The Military and Diplomatic Resolution of the War in Vietnam
In 1972, the Vietnam War had entered a point of stagnation, with the
United States (U.S.) and the North Vietnamese (NVN) still engaged in the
struggle to define the nation’s identity, political outlook and
international standing. By this late juncture, both negotiations and
ongoing ground war offered no indication that a peace settlement was in
sight. This research report examines the strategy adopted by the
administration of President Richard Nixon in order to bring about the war’s
end. As secret negotiations persisted between the parties, the Nixon
Administration had clear intentions to bring about an end to hostilities,
win or lose. Indeed, the secrecy of these negotiations suggests that the
American president had little expectation of achieving the kind of victory
initially intended by the invasion and occupation. Still, the resolution
of the war would not be settled without one more campaign of aggression.
The negotiations at this juncture, carried out between U.S. Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam experienced a
critical breakdown when the two sides could not reach compromise on an
existing treaty draft. In retaliation for what they viewed as an
unacceptable peace agreement, “the North Vietnamese published the details
of the agreement and stalled the negotiations. Feeling that Hanoi had
attempted to embarrass him and to force them back the table, Nixon ordered
the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in late December 1972.” (Hickman, 1)
It was thus that on December 18, 1972, President Nixon ordered the
initiation of the Linebacker II air campaign. The primary intent of the
tactical targeting of key North Vietnamese infrastructure points with a
demonstration of overwhelming force was to motivate the opposition to
return to the negotiating table so as to forge a lasting peace agreement.
The Linebacker II air campaign was ultimately successful at achieving its
short term goal of bringing about the war’s end, with the Nixon policy of
employing physically and psychologically devastating overhead force rapidly
bringing about the negotiations to end the conflict. But it also failed as
a means to achieving greater American interests of supporting a stable
democratic government in South Vietnam, justifying the overarching claim of
this research that no side can be said to have ‘won’ the Vietnam War.
In no uncertain terms, the air campaign operation was successful in at
least bringing the North Vietnamese back to the negotiation process.
According to Kamps (2003), “in just 11 flying days between 18 and 29
December, the Air Force and Navy achieved an objective that had eluded US
politicians since 1964–forcing the North Vietnamese to the peace table on
America’s terms.” (Kamps, 1) Linebacker II’s objective had been to create
a circumstance in which the United States could exit rather than surrender.
The display of force which it had unleashed through this campaign was
undeniably effective at making an impact on the Northern strongholds of
Hanoi and Haiphong. The Vietnamese sustained extensive damage to their
economic and military capacity to provide themselves with defense and had
likewise been given evidence of America’s ability and willingness to
utilize overwhelming force to achieve its goals. (Werrell, 1) With the
nuclear option always available just behind an attack of such ferocity, the
North Vietnamese were inclined toward negotiation as a means to procuring
American withdrawal without any further devastation.
Still, there remains a considerable amount of doubt as to the actual
effectiveness of Linebacker II. The short-term objectives of returning to
the negotiating table and bringing about the initiation of a real and total
American exit were achieved. But it has always been a subject of
disagreement as to whether or not the U.S. exit was undertaken with
The Linebacker assault led to an unusually quick concession on the
part of the North Vietnamese. And “as soon as Hanoi signaled it wished to
resume peace negotiations, Linebacker II raids immediately ceased. Some in
the Air Force argued that this was a mistake; if the United States
continued the attacks, they maintained, North Vietnam would have to accept
a military defeat.” (Boyne, NP) Instead, the United States acted with the
uneasiness of cause which had been its Achilles heel throughout the war.
Nixon’s claims, even toward the end of the war, that support of the
democratic order in South Vietnam remained a top priority. In the long and
difficult negotiations between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his
counterparts in the North and South of Vietnam, the U.S. acted on its
desires to extricate itself from its commitments in Vietnam in exchange for
the freedom of its MIA and POWs. In exchange, it tendered a host of
concession on behalf of an unwilling South Vietnamese government. The
short-term victories gained by Linebacker II would be important from a
military strategy perspective, but would ultimately be overshadowed by the
war’s overall failures.
