#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones will be running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. To kick off this series, Assistant Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, provides a brief overview of the historiography of the air war. While not conclusive, it does give an idea of the critical strands present in the historiography and highlights where there are some important omissions such as a scholarly examination of air power during the French-Indochina War. If you would like to be a part of that discussion by submitting your work to the series, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

Here at From Balloons to Drones, we are launching a series of articles on the air war in Vietnam. This is no easy task, as writing about the Vietnam War is akin to strolling into a minefield: There is a good chance of causing an explosion. Historian Robert Citino stated it best:

Anyone who tries to draw conclusions from the Vietnam War will almost certainly anger the legions of Americans who have already made up their minds about it.[1]

In the U.S. especially, the debate over the war rages in both public and academic spheres regarding what happened and what it means for American society.[2] As the war in its entirety remains controversial, the sub-field on the air wars has developed its own debates and tropes. This article is intended as a quick guide to some of that literature as well as an introduction to a few of the broader arguments and issues that loom over the entire field. If there is any single takeaway from a survey of the literature of the Vietnam War (and its air components in particular), it is that the war remains contested but relevant, and there is plenty of work for scholars left to do in deepening our understanding of the conflict.

A Vietnamese Air Force student pilot and a USAF instructor sit side by side in a VNAF Douglas A-1E Skyraider taxing to the runway at Bien Hoa air base, Vietnam, c. 1965. (Source: Wikimedia)

General Histories

Because there is less of a standing consensus regarding the Vietnam War than in some other conflicts, finding an entry point can be difficult. Perhaps the most middle-of-the-road overview of the entire conflict (written primarily from the American perspective) is still George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (1979). Originally written in 1979, it is now in its fifth edition (released in 2013) as Herring continually updated it to incorporate new scholarship. Another useful overview is Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945-2010 (2014) by James Olson and Randy Roberts. This is the sixth edition of a book initially published in 1991 and constantly updated. The book is still mostly from the American perspective but delves a little bit deeper into some of the backgrounds to the conflict regarding French colonialism and the ideology of Ho Chi Minh, which itself is highly contested.[3] Olson and Roberts are more pointed in their argument that the war was unwinnable for the U.S.

For a more traditional operational look, Phillip Davidson’s Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975 (1988) is a valuable in-depth examination of both the French and American phases of the war. For a contrasting, but still, mostly operational look at the war, the works of Gregory Daddis are perhaps the best place to start. It is fair to say that Daddis is the current leader of the field when it comes to military histories of the Vietnam War. His trilogy of books is useful and wide-ranging. No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (2011) examines the ways that U.S. forces measured progress and success, which led them to make many faulty assumptions. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (2014) and Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017) each examine the American strategic and operational approaches in the first and second half of the conflict respectively.

What these books do not address as much are the pacification programs (also known as ‘the other war’) and a perspective internal to South Vietnam. Thankfully, more historians are entering the field and producing exciting work in these areas. Jessica Chapman’s Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (2013) are one of the most exciting new books in the field, examining the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and the three organisations internal to South Vietnam that resisted it the most. Andrew Gawthorpe’s To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation Building in South Vietnam (2018) is probably the best look at pacification so far, although it proves to be a promising topic that shows much room to grow.

It is important to note that a book such as Olsen’s and Robert’s (and to some degree Daddis’) are responding to an earlier strain of works that argued the opposite. This argument was that the war was winnable, but that American leaders (mostly civilian political leadership and some military leaders) fundamentally misunderstood the war and for one reason or another, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps the most widely-read work that takes that argument is Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982), which analyses the war through a particular interpretation of Clausewitz. Most works that take this tack posit that America could have won the war earlier by going with a more all-out, aggressive military strategy.

The Air War(s)

That more aggression could have produced victory was certainly the belief of many U.S. Air Force leaders. For example, speaking to Air Force Academy cadets in 1986, General Curtis LeMay was asked whether the U.S. could have won the war. He responded: ‘In any two-week period you care to mention.’[4] Many books on the air war take a similar approach, such as On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (1987) by John Nichols and Barrett Tilman. This argument is especially common among oral histories and memoirs. There are a plethora of such books, particularly by pilots eager to share their ‘There I was…’ stories and many of these works are very useful. The best is Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam (1978) from the Commander of 7th Air Force, General William Momyer (pronounced Moe-Mye-er). Other notable entries in this category include Ed Rasimus’ Palace Cobra: A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War (2006), Robin Olds’ Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (2010), Ken Bell’s 100 Missions North: A Fighter Pilot’s Story of the Vietnam War (1993), and Robert Wilcox’s oral history of the Top Gun program, Scream of Eagles: The Creation of Top Gun and the U.S. Air Victory in Vietnam (1990), to name a few.

However, most of the literature from historians regarding the air campaigns have argued the opposite: that a more aggressive bombing approach earlier in the war was not feasible for a variety of reasons. One of the earliest books to push for this line of thinking is Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (1989). This book is, in this author’s opinion, still the most important book on the air war in Vietnam and one of the most important works in the field of air power history in general. Other works have made similar or related arguments but in more specific areas. Earl Tilford’s Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (1993) looks at the years leading up to the war and argues that the Air Force’s structure and doctrine did not lend itself to the type of fighting in Vietnam.[5] For an operational look at the air campaigns through this lens, the most useful works are Jacob Van Staaveren’s Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966 (2002) and Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (2000) each of which focuses on a distinct time frame. The Linebacker II campaign sometimes called the ‘11-day war’ or ‘the Christmas bombing’ can be contentious. The best operational account of it so far is Marshall Michel’s The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle (2001), which blames Air Force leaders rather than political leaders for the mission’s problems.

