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Air War over North Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965–1968 (Cold War 1945–1991)

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Air War over North Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965–1968 (Cold War 1945–1991) by Stephen Emerson. Pen and Sword Books, 2018, 128 pp.

Stephen Emerson does an outstanding job of outlining the complicated flashpoint of Vietnam that lasted for more than 30 years and culminated with the height of the Vietnam War. In 1965, the US sent 3,500 Marines ashore at Da Nang, South Vietnam, which would be the tipping point for US involvement—an involvement we tried to tiptoe around for many years. Ultimately, the US would be in Vietnam for the next 10 years, escalating involvement and testing American airpower.

At the time, Operation Rolling Thunder was the longest and largest sustained air campaign the US had ever been challenged with, and I commend Mr. Emerson for focusing on the critical details to ensure the full story is told within the limits of his book. He stays neutral while painting the picture of how initially Rolling Thunder was credited by experts as having a slow start launching off on 2 March 1965 (six days before the 3,500 Marines waded ashore at Da Nang). Although the targets were of minimal significance, the opening attacks of the air campaign were impressive and incorporated multiple airframes. The author also aptly describes the political climate, which was pivotal in many decisions and policies the US made throughout the war.

This book includes multiple historic photos of Airmen and aircraft from the era, giving the reader a feel for the times and a better understanding of the terrain with multiple maps of the area of interest in Vietnam and surrounding countries and waters. It’s difficult to understand the many no-fly zones that Operation Rolling Thunder had to traverse (some as small as 4 nautical miles (nm) and some as large as 30 nm), but they were constantly changing through the ebbs and flows of the war. This book does a great job helping the reader understand these challenges especially for the younger generations.

The entire Vietnam War cannot be told in just one book but through 128 pages, Air War over North Vietnam remains well-written and articulates to history buffs and novices alike by remaining focused on Operation Rolling Thunder and the fight for air supremacy. The readers gain a great understanding of the complications that came with such an unpopular war and see how Washington brass struggled to keep victory in its sights while trying to minimize the loss of American life.

President Lyndon B. Johnson finally ordered the ceasing of all air strikes on North Vietnam, and Operation Rolling Thunder—the largest sustained bombing campaign ever conducted—came to an end with mixed results. Overall, this book gives readers an amazingly documented and detailed look at one of America’s most turbulent times. The facts speak for themselves, and the pictures make the book experience more intimate. Operation Rolling Thunder was used as a learning experience and was the cheat sheet for the success of future operations such as Operations Linebacker I and II in the mid-70s. The men and woman who fought were professionals to the very end. They followed orders, executed missions, and left a lasting legacy for generations to follow.   


MSgt Joseph Pesantes, USAF
Hill AFB, Utah

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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