“Our objective is to create conditions for a favorable settlement by demonstrating to the Viet Cong that the odds are against their winning. ” This quote, taken from a report by LBJ’s top advisor, Robert McNamara, sums up the intentions of the executive branch during the debates over whether or not to escalate the Vietnam conflict. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson was faced with the monumental decision of either pulling out of Vietnam, or escalating the conflict with air strikes against North Vietnam.
From the various research I have conducted I will explore and try to understand why he made his decision. To do this I will present the background information of this conflict and the events leading up to his decision. The conflict in Vietnam began long before the first American advisors ever touched Vietnam soil. After the Japanese occupation that occurred during World War II ended, Vietnam was in a state of limbo. The rest of the world was quickly becoming aligned with one of the two super powers that were forming the Bi-polar system and Vietnam was not to be left out.
After an attempted democratic government was ineffective, the French tried to regain control of their former colony and this resulted in the Indo-China war. Quoting from the Vietnamese declaration of Independence, which was written in 1945, some of the reasons for Vietnamese independence became obvious. The declaration states that the French have “denied us every freedom,” “enforced upon us inhuman laws,” and most importantly “they have set up three different political regimes in northern, central, and southern Vietnam in an attempt to disrupt our national, historical, and ethnic unity.
Two other items from the declaration help to cement the French wrong doing in Vietnam. First it states that the French have “built more prisons than schools” and second, “In the economic field, they (the French) have shamelessly exploited our people, driven them into the worst misery and mercilessly plundered our country. ” Vietnamese opinion of the French was very poor, not only due to the exploitative manner in which they were treated, but also because of the fact that the French were twice unable to protect Vietnam’s borders.
In 1940, and again in 1945, the Japanese invaded Vietnam for strategic purposes and both times the French surrendered unconditionally. This bitterness toward the French finally ended on July 21, 1954 with the advent of the Geneva agreements. Item one of the Geneva agreement states “The conference takes note of the agreements ending hostilities in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. ”
The agreement further states in item four that there is a clause on “the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam prohibiting the introduction into Vietnam of foreign troops and personnel as well as of all kinds of arms and munitions. One of the main ramifications of the Geneva agreement was that the country would be divided along the seventeenth parallel, but item six is quick to point out that this “line is provisional and should not in any way be interrupted as constituting a political or territorial boundary. ” Now that the French were no longer involved in Vietnam, someone had to move into the vacuum that now existed. Worried that the Soviet Union would infiltrate the region, the United States was left with no option but to become involved in the dealings of Southeast Asia.
A communist victory in Vietnam could only be considered a U. S. loss and in the early 1960’s this is an event that the U. S. had to avoid. U. S. involvement in the region began to escalate in the late 1950’s when it became apparent that north and south Vietnam had irreconcilable differences that would keep the two sides from becoming a unified democratic nation. The north, led by Ho Chi Minh, had become increasingly sympathetic to the communist plight and it was apparent to the U. S. government their future was with the south. The chief U. S. ally in the south was the anti-French crusader Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem, a catholic anti-Communist, was the prime minister of south Vietnam and also a great source of controversy between the U. S. and France. The French, unhappy with many of Diem’s decisions, pressed for his removal on numerous occasions. In May of 1955, the U. S. decided to back Diem and this ultimately led to a complete French withdrawal. By refusing to participate in free election Diem was also one of the main reasons that the country remained divided. Now into the late 1950’s the U. S. government had taken over sole responsibility for south Vietnam. The U. S. as now faced with the task of making south Vietnam independent.
Between 1955 and 1960, this was accomplished by the military assistance and advisory group. This group, or MAAG as it was called, due to an 85 million dollar per year budget, was able to turn an unorganized and poorly equipped south Vietnamese army into a modern fighting unit. In the economic arena, the U. S. was responsible for 127 million dollars in economic aid and 16 million dollars in technical aid from 1955 to 1959.
This bolstering of the South’s economy helped to cement Diem’s power and the U. S. knew that they would need a strong leader to hold off the communist threat. In late 1959, heading into 1960, the south Vietnam government and, more importantly, Diem started to unravel. North Vietnam increased their support of Southern dissidents and after a few oppressive moves made by Diem there was a string of attempted coups. It was during this period that President Eisenhower said good-bye and the energetic, yet in experienced, John F. Kennedy took office.
Unaware of the gravity of the situations that he had inherited, John F. Kennedy increased U. S. nvolvement by raising the budget of the MAAG and also by sending U. S. special forces into Vietnam to train the south’s soldiers. In an ironic move that foreshadowed things to come, JFK even sent his vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson to south Vietnam to assure them that our support was genuine. Throughout the summer of 1961, as contempt grew in South Vietnam, so did pressure from Kennedy’s advisors to escalate the war. Kennedy, realizing that a full blown war was a mistake, but unable to maintain the status quo, decided once again increase U. S. aid in dollars and tripled the number of advisors from 3,000 to over 9,000.
When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 21, 1963, it marked the end of a whirlwind of events. Just three weeks before that fateful day, south Vietnamese generals were successful in overthrowing Diem and his henchman Ngo Nhu. On November 21, 1963, South Vietnam was in a state of chaos. The new government was only three weeks old and the country was still shaken over the military coup and assassinations of Diem. North Vietnam was still escalating its efforts against the south and now the U. S. , Vietnam’s ally, had lost its leader; enter into this picture Lyndon B. Johnson.
To fully understand the character of LBJ we must examine his attributes which may help us understand what led to his decision. Born on August 27, 1908, Lyndon B. Johnson was born in Johnson City, Texas. Belonging to an economically challenged family, Johnson worked in various occupations and was able to attend Southwest Texas state teachers college. A navy veteran of World War II, he attained the rank of lieutenant commander and, for his service in the south pacific, was awarded the silver star. After being elected to the house of representatives, Johnson served six consecutive terms before being elected to the senate in 1948.
