Vietnamization and Withdrawal (1969 - 1973)Since the Eisenhower years, American presidents had wanted the Vietnam conflict to be fought and resolved by the Vietnamese. Through 1963 and much of 1964, American forces operated under restrictive rules of engagement in a forlorned effort to maintain the definition of the US role as advisory only. On 22 November 1963, in the midst of the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took office. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Senate resolution in 1964, the advisory role, both in appearance and fact, rapidly became the primary responsibility for combat operations. Yet the Air Force never stopped working with the Vietnamese Air Force to develop its capability to prosecute the war itself. In January 1969, shortly after taking office, President Nixon announced an end to US combat in Southeast Asia, as one of the primary goals of his administration. He charged the SECDEF with making Vietnamization of the war a top priority.
Air Force operations in Southeast Asia had evolved over the years into four distinct air wars: over North Vietnam, South Vietnam, northern Laos, and southern Laos/Cambodia. While the areas of responsibility did not change, the general course of the war did. In 1965, the Air Force provided protection for the buildup of US ground forces. By late 1968 and lasting until the spring of 1972, however, Air Force air activity in all four areas was designed to facilitate the withdrawal of American combat forces. Nevertheless, Air Force air activity was significant. In southern Laos, the Commando Hunt campaigns to interdict supplies from North Vietnam to Viet Cong fighters in the south continued. In northern Laos, American aircraft sought to stem the influx of North Vietnamese soldiers who would either assist Laotian communists in their attempt to overthrow the US-friendly government or filter down into South Vietnam.
Meanwhile, American bombing forays into North Vietnam slowed then stopped altogether until late 1971. When the North invaded South Vietnam in March 1972, Air Force bombing of North Vietnam resumed in earnest in Operation Linebacker. Air Force B-52s and naval aircraft battered targets in and near Hanoi in April. When this failed to slow the offensive, targets became available throughout all of North Vietnam. From May through October 1972, Operation Linebacker pummeled a wide range of targets, effectively bringing the Norths campaign to a halt. Linebacker proved to be much more effective than its predecessor, Rolling Thunder, largely because available targets were expanded greatly. Linebacker enabled President Nixon to continue the withdrawal of ground troops from South Vietnam, with the last combat troops of the US Army departing in August 1972.
Despite US willingness to accept the Norths gains during the offensive and agree to a cease-fire inplace, North Vietnamese leaders continued to be reluctant. To encourage them back to the negotiating table, President Nixon ordered Linebacker II, a resumption of bombing against targets near Hanoi and Haiphong from 18 through 29 December. Fifteen of the Air Forces B-52s and 4 other aircraft where shot down by enemy surface-to-air missiles. The overall campaign was a success; however, on 29 January 1973, exactly 1 month after the cessation of Linebacker II, the sides agreed to a ceasefire.
While the air war in Vietnam ended, it dragged on in Laos and Cambodia for several more months. On 15 July 1973, an A-7D from the 354th TFW flew the last combat sortie of the war. It was one of 5.25 million sorties flown by the Air Force over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The service lost 2,251 aircraft, more than 1,700 to enemy action; 1,738 airmen and officers were killed in action. The South Vietnamese government held on to power for only 2 more years, succumbing to a final North Vietnamese invasion in the spring of 1975 (Figure 5.33). The countrys government surrendered to North Vietnamese forces 30 April 1975, and on 2 July 1976 the North and South were officially unified under Communist control.
Continued in Part 3 -- Post Vietnam Conflicts