Operation Rolling Thunder was the name given to America’s sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Operation Rolling Thunder was a demonstration of America’s near total air supremacy during the Vietnam War. It was started in an effort to demoralise the North Vietnamese people and to undermine the capacity of the government in North Vietnam to govern. Operation Rolling Thunder failed on both accounts.


Operation Rolling Thunder was given government approval and officially started on February 24th1965 though the first attack did not occur until March 2ndwhen 100 US and VNAF planes attacked an ammunition base at Xom Bang. The bombing campaign lasted until October 1968, despite the fact that it was meant to have been no more than an eight-week campaign.


The execution of the operation was blurred from the start. The US Air Force was restricted as to what it could bomb out of fear of provoking a Soviet/Chinese response. Whereas the US military wanted a bombing campaign that had clear military results (such as severely limiting the way the NLF could operate in South Vietnam) the ‘hawks’ in Washington DC wanted to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese government the awesome military power the US could muster – a military power that the North could not hope to match. The failure of Operation Thunder to undermine the government of Ho Chi Minh in its first few weeks led to a change of strategy. By the end of 1965, the bombing raids were used against the supply lines that the North used into the South as opposed to specific targets in the North itself. However, Haiphong and Hanoi remained targets.


One of the results of the opening phase of the operation was that Vietcong forces attacked US air bases in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland told Washington that he could not defend these bases with just the 23,000 men that were under his command. Westmoreland claimed that unless he received more troops, the Vietcong would overrun these air bases. As a result, President Johnson ordered the sending of 3,500 US Marines to South Vietnam – the first official troops to be sent there.  


During the many months during which Operation Rolling Thunder operated, 643,000 tons of bombs were dropped. However, nearly 900 US aircraft were lost. The financial cost of Operation Rolling Thunder was huge. It was estimated that the damage done to North Vietnam by the bombing raids was $300 million. However, the cost to the US of these raids was estimated at $900 million. 


Operation Rolling Thunder ended when President Johnson offered its termination as a way of securing the North Vietnamese to a negotiating table. Peace talks began in earnest in January 1969 just two months after Johnson ordered the ending of Operation Rolling Thunder.