Lyndon Johnson


Lyndon Johnson Essay, Research Paper

Lyndon Baines Johnson acquired numerous problems when he became the 36th president of the United States. In an effort to engage them all, Johnson tried to hide Vietnam foreign policy from the American people. In doing so, Johnson hoped to buy enough time to solve the Vietnam conflict without interfering with his domestic agendas encompassing what Johnson called the Great Society programs. Johnson’s decision to become secretive and divert attention from Vietnam would ultimately seal his fate as a presidential failure. His inability to assess situations and make decisions concerning

foreign policy in South Vietnam is what eventually led to his downfall. Johnson’s most devastating failure during his administration was his inability to make decisions necessary to win the war.

Johnson was aware of the problems his administration would face right from the

beginning of his presidency. ” I’ve got a lotta problems. I’ve got a brazen Communist

attempt to conquer Asia on my hands. I’ve got Negroes revolting in America. I’ve got

troubles in Central America that the people don’t even know about. I gotta figure out

how to pay for these fucking wars and keep my commitment to feed, educate, and care

for the people of this country, Johnson told reporters two months after taking office

( Gardner, 104 ).

One of the problems Johnson spoke of concerned South Vietnam and the

domino theory. Maintaining their faith in the domino theory from the previous

administration, the Johnson administration believed losing South Vietnam to


communism would threaten other states in the region and endanger America’s standing in

the world ( Hall, 13 ). They also feared that all out war with North Vietnam might

demand a military response by China or the Soviet Union. The domino theory was

two sided from a military standpoint in South Vietnam. No matter what the Johnson

administration was to decide militarily, the outcome would likely be unattractive to the

United States. The Johnson administration’s policy on the domino theory failed. This

was because in order to contain the domino theory in South Vietnam, actions had to be

implemented quickly to ensure victory or successful negotiations. Johnson didn’t take

quick and decisive action; therefore, escalation started too little, too late.

On August 2 and 4, 1964, North Vietnamese PT boats attacked 2 United States

destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Three days later, after a brief hearing before the

relevant committees and a short debate on the floors of the Senate and House, Congress

passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The Resolution gave Johnson authority to take all

steps necessary to include force to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United

States and to prevent further aggression ( Porter, 307 ). It is rumored, as well as believed,

that the Gulf of Tonkin incident actually was a “smoking gun” manufactured to boost

public support for military actions against North Vietnam without declaring war

( Helsing, 31 ). Johnson’s intent during this crisis was to get funding for a war against

North Vietnam without interfering with funding for his Great Society programs.

Retaliating for the attacks on the American destroyers, Navy planes on August 4


bombed North Vietnamese coastal bases and an oil installation. Johnson was planning to

persuade the north to negotiate on his terms through the influence of air raids before a

war broke out. This was a big gamble with the threat of world war on the brink and

especially since the promise of victory could not be guaranteed by the use of force. After

the attacks on North Vietnamese military bases, China and the Russians openly stated

their complete support of North Vietnam (Sobel, 118 ). China backed up it’s statement in

early September 1964 by sending warplanes to North Vietnam. Johnson’s decision to

attack North Vietnam escalated tensions with China and the Russians. Now, in order

to stop the domino theory from working, Johnson would need both Congressional and

public support. Johnson would also be informed by his advisors, that troop escalation

was needed in South Vietnam in order to secure Siagon and American interests. This

would require the United States military to greatly enhance its numbers in order to meet

United States interests in Korea, Europe, and Vietnam (Helsing, 59 ).

Johnson ignored clear signs that communist countries supported North Vietnam and

would aid in its defense when he was vice-president under the Kennedy

administration. On February 24, 1962 the Chinese Foreign Minister released a

statement that signaled China’s support to North Vietnam. The statement charged that

the United States command in South Vietnam was in direct participation with South

Vietnam and was already in an undeclared war. Two days later, the Soviet Deputy


Foreign Minister warned the United States at a UN press conference that continued

involvement could entail very unpleasant consequence ( Sobel, 35 ). By 1965 the

Russians were sending military shipments via railroad and sea to North Vietnam. The

Russians furnished the armed forces of North Vietnam with military equipment such as

airplanes, tanks, coastal guns, and warships. Russian specialists installed a

web of antiaircraft rockets and artillery around North Vietnamese cities and strategic

points. They assisted in training pilots, rocket personnel, tank drivers, and infantrymen

at Russian bases ( Matthews & Brown, 58 ). Johnson and his advisors knew that

continued escalation of ground troops and bombing raids would only increase the aid

received from the communist countries.

