Stephen Emerson’s Vietnam’s Final Air Campaign is a compelling analysis of the diplomatic and military struggle between the United States and North Vietnam, each aiming to end the war on its own terms. The work begins with an outline of the strategic objectives of the first Nixon administration vis-a-vis Vietnam; namely, to bring US troops home consequent to a diplomatic end to the war, which would leave South Vietnam a sovereign, non-communist state. These goals were encapsulated in Nixon’s pledge to achieve “peace with honor,” and were to be pursued by negotiations with North Vietnam, contemporaneous with “Vietnamization,” that is, preparing the South Vietnamese regime to shoulder the responsibility for its own national defense, including the ongoing combat operations, which would allow for a steady drawdown of US military forces.
While the center of gravity of book is the combined Navy and Air Force air campaign against North Vietnam in the second half of 1972, Emerson provides a running commentary on the state of diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Vietnam and explains how each phase of the air campaign, especially the intensification of the bombing of North Vietnam, served US diplomatic efforts. The work is laced with a dizzying array of combat codenames such as Operation Menu, Operation Barrel Roll, Operation Commando Hunt, and Operation Pocket Money. However, Emerson makes clear that none of these impacted US strategic goals so decisively as the two phases of Operation Linebacker, which was expressly launched to end the war in Vietnam.
The preface to Operation Linebacker was deadlocked talks between the US and North Vietnam and frenetic efforts by the North Vietnamese to advance their territorial control into strongholds of South Vietnam. Their Easter Offensive, begun on March 30, 1972, caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese by surprise. Attacking on several fronts with “massed armored-infantry columns with supporting artillery and air defense units,” (p. 28), the North Vietnamese forces and their Viet Cong allies appeared to be overwhelming the South Vietnamese forces until US air power blunted the force of the attack. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the incursions and the withdrawal of the North Vietnamese from peace talks convinced the Nixon administration that the North Vietnamese intended to determine the final outcome by force of arms and that “peace with honor” would be relegated to the status of a meaningless slogan. Its response came in the form of a massive air campaign, codenamed, Operation Linebacker. Thereafter, the conflict became a classic Clausewitzian one with “diplomacy” being determined by military power.
Operation Linebacker was the unleashing of American airpower against North Vietnamese economic and military infrastructure with the objective of bringing the war to an end. It did succeed in bringing the North Vietnamese back to the peace talks that resulted in an agreement. However, when the North Vietnamese balked at its implementation and at further talks, the Nixon administration authorized an intensification of the bombing campaign. Linebacker II, as this phase was codenamed, degraded the North Vietnamese economic and military infrastructure to such an extent that the North Vietnamese had little choice but to return to the peace talks, and an agreement was reached ending the conflict.
The literature on the Vietnam conflict tends to cluster into two categories: one that is policy-focused and the other on the overall conduct of the war, as well as specific phases of the war. Emerson’s work stands out as a case study of how military force was calibrated to effect diplomatic outcomes. In particular, it focuses on the diplomatic stalemate in early 1972 and the Nixon administration’s intensification of American firepower to purposefully bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and to drive the process to an outcome acceptable to the American side. Emerson’s book would be an excellent supplementary reading to any general textbook for an upper level course in American foreign policy.
Having said that, it is clear that Vietnam’s Final Air Campaign also fits the genre of military history. Reflecting a very diligent and expansive breadth of research, Emerson presents Operation Linebacker I and II as if it were occurring in real time. The sentences are short, and the narrative brisk and engaging, supplemented by sketches of flight formations, and by photographs of the US aircraft carriers involved and of the aircraft types and their crews. The presentation seems to be delivered from the vantage point of a war correspondent with foreknowledge of the disposition of forces on both sides and of their respective battle plans, with the US forces on the offensive and the North Vietnamese on the defensive. Statistics on the number of sorties flown by US fighters and bombers, and of the tonnage of incendiaries dropped on Hanoi, Haiphong, and other strategic targets, capture the enormity of modern warfare. Photographs of the devastation wreaked by US air attacks against targets in North Vietnam complete the horrific picture.
While the work reflects sympathies with the American forces, Emerson pays homage to the North Vietnamese fliers and defenders for their successes in downing over one hundred American aircraft and to the defenders for rapidly rebuilding destroyed economic and military infrastructure until being overwhelmed by Operation Linebacker II. It is an unusual feat for a foreign policy analyst to present a diplomatic-military tango of this magnitude and import with such comprehensiveness, clarity, and compelling drama.
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