Lyndon B. Johnson had a vision of “A Great Society” for the American people and fellow men everywhere. In his first years of office, he obtained one of the most extensive legislative programs in the history of the Nation. Maintaining collective security, he carried on the increasing struggle to fight Communist encroachment in Vietnam. During President Johnson’s term, two crises had been gaining momentum since 1965. The first was the unrest and rioting in black ghettos that troubled the nation. The second crisis was trying to prevent North Vietnam from taking over South Vietnam, preventing the spread of communism. The United States and Vietnam have had relationships (not always direct, but through the French) since the early 1940’s. A brief background of US involvement in Vietnam will be given in order to understand how Johnson got involved in Vietnam, but first a look at the geography of Vietnam.
Vietnam covers an area of 329, 600 square kilometers and stretches around 100,000 square kilometers from North to South. The Annamite Mountain Range connects the North and South. To the north of Vietnam is China; to the west is Cambodia and Laos. The location made the United States be very careful when using military because it did not want to start a World War III with China who was supporting the North Vietnamese. Vietnam is a little smaller than the newly united Germany.
History of United States Involvement
Asian French colony was turned over to Japan. At this time, the Vietnamese turned from being anti-French to anti-Japan. The United States started aiding various groups in Vietnam, so that they could battle the Japanese. The United States even aided the nationalist group, led by communist Ho Chi Minh. After World War II, the French returned to take over its colony, but in December 1946, found itself battling the Vietminh. France requested aid from the United States, so that it could win the battle against the Vietminh. The United States was not too sure at first, until Intelligence proved that the Communist Ho Chi Minh was becoming very popular. The United States immediately increased its aid to France to try to prevent the communist from spreading. The French were to set up a regime with Bao Dei, from the Vietnamese royal family. The United States sided with Bao Dei’s claim as the regime, especially after the fall of China. Around 1954, the United States was paying 80% of the French military cost in Vietnam. The French decided to use a fortress to try and get the communist to use a large number of it’s troops to attack the fortress, but it was easily over come by the communist and the French surrendered. May 1954 was the end of the French role in Indochina. May-June 1954 was the Geneva Accords where the major powers were to come to an agreement on Indochina. The agreement was a temporary one that divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel with a demilitarized zone between the two areas. The North would be the Vietminh or the communist and the South would be the Bao Dei regime. No side could come to agreements involving foreign policy nor accept foreign troops on their soil, until after two years when elections were to be held, scheduled for July 1956. At this time, the permanent government of Vietnam would be determined. Ngo Dinh Diem became a political leader in the South and was pro-Western. Diem announced that the division of Vietnam into two nations would remain and there would be no elections. In rigged elections, Diem emerged victorious over Bao Dei. The United States backed Diem because he promised to make reforms. Diem in the end had no plans of ever having free elections again. Although Diem never made any of his promised reforms, President Eisenhower backed Diem’s regime. Eisenhower sent 1,500 advisors to South Vietnam by the end of his administration in order to help make sure South Vietnam was safe. At this time, Ho Chi Minh came to an economic agreement with the communist China. President Kennedy who was already occupied with the Cuba crisis going on followed in the footsteps of Eisenhower. After, an overthrow attempt on the Diem regime made by the communists and others, Kennedy sent two men ( Robert Taylor and Walt Rostow) to Vietnam to find at what was going on. When the men returned they reported that the North was vulnerable to conventional bombing and those American combat troops should be introduced to South Vietnam. Kennedy decided to intervene in Vietnam by increasing the US presence in Vietnam between 1961-1962. Once the Cuban Missile Crisis was over Kennedy turned his attention towards Vietnam. Kennedy learned that Diem was a serious liability to South Vietnam and that something had to be done with his regime. In the early 1960’s, President Kennedy’s support for Vietnam grew to 16,000 American advisors. In October 1963, a military coup, aided by the CIA , overthrew Diem who was murdered. Despite this not being Kennedy’s decision before he could respond he was assassinated in November 1963. After the assassination of Kennedy, Vice President Johnson took over the Presidency in late 1963
President Johnson and Vietnam