Johnson’s decision to slowly escalate more troops to the shores of South Vietnam

only gave North Vietnam and its allies more time to prepare for a military showdown.

A show of all out force by Johnson could have secured the borders of South Vietnam,

which would have limited the infiltration of communist rebels into the south. Then with

secured borders, General Westmoreland could effectively fight the Vietcong inside

South Vietnam’s borders. Also, an effort to stop or slow the trade of arms from China and

Russia to the North Vietnamese might have been more diplomatic and brought more

success. Johnson’s decision was to be optimistic in believing that bombing would give


him a advantage in negotiations. His decision to be secretive about the escalation of

events in South Vietnam enabled the Great Society programs to receive funding from

Congress. His decision to be cautious with military force prolonged and ultimately cost

him the war. These decisions instigated the possibility of world war and ignited the rapid

growth of the Cold War arms race.

By bombing North Vietnam, Johnson hoped to control the escalation of ground

troops. However, air raids on North Vietnam didn’t achieve the results Johnson was

expecting. The escalation of troops started to climb with General Westmoreland’s

request for more troops and more bombing raids on the north. On July 27, 1965,

Johnson laid out five options to his National Security Council concerning the topic of

escalation. The first option was to continue the bombing and try to force North Vietnam

to the negotiating table. The second option was to pack up and go home. The third

option was to stay right where the United States was and continue to suffer the

consequences and continue to lose territory and take casualties. The forth option was to

go to Congress and ask for great sums of money while calling up the reserves and

increasing the draft, in essence declaring a state of emergency. The fifth option was to

give our commanders in the field the men and supplies they say they need ( Matthews &

Brown, 125 ).

Johnson’s administration largely supported mobilization and proposed increasing

recruitment, larger draft calls and extensions of tours to raise the size of the regular


armed forces by 375,000. However, the forth option for mobilization was turned down

by Johnson because a land war of that magnitude would require North Vietnam to go to

its friends, China and Russia, and ask them for help ( Matthews and Brown, 126).

Johnson favored the fifth option to give commanders more men and supplies. In doing

so, he made it clear to his advisors that the United States would not make threatening

scenes to the Chinese or the Russians by calling up the Reserves in large numbers and

mobilizing forces. At the same time, Johnson pressed hard on the diplomatic front to try

to find some path to a peaceful settlement. Johnson’s decision to support General

Westmoreland with more than 100,000 troops was granted in July 1965. In addition,

Johnson increased bombing campaigns in North and South Vietnam but withheld

approval for unrestricted bombing of the North for fear of Chinese intervention.

Furthermore, Johnson authorized the use of American troops in independent military

actions ( Hall, 29 ).

In order to reduce the industrial and military resources within North Vietnam,

Johnson began operation Rolling Thunder. This operation was an air war on North

Vietnam to bring Hanoi to the negotiating table. Rolling Thunder became a primary,

long-term campaign and went well beyond the eight week plan ( Glasser, 44 ). The

operation was criticized on several counts. Targets, strike routes and attack times and

dates were picked and approved by the president and/or the secretary of defense on a day

to day basis. Depending on the rules of engagement in effect at any given time, pilots


were not permitted to attack certain targets or geographical areas no matter how

important. Perhaps the biggest flaw of all was that Rolling Thunder was not meant to

defeat the North Vietnamese but rather break their will and deny them victory

( Glasser, 45 ). President Johnson made a decision that went against all military

doctrine by not allowing the Air Force to release enormous firepower on open targets of

opportunity. Johnson’s failure in this prospective was his willingness to fight a limited

war. Again, Johnson defended his actions by reasoning that he didn’t want to instigate

action by China or Russia. By this time, Johnson knew that the communist were

supplying North Vietnam with surface to air missiles and rockets to bring United States

planes down. The point being that Johnson didn’t want to get involved with China and

Russia in a military theater, why didn’t he realize that we were already in a war with

North Vietnam and it’s allies. Johnson’s refusal to accept what was happening and his

failure to let go of his domestic front prolonged a war needlessly.

