ON THE NIGHT of December 18, 1972, President Richard Nixon sent 129 B-52 bombers roaring over North Vietnam. The idea was to break Hanoi’s will and force it to sign a peace treaty that would return our POWs and allow the U.S. to get out of the war.
By the time “the Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong ended 50 years ago on Sunday, some 1600 Vietnamese men, women and children had been killed—a number of them in a hospital—but the figure was probably much higher, observers said. And that wasn’t the whole of it. For several days before and after the week-long B-52 campaign, “the U.S. Air Force flew 729 night-time sorties over North Vietnam with devastating effect,” the BBC said.
“It turned out to have been 57 consecutive nights of bombings—57 9/11s, if you will,” the popular historian Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, said in a 2020 interview. “57 consecutive nights of bombings— How does anybody cope with that?”
Ukrainians, blasted daily by Russian missiles and drones, are finding out. Like the North Vietnamese, and the British suffering under nightly Nazi German air raids in the early months of 1940, the Ukrainians are discovering depths of courage and resilience they probably didn’t know they had, in no small measure because of their unexpectedly inspiring, defiant leader. Volodymyr Zelensky has been regularly compared to Winston Churchill since he refused to abandon Kyiv under Russian fire last February and stood up to Vladimir Putin.
“Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine did not fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking,” Zelensky said in a rousing speech to Congress Wednesday night. “…Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender.” Expertly reading the room, the erstwhile comic actor compared his nation’s plight to the American GI’s who bent but did not break under the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge. Indeed, his speech evoked nothing less than Churchill’s peroration to Britain in its darkest hour, that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The terror bombings of London and Hanoi did not break their wills to win. It’s not breaking Kyiv. The same might be said of Tokyo’s denizens, 330,000 of whom died in conflagrations ignited by napalm jelly bombs dropped by American B-29s during the nights of March 9 and 10, 1944. Another year and a half would pass by, with air raids featuring napalm jelly-bombs on 65 more cities, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a looming invasion of its northern islands by Russia, before Japan surrendered.
To be sure, the Japanese could be said to have been more mesmerized, rather than inspired by, their emperor’s supposed divinity to hold on. North Vietnam’s police-state leaders regularly invoked the memory of Ho chi Minh to harden the resolve of their people, not just to survive the American bombing but go south to fight. And the point still stands that they did hold on: No emperor or communist dictator could manufacture such sacrifices from an unwilling people. Iran’s mullahs may be coming to that conclusion as well. China may be thinking twice now about an invasion of Taiwan.
Putin’s bombing of Ukraine will not bring him victory. Bogged down in Ukraine’s northeast and south, his conscripted troops facing a highly motivated foe, better and better U.S. and NATO-supplied weaponry, and more and more internal sabotage and subversion, it’s Putin who may end up suing for peace. And that, finally, should bring an end to the myth that air power alone can deliver a victory when ground troops and a navy cannot.
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