Johnson's Vietnam Policy

Chapter 4 from the ocr cold war book : 'Johnson's Vietnam policy' rough notes. 

Key dates

1963 Nov: Kennedy assassinated, Johnson became President.

1964 Aug: Gulf of Tolkin resolution.

         Nov: Johnson elected President; Working Group recommended escalation.

1965 Feb: Viet Cong attacked US base near Pleiku; Johnson authorised Rolling Thunder.

         March: First American ground troops in Vietnam; first anti-war protests in Us universities.

1965 Oct-Nov: Battle of la Drang.

1967 Jan: Martin Luther King jr publicly criticised the war.

         Aug: Unpopular tax rises to fund the war.

         Nov: McNamara resigned.

1968 Jan: Tet Offensive and battle of Khe Sanh. March: My Lai massacre; 'Wise Men' advised against further escalation. 

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Johnson's continuation of the War

  • Vice President Johnson supported Kennedy's dramatically increased involvement in the Vietnam War because Johnson:

1.Was intensely patriotic.

2. Genuinely believed his country fought for world freedom as well as American secuirty in two world wars, in Korea, and in Vietnam.

3. Believed that Vietnam was a 'domino': if ti fell to Communism the countries near it would too.

  • Did Johnson's patriotism, anti-Communism and misunderstanding of foreigners make it inevitable that he would continue US involvement? Perhaps not. He knew a long war would probably lose the support of Congress and the public.
  • Nevertheless, he continued the American involvement. The main reason for this was the 'commitment trap': Eisenhower had created 'South Vietnam' and established SEATO, and Kennedy had supported both, so Johnson considered it was a question of national honour for the US to continue its commitment to them.
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Impact of Kennedy's assassination

  • Johnson was determined to stand by all Kennedy had done and those who had helped Kennedy do it. Two days after Kennedy's assassination, the new President told Ambassador Lodge he was not going to 'lose Vietmanm'.

 

  • Emotionally and consitutionally, he felt he had to continue the policies of his properly elected predecessor. Knowing he had no real popular mandate, Johnson hesitated to abandon any Kennedy commitment or Kennedy officials. The retention of Kennedy's advisers helped to ensure continued involvement in Vietnam.
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Johnson and Kennedy's advisers

  • Johnson's freedom of action and thought were circumscribed by the circumstances of his accession to power.
  • McNamara and Rusk meant no fresh ideas emerged on the Vietnam problem. Secretary of State Rusk was totally committed to the struggle in Southeast Asia, convinced that withdrawal would cause loss of faith in America's commitment to oppose Communism and lead to a third world war. McNamara was so important in making policy that some called Vietnam 'McNamara's war'.
  • Due to McCarthyism, experts on China were sacked because their praise of Mao's military achievement were perceived as pro-Communism, thus the adminstration had a lack of understanding on matters such as Sino-Vietnamese rivalry.
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Johnson and Kennedy's advisers

  • Warnings from individuals such as Mike Mansfield continued. Mansfield asked Johnson:

1. Why support undemocratic military government in Saigon?

2. Did the South Vietnamese really want an anti-Communist crusade?

3. What US interest was at stake in Vietnam?

  • Johnson did not want this kind of discussion.
  • Despite CIA pessimism about the situation in Vietnam, many in the administration believed America would somehow triumph.
  • Johnson was frequently alarmed by the beliefs of air force chief Curtis LeMay, who wanted to 'bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age'. However, Johnson inherented involvement in a war and felt duty-bound. As Vietnam was the only war the generals had, they wanted to continue and intensify it in order to win. Johnson's personal political ambition reinforced what the generals were advising. He repeatedly said he did not want to be the first President to lose a war, especially to the Communists. 
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Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964)

  • The CIA had been sending South Vietnamese teams on secret sabotage missions to the North for a decade. In the first half of 1964, US ships such as the Maddox went on espionage missions in the North's costal waters: spying to gain political/military info.
  • In early August, Johnson announced that the North Vietnamese had made 2 unprovoked attacks on the Maddox and the Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin. Believing that the lives of innocent American sailors had been jeopardised by the North Vietnamese, Congress willingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
  • The resolution gave the President the power to wage war in Vietnam: Johnson said it was 'like grandma's night-shirt- it covered everything'
  • The resolution said North Vietnamese naval units had violated international law, so for the sake of world peace and American security, and because of SEATO obligations, the President was authorised to 'take all necessary steps' to help South Vietnam defend its freedom.
  • The Senate had been two-thirds empty for the debate on the resolution, which it passed 82 to 2
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Was Congress misled?

