On the 9th of December, 1970, President Nixon broke his promise to Congress to keep US planes thirty kilometers within Vietnamese borders by demanding airstrikes deep within Cambodia, outside of the jurisdiction. Dissatisfied and frustrated with the inefficacy of bombing operations that had failed to root out the North Vietnamese, Nixon ordered Kissinger to call for mass carpet bombing over the small country—as Kissinger passed on to General Haig, “It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”
Much of the reporting on US bombing campaigns published during the Vietnam War highlighted the destruction taking place in North Vietnam, leading to greater public pressure on legislators to create tighter bombing restrictions over the area. However, by hiding the extent of military involvement in Southeast Asia from the public, the US was also able to secretly bomb Cambodia and Laos during the sixties and seventies at a much higher magnitude than North Vietnam. Data records of these bombing missions, stored by the Department of Defense, tell lesser-known stories of the Vietnam War’s bloody sideshows, and reveal a violent legacy that endures to this day.
These records show that from October of 1965 to August of 1973, the US launched an average of 924 bombing missions per day, accumulating over two million in total over eight years. Each of these potentially deadly strikes are presented in the visualization below, where the teal dots signify bombing-related events, and the pink offer domestic context. Note that data from between 1974 and 1975 have been omitted, due to missing and incomplete records.
Here is the impact and breakdown of all bombing missions on each country:
Laos has been hit with the most bombs per capita in the world. For nine years, the US dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs on the country every eight minutes. Despite past government claims that the bombings were done over rural, unpopulated areas, these missions often destroyed villages and displaced, maimed, and killed Laotian civilians. Around two-hundred thousand Laotians were killed during the war, and it is estimated that thirty percent of these bombs—the most common and dangerous of which is the cluster bomb—remain undetonated. Since 1973, there have been more than twenty thousand casualties in Laos due to undetonated bombs.
According to researchers at the University of Sydney, statistical representations of the Vietnam War usually estimate that around 500,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped over Cambodia. The bombings in Cambodia led to the deaths of fifty thousand to one-hundred fifty thousand and, as in Laos, riddled the land with unexploded ordnance. They also served as useful material for members of the Khmer Rouge, who incorporated the bombings in propaganda to build anti-American sentiment and help them recruit villagers devastated by the bombs. The group grew to later take over Cambodia and massacre almost one-fourth of the population.
Researchers at the University of Sydney also calculate that, despite being a US ally, South Vietnam received the most bombings in terms of raw tonnage. The central province of Quang Tri is recorded as the most heavily-bombed area in all of Vietnam; after the campaigns, only 11 of 3,500 villages were untouched by bombs. Like Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam remains contaminated by leftover unexploded ordnance.
The US is estimated to have dropped over seven million tonnes of bombs over Southeast Asia over the course of the Vietnam War, an amount of tonnage at least three times of which was dropped during the Second World War. Together, the bombs weigh as much as five sets of the Twin Towers.
The leftover bombs not only serve as a historical reminders of the violence, but also as threats of violence in daily life. Decades after the war, unexploded bombs still kill and maim citizens, while preventing the cultivation of rural land. In Laos’ case, undetonated ordnance correlates with high poverty levels, as forty-two of the country’s forty-six poorest districts are contaminated with bombs. It was only until 2000 that President Clinton released records of these bombings which helped aid with the removal of the unexploded bombs. Yet as of 2016, less than one percent of bombs had been disposed.
US efforts to oust communist threats with mass carpet bombing did not work. In many cases, the bombings did the opposite, and instead helped adversaries rise to power. Despite this devastating impact, the bombings remain a short footnote in the history of the Vietnam War, and are almost nonexistent in popular US memory.