Review of


Mark Clodfelter. The Limits of Air Power. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. Pp. 223.


 In The Limits of Air Power, Mark Clodfelter examines the American bombing of North Vietnam as a means of achieving specific American policy goals. Clodfelter relates American war doctrine in regard to air power, starting with the Allied air campaigns of World War II, extending through the Korean War and then into the conflict in Vietnam. He uses these examples of applied air strategy to draw contrasts between the political and military environments in each war, demonstrating that those environments determined the possibility for successful application of air power.

 In the Second World War, there existed the clear positive military objective of the destruction of the Axis powers, and very few negative military objectives to restrain the use of air power in the achievement of that goal. As a result, air power unleashed its maximum destructive capabilities, culminating with the detonations of two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. In this instance, applied air power played a critical role in bringing the war to a successful conclusion, although American air power advocates continued to overstate that role in regard to the destruction of enemy morale, especially in Germany. The ability of a police state, such as Nazi Germany, to maintain the loyalty of its people in the face of devastating loss becomes instructive during the discussion of the effectiveness of air power against Communist North Vietnam.

In the Korean War, the results were somewhat less obvious. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration threatened to use nuclear weapons to end the war, and this, combined with attacks against North Korean dams that raised the possibility of agricultural devastation, finally brought the Communists to the negotiating table. Helping to remove restraints on air power that year was the death of Josef Stalin and the power struggle in the Kremlin that followed; these had the effect of removing the Soviets from the picture in Korea at this critical juncture.

For much of the Vietnam War, restraints, or negative objectives, outweighed the single overriding positive objective: a stable, independent, non-Communist South Vietnamese nation. The negative political objective of preventing Soviet or Chinese intervention in Vietnam severely limited options available to military planners during the Johnson administration. A key concern for the President became removing tactics that might be perceived as threatening the survival of North Vietnam as a political entity, which he feared might spark a third world war.

Another negative objective was maintaining the focus of the administration on Johnson’s Great Society; if there was too great of a military escalation in Vietnam, the crisis there might eclipse domestic issues on the nation’s front pages. Johnson was determined not to allow this to occur.  The President also worried about upsetting third world nations by appearing to brutalize North Vietnam, as he equally feared signaling to America’s NATO allies that the United States was being forced to expend dramatic resources on a relatively minor foe.

These restraints, when combined with the small-scale, guerilla style tactics being employed by the Viet Cong, ensured that Johnson’s Rolling Thunder air campaign of 1965-1968 would achieve no significant military success. Planning, including the selection of individual targets, was determined not at an operational level, but rather by the President and his advisors in Washington, resulting in a limited numbers of sorties being flown against targets of increasingly marginal value. The goals of Rolling Thunder, interdiction of men and supplies moving into South Vietnam, destruction of the North’s capacity to wage war, and the elimination of the North’s industrial infrastructure went unachieved.

Four years later, President Nixon was able to successfully employ air power in Vietnam, largely due to changed geopolitical conditions in 1972, including a radically different positive political objective: facilitating the orderly withdrawal of American ground forces from Vietnam while maintaining an “honorable peace”. By 1972, the Soviets and the Chinese had become hostile to each other, and both sought better relationships with the United States as a buffer against the other. Nixon skillfully used diplomacy to achieve détente with both, and this effectively removed the major negative objective of Vietnam, provoking a broader war with the Communist world. For the air generals, the gloves had finally come off.

In addition, the North Vietnamese had shifted their tactics on the ground. The Tet Offensive of 1968, while a serious propaganda blow to the American military, wrecked the offensive capability of the indigenous Viet Cong guerillas; from this point on, the conventional North Vietnamese army would carry the burden in Vietnam. This change from guerilla to conventional tactics also greatly increased the dependence of communist ground forces on logistics, supply chains and heavy military hardware, all of which is susceptible to air attack. As a result, Nixon’s Linebacker I & Linebacker II air offensives became successful applications of American air power in the achievement of a somewhat limited policy goal. They were so successful that later analysis would incorrectly suggest that had Linebacker I been initiated three years earlier, the war might have been won. 

Clodfelter, a professor of military history at the National War College in Washington, has written a clear, easy-to-read analysis of the use of applied air power in Vietnam. By synthesizing political with military objectives (and restraints), he presents a valuable lesson in real world limitations for this critical manifestation of military might; this is especially instructive in the 21st century, where American aversion to casualties dictates an increasing dependence on air power to achieve military objectives. Clodfelter addresses these issues in his Epilogue, where he examines both positive and negative policy objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq and the appropriateness of applied air power.

The Limits of Air Power is heavily end noted, and makes effective use of primary and secondary sources, including The Pentagon Papers, which seems to be a treasure trove of information on the private policy debates within the American military establishment. Many of the primary sources are interviews or memoirs, which provide tremendous insight into the personalities at play during the decision making process. Clodfelter’s research is exhaustive, and he personally interviewed many of the war’s key players in the late 1980s, which may have been the last time that many of them were alive to give their first-hand accounts of what even then was a fading memory for the United States.

This work proves to be of significant value for the student of the Vietnam War, as it helps to answer the critical question of that conflict: how is it that the world’s most powerful nation could fail to prevent a far weaker nation from conquering its neighbor? As it answers that question, it highlights the complications that are often inherent in the world of international diplomacy and geopolitics, and brings greater appreciation to the constraints that powerful nations often find themselves acting under in limited warfare. By focusing on American air power, it also educates the reader on a central component of America’s military arsenal and at the same time, disabuses the reader of the rather popular notion that American air power is the answer to all global conflicts.

The Limits of Air Power also provides a service in that it introduces the reader to the political and military leaders and the decision-making process by which they directed the Vietnam War. We come to understand their personalities, their biases and the pressures that brought them individually to the conclusions they reached about America’s effort in Southeast Asia. Both as an important study of the Vietnam War and as a study of the nature of modern warfare, I would heartily recommend The Limits of Air Power


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