This was the biggest, bloodiest bombardment conducted by the US Air Force since the end of World War II, on the pretext of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam “refusing” to resume the Peace Conference in Paris.
During the 12-day-and-night campaign, codenamed Operation Linebacker II, starting on December 18, the US Air Force and Navy dispatched 729 B-52 sorties and nearly 4000 tactical aircraft sorties to drop 80,000 tonnes of bombs onto military and industrial targets in North Vietnam, especially Hanoi and Haiphong. Hanoi alone suffered 40,000 tonnes of bombs, many of which hit the centre and densely populated areas.
The US newspaper Stars & Stripes, published for the US Armed Forces overseas, commented that there had never been such a large amount of bombs being dropped on such a small area in such a short period of time.
The all-weather B-52 stratofortresses, each carrying more than 100 large bombs, penetrated Hanoi airspace from several directions, flying from the U-Tapao Airbase in Thailand and Andersen Airbase on the Island of Guam in the Pacific.
They came in wave by wave in “cells” of three under the protection of night, fighters, jamming aircraft, chaff-laying aircraft, and planes that would suppress enemy Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites with bombs and anti-radar missiles. The heavy B-52 bombers also had Electronic Counter-measures (ECM) equipment of their own to confuse the North Vietnamese radar network.
The American imperialists were very confident in their dense and sophisticated electronic curtain, combined with their perceived “air superiority”.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese defenders had to fight a classic asymmetric battle with less modern weapons and limited amounts of ammunition.
However, the poorer and smaller country shocked the Pentagon and stunned the world press as they successfully gunned down 81 US aircraft in just 11 days and nights, including 34 B-52 bombers (each then valued at $8 million), 5 F-111s (each worth $15 million), 1 F-105, 21 F-4s, 2 RA-5Cs, 4 A-6As, 12 A-7s, 1 HH-53 helicopter and 1 147-SC reconnaissance plane. These were extremely high loss rates and since then, no other army in the world has shot down a B-52.
The US pilots admitted that they had encountered the most effective and concentrated air defence system in the history of warfare, which comprised of old SAM2s, MiG fighters, and multi-layered anti-aircraft artillery.
Strong determination and hatred of US barbarity together with a pool of experience drawn from the previous US air war of destruction helped Vietnamese radar operators detect enemy aircraft among the dense radar jamming, allowing them to launch salvos of missiles at them with deadly accuracy. The missile troops knocked out 29 B-52s in total, of which 16 crashed on-site.
Dummy SAM sites eased problems caused by the SAM hunters like the F-105 Wild Weasel and helped reduce enemy bombs released on civilian targets.
Tiny MiG interceptors performed well in launching raking attacks through the waves of B-52s, disrupting their formations and forcing some of them to jettison their bombs before the targets. On December 27, pilot Pham Tuan rapidly approached and downed a B-52. The next night, martyr Vu Xuan Thieu destroyed another B-52 by plunging his MiG directly into the bomber after his missiles had caused only minor damage to it.
When the US aircraft lowered their altitudes to avoid SAMs and MiGs, they were immediately faced with heavy flak from rifles and low-range anti-aircraft guns from both regular and self-defence forces.
France's Le Monde daily compared Operation Linebacker II to the Nazi destruction of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, while Britain’s newspaper the Daily Mirror commented that “the bombing of North Vietnam has made the world recoil with revulsion.” But finally, the Americans failed to crush the will of the Vietnamese, who later referred to the event as a “Dien Bien Phu of the skies”, proudly comparing it with their previous decisive victory over the French in Dien Bien Phu valley.
At midnight on December 29, Nixon was compelled to halt the bombing of Hanoi.
Linebacker II turned out to be a tragedy for the Nixon administration, with many of their aircrews killed, captured or missing in action.
The US had to sign the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, which recognized the independence, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam and stipulated a complete withdrawal of US troops from the country.
An effective air defence system, timely evacuation and a dense network of trenches and shelters helped minimize the casualties suffered by the Vietnamese although Nixon’s bombings inflicted severe damage on North Vietnam’s infrastructure.
However, with as many as 80,000 tonnes of bombs, the terrific massive raids still claimed the lives of 2,300 civilians, including nearly 1,500 people in Hanoi.
On December 22, American bombs hit Bach Mai hospital, the largest medical facility in North Vietnam, killing many patients and health staff.