President Johnson was a man determined not to lose Vietnam to the communist. Johnson always kept an optimistic look at Vietnam. When Johnson took over in 1963, he had only a couple of months until elections and he was very careful not to make any risky moves or costly advances. Johnson won the 1964 election by a landslide, which allowed him to turn his attention to two crises: the rioting and unrest in the black ghettos and Vietnam. In 1955, the Senate ratified the SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization), which promised that in case of aggression against its members and protocol states, the US would meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes. The protocol states were: Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. Johnson was afraid that if he did not help South Vietnam that he would be seen as a joke all over the world. Johnson also felt that he would lose a lot of his presidential power and his legislative program for a “Great Society”. Unfortunately, when Johnson took over the Presidential power the communist were starting to move slowly into South Vietnam. There was no doubt in President Johnson’s mind that the United States had to help the South Vietnamese, but the question was how to help the South. In moving slowly toward direct engagement in Vietnam, President Johnson displayed a policymaking style markedly different from that of his predecessor. Whereas Kennedy had sought the views of a wide spectrum of foreign policy makers, Johnson listened principally to those who agreed with him. Johnson, “seemed to have a blind mind-set which made him pay attention to people who said that he was right.”1 When Johnson was Vice President for Kennedy he felt that Americans did not need to get militarily involved in Vietnam, but when Johnson became President, Vietnam started deteriorating and he realized that he needs to do something. The Presidents prime movers were the Joint Chiefs of Staff member who felt that the US must go into combat in order to save the South. Johnson’s main policy aids, Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, were all essential figures in Johnson’s decision making. All of these members came from the Kennedy administration. The first decision of Johnson came when he rejected the idea of the Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to initiate an air and ground attack against the North Vietnam. Johnson hoped that just sending support to the South would build it up and the US would not have to get involved in combat. The deterioration of the South ruined his idea that the South would improve without combat help from the US. In 1964 shortly after the elections a US ship was attacked by North Vietnamese boats, this made Johnson ask Congress for a resolution. This resolution became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which enabled the President to use military power to promote international peace and security in Southeast Asia. After countless tries to build the South, President Johnson came to embrace the assumption that South Vietnam could be saved by systematically bombing the North and committing US troops to combat in the South. At this time the Central Intelligence Agency Director, McCone was warning the President that this type of action was not going to stop the Vietcong. Johnson most of the time ignored the Central Intelligence Agency and went on with his plans. The following is a quote from the Central Intelligence Agency given to President Johnson:
It is not likely that North Vietnam would (if it could) call off the war in the South although U.S. actions would in time have serious economic and political impact. Overt action against North Vietnam would be unlikely to produce reduction in Viet Cong activity sufficiently to make victory on the ground possible in South Vietnam unless accompanied by new U.S. bolstering actions in South Vietnam and considerable improvement in the government there. The most to be expected would be reduction of North Vietnamese support of the Viet Cong for a while and, thus, the gaining of some time and opportunity by the government of South Vietnam to improve itself. 2
Johnson and his policymakers felt that a build up of military troops was necessary for a military victory. In January 1965, Johnson started Operation Rolling Thunder. This was a plan to two step plan in which the United States would use the right power to get the job done. The first part was to use air power against the North Vietnamese and the second was to increase the number of ground troops in the South. Two Marine units were deployed to Vietnam to Danang. The first battle between US troops and the Vietcong proved that the North could suffer heavy casualties and still maneuver around the US ground and air attack. Johnson soon deployed 40,000 troops to secure additional bases in Vietnam. Realizing the difficulty ahead of him General Westmoreland requested 150,000 more troops. President Johnson decided to give in to the request, he felt that if he did not send the troops he would be giving into the communist. Westmoreland knew that in order to win the war he would need more troops than that and Johnson was willing to give them to him. Johnson paid close attention to what he was bombing and where because he did not want to bring the Soviet Union and China into the war. Johnson decided that at this time that he would intensify the bombing in the North and would send more troops to support the South. Johnson was not about to raise taxes or call in the reserves during the war. Johnson and his policymakers felt that the only way to win the war was to inflict serious pain on the North Vietnamese and to make the South able to stand on it’s own without the United States. Robert McNamara in 1967 was starting to feel that the United States could not win the war. McNamara explained to Johnson that neither the ground troops nor the bombing had any serious affect on the North. Johnson was trying to deal with domestic policies at the same time with Vietnam and McNamara was trying to explain to Johnson that his program of bread and butter could not be sustained because the economy was going straight down the drain. McNamara tried to get the President to halt the bombing of the North and to initiate peace with the North. President Johnson would have nothing to do with this. Johnson refused to lose this war and was ready to do whatever to win. Johnson appointed McNamara as the top position in the World Bank when the position opened. Johnson was not