Never 100% on these numbers but the US evidently dropped c. 4,000,000 tons of bombs, including c. 400,000 of napalm, on South Vietnam, around 2,000,000 on Laos, over 2,500,000 on Cambodia, and 1,000,000 on North Vietnam--no/little napalm in those three countries. These numbers are often juxtaposed with figures from WW2, which are roughly 200,000 tons of bombs dropped on Japan (c. 40,000, rounded, for the nuclear TNT equivalence), iirc c. 10,000 tons of napalm there.

Now the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (the one, idk if there were more than one, about the air war vs. Japan) said, I think, that ~500 tons of bombs in an explosive/antipersonnel/incendiary cascade, could be enough to devastate a city (not sure what size range was indicated but the Tokyo firebombing involved ~1750 tons of napalm iirc) and...

... Well also there was an article in the Air Force Magazine (or maybe it was just a magazine with the title Air Force) way back in 1961 that said 10,000,000 tons of bombs would be the order of magnitude required to level the Soviet Union.

I have seen a few distinct reports from pilots who were confused as to why they were instructed to constantly drop bombs irrespective of targets. I know the "theory" of the Ho Chi Minh trail but I am not looking for an explanation based on American propaganda.

  • 6
    That last paragraph (and probably "B") is going to be off-topic here. The question in the title seems like a good one though.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 10, 2019 at 19:33
  • 2
    the Ho Chi Minh trail was far from "theory". No propaganda about it, apart from the communist propaganda showing how they beat the "imperialist Americans" using it.
    – jwenting
    Dec 11, 2019 at 5:07
  • Most of the first, long paragraph of JMS answerlists reasons why the US might have used less Ordnance. My guess is that the answer has as much or more to do with american military thinking and decision making at the time as it has to do with military or political factors on the ground. Is this something you are interested in?
    – mart
    Dec 11, 2019 at 9:10
  • If I wished to be wittier, and maybe I should wish that? I would rephrase my question as, "Why did the US military simulate continental nuclear war in a small region of the Earth, up to and inclusive of the distribution of a highly mutagenic substance across a considerable subset of this region?" The USBSS analysis shows that they knew what they were doing later: the explosives/napalm/cluster bombing technique used so much in South Vietnam is the one the USBSS says would be physically comparable to the sheer destructive force of a congruent fission weapon. Dec 15, 2019 at 18:26
  • How much should they have used?
    – MCW
    Sep 26, 2023 at 13:04

1 Answer 1


Is it physically possible for the following to be true, together: A) the US used all the above (and 7000000 tons of artillery and idk how many bullets/grenades) in a region of that size, in a certain timeframe, and B) the US did not indiscriminately devastate Vietnam/et. al.?

There was no "Vietnam" throughout American involvement in the Vietnam War. There was a North Vietnam which was backed by the Soviet Union. There was a South Vietnam which was allied with the United States. The vast majority of the war was fought in South Vietnam, not North Vietnam.

What you've touched on is one thing which made the Vietnam War so different from other wars the United States has fought and difficult for American Forces at the time. For much of the war the United States did not target North Vietnam, an important source of fighters and supplies for the war almost entirely fought in the south.

Vietnam War
By 1963, the North Vietnamese had sent 40,000 soldiers to fight in South Vietnam.[61]:16 North Vietnam was heavily backed by the USSR and the People's Republic of China. China also sent hundreds of PLA servicemen to North Vietnam to serve in air-defense and support roles.

This was because the United States didn't want to risk the war widening. North Vietnam was allied with the Soviet Union and shared a border with Communist China. This broad strategy was called "containment", and was pursued throughout the Cold War by the United States in many theatres. Its central premise was to resist the communists expanding by fighting for stalemate, not victory around the world. Under this strategy engaging the N. Vietnamese in the South was US policy which for many years during the conflict entirely ignored N. Vietnam. This containment strategy was designed to minimize the risk of a wider war and made a war of attrition like WW1 or WW2 where one side tries to destroy their enemies ability to conduct war impossible. (Destroy their enemy's economy, agriculture, factories, power grid, and transportation systems as was done in WWII, and not done in Vietnam). Additionally the US ability to target enemy troops in the south was nearly impossible because they were indistinguishable from the general population. The US could only react when their enemy chose to show themselves in the South. (Tet Offensive). What the US was left with was trying to target North Vietnamese forces as they traversed roads macheted through the jungle between North and South. Example: Ho Chi Minh Trail. These roads were used to infiltrate troops and war materials into the south. Targeting them wasn't a very precise operation as they were hard to find and once found easily moved. Airplanes flying over the jungle could not see these roads. The US tried many different tactics to find them - sensors, informants, human patrols, and even deforestation of the jungle.

