The USA and Vietnam: Johnson's War?


Why Johnson Continued the War

Johnson was intensly pariotic and proud of the US military. Defeat from that "damn little pissant country" "raggedy-*** little fourth-rate" Vietnam was inconceivable.

Johnson genuinely believed the US was fighting for world freedom and American security in Vietnam. 

He abhored appeasing the enemy. He said: "if you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he'll be up on your porch, and the day after thay he'll **** your wife in your own bed."

Johnson also believed in the Domino Theory.

He found it difficult to understand foreigners. Johnson read and travelled widely, but this doesn't mean he could understand them. 

As JFK's Vice President, Johnson believed that America should fight communist aggressors in Southeast Asia no matter the cost.

He felt that Ho Chi Minh was just another Hitler and should be treated as such.

1 of 13

The Impact of Kennedy's Death

Johnson's patriotism, anti-communism and misunderstanding of foreigners didn't make US involvement inevitable. He knew a long war wouldn't be supported by congress and that Saigon was weak.

The biggest influence was the Kennedy Legacy. During JFK's presidency, Johnson had resented the younger and less experienced Kennedy and admist the sorrow of JFK's assassination, there was also joy at becoming president.

Johnson often felt guiklty about this. He once said he "felt as if President Kennedy were sitting there in the room looking at me."

Emotionally and constitutionally, Johnson felt that he had to continue his offically elected predecessor's policies.  There is a case that Vietnam was "Kennedy's War".

As vice-president, Johnson had opposed the coup against Diem as it would increase Saigon's dependancy on the US.

Knowing that he had no popular mandate, Johnson hesistated to abandon Kennedy's commitment or Kennedy's advisors. 

2 of 13

Johnson and His Advisors

Johnson thought he was the boss. He wanted a "kiss my *** at high noon in Macy's window and tell me it smells like roses" loyalty. His aides worked with him while he was on the toilet. 

Johnson said he wanted honesty and good advice, but his advisors simply told him what he wanted to hear. Johnson often chose who he would apoint based on his own preferences. Judge Fortas was LBJ's biggest influence in Vietnam even though he knew nothing about Vietnam.

Johnson's freedom of action was reduced due to the circumstances and the retention of Kennedy's men meant that there were no new ideas about Vietnam. Rusk was obsessive about the Southeast Asia struggle and McNamara was so involved in policy that some call it "McNamara's War".

In 1963, Mike Mansfield suggested that Vietnam be united and neutralised. Johnson rejected this, saying it would result in the communists taking over all of Vietnam. Johnson, Rusk and McNamara reasured him that social, political and economic reform in Vietnam would win over the people but Mansfield knew that Saigon was unlikely to reform.

The advice of the military had a great involvement. The generals only had one war so wanted it to continue. The Air Force chief wanted to "bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age."

3 of 13

Warning Voices

Hanoi was sending more PAVN troops into South Vietnam after December 1963 to strengthen the VC. Diem's successor General Minh didn't nothing about it and was disposed. The strategic hamlet program was a failure and the VC managed to fight the US airforce with Soviet and Chinese equipment.

General Maxwell Taylor and McNamara visited Saigon in March 1964 and were disturbed by the situation. South Vietnam was apathetic and Prime Minister Khanh begged for more US aid.

Taylor, McNamara and the JCS favoured direct action in Vietnam. LeMay said that North Vietnam should be bombed because "we are swatting flies when we should be going after the manure pile."

Johnson felt that the war had to be ended quickly before congress demanded withdrawal. on 20th April 1964, Johnson said that the US was in Vietnam for the long-haul but showed his doubts in May when he said that he didn't think the American people knew why the US was in Vietnam and cared about it even less.

"I don't think it's worth fighting for. And I don't think we can get out. It's just the biggest damned mess."

4 of 13

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

For a decade, the CIA had been spying on North Vietnam through ships. It was claimed that the North Vietnamese made two unprovoked attacks on the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy at the Gulf of Tonkin on 4th August 1964.

