In some ways, the bombing of North Vietnam in the 1960s was the USA’S main response to the Viet Cong’s use of guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla warfare was unknown to America – they hadn’t come across anything like it before. They weren’t used to a ‘war with no front’ – guerrilla fighters could not be distinguished from civilians, enemies could attack at any point, and then disappear into the shadows again. American soldiers would’ve been debilitated – what was morally right would’ve been harder to define. Confusion and exasperation at not being able to outsmart guerrilla tactics could go to explain why USA soldiers used such heavy bombing on North Vietnam – they were trying to use heavy warfare, like bombing, to outsmart the Viet Cong. The reason the USA started using heavy bombs on North Vietnam in the first place was supposedly due to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The Viet Cong used the guerrilla tactic of using their knowledge of the rivers to try and target the USA, which was interpreted by Lyndon Johnson as ‘communist aggression’, and probed Congress to grant Johnson permission to start using heavy bombs on North Vietnam – direct proof that heavy bombing was the one of USA’s ways of responding to guerrilla tactics. Operation Rolling Thunder was also one of the main operations the USA deployed to respond to guerrilla tactics. In effect, they thought that the best way to decrease morale of the Saigon regime, persuade North Vietnam to cease communism insurgence in South Vietnam, destroy North Vietnam’s transport system, and halt flow of resources in South Vietnam, was to effectively carpet bomb North Vietnam. This ideology shows how reliant the US military were on heavy bombing as a response to guerrilla tactics.
The USA also used other tactics to try and respond to the Viet Cong’s use of guerrilla tactics. One of Nixon’s favoured tactics was the ‘Madman Theory’. He wanted Ho Chi Minh, and the Viet Cong, to believe that he was obsessed with communism, and was prepared to use nuclear warfare to target it. He wanted the North Vietnamese to believe that he’d go to extraordinary lengths, so that they’d start peace negotiations. Part of this ‘Madman Theory’ was to invade Cambodia and Laos. The USA also used Agent Orange and Napalm to respond to guerrilla tactics. Agent Orange is a toxic chemical herbicide that was used during operations like Operation Ranch Hand, which intended to deprive Vietnamese farmers and guerrilla fighters of clean food and water. Agent Orange worked by killing plants, but it’s intensity also caused the deaths of millions of civilians, and caused birth defects in Vietnamese children for decades after the war had ended. Napalm is a jelly-like substance that, when ignited, sticks to anything and burns for up to ten minutes. The effects of Napalm on the human body are extremely painful and almost always cause death. Other tactics the USA employed included ‘search and destroy’ tactics – an example of this would be Mai Lai. This included finding supposed Viet Cong members, and using extreme aggression to try and wipe them out. The USA also used investment in the South Vietnamese to try and make them more sympathetic to the plight of the USA, so they’d join n and fight with them. The USA’s ulterior motive was to stunt the growth of communism – having South Vietnam reject the insurgence of Communism would made it easier for the them. The USA used propaganda, money and labour to try and convince the South Vietnamese that the US soldiers were the ‘good guys.’
The confusion as to what tactics were best to use seemingly came from the fact that guerrilla tactics were so unfamiliar to US soldiers – they didn’t know how to deal with them, so they switched from one form of tactics to another, trying to see what worked best. I also think that the USA struggled with morality – what was the right thing to do, versus what was the most effective way to stamp out the Viet Cong. Bombing North Vietnam was wrong, and it killed civilians, but it was seemingly less horrific than the war crimes that took place during Mai Lai – murder and mutilation of innocent people that got covered up, then exposed. On the other hand, investment and the ‘Madman Strategy’ weren’t effective enough. This could possibly go to explain why the USA effectively lost the Vietnam War – although they had better technology, their tactics simply weren’t as good.