Why the USA Failed: American People

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Johnson's Political Methods

Johnson's administration saw the problem in Vietnam to be the weakness of Saigon and ARVN failures. They knew the South needed large-scale reform and massive US support. They failed to see that a state that needed this much support would never change.

Washington tried to bring democracy to Vietnam but the Vietnamese had no concept of western-democracy. The strongest Vietnamese political tradition was a hatred of foreigners.

The Vietnamese peasants were generally politically apathetic. They were more concerned with their daily struggle for existence. It was Ho that combined nationalism, equality and survival, not Saigon.

American-sponsored governments in Saigon were corrupt, uncarring and unappealing to the Vietnamese people. Thieu told Johnson that the Vietminh would win any elections. In April 1965, Johnson promised Ho economic aid if he gave up the war, claiming "Old Ho can't turn that down." Johnson didn't understand that Ho was fighting for a unified Communist Vietnam and wouldn't give up.

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Johnson's Military Methods

The President bears ultimate responsibilty for the US' choice of weapons and tactics but Johnson often deferred to his military subordinates "bomb, bomb, bomb- that's all they know."

Johnson's military men thought they could destroy NV's industrial and economic base to destory morale but there were very few factories and roads to destroy. Supplies came from the USSR and China, not the North.

Bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail did little. If an area of the Trail was damaged, the North Vietnamese would change route and the bombs only increased determination and raised morale. The CIA pointed this out in 1965. 

The bombings alienated the South Vietnamese while trying not to alienate the American people as it was cheaper and cost less lives. However, some Americans disliked the policy.

Between 1965 and 1968, the Johnson administration became convinced that their tactics, aims and policies were inappropriate to the situation. It became clear that military escalation was not going to stop Hanoi and involvement was becoming unpopular in both Vietnam and America.

Johnson knew he would be forced to retreat if he continued.

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Problems in South Vietnam 1966-1967

During 1965-1967, Johnson sent more and more soldiers to Vietnam but this didn't look promising. Johnson met Ky at Hawaii in February 1966, leading Johnson to say "Boy, you speak just like an American." Ky's American advisors had written his speech.

Ky's government was corrupt and averse to reform, making Ky and America unpopular. Many of the South Vietnamese wanted negotiations with Hanoi. There were many protests in Saigon. One nun (after writting letters accusing Johnson of supporting a corrupt regime) sat praying in Hue while she burnt to death.

Ky held elections at Johnson's insistence. The elections were observed by an American who called the country South Vietcong. Ky's candidate for president, Thieu only managed to get 37% of the vote.

Publicly, Johnson was optomistic and Westmoreland claimed there were only 285,000 VC in the South. The CIA said the actual figure was over 500,000

Privately, Johnson's administration was pessimistic. Operation Rolling Thunder caused huge divisions while Johnson rallied against "gutless"officials who leaked "defeatist" stories. The failure in Vietnam led to the destruction of confidence in the administration

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The Loss of McNamara

Johnson thought highly of McNamara who had often encouraged escalation in Vietnam. However, Bobby Kennedy had become passionately anti-war after January 1966. Johnson thought the Kennedy-McNamara relationship was dangerous and called one senator a "*****" after he disagreed with him about Vietnam.

NcNamara's health and family had suffered because of the war. His daughter and son were greatly anti-war and his wife had a stomach ulcer. He was physically and mentally tortured, often bursting into tears during meetings.

In August 1967, Senate hearings, designed by hawks, attempted to force Johnson to remove the restrictions that limited bombing in Vietnam. 45% of Americans favoured increasing military pressure in Vietnam. Hawks blamed McNamara and Johnson for limiting bombing but McNamara said bombing would only stop the North if they wiped out everyone in the North. Johnson and the JCS were furious with McNamara, Johnson even called him an "emotional basket case". The JCS said his doubts would reduce morale.

Suffering from severe chest pains, McNamara held his last White House conference in November 1967. He didn't support leaving Vietnam, but halting escalation. McNamara was replaced with Clark Clifford in January 1968, who originally supported the war but was anti-war after Tet.

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The Tet Offensive

January- February 1968. 

Hanoi launched an unprecidented attack on the South. "Uncle Ho was very old and we had to liberate the South before his death." claimed one North Vietnamese officer. Hanoi wanted to collapse the Saigon government or domstrate such a power that America would just give up.

The attack broke the traditional Tet holiday truce and the US public, Saigon and Washington were surprised by the Communists' impunity and effectiveness.