Many of the more popular memoirs deal with air-to-air aspect, although such encounters were rare, as the North Vietnamese Air Force tended to average thirty to forty operational fighters at any given time (compared to the thousands of aircraft the U.S. had in-theatre). There are some broader examinations of the air-to-air aspect. The most comprehensive is Marshall Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (1997), although Craig Hannah’s brief Striving for Air Superiority: The Tactical Air Command in Vietnam (2001) is also useful.[6] Because the war featured an expansion of tactical air power, many works deal with a diversity of air power roles, one of the best entry points is Donald Mrozek’s Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam: Ideas and Actions (1988). Part of the problem with the use of tactical air power in Vietnam was the confusing command structures and service rivalries. Ian Horwood’s Interservice Rivalry and Airpower in the Vietnam War (2006) is perhaps the best text examining that issue and is a useful general exploration of tactical airpower in the south.

A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52D Stratofortress aircraft coming in for a landing at U-Tapao air base, Thailand, after a mission over Vietnam, 30 October 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

The problems that the US military experienced in Vietnam led to a long period of change afterwards, as the various services all raced to reform themselves not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the war. However, the services disagreed (with each other and within themselves) about what precisely the mistakes were and how to solve them. The period following the war, from the late 1970s until 1991, was essentially a second ‘interwar period,’ similar in some ways to the 1920s and 1930s. The degree to which the Vietnam War was used as an impetus for change in the air power realm has been covered in many works. There are so many volumes on this subject that they would require a separate article on their own, although some useful starting places include Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015), Mike Worden’s The Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945–1982 (1998), and C.R. Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam (2001). You can find a historic book review of this latter title here.

Although many of the works listed here are of high quality, there are some inherent limitations to the field. Most of them are limited to studying a specific geographical area or timeframe (or both), and there are fewer works that take a comprehensive look at the entirety of the air wars. Some such works are forthcoming, but there is more room for more books that take this wider approach. Most works are written by people who have some tie to the military. Many are veterans of the war or have served in the time since. Many more are civilian employees of the military (of which this author is one as well, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt of course). Many of the books listed here are from government or military presses. None of this is to imply that they are of lesser quality or that they have any particular biases (indeed, much of the material from Air University Press can be interpreted as critical of the Air Force), but it does mean that the perspectives given are limited. Further limiting our view of the war is the paucity of books written by women and people of colour. The majority (although not all) of the books in the field are from the perspective of men, predominantly white – a limitation that is hopefully in the process of being alleviated as new and diverse scholars continue to enter the field.

There is a reason to believe that the field of Vietnam War histories is on the verge of a turning point, as the previous generation who remembers the war as a part of their lives is starting to give way to a new generation that has no personal memory of the war. New sources and new perspectives are beginning to emerge, as new and old scholars alike develop not only new answers to questions but new questions. It is an exciting time to be a historian of this era.


There is an overwhelming number of works about the air wars in Vietnam. This brief survey, focusing on significant monographs, is not meant to be comprehensive, but merely a guide to some of the more influential works and themes. There are many wonderful and useful works not mentioned here, and that is not meant as a slight against any of them. For more, any serious student of the Vietnam War must become quickly aware of the work of Dr Edward Moïse. Not only are his own works useful reading, but his website contains quite possibly the largest bibliography of works on the Vietnam War, many of which are annotated and organised into searchable categories. This is an invaluable resource.

Despite the large size of the field, there is much work left to be done. While there are many memoirs and oral histories of various aspects of the war, we still need scholarly monographs on the air wars in Laos and Cambodia, on Air America (the CIA’s air effort), on the defoliation operations, and on-air mobility both in terms of troop movements and airlift of supplies and humanitarian efforts. Many of the works mentioned do discuss air power used by the Army and Marines, but more works focusing on these aspects are needed. Perhaps the two most significant gaps in the field are a good scholarly analysis of the use of air power during the French-Indochina War and a discussion of the perspective of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Chinese involvement in terms of providing pilot training and providing some actual pilots could also be examined in more depth. Of course, there is always room for new interpretations of ideas that have been previously discussed. Several excellent books do exist on these topics, but there is room for scholars to expand our knowledge and understanding. This is just a tip of the iceberg of some of the exciting work left to be done in the field.

The Vietnam War is a conflict that will continue to be controversial as those involved on all sides continue to grapple with its legacy. We here at From Balloons to Drones hope that the upcoming series of articles from a variety of perspectives can help move that discussion forward.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Press, 2004), 254.

[2] For insightful studies of the memory of the Vietnam-American War, see Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking Press, 2015); Patrick Hagopian, The Vietnam War in American Memory Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); and Gregory Daddis, ‘The Importance of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive,’ War on the Rocks, 29 January 2018.

[3] Determining whether Ho Chi Minh was primarily a nationalist or a communist has been a major point of contention in the literature. Olsen and Roberts argue that he was in fact both, and that for him, those concepts cannot be separated.

[4] See Earl Tilford, ‘Linebacker II: The Christmas Bombing,’ The VVA Veteran, January/February 2014. This quote from LeMay is widely cited in many works.

[5] An earlier form of this book is available as a free download from AU Press under the title Setup: What the Air Force Did and Why.

[6] On the subject of air-to-air combat in Vietnam, see the author’s MA Thesis, ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air Combat in Vietnam’ (MA Thesis, University of North Texas, 2013).