  • Should Congress be blamed for giving Johnson the power to escalate the war? Critics claim that Johnson and McNamara were not totallly open with them:

1. over the covert raids (American naval missions were provocative)

2. about the implementation of the resolution (it has been claimed that the administration waited for and even created the incident in order to ensure the passage of the resolution that they had prepared back in June 1964 to enable Johnson to escalate the involvement.

  • In Johnson's defence... the navy told him there had been attacks and Americans would expect their Commander-in-Chief to respond... and it would have been irresponsible not to have a resolution ready for an emergency.
  • Many believed that political calculations played a big part in Johnson's actions. During the summer of 1964, the Republican presidential candidate, Goldwater, was accusing Johnson of being 'soft on Communism'.
  • When US aircraft bombed North Vietnam for the first time, Johnson's approval rating raised from 42-72%.
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The 1964 presidential election

  • During the election campaign voters asked many questions about Vietnam: why are we there at all? Why can't we win? Why can't it be a UN effort like Korea?
  • Goldwater was perceived as recommending the use of atomic weapons on Hanoi, while Johnson was perceived as the peace candidate.
  • Johnson reassured the left by saying he did not intend to do anything rash or have a major war: 'We are not going to send American boys away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing themselves'
  • He reassured the right by saying 'America keeps her word'. He also gained votes by appearing tough over the Gulf of Tonkin incident. 
  • Johnson won the election by a landslide. Johnson hoped Saigon would be able to win its own war, but was reluctantly concluding that sending US ground troops was the only answer. Having won the election, he believed that he had a popular mandate to do as he saw fit.  
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US escalation (1965)

  • The underlying cause of Johnson's inceased involvement was that the Saigon regime was obviously not winning the war. The consensus among Johnson's advisers was that something must be done. In November 1964, 100 Viet Cong had attacked and greatly damaged a US airbase near Saigon and the JCS demanded retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam. These VC attacks nudged the Johnson administration towards increased involvement. 
  • Working Group: a group of experts brought together by Johnson to study Vietnam and make suggestions for future policies in 1964.
  • In autumn 1964, Johnson ordered a Working Group, the CIA and JCS to study Vietnam and suggest policy options. The Working group:

1. reiterated the domino theory... suggested heavier bombing.

2. said an independent and anti-Communist South Vietnam was vital to US 'national prestige, credibility, and honour'.

  • Johnson was Commander-in-Chief and his military and civilan experts were urging escalation in the interests of national security.
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Operation Rolling Thunder

  • 'Rolling Thunder': heavy, often non-stop US bombing of Vietnam.
  • In early 1965 Johnson took the first great escalatory step of Rolling Thunder. On Christmas Eve 1964, Viet Cong in South Vietnamese uniforms planted a bomb in a bar frequented by US officers. Then the VC attacked a huge American camp near Pleiku in February 1965. 8 Americans were killed and 100 were wounded.
  • Johnson ordered massively increased air attacks on North Vietnam. Polls revealed that 67% of Americans approved. Bombing the routes taking men and materials to the South would hopefully: 

1. Secure the position of Americans in South Vietnam/ demoralise Hanoi.

2. Decrease infiltration from the North.

  • However, Johnson refused to declare war, because he feared extreme Cold Warriors would want an all-out effort. That would jeopardise the financing of the Great Society (Johnson programme aimed at decreasing US economic and racial inequality) and lead to increased Soviet or Chinese involvement.
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Operation Rolling Thunder

  • In March 1965, Johnson took his second greatest escalatory step: in response to a request from General Westmoreland, he sent large numbers of American ground troops to Vietnam.
  • Rolling Thunder triggered Westmoreland's request and the escalation, but as has been seen, there were many other reasons that help explain Johnson's action:

