“The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” –President Richard Nixon, 1972
The idealized Christmastime night sky is a star-studded obsidian wonderland, pierced by a gleaming heraldic star of hope peace and love. If you’re a child—or childlike—perhaps too, the imaginary visage of a jolly old elf streaks across the frigid heavens in a magical jingling sleigh. For the Vietnamese of 1972 Hanoi, Christmas nights were brightly lit and busily visited by otherworldly vehicles. But with a dramatically real and tragic difference.
In the week leading up to Christmas 1972, at the order of then President Richard Nixon, a new bombing offensive began over North Vietnam. Calling it the Vietnam War’s most intense air offense is an academic understatement. The so-called Christmas Bombing wreaked death and destruction from tens of thousands of tons of bombs dropped by unrelenting waves of US Air Force bombers. The Vietnamese called it the 12 Days of Darkness.
A full moon lit the sky over Hanoi that Christmas. The people of Hanoi could see as well as hear the lumbering B-52 Stratofortress bombers clumsily approach at 30,000 feet. BUFF—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers—was their nickname. As they reached the densely populated North Vietnam targets of Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, the sky and the ground erupted with a cacophonous light show of frantic anti-aircraft fire, flame-tailed surface to air (SAM) missiles, and bone-crushing mid-air and terrestrial explosions. The earth trembled and cleaved open, devouring ramshackle villages, razing buildings, tearing asunder or burying residents.
Nearly 130 bombers from Guam and Thailand made the attacks in more than 725 sorties from December 19 to December 30. More than two dozen aircraft, including 15 B-52s, were shot down, more than 90 US airmen were wounded, killed, captured or went missing. On the ground, estimates range from 1,300 to more than 2,000 Vietnamese killed, mostly civilians. If ever there was a nightmare before Christmas, this was it.
Last winter, on a casual walk through an otherwise innocent looking Hanoi neighborhood of charming French-inspired “tube buildings”, I came face to face with a Christmas bombing time capsule of sorts. In an urban lake no bigger than a city square block, lies the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber shot down on December 27, 1972, by one of the 1,200 Russian-made SAMs employed by Hanoi in what they refer to as ”Dien Bien Phu in the sky”, a reference to the turning point battle that defeated French colonial rule of Vietnam in 1954.
Ostensibly, civilian targets were not the aim of the Christmas Bombings—though the Vietnamese propaganda machine disputes this and the cynical origins of the campaign lend those claims some credence. Nonetheless, whether by accident or design, the inaccuracy of the high altitude attacks required carpet bombing saturation which leveled whole neighborhoods and villages. American bombs hit the city’s largest hospital, the Bach Mai medical center, killing 28 doctors and nurses and wounding dozens of others. The busy residential and shopping area of Kham Thien was the scene of hundreds of dead and wounded on another night when more than 2,000 homes and buildings were destroyed in a relentless attack by more than 120 bombers.
As many as a half million people were evacuated from the Hanoi area in advance of the attacks. Bomb shelters were ubiquitous every few blocks throughout the city; small ones for one, two or three people; some large enough for dozens. No shelter, however, could withstand a direct hit from a 500 pound high explosive payload, which was the aerial weapon of choice throughout the Vietnam War. They killed, maimed and destroyed with a monstrous blast wave, and high velocity steel fragments lethal up to 2,400 square meters. Each B-52 carried almost 100 bombs on every pass. To this day, accurate figures vary, but US aircraft most likely dropped more than 20,000 tons of bombs in this operation. Some say up to 80,000 tons.
The Christmas Bombings have been described as the biggest aerial operation in the history of warfare until that time. But it accounted for a mere fraction of the total US bomb tonnage—estimated at more than 7 million tons—used during the Vietnam War. That figure is more than twice the amount dropped by the US and our allies during the entirety of WWII—Pacific and European theaters inclusive. Once verdant rice fields are pockmarked with bomb craters to this day. During the war, there was an estimate of more than 21 million bomb craters in South Vietnam. A bird’s eye view of some areas resembled a moonscape.
As early as 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a bombing campaign in North Vietnam in retaliation for a Viet Cong attack in the South. Later that year, came the first sustained bombing of the North, aimed primarily against the Ho Chi Minh Trail as well as Hanoi and Haiphong. That vicious but futile three year campaign, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, would be one of the major factors in Johnson’s undoing by 1968.
Last winter I visited Phong Nha-Ke Bang, a touristy national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site of stunning beauty, favored by hikers, cyclists and explorers of miles and miles of natural grottoes and wet caves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more bucolic landscape. Yet, it’s amazing there is any beauty left there at all. Some 300 miles south of Hanoi, and half that distance north of the DMZ, Quang Binh province is a junction of sorts for two branches of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by the North Vietnamese Army to traffic men and materiel to the battlefields in the South. As such, this region was a daily target for American B-52 raids and became among the most heavily bombed areas in the history of the world. A nearby major port city, Dong Hoi, the capital city of this province, was essentially leveled early in the war as an ominous warning of what was to come if North Vietnam continued to support insurrection in the south. Today, the ruined bell tower of the city’s cathedral remains as a monument to that most macabre visit from the ghost of Christmas future.
Living under the threat of B-52 bombardment practically became a lifestyle during the war. One recent morning on a 100 meter high bluff overlooking the South China Sea in the nearby village of Vinh Moc, I followed my guide as he beckoned me toward a tiny cave opening. It was one of 13 man-made entrances and exits to a 2,000 meter network of tunnels, built to sustain the village’s entire population of 60 families against years of carpet bombing by the US between 1965-1972. Inside the tunnels, I saw sleeping quarters, nurseries, areas that passed for hospital rooms. The walls were blackened by the soot of burning lamps and cooking fires. Children were born—17 of them—raised and played underground, sometimes never seeing the outdoors for months. During the course of the war, it’s estimated that more than 9,000 tons of bombs hit the area; about 7 tons of bombs per person.
No one in Vinh Moc died from any of the bombings, but the aftermath is still with the local people. Vietnam remains one of the world’s most ordnance-contaminated countries, with an estimated 800,000 tons of unexploded bombs left over from the war.
Considering the overall strategic failure of the American air war in Vietnam, it should be surprising that Nixon resorted to bombing North Vietnam at all, let alone in 1972, when he was attempting to wind down the war and enhance his reelection prospects. Earlier in the year, he lied in a televised network interview that the resumption of bombing had been “very, very effective.” The next day, he scrawled in a secret memo to his top henchman, national security advisor Henry Kissenger: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result = Zilch.”
To fully understand the Nixon bombing strategies, I think it’s necessary to appreciate how they were born of as nearly a pure form of vindictive, evil hatred as could exist in a human being. “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” was his reported reaction to the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. So too, did he release the hounds of hell out of frustration in December, when the Paris Peace talks broke down, despite Kissenger’s hollow, pre-election claim that “Peace was at hand”.
In January, 1973, all parties returned to the negotiations table and the so-called Paris Peace Accords was signed with only a trickle of differences from the agreement that preceded the Christmas Bombings. Nixon and Kissinger proclaimed they achieved “peace with honor”, but we know that turned out more Christmas fable than Christmas miracle. The war was far from over. Saigon and Hanoi would slug it out for nearly another two and a half years.
On Christmas eve this year, there’s a midnight mass in Hanoi’s Cathedral of St. Joseph, just as there was in 1972. But this time, it will indeed be a Silent Night. The “Ave Maria” is certain not be interrupted by the drone of attacking aircraft, the wail of alert sirens, the deafening thunder of high explosives. Vietnam’s dark days are in the past. There is joy and celebration in Hanoi this Christmas season. Let heaven and angels sing.