Chiefs and Thunder: General Earle Wheeler, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the First Year of Operation Rolling Thunder

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2024-05

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Abstract

Under US federal law, the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest military advisory group for civilian policymakers in the executive and legislative branches – a body with no operational command of military forces. Prior to 1986, the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a corporate entity was the sole “primary military adviser” to the President and Secretary of Defense. In practice, this forced the Chiefs, consisting of a first-among-equals Chairman and the heads of each military branch, to compromise and negotiate their official military advice to civilian leadership. Issuing divided opinions ostensibly lessened their influence with policymakers, especially during the 1960s when an assertive and iconoclastic Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had his own visions of US defense policy and military strategies.

As President Lyndon Johnson committed the United States to military intervention in Vietnam in 1965, he wanted his advisors and commanders to prepare and execute a limited air campaign against North Vietnam – Operation Rolling Thunder. Despite fierce disagreements with a gradualist campaign intended to only coerce North Vietnam to negotiations by causing “just enough” damage, the Joint Chiefs prepared plans for the administration while also consistently advising that the campaign be strengthened with heavy use of force. Chairman Earle Wheeler conveyed orders from the administration and additional guidance to commanders, solicited feedback from the commanders, presided over Joint Chiefs meetings and shared their views with policymakers, and represented the body to civilian leadership.

Congress officially established the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1947 specifically to provide expertise on military matters and to assist leadership in executing policy and directives. How did the Joint Chiefs and General Earle Wheeler oversee and provide guidance on Operation Rolling Thunder during its first year in 1965? Examining how the group operated during a specific military campaign in a larger war shows how the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Chairman performed their duties during a time of conflict. While dutifully overseeing the execution of presidential decisions for an incremental air campaign, the Chiefs also frequently provided their advice that Rolling Thunder had to use heavier airpower to achieve ultimate policy goals.

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Keywords

Operation Rolling Thunder; Joint Chiefs of Staff; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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