Air University Review, January-February 1983

The Air Force in Vietnam:
Official Histories

Dr. Joe P. Dunn

EARLY in the Vietnam War, the military services determined that this undertaking was a monumental venture that would produce innumerable lessons for future conflicts. The services set out to chronicle a wide variety of activities, and tons of paperwork resulted. With the Army's massive World War II history of more than eighty volumes as the model, all four services began early in the war to plan their Vietnam historical projects. Unit historical detachments in every major command sought to write the history of the conflict as it unfolded. Valuable source material was compiled and a large reservoir of participant interviews secured, but such instant history lacked perspective and was, at best, preliminary.

Moreover, not enough trained historians were available. Individuals with advanced degrees in history were more likely to end up as grunts or functionaries than in historical detachments. In the Army, the historical detachment officer often served the last months of his tour in this position as reward for a good record in the field, or for just the opposite reason. Enlisted assignments were more chance than design. Thus, the quality of the historical records compiled varied considerably. And one theme dominated all retrospects: everybody had done everything right; progress and improvement were the official universal.

While historical detachments generally were viewed as peripheral accessories, historians at times played significant roles during the war. General William C. Westmoreland constantly evoked the French experience in Indochina. During the seige of Khe Sanh in 1968, Bernard Fall's and Jules Roy's depictions of Dien Bien Phu became bibles, and Westmoreland ordered his historical detachment to produce comparative analyses of the two battles.1

When he became Army Chief of Staff in late 1968, General Westmoreland determined that the military professional schools could not wait for another decade or more to assess the lessons of Vietnam. He commissioned a series of Vietnam studies, monographs that addressed various aspects of the war, particularly innovative ventures. Twenty of these volumes, more the memoirs of commanders and staff officers involved in certain activities than actual histories, were published under the imprint of the Army Adjutant General.2 The Air Force added seven monographs as a joint venture between the Office of Air Force History and Air University.

The official history programs began after the war. The Army's proposed twenty-one-volume project is the most extensive, although the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps programs are also ambitious. The Coast Guard outlines a more modest endeavor consistent with their lesser role in the conflict. The Office of Air Force History plans approximately 16 volumes, mostly topical studies of various Air Force missions and activities. An illustrated overview and the first three official volumes are now in print.

The official histories constitute a particular genre of scholarship. The services defend the significant public expenditures necessary to maintain the programs by the didactic values of the studies: to preserve lessons, to assess successful and unsuccessful tactics and strategy, to ensconce military tradition, and to produce early objective accounts suitable for use in military professional schools and for civilian academics. The volumes tend to be highly narrative and quite detailed with little theoretical base or analytical framework. Often the subjects of the books are rather esoteric, and the study is likely to be the definitive, indeed the only, treatise on the topic. The volumes are found in major research libraries, but few make their way into civilian academic classrooms.

Official government historians enjoy enviable research support--ability to devote full time to their projects, adequate funding, abundant staff and library resources, expert colleague support--which most academic scholars would relish. But most important, official historians are privy to material that may not be available to other historians for years. Their government identification and special access privilege subject official historians to the appellation of court historian. In most cases, the charge is not justified. Nevertheless, the official historian should be sensitive to the suspicions about him, and he must pay particular attention to fairness since some of his sources may not be universally accessible.

The three books reviewed here are fine works, which reflect some of the virtues and limitations of official military histories. The similarities among the three are quite apparent. All are primarily narrative, each beginning its account with World War II. One is a general chronological survey to 1965; the other two are chronologically developed topical studies. All abound with names of commanders, participants, units, equipment, acronyms, code names, and aircraft nomenclature. Their glossaries are essential for the novice. All have useful indexes, bibliographic notes, and good visual aids. Although each is candid and critical at times, none is particularly analytical. All are sound, valuable studies which will remain important reference works, but none will attract a very wide audience.

IT is most appropriate that Dr. Robert F. Futrell is the author of the first volume of the Air Force's official history of the Southeast Asia conflict. He was a major contributor to The Army Air Forces in World War II series, and he wrote The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953, the service's single-volume official account of that conflict. His Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine is a classic on the role of air power. Before his retirement from the Office of Air Force History in 1974, Dr. Futrell wrote a detailed, classified history of the Air Force's early involvement in Vietnam. Martin Blumenson, one of America's premier military historians, edited the manuscript and prepared it for unclassified publication.*

*Robert F. Futrell with Martin Blumenson, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1981, $15.00), 398 pages.

The Advisory Years to 1965 is an extremely ambitious and detailed undertaking which epitomizes the best attributes of official history. Futrell weaves the evolution of Air Force involvement into a larger narrative account of the early years of the war. He begins with the origins of the American commitment in the late 1940s and early 1950s, treats Dien Bien Phu and the withdrawal of the French, and details the genesis of the United States advisory command structure. The bulk of the work traces the rise in Air Force activity in Southeast Asia from 112 airmen (68 in Vietnam, 44 in Thailand) in the late 1950s to 9538 personnel (6604 in Vietnam, 2934 in Thailand) on the eve of Americanization in early 1965 and develops the expansion of the mission and the organizational structures.

Futrell surveys the cautious evolution of Air Force activity from the introduction of a tactical air control unit, the first permanent duty status unitin Vietnam, in October 1961, through expansion of several diversified missions. These included the inception of reconnaissance capacity, the Farm Gate training and limited combat role, the Mule Train airlift detachment, the beginning of Ranch Hand herbicide operations, and the advent of air interdiction. He explains how Air Force commanders, especially Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay, chafed about the restrictions on activity and the Air Force's subordinate status in the command structure. Futrell is obviously sympathetic with the Air Force's frustration with the Kennedy administration hesitancies and the tribulations of working with the inchoate Vietnamese Air Force.

This frustration continued into the early Johnson years despite the service's increasingly upgraded combat role. General LeMay continued to charge that the impediments which limited Air Force effectiveness were losing the war. As the conflict deepened, the facade that all operations had a primary training mission became more and more farcical. Maintaining this pretext by such actions as having Vietnamese aboard on all missions, even when they were merely available enlisted personnel who were handy to fill the quota, was ridiculous and greatly hindered operations. Meanwhile, the Air Force sought a greater role in the American command structure and in policy formation. By the beginning of 1965, the service had established its vital role in the war, and a nucleus of air power assets was in place. The Air Force's largest function in the conflict, the bombing campaign of North Vietnam, would soon begin.

The Advisory Years to 1965 is a meticulous piece of research that utilizes documents which may not be available to other scholars for some time. Military historians will find it a valuable reference work. The appendix, which outlines the chronological growth of United States and Vietnamese Air Force units by month, year, and location, is a useful addition. However, the volume reads too much like a text, or even a staff report. And despite the author's clear perspective and forthright judgments, the book is not particularly analytical. Even though it offers a good survey of early American political involvement in Vietnam, it will not attract a large general audience. It remains a book for specialists.

THE other two volumes have somewhat narrower parameters. Both are excellent studies that will probably remain the definitive word on their respective subjects for some time. Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-1975, by Earl H. Tilford, Jr., is the more engaging since it treats one of the most fascinating aspects of the Vietnam War, the rescue of downed fliers.**

**Earl H. Tilford, Jr., Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-1975 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1980, $7.50), 212 pages.

From the early days of aerial combat, American fliers have been confident that if they went down every effort would be made to rescue them. During the years in Southeast Asia, the Air Force lost 2254 aircraft; Army, Navy, and Marine aviation losses swelled that number. From these downed aircraft, the Air Force's Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service recovered 3883 men who otherwise might have been killed or captured. Tilford's book is the saga of the rescue operation during the war years.

The account is a chronological narrative covering the development of search and rescue during World War II, its growth during the Korean War, and its increasing sophistication in Southeast Asia. The author explains advances in aircraft capabilities, communication equipment, training, and rescue procedures. The vignettes reflecting the courage of rescue pilots and pararescue men who went down on the ground after injured fliers is both engrossing and inspiring. Probably the most interesting sections concern the unsuccessful attempt to liberate American prisoners of war at the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam and the complex events of the mission to regain the captives of the Mayaguez at Koh Tang in 1975. Each story details the planning, training, execution, and results of the operations. Although the Son Tay account is not as detailed as Benjamin F. Schemmer's The Raid, it may well be a more accurate appraisal. Tilford's interviews with participants add dimension. The account of Koh Tang, based on interviews and Major A. J. C. Lavalle's earlier monograph, Fourteen Hours at Koh Tang, is outstanding--far superior to Roy Rowan's popular journalistic survey, Four Days of the Mayaguez.

