achieved through the conduct of a bombing campaign. Nixon, however, benefited from the detente. The possibility of Chinese and Soviet intervention was a lesser, though still present concern. This allowed Nixon's air planners a freer hand by reducing the administration's negative objectives. Moreover, Nixon only sought "peace with honor" and the withdrawal of US forces without causing the immediate collapse of the South Vietnamese government. This was an outcome more conducive to the employment of military force. A well-structured and argued book. Easy to read and useful in providing an insight into both the air war, and the connections between poltiical objectives and the employment of military force.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Al

    This is a very good overview of the uses and limits of airpower, as found in the context of the Vietnam War, and how airpower can be used and misused to achieve positive and negative goals. Clodfelter details the rationale behind Rolling Thunder, Linebacker I, and Linebacker II. The micromanagement and mismanagement of Rolling Thunder was very interesting, as the Johnson administration attempted to keep the Vietnam war a limited conflict, while avoiding any provokation of the PRC or the Soviet U This is a very good overview of the uses and limits of airpower, as found in the context of the Vietnam War, and how airpower can be used and misused to achieve positive and negative goals. Clodfelter details the rationale behind Rolling Thunder, Linebacker I, and Linebacker II. The micromanagement and mismanagement of Rolling Thunder was very interesting, as the Johnson administration attempted to keep the Vietnam war a limited conflict, while avoiding any provokation of the PRC or the Soviet Union. Targeting presented a significant challenge, as the administration and the JCS attempted to figure out what the center of gravity was, and how to neutarlize it; a significant challenge with a nation like North Vietnam. Lessons learned from WW II were not applicable, as North Vietnam did not have an industrial heartland. The lessons in this book can be tied to our experience in the Balkans, the Gulf War, and the COE in Iraq and Afghanistan. Air power alone cannot bring about decisive victory.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Professor Clodfelter's dissection of America's bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War ought to be required reading at all military academies and institutes the world over, and especially in the United States. The book illustrates the clash between doctrine and political limitations that usually accompany the road to war, Clodfelter making the important point that that while the people who ran the bombing campaigns based their expectations on how bombardment from the air was carried out during Professor Clodfelter's dissection of America's bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War ought to be required reading at all military academies and institutes the world over, and especially in the United States. The book illustrates the clash between doctrine and political limitations that usually accompany the road to war, Clodfelter making the important point that that while the people who ran the bombing campaigns based their expectations on how bombardment from the air was carried out during the Second World War, that war turned out to be the aberration rather than the rule. And while it is true that many of the gloves came off during the more intense campaign of the Nixon-ordered "Christmas Bombing" ("Linebacker II), the political, diplomatic and tactical circumstances surrounding the war had also changed. In short, a study of the bombing campaigns here are a thorough lesson in the Clausewitz-ian aspects of war. While the book isn't exactly a ripping great read, its lessons are too important to pass up.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jason Zumwalt

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rum Morgan

  17. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Bright

  18. 5 out of 5

    Chris Brown

  19. 5 out of 5

    K

  20. 5 out of 5

    Drew Cramer

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  22. 5 out of 5

    Daniel G. Siegle

  23. 4 out of 5

    Meg Corner

  24. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Swan

  25. 5 out of 5

    Marjorie Molloy

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gerod

  27. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jami

  29. 5 out of 5

    Max Vollkommer

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tyson Wetzel

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