In both its triumphs and in its exposure of the failures of the larger
war, Linebacker II is an operation which has been informative to air
campaign strategy in its wake. In and of itself, outside the context of a
war which had failed too consistently and systematically to achieve its
initial aims at this juncture, Linebacker II is an operation that bears
some important merits. Werrell (1983) would make the argument that “on the
military front, Linebacker II was clearly an outstanding feat of arms.
After years of restrictions and frustrations, American airmen were able, in
typical blunt American fashion, to take on and defeat a formidable air
defense system directly. For the United States, and especially the airmen,
this was a proud, satisfactory way to ‘end’ the war, or at least to end
American involvement.” (Werrell, 1) This perspective, however, does not
seem to serve effectively as a criterion for victory. Quite to the
contrary, this would be one last display of its capabilities as if to
suggest that it was not without its bargaining power.
Likewise, in a war effort characterized, most often negatively, as
unclear in its objectives, Linebacker II benefited from a concise and
achievable set of goals that differed from those defined at the outset of
war. Its military ambitions were significant but attainable. Its
political ambitions were more modest as its ultimate result-a negotiation
table tilted meaningfully to the North Vietnamese but at least with the
capacity to invoke caution in an embolden Vietnamese authority-was regarded
by its planners as a realization of its top objective.
Among the many criticisms of the U.S. and its conduct during the war,
there is the humanitarian objection that such modest goals in the course of
this particular air campaign were dramatically outweighed by the methods
employed. Without gaining any traction in negotiations and ultimately
signing onto a treaty that mirrored one abandoned by both sides in October
of 1972, the US still invested considerable resources into Linebacker II.
Werrell contends that “as a result of the scarcity and nature of targets
and the cost of the bombing operations, the dollar value of the attacks
greatly exceeded the dollar value of the value of the targets destroyed.
One CIA estimate put the ratio at 8:1.5 Moreover, Chinese and Soviet
shipments to North Vietnam exceeded the damage by a 6:1 margin. Meanwhile,
US intelligence studies indicated that the bombing would not bring the war
to a successful conclusion.” (Werrell, 1) Thus, as another criterion and
perhaps a more realistic one, even its most modest of achievements at this
juncture should only cautiously be perceived as a U.S. victory.
And in spite of claims that collateral damage had been kept to a
minimum during the operation, “by North Vietnamese count, 1318 civilians
died during Linebacker II.” (Parks, NP) The necessity of both the
expenditure and the loss of lives would only add to the litany of
unanswered questions that would persist long after the conflict’s adverse
conclusion. In the aftermath of the war, these acts would be called into
question given America’s ultimate and necessary abandonment of the war.
Accordingly, Hickman reports that “on January 15, 1973, after pressuring
South Vietnam to accept the peace deal, Nixon announced the end of
offensive operations against North Vietnam.” (Hickman, 1) And with Nixon’s
scandalized resignation in 1973 and the passage of Congressional
legislation forbidding American military intervention in Southeast Asia,
the North Vietnamese were free to pursue the unification which the U.S. had
sacrificed so much to prevent.
And consideration that the United States might continue to support its
overall goals in Vietnam at least through aid to the South Vietnamese
forces that it had propped up for a decade would ultimately be fully
dismissed when “in 1975, Congress refused President Gerald Ford’s last-
minute request to increase aid to South Vietnam by $300 million, just weeks
before it fell to communist control. Few legislators had taken the request
seriously; many conservative Republicans and hawkish Democrats agreed by
then that Vietnam was lost and that the expenditure would have been a
waste.” (Zelizer, 1)
At this juncture, the government which the United States had left to
support itself in South Vietnam was toppled and the nation existed under a
single, communist flag. Vietnam’s ‘victory’ passed only the major
criterion of dispatching a foreign enemy from its soil with its
governmental self-determination intact. But for the toll levied on its
infrastructure, in its psyche and through the millions dead in the region,
it could hardly be said that Vietnam won a war which the United States
Hickman, K. (2008). Vietnam War: End of the Conflict. About Military
History. Online at
Kamps, C.T. (2003). Operation: Linebacker II. Air and Space Power
Journal. Online at
Parks, W.H. (1983). Linebacker and the Law of War. Air University Review
34, 2-30. Online at
Werrell, K.P. (1987). Linebacker II: The Decisive Use of Air Power? Air
and Space Power Chronicles. Online at
Zelizer, J.E. (2007). How Congress Helped End the Vietnam War. The
American Prospect. Online at
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