The American ambassador had to flee the embassy in Saigon while wearing pyjamas. It took 11,000 Americans 3 weeks to clear Saigon of VC forces. 

At the same time of the Tet, a battle in Khe Sanh was also being fought to distract the Americans from the Tet Offensive. 10,000 Communists and 500 Americans died. Westmoreland, thinking Khe Sanh was a great prize, wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons. Washington refused and replaced him.

3895 Americans, 4954 ARVN, 14,300 South Vietnamese civilians died

58,373 VC and PAVN forces also lost their lives.

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Results of the Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was the largest battle of the war and was one of the first to be fought in South Vietnamese cities.

Both sides claimed victory. The Vietminh suffered grevious losses and the South Vietnamese hadn't risen in their aid but they showed the weakness of Saigon, strengthened their position in the countryside and shook Washington.

American intelligence officials had no idea the offense was coming. If they had been paying attention, they would have remembered that the Vietnamese defeated the Chinese in 1789 during the Tet Holiday. 

Tet shook Westmoreland so badly that one American official thought he was broken. Tet also increased the credibilty gap between Johnson's explanations and the public's understanding.

Tet fuelled anti-war protests and encouraged anti-war candidates to stand against Johnson in the upcoming election. Johnson didn't run, saying he would concentrate on the persuit of peace.

After Tet, Johnson rejected demants that 200,000 more troops be sent to Vietnam

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Public Opinion

The conservative right-wing Cold Warriors criticised Johnson for not escalating in Vietnam. They were angry that the US never used more than half of its military resources and believed that the soldiers deserved much more support back in America. However, not all conservatives approved of the war. 

Many Americans hated the idea of themselves or loved ones having to fight in Vietnam. Some were disgusted by the suffering of Vietnamese civilians. One said: "By any objective standard, the United States has become the most aggressive power in the world. the greatest threat to peace, to national self-determination, and to international co-operation."

College students led the protests against the war, especially after February 1968 when drafts begun to include students. 952 draft dodgers were convicted in 1967. Students tried every method to get out of the war: braces, fabricating blood-pressure problems, claiming to have considered suicide. 

In February 1968, there was a decline in academic standards in colleges as students tried to avoid the war. Proffessors didn't want to fail students as they might be drafted.

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Collapse of the Home Front: 1964

Protests began in 1964 when 1000 students from Yale University staged a protest march in New York. 5000 Professors wrote in support.

However, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the presidential election suggests that at this stage, Johnson had ner unaminous support for his Vietnam policy from both the public and congressmen.

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Collapse of the Home Front: 1965

20,000 students attended an anti-war lecture in Berkeley.However, thousands of students signed pro-Johnson petitions. 

Thousands of other citizans took part in protests. In April 1965, 25,000 protesters marched on Washington. A young Quaker set himself and his baby on fire infront of McNamara's Pentagon window. 

Johnson insisted that the protests were funded by Communist governments and that protesters encouraged the enemy. 

Congress disunity begun to show. One congressman reported "widened unrest" while the press and TV networks flocked to Vietnam. The war became America's first, fully televised war. People even called it a "living-room-war".

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Collapse of the Home Front: 1966

During 1966, public support for the war decreased dramatically. William Fulbright, who had sterred the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through congress now believed LBJ had lied about the 2nd attack.

The Democratic Party suffered a sharp defeat in the November 1966 mid-term elections. They urged Johnson to end the war. Congress, however, continued to fund the war. 

There were relatively few marches but Johnson limited his public appearances after people begun to chant "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys have you killed today?"

Westmoreland complained that "the enemy leaders were made to appear to be the good guys" by the media. Government propaganda was ineffective and Hollywood gave minimal assistance.

Veteran comedian Bob Hope sought to improve camraderie by giving shows in Vietnam and John Wayne made the bad film Green Berets but this only brought more criticism due to its idealisation of the war.

Wayne's film still drew large audiences. This might have been due to Wayne's popularity, the appeal of war films, the move-going habits of the masses or support for the war from a 'silent majority'.

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Collapse of the Home Front: 1967

Criticism didn't changed Johnson's policies and the war continued. Tens of thousands of protests occured. Even Martin Luther King Jr lead the opposition as black people resented the disproportionate amount of black deaths in Vietnam. 

Tax rises turned more Americans against the war. In October, draft cards were publically burnt and Berkeley radicals tried to close down the draft headquarters. The police attacked the 2500 protesters who then responded with cans, bottles and smoke bombs. 