One tool which was used to engage these supply lines was the B-52 bomber which carpet bombed areas where the enemy was believed to be conducting operations. A single B-52 carried 70,000 lbs payload and was used to target literally miles of jungle. Compare that aircraft to say a WWII era B-17 Flying Fortress which carried payloads of only 4,800 lbs and you begin to gain an explanation for why so many tons of munitions were used.

The combination of:

  1. The time frame of the Vietnam War - the USA was involved in Vietnam for 20 years, vs. 4 years for WWII.
  2. The characteristics of the war - the Vietnam war was fought (nearly) entirely in South Vietnam. WW2 was a global war, where Germany and Japan were only partial theaters. Japan only came under sustained bombing by the allies from June 1944 - August of 1945. Likewise the air war in Europe was fought across north Africa and across Europe from France to Moscow. WWII was just a different kind of war.
  3. No good targets for most of the war due to political restrictions and the inability to find the enemy in the south; also the characteristics of the Vietnamese jungle.
  4. The capabilities of the air force having grown significantly with a single B-52 aircraft able to carry more bombs than entire squadrons of WWII era bombers.

These are the answers to your questions.

low: what are the descriptive merits of the term ecocide, here, or, when does the word "war" apply here more than/instead of "atrocity"/"massacre"? (I can rework this question for the Philosophy Stack Exchange or what, if appropriate?)

Deforestation of Vietnam or "ecocide" as you say, was a war strategy. The North Vietnamese used the Jungle to shield their movements as they conveyed troops and supplies deep into the south to pursue the war. The US strategy to deforest or kill the jungle which shielded the North was designed to make the movements of these foot highways more visible and thus more engage-able. Only the United States didn't use B-52's and high explosive bombs to deforest the jungle. Rather the US used strong herbicides like 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, known alternatively as Agent Orange, to engage the Vietnamese jungles which in theory would allow the US to more precisely target the trails.

A friend of mind toured the Khe Sanh Battle field a few years ago, and he described his tour guide kneeling down and lighting on fire a hand full of dirt. This demonstrated that the United States dropped so much C-4 and other munitions around the 6000 Marines besieged at Khe Sahn for 6 months in 1968 that the dirt around the battlefield will still catch fire even 45 years later.

  • 6
    Re "he described his tour guide kneeling down and lighting on fire a hand full of dirt." I'd be checking around for the typical props of an illusionist, or perhaps for an appearance by Uri Geller. This smells of a well-arranged publicity stunt to me. You'll have one H*** of a time convincing me that South Vietnam never has forest fires. Nearly a half century has passed and not one careless teenager has flicked a cigarette butt onto the ground and lit the whole thing up? No way! Dec 11, 2019 at 2:29
  • @PieterGeerkens Perhaps you’re right, never considered my friend was exaggerating. I do know Operation Niagara was the name of the air campaign in support of Khe Sanh’s Marines and it dropped nearly 100,000 tons of munitions on the hills around khe Sanh over 60 days. It might have been the only time in history when the b52 strato fortress was used in close air support. To put this into perspective from Jan 44 to aug 45 the strategic bombing survey says the US dropped 152,000 tons of bombs on all of Japan.
    – user27618
    Dec 11, 2019 at 4:29
  • Bombing from 30,000+ feet is far from "close" air support: "Releasing their bombs from the stratosphere, the B-52s could neither be seen or heard from the ground. B-52s were instrumental in wiping out enemy concentrations besieging Khe Sanh in 1968, and in 1972 at An Loc and Kontum." The stratosphere starts about 66,000 feet up near the equator, only 33,000 feet at mid-llatitudes. Dec 11, 2019 at 5:25
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    @SamuelRussell, I see your point. I sourced the paragraph demonstrating North Vietnam was "an important" source of fighters and supplies since Tonkin incident; and modified the statement to say so rather than "the source". Thank you for picking up on that, I think that makes the answer more accurate. you're also right that N.V became even more important after Tet. I did not mean to imply the Communists didn't have support in the south.
    – user27618
    Dec 13, 2019 at 13:00
  • 3
    Good work! Improved. Have deleted my comments as resolved! Dec 14, 2019 at 0:19

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