By 1967, the situation remained virtually the same as it was before the ground war

started in 1965. The United States had over a half million troops in Vietnam and could

not achieve political stability in Saigon ( Hall, 37 ). Johnson failed to make

decisions necessary to win the war because he feared the consequences of starting a war

with China or the Soviet Union. Without foreign and domestic support a country can’t

successfully fight a war risking lives as well as enormous amounts of national


capital and resources. Johnson also failed to see the importance of mobilization

of the armed forces and demonstrated a lack of will when opportunities presented


Mobilization increases the options and capabilities of the Defense Department to

carry out national military policy, and it directly affects the timing, size, and

composition of deployments to a theater of war ( Mathews & Brown, 136 ). It also

stimulates the projection of a nation concrete in it’s political will. In addition,

mobilization demonstrated resolve to achieve political objectives over a recognized

and acknowledged enemy or threat. Thirty-eight months after the ground war began for

the United States in South Vietnam, Johnson finally made the decision to mobilize. The

13 May 1968 mobilization for the Vietnam War occurred far too late and was far too

small to be of any political or military significance ( Matthews & Brown, 137 ). Again,

this was a failure for Johnson and his presidency. Unwilling to budge and unwilling to

win the Vietnam War, Johnson failed to assess the importance of making decisions to

get a nation out of a crisis.

By 1967 Johnson also faced problems on the domestic front. Congress and

public support for the war in Vietnam was declining. The escalation of military forces

in Vietnam raised serious questions and produced a growing debate in the United States

over the desirability of the American commitment. One side of the political arena urged


a stronger and more aggressive military strategy to win on the battlefield and the other

side argued that the war in Vietnam violated American interests and values ( Hall, 42 ).

By mid 1967 the Vietnam War had moved painfully to a stalemate, a situation that

favored the North Vietnamese strategy of a prolonged guerrilla war. The major turning

point in public support was the military Tet Offensive by North Vietnam. Many

television news anchors, for the first time, saw the war up close and personnel during

the Tet Offensive. The reality of the offensive clashed with the optimistic reports of

recent months, and Johnson’s creditability began to plummet. Public opinion polls

showed a drop in support and a lack of confidence in Johnson’s conduct of the war

(Hall, 46 ).

In the wake of the Tet offensive the United States Congress reacted as well. The

Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted hearings on the war and the House of

Representatives called for a complete review of Vietnam policy. These responses

reinforced the Johnson administration’s belief that additional escalation would prove

increasingly divisive ( Hall, 53 ). During a television speech in March of 68, Johnson

announced that bombing in North Vietnam would be restricted to areas just north of the

demilitarized zone. In return for these gestures, Johnson called for North Vietnamese

military restraint and a willingness to negotiate. During his speech, Johnson also made

the announcement that he would not run for re-election.


President Johnson consistently emphasized in public that the escalation of troops he

authorized was not a change in policy. Yet, behind closed doors, the words were very

different. Discussions at a National Security Council meeting in 1965 stressed the

importance of preventing leaks to newspapers. When foreign policy in Vietnam changed,

Johnson advised his cabinet not to mention these policy changes. Secretary of Defense

Robert McNamara noted that Johnson’s refusal to announce decisions or policy changes

publicly eventually cost him dearly ( Helsing, 81 ). Johnson’s decision making with

regards to public scrutiny and cover-up were failures that should have been avoided.

Johnson’s fear that public programs would not receive adequate funding and his fear of

prompting China and the Soviet Union into world war with the United States were all

reasons he believed justified his actions ( Helsing, 240 ). However, when the Gulf of

Tonkin incident occurred, Johnson inherited Congressional and public support

needed and didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. If he had, the American people

would most likely supported an escalation in troops. However, this had to be done when

the time was right for both Congress and the public. Johnson’s lack of will to win the

war and his poor decision making all contributed to foreign policy in Vietnam being a

complete disaster.