It is possible that Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin Incidence. The USS Maddox only suffered one superficial bullet hole.

The Gulf of Tonkin gave Johnson the excuse to introduce a bill that he had written in June 1964. Believing the lives of US sailors had been threatened, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. 

The Resolution gave the president the power to wage war in Vietnam however he saw fit. Johnson said with was "like grandma's night-shirt-- it covered everything." The resolution would only expire when the president believed that the situation in Southeast Asia was safe or if Congress terminated it.

With the Resolution, Johnson had the US people supporting him. His approval rate rose from 42% to 72%. This helped Johnson win the 1964 election.

5 of 13

The 1964 Election

Foreign policy became the decisive issue in the election, a rare occurance for America. The US people wanted to know why they were in Vietnam, why the couldn't win and why the UN couldn't be involved like they were in Korea.

The Republican Barry Goldwater was percieved as a trigger-happy hawk and people wrongly thought he supported the use of atomic weapons in Vietnam. 

Goldwater privately told Johnson that he didn't want to openly debate the Vietnam issue. Johnson was relieved.

Johnson reassured the left by claiming "we are not going to send American boys... to do what Asian boys ought to be doing." while telling the right that "America keeps her word."

At Christmas 1963, Johnson told the JCS that he didn't want to lose South Vietnam or begin a war before the election. 

"Just let me get elected and then you can have your war."

6 of 13

The Incompetence of Saigon

One major cause of escalation was that Saigon was clearly not winning the war. The generals' squabbling infuriated the American Ambassador General Maxwell Taylor. By late 1964 Ambassador Lodge was prepared to have the US run South Vietnam.

Despite Taylor's military pedigree and formidable intellect, he was a bad choice for Ambassador. He was picked to please the JCS but the situation needed a diplomat and not an impatient soldier. 

Dean Rusk was also tiring of the Vietnamese. "Somehow we must change the pace at which these people move and I suspect that this can only be done with a pervasive intruion of Americans into their affairs."

The consensus amongst Johnson's advisors was that something must be done after 100 VC attacked a US airbase near Saigon in November 1964.

The VC attacks, which the Saigon regime seemed powerless to stop, forced the Johnson administration towards escalatation. They believed that it was necessary to protect the safety of Americans in Vietnam.

7 of 13

Advice from Others

The Working Group were orderd to study Vietnam and suggest policies. They recommended escalation due to the weak Saigon government and heavier bombing. They believed an independant anti-communist South Vietnam was essential to the US. 

George Ball wanted to focus on containing Communism in Europe and warned Johnson that escalatation would make it harder for the US to get out of Vietnam. Ball saw no point in bombing a country with an agricultural based economy who's industrial needs were served by the USSR and China. He believed American troops were ineffective in Asian jungles and were no substitute for a good government in Saigon.

Johnson took the Working Group's (made of CIA, JCS, State and Defence Departments) far more seriousoly than Ball's because he was unorthodox and independently-minded. Whatever uncertainties existed about the wisdom of escalation were dispelled by VC attacks when American lives were at stake.

8 of 13

Operation Rolling Thunder

On Christmas Eve 1964, VC planted a bomb in a bar that Americans often went to. Johnson didn't want to do anything too dramatic at Christmas.

In February 1965, the VC attacked the American camp at Pleiku, killing 8 and wounding 100 Americans. Johnson was furious "I've had enough of this". Pressure to retaliate was great and even Ball urged action.

Johnson ordered a mass bombing of the North despite the fact that the Soviet Premier Kosygin was visiting Hanoi. The airstrikes were so large and frequent that they became known as Rolling Thunder. 67% of Americans approved. Johnson hoped to secure the American position in Saigon, demoralise Hanoi and revitalise Saigon. 

Despite the New York Time's questions in February 1965, Johnson refused to declare war to avoid pressure from the extreme Cold Warriors. They wanted a fullscale war which would reduce funding to the Great Society and increased the chance of Soviet and Chinese involvement. 

Johnson did reassure the people that China wouldn't become involved because he was seducing rather than ****** the North. "I'm going up her leg an inch at a time."