The First ground troops in Vietnam:

  • The first 3,500 Marines landed at Danang beach on 8 March 1965. 4 weeks later, Johnson approved and increase of over 18,000 US support forces. In a speech on 7 April, Johnson summed up the reasons why the US had to escalate its commitment to Vietnam:
  •  The US needed to fight if it wanted to live securerly in a free world/ appeasement could lead to a third world war/ Eisenhower and Kennedy had helped to build and defend South Vietnam: abandonment would be dishonourable and cause other US allies to doubt America's word and credibility.
  • Many accuse Johnson of waging war without a declaration of war, but he had considerable support. The House of Representatives voted 408 to 7 in favour and the majoirty of American journalists were also hawks.
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Johnson, Laos and Cambodia

  • Even before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the US conducted low-level aerial reconnaissance missions over Laos, accompanied by US fighter escorts.
  • In Spring 1967, Westmoreland and the JCS urged Johnson to expand the Vietnam War to Laos in order to counter infiltration via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but the administration focused upon the air war in Laos.

 

  • It is difficult to know for certain just how many Americans served in Laos under Johnson, as the administration did its best to keep this a 'secret war'.
  • Despite the American air wair in Laos, a June 1968 report said the bombing there (and in North Vietnam) was not disrupting the Communist ability to get troops and supplies to South Vietnam. US intervention in Cambodia was similarly unproductive. 
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More American troops

  • The more American troops poured in, the less the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) wanted to fight. Westmoreland demanded more American troops to prevent South Vietnam's collapse and to protect the US troops already there.
  • On 28 July 1965, Johnson said the 75,000 troops in Vietnam would be increased to 125,000.
  • During 1965, polls and White House mail showed that:

1. 70% of the nation backed Johnson.

2. 80% believed in the domino theory.

3. 47% wanted Johnson to send in even more troops.

  • Clearly, Johnson's Vietnam policy was supported by the majoirty of Americans. By December 1965, nearly 200,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam.
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Doubts and further escalation

  • Protests began in the universities in March 1965. A December 1965 cabinet meeting showed the doubts within the administration. The CIA opposed sending more US troops, McNamara considered military victory unlikely, and the JCS disagreed over tactics.
  • Johnson was doubtful America could win, but certain it could not get out without irreparable damage to his own and his country's position. Eventually Westmoreland, the JCS and McNamara all agreed that the number of US troops in South Vietnam should be increased to 200,000 in the second half of 1965
  • There were 385,000 US troops in Vietnam by December 1966, and 535,000 by early 1948.
  • Westmoreland's strategy was a war of attrition, using technology and firepower, which failed to wear down the enemy.

War of attrition:

  • Westmoreland believed that US numerical and technological superiority would wear down the Viet Cong who must, after losing a certain amount of men, finally decide to give up.
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Why the US lost the War

The United States failed to win the war because of:

1. The inability of Washington and Saigon to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people.

2. The Communist performance.

3. The role of the US military in Vietnam.

4. Problems on the home front.

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Hearts and Minds of South Vietnamese

  • General Giap said that Hanoi won because it waged a people's war, a total war in which every man, woman and even child was mobilised, whether militarily or emotionally.
  • There were thousands of American civilian 'experts' in Vietnam during the war. These doctors, schoolteachers and agricultural advisers thought too little was done to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Understanding the Vietnamese:

  • Most Vietnamese were rice-growing peasants, who lived in small villages in mud and bamboo houses. Amercian soldiers could not conceive of 'real' people living like this, which explains why Americans sometimes treated the Vietnamese peasants as sub-human and were consequently unable to win many of them over to their side.
  • The North Vietnamese knew why the fought and were willing to wait and suffer to achieve their aims in a way the Americans and South Vietnamese were not. 
  • The Vietnamese Communists understood their fellow countrymen better and worked harder and successfully to win over the peasantry offering them land and urging Communist soldiers to avoid the rapee and robbing characteristics of the ARVN. This was vital in guerrilla warfare.
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Hearts and Minds of South Vietnamese

  • Although the Communists were generally better at winning the hearts and minds of the peasantry, they were ruthless when necessary. E.g., during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong dragged 'unfriendly' people out of their houses and short them. Over 3,000 bodies were found in the river or jungle.