Johnson had often stated privately his belief that the communists had to be forced to

come to the bargaining table ( Helsing, 114 ). For Johnson it would be hard to believe,

at least in the early years, that air superiority would not bring Hanoi to the negotiating


table. Under pressure from his advisors to seriously pursue negotiations, Johnson

made a speech at Johns Hopkins. The speech suggested talks or discussions

without preconditions on a Vietnamese settlement. On April 8, 1965 North Vietnam

took the initiative perhaps in response to Johnson’s John Hopkins speech and proposed a

Four Points Program” as the basis for a solution to the Vietnam conflict. The White

House categorically rejected Hanoi’s overture. However, McGeorge Bundy wrote to the

president that he, Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson in Moscow, and acting CIA

director Ray Cline felt that the proposals were at least a hint of real interest from Hanoi

in eventual discussions ( Helsing, 116 ). Johnson failed to assess the developments in

Hanoi that presented a opportunity for peace and instead continued to escalate ground


George Ball also urged Johnson on April 21 to explore the North Vietnamese points

because they provided a basis for negotiations ( Barrett,150 ). A month later, on May

18, Mai Van Bo, a North Vietnamese diplomat in France, passed a message to

Washington via the French Foreign Ministry: ” The four points of April 65 should not be

considered as prior conditions but rather as working principles for negotiations ( Helsing,

116 ).” This quote argues quite obviously that Hanoi wanted to start talking. Johnson’s

failure to recognize or to at least entertain the invitation of Hanoi seems unacceptable.

Even with his advisors strong wishes to do so, Johnson was uninterested in exploring

whether Hanoi’s four points provided any opening for negotiations. Johnson believed


that any eagerness to negotiate would be a sign of weakness. Also, the belief that

eagerness would show the United States lacked the will to stay the course in Vietnam

( Helsing, 116 ).

Johnson conducted his John Hopkins speech for peace to appeal to the Left by

appearing moderate and diplomatic while actually taking no initiative other than

maintaining a stronger military commitment in order to appeal to the Right ( Helsing,

117 ). Conducting government politics in this fashion is common but with so much

riding on peace, it is hard to understand Johnson’s position. Peace talks early in the

conflict might have saved Johnson’s presidency as well as his Great Society projects.

Conditional negotiations for peace could have manipulated to save face against the

communist and the ideology of the domino theory. Last but not least, it would also have

saved thousands of soldiers their lives not to mention the millions of Vietnamese that lost

their lives. Johnson’s failure to listen to his political experts on discussions of peace

emphasizes the presidents ineffectiveness as commander in chief.

President Johnson continued to have trouble maintaining his domestic programs

aimed at obtaining the great society. This was in large part because of the escalation in

South Vietnam. Johnson wanted to avoid any national debate on the Vietnam War in

order to protect his domestic agenda. . In theory, this was done to avoid disrupting the

tremendous economic growth and prosperity as well as the legislative program he hoped

to build into the Great Society ( Herring, 122 ). Johnson’s strong desire for both guns


and butter was a trap from which neither he nor the country could escape, a trap for

which the president was mostly responsible( Helsing, 256 ). This trap, as it is referred to,

was unavoidable circumstances that arose as a result of Johnson’s decision to

downplay the escalation of military force in Vietnam. As a result of the decision,

numerous failures emerged . The failure to mobilize and maintain public support for the

Vietnam War actually extended the war and started to erode economic stability. The

failure to win the war or negotiate unconditionally with the North Vietnamese enabled

the domino theory to carry on despite U.S. efforts. As president, Johnson failed the

nation as a leader, and he failed on his own terms, losing the war and his Great Society

( Helsing, 249 ).

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a president that often times lacked the decision making

ability necessary to make confident quick decisions. Surrounded by top military leaders

and political advisors, Johnson was unsuccessful in negotiating with North Vietnam.

Johnson’s Great Society programs were destroyed because of the United States prolonged

involvement with the war in Vietnam. In the end it was his inability to maintain public

support for his policies in Vietnam that destroyed his presidency. Johnson’s most

devastating failure during his administration was his inability to make decisions

necessary to win the war in Vietnam.

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