The 40th anniversary of the "Christmas bombing" of Vietnam
Today, December 18, 2012, is the fortieth anniversary of the notorious “Christmas bombing” of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), pejoratively (and inaccurately) referred to at the time by U.S. leaders (and the U.S. media) as “North Vietnam.” This coming January 27, 2013, will be the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement that ended direct U.S. involvement in the war; I will be in Vietnam observing and participating in the commemoration of that anniversary. But today it is time to remember the Christmas bombing that started on this date in 1972.
First, a word about the context.
March on the Pentagon, 1972The 1972 presidential election was a race between peace candidate Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and the incumbent President, Richard Nixon, who had continued and escalated the Vietnam War throughout his first four years in office. On April 30, 1970, the United States had invaded Cambodia. (On May 4, four students protesting that invasion were shot dead by National Guard troops at Kent State University.) In February 1971, the United States had invaded Laos. By the autumn of 1972, negotiations aimed at ending the war had been going on in Paris since January 1969 (I’ll have more to say about those negotiations next month), but seemed to be going nowhere.
On Thursday afternoon, October 26 — 11 days before the election — then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (later also Secretary of State) held a news conference in the White House to announce a breakthrough in the peace negotiations. “Peace is at hand,” Kissinger announced. The next day, those words were the banner headline on every newspaper in the United States: Peace is at hand!
Kissinger’s dramatic announcement, in fact, was the ætiology of the phrase — still in widespread use today — “October surprise.” An October surprise is a dramatic announcement of fabulously good news just before an election. The news does not have to be false, either; it is merely being released strategically in order to influence the upcoming election.
In 1972, in fact, Kissinger was not lying. A week earlier, on October 20, Kissinger and DRV negotiator Le Duc Tho had come to a complete agreement on ending direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam, effecting a ceasefire, and bringing about the release of all prisoners of war (POWs) on all sides. And not a moment too soon, either! During the months leading up to the election, in response to rising pressure from the U.S. peace movement, no fewer than thirty-five bills had been introduced into Congress opposing the war. Some were non-binding “sense of the Congress” resolutions, but others would have cut off funds for the war (some, most, or all of the funds, depending on the bill). On July 24, for instance, the Senate had approved the Cooper-Brooke Amendment that would have effected a complete U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in exchange for nothing more than the DRV releasing American POWs. In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that autumn, Nixon — referring to the anti-war mood in the nation and in Congress — said: “The U.S. has stayed one step ahead of the sheriff, just missing fund cut-offs.”
U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, 1968 or 1969.Driven as they were by domestic politics, however, Nixon and Kissinger had not bothered to inform our ostensible ally in the war, the Saigon government and its President Nguyen Van Thieu, about the agreement that Kissinger and Tho had reached. So Kissinger’s deputy, General Alexander Haig, was dispatched to Saigon to mollify Thieu and try to get him to support the agreement. Thieu, however, recognized (correctly) that his government was not supported by the Vietnamese people and that, without American military backing, his government would fall. Thieu rejected the agreement and gave Haig a long laundry list of his (Thieu’s) specific objections.
As a result, on November 20, the next time that Kissinger and Tho met in Paris, Kissinger presented Tho with a list of 69 changes, alterations, and modifications to the October 20 document, all meant to placate Thieu. The United States’ position was completely unsupportable, and Kissinger himself admitted as much in his memoirs. (The White House Years, page 1459.)
The DRV negotiators were, understandably, outraged at the Nixon Administration’s duplicity — agreeing to a complete peace treaty on October 20, only to renege on the agreement a month later.
On November 24, in Paris, Kissinger and Haig threatened the DRV with a dramatic escalation if the DRV did not come to heel.
On December 16, the negotiations broke down completely, and on December 18, the United States began its massive bombing of the DRV’s two major civilian population centers, the capital city, Hanoi, and the port city of Haiphong.
During the 12 days of Christmas bombing, 200 B-52s flew over 700 sorties, and fighters and smaller bombers flew over 1,200 additional missions. Those planes dropped over 20,000 tons of bombs. The B-52s were used for “carpet bombing” the two cities. “Carpet bombing” involves multiple planes, flying in formation, laying down figurative “carpets” of bombs that flatten everything within the area bombed — like a carpet lying on a floor.
Let’s look at the Christmas bombing from three different perspectives: legal, moral, and practical.
By far the simplest way to view the Christmas bombing is legally. Bombing civilians violates international law. It is a crime against humanity.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War at Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 1972There was a time when the United States understood this. After World War II, at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, the United States tried, convicted, and sentenced to death Hermann Göring, the head of the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) during World War II. (Although Göring was sentenced to death, he was not executed; on the eve of his scheduled execution, Göring cheated the hangman by committing suicide.) More specifically, the indictment charged Göring with “targeting civilian populations for ærial bombardment in time of war.” The indictment, as it happens, was written by an American lawyer, Telford Taylor, who went on to become a distinguished law professor at Columbia University in New York.
