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Decisions Concerning the Air Campaign
Against North Vietnam*

Gen J. P. McConnell, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force


*Remarks by Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown and Air Force Chief of Staff General J. P. McConnell, prepared for delivery at the Air Force Association Air Force Anniversary Dinner, Washington, D. C., 12 September 1967.

AS WE COMMEMORATE the twentieth anniversary of the United States Air Force as an independent Service, we should also remember that the beginnings of military airpower in this country go back exactly sixty years.

It is most fitting that we reflect with pride and gratitude on the accomplishments of the Nation’s pioneer airmen because their great record, especially during the two World Wars, helped bring about the establishment of the United States Air Force in 1947.  But whether we go back twenty years or sixty, we find no parallel to the new airpower chapter that is being written in the skies over Vietnam today.

I will not dwell on the contributions airpower is making in this war. But I do want to use this opportunity to clarify one misconception concerning this conflict.

I have heard and read—as I know you have—recent commentaries which make it appear that there are fundamental disagreements on the conduct of the bombing campaign between the President and the Secretary of Defense, on the one hand, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the other.  In my view this is an erroneous conception.  To be sure, there have been differences of opinion, but the expression and consideration of different points of view are essential elements of our form of government.  If the Joint Chiefs of Staff failed to put forward their opinions and recommendations—regardless of what these may be—to their civilian superiors, they would not be conforming with the requirements of law.  And if the Commander-in-Chief and the Secretary of Defense did not modify or disapprove some of these recommendation when, in their opinion, it served the best interest of the Nation to do so, they would not be conforming with the law or the Constitution of the United States.

We, the Joint Chiefs, are given every opportunity to express our opinions and recommendations freely to the President, to the Secretary of Defense and before Congressional Committees.  We do so in our capacity as military advisers and Service Chiefs, and the recommendations we make are based on our thorough evaluation of military requirements, with full realization that other factors are also involved and must be considered.

Our recommendations may not always be accepted to the full degree which we consider militarily desirable.  But once the decisions have been made, it is the job of the military to implement these decisions to the best of our ability.

Speaking for the Air Force, I am proud to say that this is widely understood by our men, from generals to airmen.  The many hundreds of men of all ranks to whom I talked during my various visits to Southeast Asia know what is expected of them, and they perform their assigned duties loyally, professionally and effectively.  They recognize that there are considerations other than military, and they abide strictly by the rules established by proper authority and do so with the unquestioning discipline that is the mark of the true professional.

Let us never forget that, in a democracy such as ours, it is the grave responsibility of the elected Commander-in-Chief to make the final decisions. He does so after carefully weighing the counsel he has obtained from the Congress and from his various advisers, including the military. I believe that a better understanding of this democratic process would be more helpful to all concerned.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this matter before such a distinguished audience. This is not the first time—and surely not the last—that the Air Force Association has provided a forum for discussing subjects of national interest.  And so, in conclusion, I want to express to the Air Force Association and its leaders my sincere appreciation for the invaluable service they have rendered to the Air Force and to the Nation throughout the past twenty years.  Their active interest and dynamic support have helped to make airpower one of the most vital assets in the protection and defense of our national security.

Honorable Harold Brown, Secretary of the Air Force

It is truly a great honor as well as a great pleasure for me to be with you tonight on this occasion which marks the 20th Anniversary of the United States Air Force as a separate Service.  The exhibits which we have seen are only one indication of how far airpower and the Air Force have come during the past twenty years—in the development and use of technology, in effectiveness, and in support of our national objectives.

I would like to associate myself with the remarks the Chief of Staff has just made.  In recent weeks there has been a good deal appearing in the press, and in other news media, about alleged divisions between civilian and military authorities in the government.

These allegations bother me.  They bother me because our military leaders are cast in the role of irresponsible militarists on the one hand, or prophets in revolt on the other.  Some charge our generals with going behind the backs of their civilian superiors to lobby with Congress, the press, and industry for a program of unlimited and indiscriminate bombing.  Others argue that our military leaders have a sure solution to the conflict while civilian officials are uncertain, bemused, and inconsistent.

Both of these pictures seem to me to be completely baseless.  I think I am in a position to know the truth about this.  I am a civilian by education and experience.  Yet two years as Air Force Secretary, and over 15 years before that in the field of national security, have given me close connections with the military, and with the Air Force in particular.

I have been in Vietnam and Thailand twice during the last twenty months, and talked with hundreds of our pilots. I have spent a great deal of time with our commanders in the field. I spend most of nearly every day with senior Air Force generals at Headquarters. I find neither a clique of irresponsible militarists nor a set of supermen who have the only right way to succeed in a terribly complex and difficult war.