The Viet Cong, guerrilla warfare and villagers:

  • Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants, such as paramilitary personnel, armed civilians, or irregulars use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and mobility, to fight a larger and less-mobile traditional military.
  • Giap's strategy was the use the Viet Cong for continuous guerrilla warfare to wear down Siagon and its US allies. The US were frustrated by guerrilla warfare. Westmoreland's men found it difficult to know whether someone was a guerrilla. Villagers often gave guerrillas the food, shelter and hiding places necessary for survival, which turned many US soliders against they people they were supposed to be helping.
  • The most famous example of US hatred for the Vietnamese was the My Lai Massacre 1968 where US soldiers killed 347 unarmed civilians: old men, women, teenagers and babies. Such US actions, a result of VC guerilla warfare, made the Americans even less popular. 
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Hearts and Minds of South Vietnamese

The American high-tech war:

  • American technology created formidable new fighting weapons, such as the cluster bombs. Ironically, US firepower was concentrated more on South Vietnam than North Vietnam, because the Americans wanted to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  • In the search for VC, Americans dropped bombs that forced many peasants to move away from the homes, crops and ancestral graves which meant alot to them, and that killled and wounded tens of thousands of civilians who might not have been Communist sympathisers. Bombing obliterated 5 towns with populations over 10,000, and many villages.
  • From 1962, Agent Orange was used: herbicide which defoliated the trees and destroyed enemy cover. It can cause illness and deformites in the descendants of those exposed.
  • Such methods alientated friendly and neutral Vietnamese and Americans themselves. 
  • McNamara subsequently wrote that the administration was wrong to allow and arrogant American military to attempt a high-tech war of attrition against a primarily guerrilla force willing to absorb massive casualties. 
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Hearts and Minds of South Vietnamese

The ARVN (South Vietnamese Army):

  • The corruption and mismanagement that characterised South Vietnam's government naturally spread to its armed forces. The ARVN performed badly because:

1. Saigon wanted to avoid losses and often retreated. E.g. in Feb 1971 30,000 ARVN invaded Laos with orders to retreat if over 3,000 died. 

2. Relied on 'search and destroy'= Westmoreland's tactics included finding and killing groups of Viet Cong guerrillas.

3. Many military leaders were appointed for political rather than military reasons. The high command spent more time fighting among themselves than against the enemy.

4. ARVN wages were so low that some ARVN officers pocketed the pay of thousands of deserters and sick or dead men.

  • ARVN morale and performance was a major factor in the defeat of the Washington-Saigon alliance.  
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Communist determination ingenuity and organisation

  • Continuous struggle ensured unusual patience in the face of adversity. As Giap said: "We were not strong enough to drive out half million US troops, but that was not our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the US government to continue the war."
  • In 1965, a PAVN reiment clashed with the US Army in the 34-day battle of Ia Drang: 305 Amricans and 3,561 North Vietnamese died. Both sides thought they had won. It was the North Vietnamese who were eventually proven right. Ia Drang is a good example of the Communist determination which helped to ensure their eventual victory.
  • Communist ingenuity was vitally important. E.g. the Communists had a network of tunnels in which the VC could hide, shelter and regroup. 
  • Communist preparedness was particularly well illustrated by the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were several branches, along whihc were dotted repair workshops, stores, hospitals and rest camps. 
  • 50,000 women were employed at any one time to repair the road. If one part was damaged by US bombing, the traffic would be switched to other branches while repairs were done.
  • Hanoi lost many $6000 trucks, but America lost many several million-dollar bombers, which were far harder and more expensive to replace. 
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The role of the US military

American disunity:

