London, Tokyo and Hanoi did not surrender under air assaults and neither will Ukraine
ON THE NIGHT of December 18, 1972, President Richard Nixon sent 129 B-52 bombers roaring over North Vietnam. The idea was to break Hanoi’s will and force it to sign a peace treaty that would return our POWs and allow the U.S. to get out of the war.
By the time “the Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong ended 50 years ago on Sunday, some 1600 Vietnamese men, women and children had been killed—a number of them in a hospital—but the figure was probably much higher, observers said. And that wasn’t the whole of it. For several days before and after the week-long B-52 campaign, “the U.S. Air Force flew 729 night-time sorties over North Vietnam with devastating effect,” the BBC said.
“It turned out to have been 57 consecutive nights of bombings—57 9/11s, if you will,” the popular historian Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, said in a 2020 interview. “57 consecutive nights of bombings— How does anybody cope with that?”
Ukrainians, blasted daily by Russian missiles and drones, are finding out. Like the North Vietnamese, and the British suffering under nightly Nazi German air raids in the early months of 1940, the Ukrainians are discovering depths of courage and resilience they probably didn’t know they had, in no small measure because of their unexpectedly inspiring, defiant leader. Volodymyr Zelensky has been regularly compared to Winston Churchill since he refused to abandon Kyiv under Russian fire last February and stood up to Vladimir Putin.
“Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine did not fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking,” Zelensky said in a rousing speech to Congress Wednesday night. “...Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender.” Expertly reading the room, the erstwhile comic actor compared his nation’s plight to the American GI’s who bent but did not break under the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge. Indeed, his speech evoked nothing less than Churchill’s peroration to Britain in its darkest hour, that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The terror bombings of London and Hanoi did not break their wills to win. It’s not breaking Kyiv. The same might be said of Tokyo’s denizens, 330,000 of whom died in conflagrations ignited by napalm jelly bombs dropped by American B-29s during the nights of March 9 and 10, 1944. Another year and a half would pass by, with air raids featuring napalm jelly-bombs on 65 more cities, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a looming invasion of its northern islands by Russia, before Japan surrendered.
To be sure, the Japanese could be said to have been more mesmerized, rather than inspired by, their emperor’s supposed divinity to hold on. North Vietnam’s police-state leaders regularly invoked the memory of Ho chi Minh to harden the resolve of their people, not just to survive the American bombing but go south to fight. And the point still stands that they did hold on: No emperor or communist dictator could manufacture such sacrifices from an unwilling people. Iran’s mullahs may be coming to that conclusion as well. China may be thinking twice now about an invasion of Taiwan.
Putin’s bombing of Ukraine will not bring him victory. Bogged down in Ukraine’s northeast and south, his conscripted troops facing a highly motivated foe, better and better U.S. and NATO-supplied weaponry, and more and more internal sabotage and subversion, it’s Putin who may end up suing for peace. And that, finally, should bring an end to the myth that air power alone can deliver a victory when ground troops and a navy cannot.
SpyTalk is a reader-supported publication. To support our work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
We should never forget what Russia is doing to Ukraine. Not when the war is over. Not ever!
Jeff writes in reference to the Christmas bombing of Hanoi: “The idea was to break Hanoi’s will and force it to sign a peace treaty that would return our POWs and allow the U.S. to get out of the war.”
Granted, Jeff is right on in arguing that the bombing of Ukraine by Russia is designed, as was the London blitz, to break the will of a brave people and that it will not succeed. But attempting to buttress this case by analogizing it to the Hanoi bombing and its purposes and effects is tortured poetry.
In mid-October 1972, Henry Kissinger left Paris with what he thought was workable if bare bones formula for a Vietnam peace accord underwritten by his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho. He was on his way to selling it to the South Vietnamese who had had been left out of the negotiations. But in the meantime, the CIA’s best penetration agent, a master spy named Vo Van Ba, delivered an intelligence report to the CIA station, and to the South Vietnamese government, that torpedoed Kissinger’s best laid plans.
Throughout the peace process, Ba’s reporting, which was based on field briefings at COSVN, the communist command in the south, had been one of best information sources for the CIA on Kissinger’s back-and-forth with Le Duc Tho.
Why did the CIA need such a backstop? Simple answer: Kissinger had severely limited distribution of all official readouts about the secret discussions and had thus left the CIA’s vast analytical directorate largely in the dark. Many of us directly responsible for assessing the enemy’s intentions for the White House and the likelihood of success in Paris had to rely on the enemy’s own readouts to understand fully what was going on.
The October report from Ba was just the latest gem from this extraordinary intelligence asset. But for Nguyen Van Thieu it read like a death sentence.
By Ba’s account, Hanoi was even then instructing its forces and cadre in the field to prepare for a ceasefire any time after October 15 by grabbing as much land as possible in the forty-eight-hour period before and after the terms were announced.
The report confirmed Thieu’s worst suspicions that the US was trying to lock him into an agreement that would leave all North Vietnamese forces in the south and under terms that doomed the South Vietnamese. His fears were ramified by the transcript he obtained of an interview that a Newsweek reporter had just conducted with North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong, who gloated over what was in the offing.
In response, Thieu dug in his heels and signaled to Washington that the proposed agreement was a no-go for his regime. The North Vietnamese, who had spies everywhere, confirmed Thieu’s intransigence and threatened to step away from the peace process themselves.
Faced with a total collapse of negotiations, Nixon approved the Christmas bombing as a message with two addressees. It was designed to intimidate the North Vietnamese into re-embracing a peace agreement that was basically a giveaway to them anyway. It was aimed at assuring Thieu (falsely) that he could count on game-changing U.S. support if the Communists violated the prospective agreement.
The murderous two-way leverage worked. In late January 1973, the agreement went into effect with North Vietnamese laughing all the way to the lopsided payoff and the South Vietnamese grudgingly acceding to it. Even then Thieu had no complete copy of the agreement negotiated on his behalf.
Ba’s report is mentioned though without reference to Ba himself on page 82 in Allan E. Goodman’s magisterial 1978 study,” The Search for a Negotiated Settlement in the Vietnam War.” I wrote of the double dealing by Kissinger and the double messaging of the bombing in my memoir Decent Interval. I knew in real time of Vo Van Ba’s role in exposing to Thieu the U.S. sellout in Paris – I had been in direct periodic contact with Ba since 1971 and a major advocate of his reporting -- but I could not name him in Decent Interval because the Ba case remained highly classified at the time. Ba’s former Vietnamese case officer, who now lives in the United States, published a recent web post that specifically credited Ba by name as the source of the information which persuaded Thieu to haul back on the negotiating levers and helped set the stage for the secret bombing.
I greatly respect Jeff, who has graciously published some of my own articles on Spytalk. But as a former intelligence officer in Vietnam, he will doubtless want to give more fulsome treatment to the Christmas bombing next time he ventures that way in print. Far from being simply a sledgehammer effort to “break Hanoi’s will” it ultimately was a tragically effective tactic to get the North Vietnamese to accept a peace accord that already served their every interest.
My comment here inevitably truncates all the twists and turns that led to the Christmas bombing and implementation of the Paris agreement, but I have endeavored to ensure the essential facts, as I see them as a first-hand witness to the events, are served.