9 of 13

American Troops

General Westmoreland had requested 16000 US "advisors" in Vietnam from June 1964. In Spring 1965, he asked for US maries to protect the US bomber base at Danang. Westmoreland's requests were the tip of the iceburg but was one of the triggers of escalation. 

Like Lodge before him, Ambassador Taylor warned that sending US troops would make it harder to leave Vietnam. He rightly argued that the US couldn't tell the difference between the VC and normal Vietnamese. Mansfield saw thousands of US soldiers entering Vietnam, provoking Moscow and China.

Johnson ignored warnings and 3500 Marines entered Vietnam at Danang Beach on 8th March 1965. On 6th April, Johnson approved of sending more than 18,000 troops to Vietnam. 

Congress granted $700 million for military operations in Vietnam in May 1965 and the House of Representives and the Senate were both in support of it. At the time, most US journalists were hawks, and so supported escalation.

In April 1965, Johnson explained his escalation. He said NV was the aggressor who had attacked SV, the US needed to fight inorder to live in a free world, NV was a Chinese and Soviet puppet, it would be dishonourable to abandon Vietnam after the efforts of Eisenhower and Kennedy. 

10 of 13

Deterioration in Saigon

Johnson hoped the arrival of American troops would improve Saigon, but it continued to deteriorate. 

In June 1965, the government of Phan Huy Quat was overthrown and replaced with General Thiew as head of state and Ngyuyen Ky as prime minister. One American called them "absolutely the bottom of the barrel."

Thieu was once part of the Vietminh but decided his prospects would be better in the French colonial army. He was indecisive, cunning, stubborn and corrupt. Thieu took his advice from his astrologer and plotted his was to the presidency in 1967.

Ky drank and womanised while saying Vietnam needed men like Hitler. He was flamboyant, fond of purple jumpsuits, pearl-handled revolvers and sunglasses. "At least no one could confuse him with Uncle Ho" said one American, shocked by Ky's white jacket, red socks and shiny black shoes.

With Thieu and Ky in power, it was unsurprising that Saigon controlled less of South Vietnam and was less effective. Ky and Thieu were incompetent, corrupt and massively unpopular.

11 of 13

Escalation 1965-1968

By 1965, Ky was losing control of most of the South to the VC who held around 75% of the countryside. As Taylor feared, the more US troops poured in, the less the ARVN wanted to fight. 

On 28th July 1965, Johnson declared that the amount of US troops in Vietnam would increase to 1250,000. 70% of the country supported Johnson and 47% wanted to send even more troops to Vietnam.

Johnson was definitely supported by the American people and by the end of 1965, there were nearly 200,000 troops in Vietnam. By December 1965, bombing had done nothing to pressure Hanoi to negotiate. 

Protests did begin in March 1965 and Vice-president Hubert Humphrey worried about risking Chinese involvement. Johnson asked "where are we going?" and admitted that General LeMay "scared the Hell" out of him. The JCS were divided over tactics and Ball thought the situation was hopeless.

McNamara didn't claim that US troops would secure victory but that it would "starve off defeat in the short run and offer a good chance of producing and favourable settlement in the longer run."

12 of 13

Was Johnson Totally to Blame?

Johnson's impatient character was not suited for the complex counter-insurgency that epitomised the Vietnam War.

Johnson was greatly pressued by the JCS, Westmoreland and McNamara to escalate the war. He only answered their demands.

The American people and the press supported escalatation and even called for more troops to be sent to Vietnam.

After the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson had ultimate power to wage war as he saw fit. He had the final say in everything, and yet did not stop the war.

Johnson often ignored his advisors that told him anything he didn't want to hear (for example, Ball) and so the pressure he recieved was only to follow the policies that he wanted.

The ignorance about Vietnam was universal, and so it would be improbable that Johnson ever recieved reasonable advice.

In the Cold War context, escalation in Vietnam and containment seemed reasonable.

13 of 13


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all The USA and Vietnam: 1945-75 resources »