  • Marines were not keen to obey orders from the US Army.
  • The unconventional and independent Green Berets (US Army special forces) aroused jelousy.
  • Ordinary sodliers served 3655 days, Marines 13 months. This short term of service meant that units never attained the feeling of unity vital to morale and performance. Unpopular officers had fragmentation grenades thrown at them. Between 1969 and 1971, there were 730 'fraggings'.
  • Many drafted soldiers simply did not want to be in Vietnam. Some American soldiers disliked their country's manner of waging war and some became confused about why they were fighting.
  • In the late 1960's anti-war feeling grew back home. Many soldiers returned to America to find themselves spat on if they wore their uniform. 
  • The collapse of the home front was a crucial factor in America's failure in Vietnam. It damaged troop morale and damaged the effectiveness of the government in Washington. 
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The role of the US military

  • The American desire to keep their soldiers comfortable in Vietnam explains their defeat there.
  • Many soldiers spent their whole time in Vietnam organising the American lifestyle for everyone else, e.g. running clubs and cinemas.
  • Every week, 7,000 combat soldiers were sent for R&R (Rest and Recuperation) to Saigon or Japan.
  • The typical American soldier served a short term in Vietnam, and had good food and medical treatment. One PAVN soldier said :"When we had no water to drink, they had water for showers! We could suffer the harships much better than they could."
  • Frustration with the war led many American soldiers to seek comfort elsewhere. Around a quarter caught std's. Drug abuse grew common. In 1970, 22% of Americans in Vietnam shot up heroin. In 1971, 5,000 needed treatment for combat wounds, 20,529 for serious drug abuse.
  • It was hard to win a war when army discipline deteriorated: the process began under Johnson, then accelerated under his successor as troops were withdrawn and thos remaining wondered why they were still there. 
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The role of the US military

Problems for the 'grunts' (ordinary ground trooper or foot soldier):

  • It was hard to win the war when so many of the grunts were terrified and demoralised.
  • The average age of the grunt in Vietnam was 19, compared to 26 in WW2.
  • American soldiers in Vietnam fought for ground, won it, then left knowing the VC would move in again.
  • 20% of American wounded were victims of booby traps. The VC camouflaged holes on trails so Americans would fall in and be impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes, positioned so the victim could not get out without tearing off flesh.
  • Grunts carried 20-30kg of equipment and were plagued by heat, rain and insects. Metal gun parts burned in the sun as grunts trudged their way through the paddy fields, uniforms rotted because of the ampness and suffocating heat made breathing difficulty.
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The role of the US military

  • Under Johnson, US troops engaged in 'search and destroy' missions, but it proved difficult to find the guerillas
  • A 1967 CIA report said uner 1% of nearly 2 million small unit operations conducted between 1965-7 resulted in actual contact with the enemy.
  • The ratio of destruction was usually 6 South Vietnamese civilians for every VC guerilla.
  • The large-scale use of helicopters and the blasting of the zones where they were to land meant the guerrillas, who heard all the nosie, simply went elsewhere.
  • American reliance upon superior technology simply alienated civilians, both in Vietnam and back home. E.g. In Operation Cedar Falls in 1967, defoliants, bombing and bulldozers cleared the land and homes were destroyed. 6,000 people were evacuated, 'friendly' civilians were made hostile to Saigon and its US ally, and only a few VC were found. 
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The role of the US military

The wrong role for the US military?:

  • Some suggest that President Johnson should have gone beyond limited war and declared war on North Vietnam, but the war might have become even more unpopular and the USSR and China might have entered.
  • Some say the US Army should have worked harder to win the hearts and minds of the people. A 1990 study of Hau Nghia province, where American troops worked closely with villagers on pacification (paying greater attention to the security and government of the South Vietnamese people), revealed that pacification still failed to win greater support for the Saigon regime.
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Home front problems-methods and McNamara.

  • Many Americans wondered what the United States was doing in Vietnam: nearly half of Americans polled in 1968 did not know for sure what the war was all about.
  • Johnson's methods were to advise, support and try to strengthen the government, both politically and militarily. However, the US military used couter productive methods in Vietnam (e.g. bombing) that alienated the South Vietnamese and the American home front.
  • US involvement was becoming increasingly unpopular amongst Americans and South Vietnamese... presidents likely to want retreat.
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Home front problems-methods and McNamara.