What I see is a group of professionals who understand how to apply airpower within the constraints which the larger picture imposes, and who have done so in a very precise and skillful way.   I see a group many of whom are fighting their third war—and in all three, airpower has played a vital role. I see men who understand the military picture and who appreciate the fact that this is not simply a military conflict.  They know it has unique diplomatic, international-political, and other important components.  They are thoughtful; they are loyal to their military and civilian superiors; they have integrity.

Spike Momyer in Saigon, Jack Ryan in Honolulu, and J. P. McConnell in Washington are neither irresponsible advocates of the use of airpower nor men who pretend to have all the answers.  They know their job.  They make their recommendations on the basis of military and other factors as they see them, but recognize that the factors other than the immediate military situation not only enter the picture but in many cases can be overriding. They recognize that all factors—the military factors, the intelligence estimates, the international and diplomatic situation—must be balanced by the authorities constitutionally responsible for making the overall decisions.  And when those decisions are made, our airmen—from the Chief of Staff through the pilots who fly and crews who maintain the aircraft—carry them out promptly and with professional skill.

Our Air Force leaders and the people of the Air Force are not justly served by either of two implications. They are not justly served by the implication that our top officers oppose national policies and are right in doing so. Neither are they done justice by the implication that they oppose national policies but are wrong in doing so. In fact, our military leaders support national policies, and they carry them out superbly.

Because many of you have “felt the heat in the kitchen”—to paraphrase President Truman—you have the advantage of being able to put today’s events and attitudes into their proper perspective. You had—some still have—a part in the hammering-out process through which decisions are made in our government. You understand this process and trust its inherent rightness. Those of you here tonight, therefore, can make a special contribution by assisting others to understand the real issues at stake as well as by helping those in authority to meet the difficult problems at hand. To do so is to do no more than you have always done—and in the true tradition of our Air Force.

* * * * * * *

In April of 1968, Maj Gen G. B. Simler, HQ USAF Director of Operations, discussed “Airpower in Southeast Asia.”11  He brings out some good points regarding air power doctrine and application. His speech is made about a month after President Johnson announces he intends to seek a political solution to the war in Vietnam.

“It is unfortunate that the applications of airpower in  North Vietnam (NVN) and in South Vietnam (SVN) are all too often considered as separate entities, examined individually, and judged in isolation one from the other. The main thought I would like to leave with you today is that they are in fact interdependent and should be indivisible.

On command and control in SEA: “The command line is straightforward from the Joint Chiefs to the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) who has operational control of airpower in Southeast Asia. CINCPAC operates through his component commanders at Pacific Air Forces, and Pacific Fleet, to Seventh Air Force; Carrier Task Force 77, and the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force.

The Commander Seventh Air force is also Deputy Commander for Air Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, (MACV). He controls all U.S. Air Force air assets, certain U.S. Marine Corps assets, but none of the Army air assets. The Navy and Air Force are charged to coordinate their respective air efforts in Southeast Asia.

These divisions of responsibility exist in recognition of several real life factors … While the command interrelations are complicated and less than perfect, they are a fact of life and are being made to operate satisfactorily through the individual initiative and dedication of all concerned.

On airpower as the influencing factor: “Since 1965 airpower in SEA has been the influencing factor. If it were not for the timely introduction of airpower in 1965 the picture would be entirely different … All too often there is a tendency to obscure the important relationship between combat operations in the north and those in the south. This in turn leads to their consideration as two separate wars. The conflict in Southeast Asia is an entity. All of its aspects and areas are related. It is for this reason air operations against North Vietnam have a direct bearing on the conflict in South Vietnam …

Comments on objectives of war: “To date, the force application has been in consonance with limited objectives. Nonetheless airpower has increased the time that it takes NVN to move men and equipment and made it increasingly difficult to have these men in fighting shape and adequately equipped when they reach their destination.

By its very nature, the air campaign against the north has political and psychological implications that at times tend to overshadow its military effects. On the other hand, it is the force that gets the greatest attention of North Vietnam. It is an inherent part of our total strategy in SEA. Simply stated, if we intend to prevail we must counter enemy designs and overt aggression with one purpose, one strategy, one war.

It is to be hoped that the action taken on 31 March and subsequent actions will lead to meaningful negotiations and an honorable solution to this conflict. Whatever the outcome, airpower remains a key instrument of national policy.”

Gen Simler makes the case for air power as an influencing factor. Is he making the same old air power pitch or does he recognize the fundamentalism of the role of air power in conflict? Is doctrine evident in his discussions? What has changed in senior leader views since 1958? How does he handle the inadequacy of the command and control of air forces in theater?