In August hawkish senators tried to pressure Johnson to lift the restrictions on bombing in Vietnam. The Wise Men and Rusk assured Johnson that they supported his Vietnamese policy. 

A growing number of Johnson's friends turned against the war because the lost a family member or their children were against the war. McNamara left and Rusk's son was so against the war that a psychiatrist told him "you had your father's nervous breakdown for him."

It seems that 1967 was crucial in the turning point of the war. Newspapers turned against the war, drafts calls increased, there were more deaths.

However, only 46% of Americans thought that the US should get out of Vietnam.

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Collapse of the Home Front: 1968

The 1968 Tet Offensive was a huge turning point for the war. The media coverage was negative. Walter Cronkite, the most respected TV journalist, turned against the war in February after he visited Vietnam; he said the war couldn't be won.

Johnson's approval rating fell from 48% to 36%. The Communists had been defeated militarily, but the Tet proved Johnson was losing the battle for the hearts and minds.

There is no doubt that politicians were sensitive to the wishes of the voters and the protesters (while large in numbers) played little part in ending the war.

By Spring, Johnson had lost confidence in both his policies and his ability to gain support for them. The protesters and the media suggested that his war and his was of conducting it were wrong.

Johnson often criticised the media for failing to support the war effort. Journalist Peter Braestrup argued that the media convinced people that Tet was a US victory. It has been suggested that protestors didn't end the war, but did restrain Johnson and his successor. 

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Johnson's Loss of Confidence

Johnson often grabbed visitors to the White House, thrust his face into theirs and aksed "What would you do about Vietnam?" He often had nightmares about his troops hitting Russian ships or American soldiers being killed. 

Johnson's health was suffering. On March 14th, Johnson's wife wrote that it "was one of those, terrific, pummelling White House days that can stretch and grind and use you". She said her husband was "bone weary" and "dead tired". On March 30th, she wrote "his face was sagging and there was such pain in his eyes as I had not seen since his mother died."

By March 1968, the Wise Men had turned against the war. Johnson was infuriated by the idea that they had bailed out on him. 

Johnson agnonised over how to announce that he himself had turned against the war. On 31st March, he announced he would stop bombings if Hanoi agreed to peace talks. He said America was so divided that he would keep out of politics and not run for re-election. Some think his reason to not run was the unpopularity of his Vietnam policies but both him and his wife were worried about his ill health.

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Peace Talks

Peace talks were a recurring theme in Johnson's presidency. When he introduced Operation Rolling Thunder, he had been trying to pursuade Hanoi that they couldn't win and force them into peace talks. Ho, however, rejected negotiations as long as the bombing continued, and Johnson wouldn't stop bombing until Ho stopped attacking the South.

Johnson agreed to bombing halts to show his senserity, but he didn't like them. "I'll tell you what happens when there's a bombing halt: I halt and then Ho Chi Minh shoves trucks up my ***."

There were attempts at negotiations, some by Poland in 1966, but this failed and then Britain in 1967. Britain concluded that Washington was never serious about peace talks. 

With Johnson's loss of confidence by Spring 1968, prospects improved. Hanoi was exhausted after Tet, anxious to divide Americans and keen to negotiate.

Talks began in Paris May 1968. America demanded that Hanoi withdraw from South Vietnam and rejected communist participation in the Saigon government. Hanoi demanded American withdrawal and insisted that the Vietminh be involved in the Saigon government. Neither party could accept the other's terms.

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Disintegration of Johnson's Presidency

The final months in Johnson's presidency highlighted the need for dramatic change in American policy. In two weeks alone, 1800 soldiers were killed and 18,000 seriously injured.The American soldiers threatened to collapse due to weak morale.

In August 1968, during the Democratic Party Convention, thousands of anti-war protesters turned out. They nominated a live pig called Pigasus to be the new President. An American lowered the American flag and was arrested. They threw stones at the tense police leading to 668 arrests and 192 police injuries.

On 31st October 1968, Johnson ordered the end of the bombing of North Vietnam to try and help his vice-President Hubert Humphrey win the election. Negotations with Hanoi stalled; the SV refused to sit next to the SV and the battle of the tables was the last battle of the Johnson administration.

Humphrey lost the 1968 election because he couldn't seperate himself from Johnson's Vietnam policy. The Republican party Richard Nixon pledged to bring about an honourable end of the war but some voted due to political habit. The pro-war George Wallace gained some votes.

All you can conclude is that Americans remained divided about Vietnam.

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