very kind to those who disagreed with him and did not show his optimism. An essential year in the war was 1968 when the North Vietnamese started the Tet Offensive. In January, the North Vietnamese and others against the South launched attacks against main cities in the South. The North Vietnamese used Soviet equipment to fight these battles, so they were well equipped for the war. The United States and South Vietnamese installations, including Saigon were attacked heavily by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army, but the Vietcong were destroyed and the war was left to the North Vietnamese army to fight. While Tet was a major military victory for the South, politically it was a victory for the opposition, because it demonstrated that the war was not almost over. The public opinion in the United States was starting to cause problems because people felt that the war was a waste. Johnson was starting to develop the attitude that enemies surrounded him. Johnson would not surrender to the North and was not going to give up on the war. Many of Johnson’s advisers were no longer supporting the war and felt that the United States needs to get out of the war. Only Rusk, Rostow, and the Ambassador to Saigon Bunker, were keen on increasing the troops in the war. After the victory for the South and the United States, Westmoreland asked for another 200,000 troops to be sent to his aid. McNamara’s successor, Clark Clifford who had a close relationship with Johnson made a point that how could the President justify sending reserves to the war after they publicly claimed that Tet was a last chance for the North to stop defeat and they had failed. Johnson then had a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rusk, and the rest of his decision-makers in order to decide what to do about sending more troops. Johnson decided to send 10,500 reinforcements to Westmoreland and to send the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Wheeler to meet with Westmoreland in order to determine how many more reserves would be needed. Wheeler told Johnson that the Americans needed 205,000 more troops in order to get rid of the communist. Johnson decided to send Clark Clifford and a Task Force to assess the military , political, and budget implications of Westmoreland’s request.
The task force concluded that more troops in the war would not win it for the United States. The only thing that the United States could get out of the war was maybe a stalemate and the United States economy could not sustain this. After the memorandum that Clifford gave Johnson, the decision was made to send only 22,000 troop to, Vietnam because that was all the United States could send at the time. Rusk decided that the United States had to try to get the communist to join in a peace initiative, so Rusk started drafting up a solution for peace. Rusk’s proposal led Johnson into a decision to cease the bombing and to enter negotiations. United Nations, Arthur Goldberg proposed that Johnson cease bombing altogether in the North without trying to get any peace talks. Johnson was totally against this proposal. Johnson decided that he was going to replace General Westmoreland. Johnson soon called up the Wise Men to get their assessment of the war and what should be done. The decision of the Wise Men was different than expected, they felt that the United States needed to disengage from the war. Johnson was not happy about this decision and did not want to listen to it. On March 31 Johnson ordered a temporary halt of the bombings in Vietnam and decided that he would not run for President again. Johnson concluded that he would send representatives to Geneva and Rangoon to meet with the North Vietnamese to talk of peace. If the North required more than that, Johnson would stop the bombing completely. The North responded that it would start talks once all fighting had ended. Johnson knew that fighting would continue, but decided to start the talks with the North. On May 3, Paris was decided as the place for the meeting between the two countries. Johnson did not want to stop the bombing because he felt that the North would take advantage of this and if the US stopped it would be hard for them to start up again. In order to get the talks on the way the President decided to cease bombing completely.
The United States got itself into a war that was a waste and they could not have won. Johnson was very stubborn and would not listen to people unless they were agreeing with him. It came down to the point where Johnson only had a couple of supporters left in his administration. Johnson started to feel the pessimist that had hit everyone else a long time ago. To Johnson the war seemed to be personal because he did not want to lose the war so bad. Maybe if Johnson would have listened to his Central Intelligence Agency early on, he might not have got the United States into such a predicament. The CIA had been telling Johnson the whole entire time that the war did not look good for the United States and they should not start a war there. Johnson felt that if he did not fight this war that he would be seen a being weak on communism and if the South fell to communism the rest of the area would to. To sum it up the war was a waste and many men died that should not have had to die. Johnson kept sending men in to support General Westmoreland and the amount never made a difference. The war showed how bad the communication was between the Government, Whitehouse, and the CIA. If the communication was better during these times the war might not have occurred or might not have lasted as long. The Vietnam war did not end under Johnson, it ended under Nixon.
Ford P. Harold, CIA and The Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes 1962-1968
Cambridge Press, 1989.
De Capo Press 1988, pp. 1-30