Air War over Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965–1968

Jesse Emerson prepares for take-off, Rolling Thunder.

Review of Air War over Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965–1968

Photo: Lieutenant Commander Jesse R. Emerson of VA-22 in his A-4C Skyhawk preparing to launch off the USS Midway during pre-deployment workups in March 1965. (Author photo)

As a new Air Force ROTC cadet in 1974, I was educated and led by a staff of officers with multiple tours in Southeast Asia flying missions in support of the war in Vietnam. Our detachment commander was an RF-101 Voodoo pilot who had been shot down twice outside of Hanoi and rescued the same day each time. We knew in theory, how dangerous it was to fly missions in this war, but our staff was a quiet and modest group and didn’t talk in detail about the risk involved.  We had no idea how much bravery it took to fly these missions day after day with the losses that were experienced until authors started writing about it in detail after the war ended.  Many of these works dealt with individual battles, a specific service, and specific areas of operations.

Emerson’s new book draws from many of these earlier works and goes even further by pulling it all together with the research he did at several U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force museums and archives, as well as the LBJ Library.  What makes Steve’s new book so valuable is that it brings the reader from the highest levels of decision making including President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the theater commanders, and then right down to the crews that executed the missions.  He gives us the “why” behind Johnson’s micromanagement of the war, the limits he put on targeting, and the results that were produced.  He describes the political climate in the United States and how that affects Johnson’s decision making.  Emerson does a superb job of describing the capability of the weapon systems, as well as the aircrews at the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder and describes how these improve over time for the United States.  He also describes in great detail the capabilities of the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force and how they evolved during the period of operations.  In the end, the book discusses the results that were produced from the over three and a half years of concentrated air operations.

I strongly recommend Emerson’s book to everyone from military member, to policy maker, to anyone interested in history. As always, there are lessons to be learned that can be applied to present conflicts as well as those in the future.

Roger H. Ducey

Colonel, US Air Force (ret.)