Of course, we all know that the law and morality are not always congruent. But targeting civilians and civilian targets for carpet bombing is not just legally wrong; it is morally and ethically wrong, too. Indeed, many non-pacifists — people who do not oppose all wars under all circumstances — readily agree that targeting civilians for carpet bombing is morally repugnant.
During the Christmas bombing, as throughout the war, the United States flatly denied that we were bombing civilian targets. This was an out-an-out lie. We bombed schools, hospitals, and civilian population centers. Indeed, carpet bombing is uniquely well suited to targeting civilians who, in military parlance, present less “hardened” targets than do military facilities.
To take but one specific example, during the Christmas bombing — on December 19 and again on December 22 — B-52s bombed the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. At 1150 beds, Bach Mai Hospital was the largest civilian hospital in the DRV. We substantially damaged or destroyed the entire hospital. This was not an isolated example, either. The Bach Mai Hospital had been previously bombed by the United States on June 27, 1972; many other hospitals in the DRV were destroyed during the Christmas bombing.
I use the Bach Mai Hospital as my exemplar for two reasons. First, shortly after the hospital was hit during the Christmas bombing, the ruins were visited by Telford Taylor, the man who had written the Nuremberg indictment of Hermann Göring. As Professor Taylor told American reporters later in a press conference in Hong Kong, there were no apparent military targets anywhere in sight from the hospital. The second reason I mention the Bach Mai Hospital is that the facility was later rebuilt (except for one wing that was left as a memorial). The Ear Nose and Throat section of the hospital was rebuild and re-equipped with some significant financial assistance from the United States peace movement. My friend Doug Hostetter, who had been a Vietnam-era conscientious objector working with civilians in Tam Ky, Vietnam, was closely involved in that fund-raising activity.
March on the Pentagon, 1972The peace movement responded forcefully to the Christmas bombing, and protests erupted all over the country. Here in Providence, I helped organize a “Religious Convocation for Peace” at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Providence. Eight hundred people filled the church to capacity. Bill Anthony, the elderly priest at Grace Church, commented that it was the first time in his long career that he had seen that church that full. (A photo of the event appears on page 137 of my book, Felon for Peace; the caption reads, in part, “This photo shows the dangerous anarchist radical Noam Chomsky (second from right) in the church, singing a hymn while standing between a bishop and a theologian.”) Congress responded quickly to the peace movement. On January 2, the House moved to cut off funds for the war, and on January 4, the Senate did so. Nixon and Kissinger were getting boxed in.
Perhaps the saddest way of all to view the Christmas bombing is from the practical point of view. The official (that is, U.S. government) point of view is that the bombing worked to get a peace agreement. In a late-January (1973) secret memorandum from President Nixon to his then-chief of staff Bob Haldeman (who later went to prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal), Nixon wrote, “Only by the strong action we took in December were we able to convince the enemy that the enemy should settle and not take the risk of waiting for Congress to give them even more … .” Conservative British Member of Parliament and Defense Minister Jonathan Aitken, in his critically acclaimed biography of Nixon, referred to the Christmas bombing as a “cruel necessity.” Pierre Asselin wrote his doctoral dissertation on the process leading to the Paris Agreement, and he later revised the dissertation and published it as a book. Asselin says that “the December bombing proved effective in allowing for the completion of an agreement … on terms satisfactory to the Nixon administration.”
This widely shared view is just not true. In fact, the terms and provisions of the actual Paris Agreement signed on January 27, 1973, are substantially identical to the October 20, 1972 version in every salient particular.
For instance, in the October version, Chapter I, Article 1 reads in its entirety: “The United States respects the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Viet-Nam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam.” [Emphasis supplied; I will discuss the importance of that language in my article next month on the Agreement.] The text in the January version is identical.
Another critical part of the Paris Agreement is in Article II, Section 3, subpart (b), which provides for a ceasefire in place in southern Vietnam, unlike the 1954 Geneva Agreement, which provided for some regrouping of forces north and south of the 17th parallel. In the October version, this reads, “The armed forces of the two South Vietnamese parties shall remain in place.” The text in the January version is identical.
And so it goes, section for section. The January agreement is identical to the October version is every important respect — in many cases right down to the punctuation. The very, very sad truth is that the Christmas bombing was not in any way “necessary” to effect a settlement.
Since the October draft and the January agreement are essentially the same, the only conceivable purpose of the Christmas bombing was to devastate the economy of the DRV and thereby seek to buy a small amount of additional time for the American-backed government in Saigon.
Today, December 18, we remember these events sadly — the bombing of hospitals and schools, the targeting of civilians, and the lies that accompanied these crimes against humanity. Next month, I will be in Vietnam to celebrate the signing of the Paris Agreement, and (I hope) the sadness will be somewhat tempered. As Ho Chi Minh said in his prison poem, “After Sorrow”:
Everything changes, the wheel
of the law turns without pause
After the rain, good weather …
What could be more natural?
After sorrow come happiness.
Jerry Elmer is the author of Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister. The book has been published in Vietnam as Tôi phạm vì hòa bìng, by Thế Giới Publishing House in Hanoi, which is bringing out a third edition of the book in January on the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement.