Aviation / Economics / History / Warfare

Aggregate Demand Dominance: BUFF Barrel Rolls on the Ides of August

NOTE: BUFF is the moniker B-52 crews use to describe the bomber, an acronym for Big Ugly Fat Fucker.

The Utter Failure and Stupidity of the Gold and Silver Standards: Part 8

In the previous installment of this series on the collapse of the gold standard, Bretton Woods entered its terminal phase under the onslaught of Operation Freedom Deal—Richard Nixon’s bid to wipe Cambodia off the map. As if massive BUFF bombing against a non-combatant country (the largest tonnage dropped on any nation on Earth) wasn’t enough, Nixon also had another hapless non-combatant in his crosshairs:

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped around 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos. While the American public was focused on the war in neighboring Vietnam, the US military was waging a devastating covert campaign to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines through the small Southeast Asian country. 

The nearly 600,000 bombing runs delivered a staggering amount of explosives: The equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years, or a ton of bombs for every person in the country—more than what American planes unloaded on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth.

Close, but no cigar. Dropping 2.5 million tons of bombs against territory with an area 236,800 km2 is less per capita than the 2,756,941 tons hurled against 181,035 km2.

The only statement about the American bombing of Laos, codenamed Operation Barrel Roll, that still surprises me is that Cambodia’s status as most unfortunate BUFF victim in history is still unacknowledged. David Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia’s figures from 1979 are still widely cited:

During 1973 Freedom Deal aircraft dropped 250,000 tons of bombs (primarily high explosive), topping the 180,000 tons dropped on Japan during the Second World War.[17] As communist forces drew a tighter ring around Phnom Penh in April, the U.S. Air Force flew more than 12,000 bombing sorties and dropped more than 82,000 tons of ordnance in support of Lon Nol’s forces during the last 45 days of the operation.[18] Since the inception of the Menu bombings in March 1969, the total amount of ordnance dropped on Cambodia reached 539,129 tons.[19] On 15 August, the last mission of Freedom Deal was flown.

Remarkably, the DOD in September 1973 had no issue lying directly to Congress when the military declared Menu, Good Luck, Patio and Freedom Deal struck with a force equal in size to the Pacific Theater of WWII. In reality Cambodia absorbed 600,000 tons more munitions (a startling figure considering 537,000 tons were expended in U.S. effort across the Pacific during the 1940s) than the U.S. air forces consumed during the entirely of the Second World War:

In the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking IBM-designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Clinton’s gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and demining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all.

B-52Ds, -Fs and –Gs and a smattering of fighter-bombers hammered Cambodia with 2.756727 megatons of explosives staring in March 1969 (the Johnson Administration contributed an additional 214 tons to that total). I have taken to using terms for nuclear weapons yield to describe conventional strikes in and around Vietnam because Strategic Air Command was organized exclusively to employ atomic and thermonuclear explosives before B-52Ds began receiving “Big Belly” upgrades in 1964 to carry 60,000 lbs of conventional bombs per BUFF (over SAC’s vehement objections). Laos, unfortunately, faced the annihilating power of SAC “Big Belly” bombers earlier than its unfortunate neighbor to the south:

It was estimated by U.S. intelligence analysts that, during 1965, 4,500 PAVN troops were infiltrated through Laos along with 300 tons of materiel each month.[1] From April to June 1966, the U.S. launched 400 B-52 Stratofortress anti-infiltration sorties against the trail system.[2] By the end of 1967 and the absorption of Steel Tiger operations into Operation Commando Hunt, 103,148 tactical air sorties had been flown in Laos. These strikes were supplemented by 1,718 B-52 Arc Light strikes. During the same time frame, 132 U.S. aircraft or helicopters had been shot down over Laos.[3]

Barrel Roll, Commando Hunt, Menu, Freedom Deal and the Arc Lights flung 5.2 megatons against Laos and Cambodia, almost two million tons more ordnance than all the Allies expended against the Axis Powers during the Second World War. I’m tempted to stipulate Richard Nixon suffered from “bomb stroke:”

The last return of the Reichsbank gave the total German note circulation as 92,844,720,742,927,000,000 marks, nearly 93 quintillions.

With the price of bread running into billions a loaf the German people have had to get used to counting in thousands of billions. This, according to some German physicians, brought on a new nervous disease known as “zero stroke,” or “cipher stroke,” which may, however, be classed with neuritis as cipheritis.

Nixon ordered conventional bombing over Indochina that was the equivalent of over 380 Hiroshima atomic bombs; could he have suffered a psychological condition similar to victims of the German hyperinflation?

The BUFFs Economic Costs

The B-52s’ intensity rose steadily over 1969, 1970 and 1971, exacting a toll on the American economy:

Historical Data Chart

…the 1970 recession returning inflation to Nixon’s inaugural baseline when unemployment climbed two percentage points to 6%:

Historical Data Chart

Historical Data Chart

Amidst these conditions, Nixon availed himself of the authority granted by the Economic Stabilization Act to impose domestic price controls precisely one year after the ESA’s enactment on 15 August 1970. To some conservative economists, this was shocking and unprecedented:

On August 15, 1971, Richard Nixon implemented the most radical economic program in American history. And it was all done over a single weekend in secrecy worthy of the atomic bomb project during World War II.

…if not borderline illegal: 

On Sunday, August 15, Nixon announced the imposition of wage and price controls throughout the U.S. economy, making dubious use of emergency presidential authority.

Considering the ESA of 1970 likely took its name from the price-controlling Korean War-era Economic Stabilization Agency, I would have to argue Nixon’s price controls were neither unprecedented nor legally dubious. His price controls functioned as advertised during wartime:

[I]n the short run they did slow inflation’s upward momentum. The Consumer Price Index only rose 4.4 percent in 1971 – 1.3 percent less than the year before – and 3.1 percent in 1972. But as the controls were phased-out, inflation caught up with its underlying trend and rose 6.2 percent in 1973 and a shocking 11 percent in 1974.

This really shouldn’t have been shocking. Price controls tend to work while a war is being fought…

Historical Data ChartHistorical Data Chart

…but controls rapidly lose their effectiveness after fighting ceases as 20% inflation is a recurring phenomenon associated with postwar demobilizations:

Historical Data ChartHistorical Data Chart

Both World Wars “required” brutal recessions to stem the inflationary tide. Vietnam wasn’t much different:

Historical Data Chart

In fact, inflation was remarkably well-controlled in 1972 considering the volume of firepower the USAF, USMC and USN were tossing at Southeast Asia. Barrel Roll was dropping an epic bombload on Laos:


…the munitions plastering the Ho Chi Minh trail in conjunction with Operation Linebacker, a massive aerial counterattack to the NVA’s Eastern Offensive from 30 March to 22 October 1972. This was followed by the most intense bombing strikes of the entire war, Linebacker II in December (hence the term Christmas Bombing). The Paris Peace Accords were signed the following month, ending the Vietnam War for American ground forces on 27 January 1973.

SACking Cambodia

The war over Indochina, however, did not let up after the peace of Paris. Barrel Roll continued officially until 29 March 1973, though the effort was pointless:

The Americans were pulling out of Southeast Asia as quickly as negotiations with the North Vietnamese would allow them. Ambassador Godley, stunned by the diplomatic developments, ruminated that “We had led him (Souvanna) down the garden path. Let’s face it, we were cutting and running… Once we were out of Vietnam the only way we could have protected Laos was with an Army corps. It was totally out of the question and we knew it. We were licked.”[73] Souvanna then faced a dilemma, sign a separate agreement with the Pathet Lao on almost any terms, or continue the war with no prospect of success. Hanoi was also desirious to obtain a quick agreement with Vientiane. The sooner the fighting in Laos ceased, the sooner the Hanoi would obtain unimpeded use of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

On 21 February, Souvanna signed an Agreement on the Restoration of Peace and Reconciliation in Laos between the central government and the Pathet Lao. The agreement was preceded by intense fighting, as both sides attempted to seize as much territory as possible before the cease-fire went into effect.[74] The agreement was moot, however, since Hanoi had no intention of removing its troops or abandoning its logistical system.

The cease-fire went into effect on 22 February 1973. Not all of the fighting, however, had ended. This was particularly true around the town of Paksong, the last Royal Laotian stronghold on the Bolovens Plateau – the strategic high ground overlooking the Mekong River. At the request of Souvanna, nine B-52s and 12 U.S tactical fighters struck the outskirts of the town on 24 February. By mid-month, the bombers had flown 1,417 sorties and struck 286 targets in northern Laos.[75] Once again acceding to a request from Souvanna, B-52s returned for two more days of bombing on 16 and 17 April, dropping ordnance in support of government forces under attack around Ban Tha Vieng on the Plain of Jars.

Cambodia, on the other hand, absorbed Nixon’s fury:

Nixon has unleashed an immense aluminum jet-fueled fist otherwise known as Strategic Air Command:

A single B-52D “Big Belly” payload consists of up to 108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 meters. In many cases, Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course of several hours. The result was near-total destruction. One US official stated at the time, “We had been told, as had everybody…that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.” Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.

These B-52 raids backfire badly:

The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”

The Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge was winning over peasants. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the Communists were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” But this does not seem to have registered as a primary strategic concern.

I was always curious why the bombing continued apace in Cambodia after the Paris-mediated ceasefire in South Vietnam on January 27, 1973.  It was actually a massive escalation:


The last phase of the bombing, from February to August 1973, was designed to stop the Khmer Rouge’s advance on the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The United States, fearing that the first Southeast Asian domino was about to fall, began a massive escalation of the air war — an unprecedented B-52 bombardment that focused on the heavily populated area around Phnom Penh but left few regions of the country untouched. The extent of this bombardment has only now come to light.

…which failed utterly:

The Nixon administration kept the air war secret for so long that debate over its impact came far too late. It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress, angered by the destruction the campaign had caused and the systematic deception that had masked it, legislated a halt to the bombing of Cambodia. By then, the damage was already done. Having grown to more than two hundred thousand troops and militia forces by 1973, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh two years later. They went on to subject Cambodia to a Maoist agrarian revolution and a genocide in which 1.7 million people perished.

‘Bomb Stroke’—pure and simple. The legislated halt to the Cambodian bombing went into effect on 15 August 1973, and the BUFFs continued to kill and main civilian ‘friendlies’ until required by that law to stop (ironically on the second anniversary of Nixon’s price controls). The Vietnam Wars had finally ended, but the most important lesson was ignored:

To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history. The motives that lead locals to help insurgencies do not fit into strategic rationales. Those whose lives have been ruined don’t care about geopolitics; they tend to blame the attackers.

The attackers on 15 August 1973 were about to reap the whirlwind.


2 thoughts on “Aggregate Demand Dominance: BUFF Barrel Rolls on the Ides of August

  1. Pingback: Aggregate Demand Dominance: Reaping the Whirlwind | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  2. Pingback: The Wrong Turn | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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