Operation Linebacker II


(UPDATE 12.28.18 @ 7:10 PM ET: At the encouragement of some readers, we have been working on the development of a podcast, of sorts, wherein we read some of our postings. We are not completely there yet, but determined to go ahead and post a first-cut at what will become The Baptist Blogger podcast in 2019. Click here to hear the audio version of today’s post. We apologize for the audio quality: all our new podcasting accoutrement have yet to arrive.)

Forty six years ago this week, the United States was bombing the hell out of North Vietnam. In a ten-day campaign called “Operation Linebacker II,” U.S. war planes dropped more than 20 thousand tons of bombs on and around the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. Colloquially, the effort came to be known as The Christmas Bombings.

In advance of President Nixon’s order to commence the bombings, multiple efforts at diplomatic negotiations had dried up. Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. National Security Advisor, had presided over meetings in Paris with the goal of attaining a peace settlement that would bring American troops — including prisoners of war — home, and allow the North and South Vietnamese governments to attempt peaceful coexistence.

But disagreements over details prompted a dramatic walk-away of North Vietnamese negotiators from the peace table. With the clock running out and the November elections fast approaching, Kissinger had flown to Saigon on Oct. 18 to go over the settlement terms. The South Vietnamese president, angered that he sensed the American envoy had struck an unsatisfactory deal with the North Vietnamese, balked and demanded more than 100 new changes to the settlement. A complex series of statements and counter-statements were made, and in the end both North and South Vietnamese leaders opted to grandstand with the hopes of embarrassing the U.S. president.

But Nixon always played the long game, and was masterful at both political stagecraft and brass knuckles diplomacy. On Oct. 26, Kissinger gave his famous White House press conference announcing the administration believed peace was “at hand.” The U.S. elections came and went, with Nixon winning a landslide victory over Democratic challenger George McGovern. Diplomatic overtures continued, but Nixon was readying a lethal fallback plan if the North Vietnamese proved unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of South Vietnam, amid other important concessions.

And then, every thing fell apart. On Dec. 16, the North Vietnamese resisted every effort to negotiate peace and the delegation from Hanoi folded their arms and refused to re-establish terms for continued dialogue. Weeks earlier, despite Nixon’s overwhelming election win, Republicans lost 2 seats in the U.S. Senate and the Democrats retained control of the House. Nixon knew time was running short, and the possibility of a congressionally-imposed end in Vietnam was increasing.

At Nixon’s instruction, Kissinger sent word to Hanoi and a signal of unambiguous support to Saigon: return to the negotiating table or the bombing would begin. The North Vietnamese chose, foolishly, to tempt Nixon’s resolve. This time, he wasn’t bluffing.

Military readiness in Southeast Asia was not a problem for Nixon. Already, there was a sizable dispatch of B-52 bombers that equaled nearly half of all Air Force assets. With no sense that North Vietnam would budge, Nixon gave the order and the planes took off. The initial targets were North Vietnamese airfields, followed by broadcasting facilities and munitions factories. On day two, the railroads and depots were hit, followed by power plants and fuel storage tanks.

The North Vietnamese fought back, downing dozens of U.S. aircraft and capturing more prisoners of war. But Nixon was unfazed; without any public address to explain his decision, he extended the campaign and doubled down on the strategy. Ports were demolished, and a hospital nearby a targeted fueling facility was hit. More than two dozen doctors, nurses, and medical staff were killed. After a brief stand-down for Christmas day, Nixon sent the planes flying again, hitting more railroads, depots, and vehicle storage facilities. The air above North Vietnam was completely filled with U.S. warcraft, and the sounds of carpet bombing drummed through the night like a percussive Armageddon.

The New York Times questioned Nixon’s mental state and called the bombings “barbaric.” Scores of Republicans in Congress joined their Democratic counterparts in denouncing the president.

But by the time it was over on Dec. 29 — and with practically nothing standing — North Vietnam promised to return to the talks. Saigon, however, remained stubborn (aware of Nixon’s precarious position with the incoming Congress). Nixon vowed to proceed alone, if necessary. And then, at the last hour, the South Vietnamese president relented. All parties flew to Paris and resumed negotiations.

The final verdict on Operation Linebacker II is ambiguous for many scholars: Did Nixon’s carpet bombing bring North Vietnam back to the table in Paris? Did it reassure Saigon that the U.S. would not falter in defense of its allies? Did Nixon forego the madman theory and just go mad?

Tucked in the story of the Christmas bombings are the narratives of released U.S. prisoners of war tortured in places like the Hanoi Hilton. To these men, the bombings were the sound of hope. They knew the distinctive hum of a B-52 engine, and the moment the planes started dropping their ordnance, cheers broke out in the prisons. To hear them tell it, the sound of bombings night after night reassured them that the U.S. government had not forgotten them, and that they would soon go home.

Within weeks, Operation Homecoming saw 591 American prisoners of war brought back to U.S. soil. Within months, U.S. forces began to withdraw.

So what does all this have to do with the Southern Baptist Convention? Why would we spend so much time rehearsing the details of Nixon’s all-out assault on the strongholds of North Vietnam nearly half a century ago?

The simple fact is that no other world leader has fascinated us like Richard Nixon. He is at the same time the most brilliant and accomplished American public figure, and its most tragic. He was, as a man, a conundrum. And yet, like a sphinx, he looms over the contours of American foreign and domestic affairs even today.

So while we do not have specific lessons for the Southern Baptist Convention, we have learned some lessons about leadership and conflict from Richard Nixon, particularly from his prosecution of the war in Vietnam. At their most irreducible essence, some of those lessons are these:

  1. Your most powerful assets are completely useless if you never deploy them. Muscles that are never used will eventually atrophy. So flex them while you have them.
  2. If you make the determination to drop one bomb, you better be prepared to drop them all. A “modest bombing” makes about as much sense as “non-injurious physical abuse.” Be prepared to use them all, or don’t use any.
  3. There are people living under the tyranny of your adversary — some taken captive and others who for lack of opportunity have never known a different life — who will welcome your efforts and the release from torture they provide.
  4. Do not acquiesce to the other side’s timeline. Keep your own calendar, and make them adjust their schedules accordingly.
  5. It is likely that your true adversary is using a proxy. Cowards are notorious for this. Be willing to fight proxy battles, but fight the proxy with all the force you would use on its sponsor. Only this will demonstrate the depth of your resolve.
  6. Hit the towers on the first night. Don’t let your adversary’s propaganda see the light of day.
  7. Accept collateral damage as inevitable, and be prepared to act alone.
  8. You’ll never know what it was like to be tortured in prison; be kind, patient, and understanding to those who have been. They will, eventually, know what you did to bring them home. And even if they don’t, that’s ok too.

Stay tuned . . .