How Operation Rolling Thunder forever impacted military strategy

Operation Rolling Thunder showed us the limitations of relying too heavily on technology in a war against guerilla fighters.
Jessica Evans Avatar
operation rolling thunder
U.S. Navy A-6A Intruder all-weather bombers, in 1968.

When you hear the phrase “Rolling Thunder,” you might picture a big, booming storm. Or maybe you think of the advocacy group that aims to bring accountability for POWs and those MIA. But in the context of the Vietnam Conflict, Operation Rolling Thunder means something entirely different. It’s a term from one of the most complicated and influential times in American history.

Even decades later, the Vietnam War remains a complex, multi-faceted conflict, affecting not only the course of global politics but the lives of millions. The conflict, deeply etched in the collective memory of Americans and Vietnamese alike, was a turning point in the strategic thinking of the United States military and had an enduring legacy.

What sparked the war?

After World War II, the world was busy picking up the pieces. In Vietnam, it was like a game of tug-of-war. The French, who’d called the shots for decades, waved goodbye in 1954. That’s when a power struggle kicked off between North Vietnam, which fancied communism, and South Vietnam, leaning towards the West.

So how did Uncle Sam get roped in? Well, the U.S. was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs about communism spreading like wildfire. This was the era of the “Red Scare,” remember? The powers that be feared if Vietnam fell to communism, the rest of Asia might follow suit, a theory famously known as the domino effect. The U.S. had to step in to try and stop this from happening.

Rolling Thunder: The American strategy

Now, let’s chat about “Rolling Thunder.” Launched in 1965, it was a massive air campaign aimed at making North Vietnam say “uncle.” Imagine wave after wave of bombers shaking the sky for three years – that was Rolling Thunder.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Fighting in Vietnam wasn’t as straightforward as a Sunday drive. It was more like hide and seek in a massive, tangled forest. The guerilla warfare tactics used by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong meant they’d hit and then vanish into the thick jungles and complex tunnel systems. Service members didn’t just have to be soldiers; they had to be jungle trackers too.

So, the strategy had to evolve. The U.S. military realized they had to win the hearts and minds of the local folks. That’s counterinsurgency, a big word that means winning local support to help fight the bad guys. This wasn’t just a firefight; it was a popularity contest too. The American soldiers found themselves building schools, medical clinics, and doing everything they could to sway the locals towards the South Vietnamese government and away from the Viet Cong.

operation rolling thunder
Compilation of United States Air Force and United States Naval air operations throughout the Rolling Thunder campaign.

Operation Rolling Thunder’s effects

War is as hard on the mind as it is on the body. Soldiers fighting in Vietnam faced challenges unlike any before. These brave men and women came home with scars, both seen and unseen. Their experiences brought public attention to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that many service members grapple with long after the last shots have been fired.

Back home, things were a bit rocky, to say the least. Protests, anti-war songs, draft resistance – it was a time of turmoil. This led to a gap between the troops fighting overseas and the folks back home, who questioned the purpose and cost of the conflict. It made the military reconsider how they connect with the civilians they serve, leading to efforts to strengthen that bond and mutual understanding.

Battle of la Drang Valley

Back in 1965, the Vietnam War was like a TV show, flickering in and out of American living rooms, with small skirmishes that didn’t stick in folks’ minds. That all changed when the First Cavalry Air Mobile Division took a chopper ride into the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam’s central highlands.

Now, this Air Mobile Division was the new kid on the block. Picture this: squads of soldiers zipping in and out on helicopters, with artillery raining down from above. It was like something out of a sci-fi movie. But in the tough-as-nails terrain of the central highlands, where roads were as rare as hen’s teeth, this high-flying approach was the only way to roll.

The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley would go down in the history books as one of the Vietnam War’s marquee showdowns. If you’ve ever seen the movie “We Were Soldiers” or read the book “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young,” you’ve got a good idea of what went down. This was the first time American ground troops and the North Vietnamese Army really went toe-to-toe.

U.S. Army soldiers air-lifted into LZ X-Ray
U.S. Army soldiers air-lifted into LZ X-Ray.

Siege of Khe Sanh

Let’s not forget the Siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, where U.S. Marines held their ground against a relentless enemy. The Siege of Khe Sanh stands as a testament to the unwavering determination and resilience of the U.S. Marines. Beginning in January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a relentless assault on the isolated combat base at Khe Sanh, located near the demilitarized zone. The Marines faced heavy artillery bombardment and ground attacks, enduring harsh conditions and intense enemy pressure.

Despite being heavily outnumbered and subjected to a continuous barrage of enemy fire, the Marines held their ground with extraordinary bravery and resourcefulness. They effectively used artillery, air support, and defensive fortifications to repel the enemy assaults. The siege lasted over two months until the NVA forces eventually withdrew, unable to break the Marine’s determined defense.

The Siege of Khe Sanh symbolized the sacrifices made by American troops and showcased their ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds. It also significantly impacted the perception of the war back home, fueling debates about the strategic value and the human cost of holding such remote and vulnerable positions.

What was learned

There’s an old saying that every cloud has a silver lining. The Vietnam Conflict was undoubtedly a stormy time in our history, but it also taught us some valuable lessons. Understanding the lay of the land – the culture, the terrain, the people – is just as crucial as having a solid battle plan. These lessons have been sewn into the fabric of our military strategies and tactics.

Operation Rolling Thunder also showed us the limitations of relying too heavily on technology in a war against guerilla fighters. We learned that while having the best gear is vital, understanding the local culture and the enemy’s strategy is equally important. Because sometimes, the hardest fights aren’t won with bullets and bombs but with hearts and minds.

Want to really understand what it was like for service members during the Vietnam War? These letters home give a rare glimpse into on-the-ground life. Here’s how the Vietnam War changed the Navy SEALs forever.