Dr Nguyen Luan was quoted by the BBC as recalling the date: “Cries and moans filled the dark night. We had to use knives, hammers and shovels to break through the concrete walls in order to get to the victims trapped inside. As a surgeon, I operate on people to save their lives. Now I was using my surgical knife not to save people but to cut apart the corpses in the bomb shelter so we could rescue those still alive.”
At 10.47 pm on December 26, 90 tonnes of B-52 bombs razed to the ground the large Kham Thien residential area in Hanoi, killing 287 civilians, wounding 290 others and destroying 2,000 houses. The next morning, people could see burnt bodies lying on the ground next to the piles of coffins provided by the state.
Nguyen Van Cau, an inhabitant in this area, said emotionally about the fateful night: “Bombs struck a shelter accommodating 40 inhabitants. I found my wife dead, with only her upper torso left. The bombs pulverized my son, my brother and many others into the soil. Blood and pieces of shredded human flesh remained here and there.”
Some people believe these incidents were just accidental errors made by the US pilots. The Nixon administration also attempted to persuade the public that they attacked civilian targets unintentionally.
However, there is evidence against this statement:
1. In the campaign, the experienced US pilots employed precision-bombing tools and techniques. Many of them later revealed that they had been told to attack a number of sites, which turned out to be civilian targets.
2. Nearly all major population areas, including Kham Thien, An Duong, Yen Vien, Gia Lam and Uy No, were attacked, especially after the great losses of B-52s on the initial nights of Operation Linebacker II.
3. The North Vietnamese intelligence and other sources affirmed that the Nixon administration conspired to bomb the North Vietnamese population in the most bloody way possible in order to cause high numbers of civilian casualties, so that they would strongly protest the North Vietnamese government for not submitting to the Americans.
An announcement by South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, sent to his generals on December 19, 1972, said that Operation Linebacker II had three aims, one of which was to destroy residential areas to trigger an anti-government wave among the North Vietnamese.
A State Department official once said in December 1972 that “we’ll hit the cathedral in Hanoi on Christmas Eve,” according to a TIME magazine article.
Meanwhile, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger said that the B-52 was chosen for Linebacker II due to its “ability to shake the mind and undermine the spirit.”
4. According to the declassified documents published by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University, Richard Nixon seriously considered the use of nuclear weapons against Vietnam at least twice (as US Vice President during the Vietnamese war against the French and as US President in April 1972). It’s common sense that a nuclear bomb or missile can claim much more lives than conventional weapons. And Nixon did threaten to press the “button.”
5. If Nixon did not intend to bomb the Vietnamese population, then was it possible to justify the deployment of half of the US total number of B-52s and one third of its tactical aircraft to achieve purely political ends without regard to the lives of innocent people? He must have been wise enough to know civilians would be affected anyway.
Protests and abhorrence worldwide
The massive bombing campaign in Hanoi was denounced by the press and political leaders around the world, including the Pope.
“This is a crime scattering death and unforgivable horror and is an action which is irrespective of conscience.” – The Los Angeles Times
“By this action, the President had made the American civilization collapse. The US is at risk of returning to the Stone Age and becoming a country of barbarity.” – The New York Times
Nixon “ordered the most pulverizing saturation bombings against the wretched Vietnamese people… This is not the conduct of a man who wants peace very badly.” – The Times of London
“In this poker game of life, Nixon is a master. By means of this nearly blind monster, the B-52, he has discarded forever an assumption. Mr Nixon is no longer, and will never again be, a respectable man. That is, if he ever was one.” – L’Express, a weekly based in France
Nixon’s bombing was “nothing but terror and torture; torture with a method in order to make the North Vietnamese pliable. The bombs fall on military targets, but they also hit hospitals and schools, women and children… Even allies must call this a crime against humanity… The American credibility has been shattered.” – Die Zeit, a German nationwide weekly
Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme criticized: “This crime by the Americans can be compared with the most barbaric massacres by the Nazis in World War II.”
The British Labour Party’s national executive committee said: “This continued slaughter of the Vietnamese people is a complete contradiction of the statements made by both Mr Nixon and Dr Kissinger.”
Indira Gandhi’s New Congress Party drafted a resolution condemning the bombing: “Vietnam is witnessing the most horrible tragedy in man’s recorded history. A small country whose valiant people desire nothing more than achieving their national identity is being subjected to indiscriminate bombing of its civilian population in a senseless desire to impose the will of an outside power.”/.