On December 18, 1972, 129 U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers and other Air Force and Marine tactical support aircraft began eleven days of brutal attacks on North Vietnam. While air crews stood down on December 25, the campaign became known as the Christmas Bombing. Officially code-named Linebacker II, the campaign was also U.S. President Richard Nixon's attempt to bring North Vietnamese diplomats back to peace-talks in Paris. In truth, the Christmas Bombing was U.S. foreign policy by force.
The U.S. had been indirectly involved in Vietnam since communists under Ho Chi Minh forced French troops at Dienbienphu to capitulate in 1954, ending France's post-World War II hopes for renewed colonialism in Indochina. The United States had been actively involved in Vietnam since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964 gave President Lyndon Johnson a free hand to deal with communist aggression in Vietnam as he saw fit. The first major U.S. troop buildup began in 1965.
For the next three years, North Vietnamese troops and southern communist Viet Cong fighters dragged the United States into a guerrilla-style war that negated both American manpower and technical superiority. Communists cared little about winning individual battles, but rather about engaging the United States until Americans became weary of the war.
That point came in January 1968 when North Vietnamese regulars infiltrated the capital of Saigon in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Accustomed to hearing U.S. generals characterize the American combat efforts as in the "mopping-up phase," Americans questioned how communists could stage such an effective attack on superior U.S. troops.
Presidential Race, 1968, and Nixon's First Term.
Most American news agencies turned against the war, and the Spring 1968 presidential primaries took on an anti-war tone. After losing an early primary, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term as president. In his absence, Robert Kennedy, running on an anti-war platform, seemed the likely Democratic nominee until his assassination in June. Democrats settled on Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who was hamstrung by trying to support Johnson's policies while distancing himself from the war.
In the end, the Republican Nixon won the presidency by promising an end to the war. Rather than painting himself as an anti-war liberal, however, Nixon promised "peace with honor" by dealing from a position of military strength.
During his first term in office, Nixon introduced the term "Vietnamization" to the war. That meant pulling back U.S. troops and letting South Vietnamese forces carry the bulk of the war. While Nixon was able to start withdrawing American forces, he was not able to end the war.
As Nixon readied his re-election bid in 1972, he sent his National Security Advisor and quasi-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a diplomatic mission to negotiate a peace with North Vietnam.
In secret negotiations that excluded South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, Kissinger and North Vietnam agreed to a cease-fire, U.S. removal of all troops, and a national council to oversee democratic elections in the South. The cease-fire, however, was a "cease-fire in place," meaning that up to 300,000 North Vietnamese troops could stay in South Vietnam.
Thieu was furious, even though the agreement would allow him to retain his presidency. Not only was he disregarded in the process, much of his country would be occupied.
While Kissinger announced on October 26, 1972, that "peace is at hand," Thieu demanded the treaty be reworked. North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho began backpedaling on the treaty, thinking Nixon and Kissinger had hoodwinked him.
Nixon could not accept failure of the peace initiative. The announcement handed Nixon a landslide victory against Democratic Senator George McGovern, who based his entire campaign on an anti-war platform. Plus, he feared the U.S. Congress would force an end to the war in January if he had not ended it by then.
The Christmas Bombing
Thus, the Christmas Bombing. Nixon needed a military solution to the diplomatic roadblock for three reasons:
- To force North Vietnam back to the bargaining table.
- To let the world know that the U.S. still dealt from a position of power.
- To prove to Thieu that the U.S. had not abandoned him.
Linebacker II took its name from Linebacker I, an April 1972 U.S. air campaign that blunted a communist offensive in the south. Nixon announced Linebacker II the same day it began, December 18. Because of the holiday season, news outlets were quickly calling the campaign the Christmas Bombing.
For the next 11 days, minus the Christmas Day break, B-52s and tactical fighter-bombers flew 729 sorties over North Vietnam, dropping 15,000 tons of bombs, and hitting some 1,600 military targets. They destroyed rail tracks and cars, some three million gallons of fuel, and airfields, and they knocked out an estimated 80% of the country's electric supply capacity.
North Vietnamese forces responded with anti-aircraft fire, MIG fighters, and nearly 900 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Twenty-four of those SAMs hit their targets, but they downed only 15 aircraft, 10 of which were B-52s.
The Christmas Bombing had the result Nixon wanted. By December 26, North Vietnam was indicating its willingness to return to negotiations. On December 29, Nixon halted the bombing. In January 1973, Nixon and Kissinger announced that the U.S. and North Vietnam had signed a peace treaty -- which was basically unchanged from the October 1972 version. By the end of January, American prisoners of war were returning home, and by March the American combat experience in Vietnam was over.
North Vietnam did not consider the Christmas Bombing a defeat. Rather it was just another step in its conquest of South Vietnam. With the U.S. out of the way, communists were able to take the south in 1975.
Nevertheless, Nixon could claim victory. By using force as evidence that the U.S. was not weak, he had secured a diplomatic end to the divisive Vietnam War.