The loss of McNamara:

  • The Johnson administration was publicly optimistic in late 1967: US and ARVN troops were killing the enemy faster than they could be replaced. Westmoreland said there were only 285,000 Communists left fighting in the South (exaggeration to preserve US morale).
  • Privately the administration was pessimistic. 'Rolling Thunder' was deeply divisive and officials leaked stories to the press. 
  • McNamara had been vital in the formulation of Kennedy and Johnson's Vietnam policies, but the failure to make progress in Vietnam led to McNamare frequently bursting into tears during discussions.
  • In August 1967, hawks orgainsed Senate hearings designed to force Johnson into lifting restrictions on bombing (45% of Americans favoured increased military pressure in Vietnam). McNamare testified that against increased bombing. Johnson thought McNamara had degenerated into 'an emotional basket case'.
  • McNamara resigned and in February 1968 was replaced by Clark Clifford. Clifford questioned the domino theory, and the Tet Offensive finally made him conclude America had to get out. 
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Home front problems- public option, press and Tet.

Protests:

  • Tens of thousands of Americans participated in anti-war protests. Many were repelled by the sufferings of Vietnamese non-combatants, or believed America's international image was suffering. 
  • Were protesters a vociferous minority? Or did they greatly affect US and North Vietnamese policy? 

1964: The protests began in 1964 when 1,000 students from Yale University stage a protest march in New York and 5,000 professors wrote in support. However, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the presidential election suggests that at this stage Johnson had near unanimous support for his Vietnam policy from the public and most congressmen.

1965: With the introduction of US ground troops to Vietnam in March, Vietnam became America's first fully televised war. In August, Johnson was informed that increasing number of US reporters in Saigon were extremely pessimisitc in their reporting. Many uni's held anti-war lectures and debate (20,000 participated in Berkely: CA uni). However, Johnson continued escalation and fewer than 25% of Americans beleived that the US had mistakenly sent troops.

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Home front problems- public option, press and Tet.

1966

  • Public and congressional support for the war dropped dramatically. 
  • Congress nevertheless continued to fund the war, unwilling to face accusations of betraying the 400,000 American boys in the field. Westmoreland complained that the media had turned anti-war and made the enemy leaders 'appear to be the good guys'. 
  • On the other hand, there were relatively few marches and only one state governor refused to declare his support for government policy.

1967: 

  • As the war escalated, the opposition grew. Leading churchmen criticised the war and African-Americans resented the disproportionate number of black casualties in Vietnam. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr became publicly critical. 
  • August tax rises created more discontent as draft cards were openly burned throughout the country in October. However, in August 1967, hawkish senators encouraged increased bombing. Many middle-class Americans considered the protestors treasonous. Such support for the war is often forgotten because it's overshadowed by the dramatic protests. 
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Home front problems- public option, press and Tet.

Was 1967 a turning point?:

  • Some consider 1967 crucial because some influential newspapers and TV stations shifted to anti-war and increased draft calls, deaths in Vietnam and taxes aroused more disconent.
  • In 1967, 46% of Americans felt that the Vietnam commitment was a mistake. However there was considerable support for the war in early 1968: 49-29% favoured invading North Vietnam.
  • There were over 500,000 Americans in Vietnam and nearly 17,000 had died there, but Johnson's policies still had considerable support.
  • However, the most persuasive argument for 1967 being the great turning point in exiting the Vietnam War is McNamara's resignation over his recognition that the war was unwinnable.
  • That recognition was certain to come to others in the Johnson administration. And, after Tet, it did.
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The Tet Offensive (1968)

  • Tet was the most important Vietnamese festival.
  • In January 1968, Hanoi broke the traditional Tet holiday truce and laucnhed an unprecedented offensive against South Vietnam, hoping to cause the Saigon government to collapse.
  • When tens of thousands of PAVN and VC attacked cities and military installations in the South, the Americans and South Vietnamese were preoccupied with the Tet festival and taken by surprise. 
  • The attackers even hit the US embassy in Saigon (the American ambassador had to flee in his pyjamas) and dramatic scenes there were headline news in America.
  • The Tet Offensive cost many lives and caused incredible damage: 3,895 Americans, 4,954 South Vietnamese military, 14,300 South Vietnamese civilians and 58,373 VC and PAVN died.
  • Out of 17,134 houses in historic Hue, 9,776 were totally destroyed and 3,169 were seriously damaged. 
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Military significance of Tet