Although it includes much the same emphasis on commanders, locations, nomenclature, code names, and acronyms common to these volumes, the book is interesting reading. It is well researched, objective, and highly competent. Since the topic is not likely to engender varied interpretations, the book should remain the definitive study of the subject. It is a model treatise.

AN equally good study although more controversial and somewhat less engaging is Ranch Hand by William A. Buckingham.* Few topics have generated more passion than the ecological effects of the American presence in Vietnam. From the first, war critics denounced the irreparable damage done to the country and its people by bombing, artillery free-fire zones, and row plows. But no activity caused furor equivalent to that precipitated by the use of herbicides. If the issues of ecological damage to Vietnam and the specter of chemical and biological warfare were not explosive enough, by the early 1970s the hottest issue was the possible damage done to American servicemen by exposure to some of the herbicides. During the postwar years, Agent Orange has become a household word, and the debate smolders today between veterans claiming irreparable personal injury and official U.S. government denial of responsibility.

Buckingham begins with a brief description of the origins of aerial herbicide application, pursues the story through World War II operations, and carefully describes the hesitant decision process and bureaucratic procedures that characterized defoliation and crop destruction in Vietnam. He also traces the evolution of the Ranch Hand program and unit, including its aircraft, equipment, and the chemicals used. By 1964, the use of herbicide in Vietnam was widespread, and criticism of its use was emerging in the United States. Buckingham treats the peak of Ranch Hand activity between 1965 and 1969, the ever-growing controversies, and the numerous studies of herbicide effectiveness and its dangers. He also explains the tactics employed, the risks incurred, and the losses sustained during Ranch Hand missions.

By 1969, Agent Orange, introduced into Vietnam in 1965, was under widespread scrutiny and criticism. Academic, private, and governmental studies addressed the question of possible birth defects resulting from exposure to the chemical. Although no definitive consensus emerged, international attention and condemnation ensued. This concern, coupled with the beginning of the American deescalation in 1969, led to the decline of Ranch Hand activity. Agent Orange was banned in 1970, and by the end of the year Ranch Hand was out of business. The last herbicide mission of the war was flown on 7 January 1971.

In an epilogue, Buckingham deals with the post Ranch Hand questions during the final years of the war: What should be done with existing stocks of Agent Orange in Vietnam? What herbicide capacity would the United States provide for the South Vietnamese? What would future American herbicide policy be? He also touches briefly on the continuing controversy over veteran claims against Agent Orange. An appendix provides useful statistical information on herbicide use during the war.

Although this is a fine study, the technical nature of topic limits its readership. Doubtless, much more will be written on herbicides in Vietnam and on their possible military role, if any, in the future. It is a topic that must be pursued. Certainly, this is a good pioneering study, one that will contribute to the difficult future decision process.

OFFICIAL histories fill a particular place in historiography. They may be the definitive study of some otherwise neglected topic or may merely reflect one perspective on a heavily treated subject. Since their authors have early access to source materials, such studies will ordinarily be among the earlier ones on a topic. As previously closed material becomes available, the authors of Vietnam official histories have a special obligation to provide objective evaluations of many aspects of this controversial American experience. Early readings, at least from the Office of Air Force History, indicate that we can look forward to a series of significant contributions that will rival the important work done by the official historians of World War II.

Converse College
Spartanburg, South Carolina


1. Robert Pisor, The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1982), pp. 48,120, 139-41.

2. Eric C. Ludvigsen, "Vietnam--In 21 Volumes," Army, August 1977, pp. 30-32.


Joe P. Dunn (B.S., Southeast Missouri State University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Missouri) is Associate Professor of History and Politics and Director of Summer Programs, Converse College, Spartanburg; South Carolina. His writing has focused on the Vietnam War and on post-World War II conscription. Dr. Dunn has published articles in Parameters, Military Review, Teaching History, Naval War College Review, Armed Forces and Society, and he is a previous contributor to the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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