Today’s peaceful Hanoi, alight with Christmas ornaments, was the scene of a decisive battle forty years ago this week, one which the Pentagon prefers to forget. I will be there this week to take part in the restoration of memory and reflect on how wars end.
During the fall of 1972, Jane Fonda and I travelled with the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC) to one hundred cities campaigning for peace in Vietnam and the election of Sen. George McGovern. Fearing the peace movement, a paranoid Richard Nixon instructed Henry Kissinger to float the idea in late October that peace was “at hand.” Nixon won in a landslide, but peace talks were underway, aimed at the end of the US war and the exchange of POWs held by Hanoi. The newly elected Democratic Congress was preparing to cut off all funding for the war, the objective of our peace campaign.
During a brief vacation, Jane and I visited with family friends in Paris that December. We came out of a screening of “Last Tango in Paris” to learn that B-52s were being unleashed on Hanoi for the first time. We hurriedly met with the Vietnamese at their consulate in Paris, and then headed home to revive the protest movement. I wrote an article that month for the Boston Globe, analyzing the prospects for peace, which might seem familiar to students of our current wars. While Nixon was trying to appear victorious, the raids were ineffectual and ignited worldwide rage. The Vietnamese called it their “Dien Bien Phu of the air,” recalling their victory over French forces in 1954.
Before that Christmas week, the high-flying B52s had flown 112,000 missions in seven years without a combat loss. On the runways, as the lumbering giants took off, the crews listened on headphones to Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.” In secret orders on December 6, Nixon had order that the attacks “must be massive and brutal in character. No other criteria is acceptable.”
But Nixon’s arrogance led to total disaster. That week, Vietnamese ground crews shot down 15 B-52s; three more were “seriously” damaged, while two suffered “minor” impacts. Ten crashed in Hanoi itself. Twenty-eight Americans crashed and died, while 34 were captured and shown to global television networks. The crushed remains of the B-52s were piled under floodlights in the center of Hanoi for the people to inspect. Overall, the US air forces dropped 15,000 tons of bombs on the Hanoi area that week. According to one military historian, Marshall Michel III, who flew 321 combat missions over Vietnam, casualties in Hanoi were “light,” about 1,600 in Hanoi and 300 in Haiphong. The sudden downing of so many B-52s, however, “sent shock waves through the administration,” writes Michel. (Michel, Marshall III. The Eleven Days of Christmas. Encounter Books, 2002)
The B-52s bombed densely populated Kham Thien Street, killing 250 civilians, and the Bach Mai hospital, instantly killing 25 medical staff. The ensuing uproar forced Nixon to stop the bombing and claim victory. (Zimmerman, Bill. Troublemaker, Anchor 2012)
According to flight surgeons at the time, a mutiny occurred among many crewmembers and numerous missions were simply aborted rather than following order to attack the North Vietnamese capital. (Drenkowski, Dana. “The Tragedy of Linebacker II,” Armed Forces Journal, July 1977.)
The B-52 armada could not reverse from the air what had been lost on the ground, and in public and congressional opinion in the US. Could this be a lesson worth remembering as the Obama administration shifts to drone warfare as it pulls American troops out of Afghanistan? That is the question to explore.