  • Tet was the largest set of battles fought in the Vietnam War up to that point, and the first to be fought in the cities of South Vietnam.
  • Although the Communists suffered great losses and it took Hanoi several years to get over this great effort, the Communist position in the South Vietnamese countryside was strengthened because of the Communist performance in Tet.
  • Tet seemed to show that although the US could stop the overthrow of the Saigon government, it had failed to make it viable in the face of Communist determination.
  • The South Vietnamese people had not greeted the Communists as liberators, but nor had they rallied to the Saigon regime.
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Psychological significance of Tet

  • Tet shook the confidence of US officials and military men in Vietnam. Westmoreland fell into a Communist trap over the battle of Khe Sanh, fought at the same time as Tet and was a distraction. Khe Sanh was the biggest and bloodiest battle of the war: 10,000 Communists and 500 Americans died.
  • Tet also had a great pyschological impact on American public opinion. Walter Cronkite, the most respected TV journalist, had been strongly supportive of the war until a February 1968 visit to Vietnam made him realise it could not be won. Johnson knew the significance of Cronkite's change of mind: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America."
  • Pictures of destruction and death turned many against the war.
  • Tet increased the credibility gap between the Johnson administration's explanation of events in Vietnam and the US public's understanding of those events.
  • Johnson's approval rating plummeted from 48 to 36%, and he felt he had to withdraw from the 1968 presidential race.
  • Tet forced the administration to re-evaluate US policy. Even hawkish senators said 'no more men' to Vietnam. After Tet, Johnson rejected repeated JCS demands that 200,000 more US troops be sent to Vietnam.
  • Overall, Tet had destroyed the confidence of the American government and people.
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The role of the press and protesters

  • Johnson criticised the American press for failing to support the war effort and some have claimed that media coverage of Tet helped to convince Americans that what was actually a victory was instead a US defeat. Others argue that the press reflected rather than shaped opinion.
  • It is difficult to trace the interrelationship between the protests and rising dissatisfaction in Congress itself, but there is no doubt that politicans were sensitive to the wishes of the voters.
  • By the spring of 1968, Johnson had lost confidence in his policies. The protesters and the media had suggested that his war and his way of conducting it were wrong, and this played an important part in the loss of confidence amongst the White House officials and the troops in Vietnam.
  • On the other hand, the protests in 1967 did not stop Johnson from escalating- it was after Tet and the defection of the 'Wise Men' that he refused to send any more troops.
  • 'Wise Men': a group of experienced politicians and generals who frequently consulted by Johnson over the Vietnam War. Very pro-escalation, after Tet, most members of the Wise Men began to advocate some kind of retreat in Vietnam. 
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The economy and Johnson's loss of confidence

  • Fearful that congressional conservatives would cut funding for his Great Society Programmes, Johnson was unwilling to admit the cost of war and slow to ask for the encessary tax rises
  • As a result, the federal government deficit rose from $1.6 billion in 1965 to $25.3 billion. That caused inflation and dramatically weakened the dollar on the international money market. Treasury warnings that this should not go on and taxpayer resentment increased the pressure on Johnson to change direction in Vietnam.
  • 78% of Americans believed that America was not making any progress in the war and 74% thought that Johnson was not handling it well. On 31 March 1968, Johnson said "I am taking the first steps to de-escalate the conflict".
  • The combination of Johson's loss of confidence and Hanoi's exhaustion after Tet improved the prospects for peace talks. Talks began in Paris in May 1968. Johnson demanded a North Vietnamese withdrawal from South Vietnam and rejected Communist participation in the Saigon government. North Vietnam demanded American withdrawal from South Vietnam and insisted on Communist participation in the Saigon government.
  • Talks continued intermittently for five years.
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