* * * * * * *

Secretary Brown, in his swan song article “Air Power in Limited War,” in the Air University Review in May of 1969,12 comments on lessons learned in Vietnam. He makes an interesting statement about “two air wars,”  which is contrary to what we have seen in the preceding readings.

“ …We have been fighting two air wars in Vietnam, distinguished by the types of targets and the extent of air defense.

Many nations have discovered that effectiveness in one war can easily lead to ineffectiveness in a subsequent war if its planners spend too much time looking confidently backward. To be sure, lessons can be drawn from the past. But it is doubtful that we should plan on the basis of the same historical or geographical conditions recurring. Possibly the worst approach we could take to the challenge of improving our air capabilities would be to narrow our point of view to the problems of Vietnam. It is highly unlikely that the same political and military conditions will face our nation in any future conflict. In a war with an enemy lacking access to outside support, bombing the sources of supply should be decisive as it was in World War II. Similarly, interdiction could be quite different when related to a mobile conventional battle, as in the Normandy campaign.

Moreover, in some future war we might have to fight for air superiority, whereas in Vietnam we achieved it almost by default. Therefore, we must have the capability to defeat enemy air forces in air-to-air combat in future conflicts. Winning the air battle may win the war; losing the air battle will almost surely forfeit the chance for military success.

Although the most likely future conflicts probably will be fought in physical environments different from Vietnam and could be at very different levels of intensity, they are still likely to be fought under similarly stringent political controls. Therefore, the Air Force must be flexible enough to adjust it operations quickly to conform to both the political and military requirements of particular conflicts. Air power has again shown itself to be uniquely versatile. It can be quickly and precisely applied against aggression, in a variety of ways and at a rapidly varying intensity—for military purposes, as a political signal, or in complex military-political negotiations. If we fail to understand, perfect, and make use of these characteristics, we are blunting or discarding one of our most valuable means of defense.”

What is Secretary Brown’s air power message? Does he, after four years as the civilian leader of the Air Force, understand air power application or doctrine? If he does, what is his focus? If he doesn’t, why?

* * * * * * *

Notes

1. Earl H. Tilford, Jr., SETUP—What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, June 1991), 24–40.

2. Gen Thomas D. White, “USAF Doctrine and National Policy,” Air Force Magazine, January 1958, 47–51.

3. Maj Gen Theodore R. Milton, “AIR POWER: Equalizer in Southeast Asia,” Air University Review, No. 15, Nov/Dec 1963, 2–8.

4. Gen Curtis LeMay, “Elements of U.S. Aerospace Power—Its Accomplishments, Capabilities and Needs,” in Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, Supplement No. 128:7–15, February 1964.

5. Gen J. P. McConnell, address to Dallas Council on World Affairs, 15 September 1965, in Information Policy Letter for Commanders, Supplement No. 10:6–12, October 1965.

6. Honorable Harold J. Brown, address to Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles, in Information Policy Letter for Commanders, Supplement No. 12:1–5, December 1965.

7. Gen J. P. McConnell, address to the Air Force Association, “Air Power Lessons—In Vietnam and Before,” Air Force/Space Digest, May 1966, 47–50.

8. Stennis Subcommittee Summary Report, “Shackling the True Potential of Airpower,” Air Force Magazine, October 1967, 47–54.

9. Air Force Information and Policy Letter for Commanders, Supplement No. 10:8–24, October 11, 1967.

10. Gen J. P. McConnell and Hon Harold Brown, address to Air Force Association, Air Force Information and Policy Letter for Commanders, Supplement No. 11:15–17, 17 November 1967.

11. Maj Gen G. B. Simler, address to Air Force Association, Air Force Information and Policy Letter for Commanders, Supplement No. 6:10–15, June 1968.

12. Hon Harold Brown, “Air Power in Limited War,” Air University Review, 20:2–15 (May 1969).

13. Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989), 203–210.


Dr Harold Brown was named Secretary of the Air Force by President Johnson in October 1965. He was a frequent consultant on scientific matters to the Air Force over the period from the mid-fifties to the present. During World War II he served as a Chinese interpreter with the US Army Intelligence Service in the Pacific theater. He has served on the faculty of the National War College and held posts at many universities. Dr Brown became the President of California Institute of Technology in 1969. He is the author of many articles and books.
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Gen J. P. McConnell graduated from the US Military Academy in 1932. In his early years in the Army Air Corps he flew fighter aircraft. Key positions in Washington and in the Pacific theater marked his service in the 1940s. In the 1950s, he commanded units in Strategic Air Command and in Europe. He was appointed Vice Chief of Staff in 1964 and assumed duties as Chief of Staff in February 1965. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen McConnell advised the secretary of defense and the president on
Reprinted from Air Force Policy Letters for Commanders, Supplement, November 1967, pp. 15–17. Published 1967 by the
United States Air Force.