First Use of B-52s in Vietnam

(Outtake from Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers; fits in after the section break on p. 79)

On May 14, 1965, a cable came across my desk from Ambassador Taylor in Saigon, forwarding—with his support—the recommendation from General Westmoreland that B-52s be used to attack a Viet Cong “base area” in South Vietnam. It would be hard for most people to imagine the feeling this proposal evoked in me. For the first time in the war—it should have been earlier, but somehow it wasn’t—I had the sharp, sudden sense that people I was working with were mad. I thought, “They’ve gone crazy! They’ve lost every sense of proportion. They’ll use anything, anything, to fight this war.” Why not ICBMs, with non-nuclear warheads? Or with nuclear warheads, later? That’s what B-52s were designed for!

I had more sense of what B-52’s were for than most civilians would, reading that message. After years of looking at and thinking about nuclear war plans, with the mind for figures I had in those days, I carried in my head precise numbers for the bomb-load of a B-52, the megatonnage and the estimated accuracy of its nuclear weapons, its range unrefueled and its refueling capabilities, the numbers of its bases. I knew its vulnerability on the ground to blast overpressure from near-misses with nuclear warheads (which I’d often calculated with a special RAND slide-rule for various yields at varying distances). I had never actually seen a B-52 bomber, but it was a very vivid abstraction for me.

In the context of nuclear war planning, I had dealt with it very matter-of-factly. When I thought of actually using it outside of that still-hypothetical, never-experienced context of nuclear war, I found its image had a kind of eerie magic for me. It was partly the symbolism of the B-52, which had been designed to carry nothing other than nuclear weapons and had never been used for anything else. And partly the practicalities that went with that. The pilots and bombardiers were trained to achieve accuracies that were adequate with nuclear weapons, measured in hundreds to thousands of meters. Miss-distances like that with “iron bombs,” as strategic commanders contemptuously referred to high explosives, would mean that you couldn’t destroy any military target.

At that time the B-52 was the most expensive weapon in the Air Force. To lose one, to antiaircraft fire or to some accident, with its highly trained officers, would be the loss of a weapon that the Viet Cong couldn’t even dream of possessing. But more important, to lose one in action against the Viet Cong would put the reliability, the credibility of our whole strategic posture against the Soviet Union in question. To avoid antiaircraft fire, it would be dropping its weapons from 30,000 feet, too high even to be seen from the ground, using radar. This not against structures that could be seen on radar but against guerrillas who couldn’t be seen on the ground yards away in the jungle. As someone said, it was like using a sledgehammer to attack gnats. Most if not all of the victims would be peasants in fields or clustered in villages six miles below. For this effect we would be wielding one of our most technically complex, advanced weapons systems against combatants in rubber sandals and black shorts, a war that up to a few months earlier the President had been describing as properly fought by “Asian boys.” Even with the North being hit every day, this use of Strategic Air Command bombers in the South was going to be seen as a unilateral escalation, of a bizarre kind.

I felt dizzy. It was one of the few times when I felt the sharp impulse to resign, from a government that was going out of control, from a process that might go beyond any limits. (The next time was a month later, when the President sent 20,000 Marines into the Dominican Republic).

I took the cable next door into the cubicle of Colonel Rogers, McNaughton’s military aide, and asked him, “Have you seen this?” He was calm. He lit his pipe, and said, “That’ll never happen.”

“But Ambassador Taylor has supported Westmoreland’s request!” The word was already around in the Pentagon that Westmoreland was not very sharp, and anyway he was a ground soldier who wouldn’t know much about B-52s. But General Taylor had been chairman of the JCS and he was supposed to be an intellectual.

Rogers said, “That doesn’t mean anything. Westy is Taylor’s man, he recommended him for that job. Taylor just doesn’t want to be the one to turn him down. He’s bucking it to Washington for someone here to reject it.”

My heartbeat began to slow down. The proposal started on its way through the Washington process, which included sardonic memos from me to my boss on what an obviously absurd idea it was. And eventually, fairly fast for Washington, with a lot of reservations and expressed concerns, it was approved, on an experimental basis. Rogers was wrong. It was going to happen, at least once. But by this time it no longer got me breathing hard or thinking of resignation. It was just one more thing. It was no crazier than the whole bombing of the North.

The question became, in Washington, how to carry out the experiment. The Strategic Air Command which controlled all the B-52s was not initially enthusiastic about this mission. It diverted forces from their real mission, and there was the risk of losing expensive planes and crews, and the worse thought of losing prestige and credibility if that happened. On the other hand, there was the chance to play a role in the real war that was actually going on, instead of training forever for a kind of war that had never occurred (and would only occur once). The answers to what were always the central questions for SAC—”Is this good for SAC? Is it good for our budget?”—were murky. They prepared to go along.

But the President and the Air Force agreed on one thing, it was essential that no planes go down. For all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t afford to lose one of these machines and its crew in operations against the Viet Cong. So the Air Force planned the operation for maximum safety, not for efficiency or military effect. No precaution was spared. Only elite crews would be used. They would be guided into their targets by specially equipped command and control planes, converted KC-135s. In effect, their hands would be held every step of the way. That might not be practical or necessary for later operations, but everyone understood that this first mission was special. They wouldn’t be going near the North, where the surface-to-air missiles were. They would be flying high above any antiaircraft fire.

Lest that create any worry about wiping out a village by mistake, a target would be picked that was far away from any population, deep in the jungle. It might not be near any Viet Cong, either, but military effectiveness was not the concern in this case, the point was to demonstrate that the operation could be carried out perfectly, so smoothly that there would be no need to announce that it had ever taken place. No one would know it had happened. No debate in Congress or the press. The planes would fly too high to be seen, let alone identified. The guerrillas in the target zone, if there were any, wouldn’t know what had hit them. Or who had hit them, though they would have a pretty good idea. All the planning would be closely held.

Nothing could go wrong. There is a myth that the military is always saying that, but actually they don’t; they usually cover their asses by putting in a warning about uncertainties and worst case possibilities. And generally that spring they didn’t offer any short-term optimism at all. This was one of the rare cases where they really did say it, nothing could go wrong. And out of thirty planes that finally flew the mission on June 17, three B-52s didn’t make it to the target.

Two planes bumped into each other and crashed over the ocean northwest of the Philippines, with the loss of most of their crews. Official reports said that another one had had to divert to Clark Field in the Philippines because of mechanical difficulties, but my memory is that it somehow ran out of fuel and ditched in the ocean. I don’t know what how all this happened—SAC was famous for its efficiency and the realism of its training and alert operations—but anyway, three out of the thirty planes didn’t make it. The mission hadn’t been announced and they hadn’t planned to release any statement on it, but with at least two crews down and the families that had to be told there was no way to keep it secret, there had to be a public announcement after all. (See the New York Times, 18 June 1965.)

I don’t recall much public outcry or concern, despite the losses, though some newspaper stories reported that their sources, apparently in the State Department, called the raid a “humiliating failure” after ground probes failed to indicate it had caused any enemy casualties. (New York Times, 19 June 1965; Joseph Alsop column, Washington Post.) But it was a good lesson to some of us about the uncertainties of high-tech military operations, and high-level assurances.

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