The youngest minority leader in senate history, in 1954, when the Democrats won control, he became the youngest majority leader in history. Selected as John F. Kennedy’s running mate in the 1960 election, he rode Kennedy’s victory into the white house as vice-president. After the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, LBJ was sworn in as president. When it was Johnson’s turn to run alone in 1964, he won 64 percent of the vote and enjoyed the largest margin of victory in American history. The great opponent of poverty, LBJ’s “Great Society” programs were meant to deal with the American under classes.
A man who pushed civil rights and space exploration legislation through congress, LBJ’s success as Commander-in-Chief was not as great. Bogged down by the situation that he inherited in Vietnam, LBJ at first was unable to focus much attention on anything other than southeast Asia. Johnson’s accomplishments as president consisted of the Medicaid act, the voting rights act, and unfortunately, the escalation of the war in Vietnam. President Johnson’s decision to escalate the war was not totally his. In the closing months of 1963, North Vietnam forced his hand by stepping up its war efforts against the south.
After hearing from Ambassador Lodge that the north was now sending its own units into the south, Johnson on the 26th of November, issued National Security Action Memorandum 273, which affirmed the U. S. “central objective” of stopping the “externally directed and supported communist conspiracy. ” Conditions continued to deteriorate and the military group that overthrew Diem was itself overthrown by General Nguyen Khanh. In early 1964 LBJ was again faced with the decision of whether or not to escalate and again, like Eisenhower and Kennedy before him, he declined.
Much like his predecessors however, Johnson did commit more advisors to the region and by March of 1964 America had over 20,000 advisors in south Vietnam. On August 2, 1964 the situation came to its peak. Off the coast of Vietnam, and as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution states “lawfully present in international waters” sat the destroyer the USS Maddox. On the afternoon of that day a group of north Vietnamese torpedo boats, still smarting over an attack by south Vietnam gun boats a day earlier, attacked and torpedoed the U. S. ship.
Two nights later in seeming defiance of U. S. aval might the north again attacked the Maddox and although the conflict had conflicting reports, this act of aggression was more than the president needed. As stated in the resolution, “naval units of the communist regime in north Vietnam in violation… of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked U. S. naval vessels… , and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace. ” Following this second attack and before any official congressional support, president Johnson made the decision that was over ten years in the making; he approved retaliatory air strikes against north Vietnamese targets.
The next day congress officially passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which stated that “congress approves and supports the determination of the president… , to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U. S. and to prevent further aggression. ” Basically congress had authorized and LBJ had approved what ten years and two presidents tried to stop, a major U. S. war in southeast Asia. A few events took place between the passing of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the actual landing of American combat troops that are of importance.
First, on October 15, Nikita Khruschev, the premier of the Soviet Union, was removed from power. This was important because Khrushcev had been outspoken against the U. S. involvement in Vietnam and now a new leader would emerge and, with him, possibly a new soviet position on Vietnam. Surely this event led American leadership to realize immediate firmness was needed on the Vietnam issue so that the new Soviet leadership did not get any bad ideas. A second major event that took place was the fact that on October 16, China exploded their first nuclear bomb.
The relevancy of this being that their were now three nuclear powers, two of which were anti-American. America was willing to become engaged in Vietnam, but if the Soviet Union or China, or worse now both took issue, America would have more problems than it could handle. Undeterred by these issues and after numerous attacks by the north that resulted in America deaths, LBJ was nearing a full scale escalation. A June 1965 report by Robert McNamara to the president is a good showcase of the debate at the time.
McNamara basically reiterates to the president that the U. S. still has three options; withdrawal, maintaining the “present level” with the understanding that our “position will probably grow weaker”, or escalation. Choosing the third option McNamara went on to outline possible U. S. outcomes. He talks of a U. S. policy of expanded “military and political moves” whose goals are to weaken north Vietnam, while at the same time keeping the Soviet Union from involvement and U. S. casualties down.
The third portion of McNamara’s report focuses on the “evaluation” of the program wherein he feels that domestic support will remain high and, as long as there are no direct incidents, Soviet and Chinese support will remain low. Finally McNamara concedes that “the war is one of attrition and will be a long one. ” Overall McNamara’s advice to the President is that of pro-escalation. A second memorandum to the President, this one by Under Secretary of State George W. Ball, pushes for compromise rather than escalation. Ball states that “the South Vietnamese are losing the war” and his contention is that we cannot win it.
To demonstrate this point to the President, Ball uses three incidents. Ball first uses the “sneak attack on the Danang Air Base” which, although was guarded by 9,000 U. S. marines, was made possible “because of the cooperation of the local inhabitants. ” He then uses a B52 raid that was ineffective because he believes that the VC had been “tipped off. ” Finally Bell uses a three day search and attack mission which netted 23 American casualties and zero enemy contact. Ball’s contention that we cannot win translates into his advice to the President to strive for a quick ending to this already drawn out problem.
Weighing his options and sorting through his advisors advice led President Johnson in late July to finally authorize a major commitment of troops. LBJ gave General Westmoreland free reign in employing U. S. troops and thereby assumed the war from South Vietnam. The decision was a hard one for Johnson to make because not only had he now committed young American men to war but unlike the World Wars before hand, the objective was unclear. By not achieving victory in the conflict in Vietnam the U. S. would be humiliated by possibly, for the first time, losing a conflict. By winning the war, the U.
S. stood to gain very little. The ideologies of the North and South were to far off for a unification and the bordering to the north by China ensured a constant communist influence. Unfortunately for LBJ much of the decision to escalate Vietnam was made before he even took office. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had just as much to do with American involvement as Johnson did but unfortunately he receives credit for the actual escalation of the war. President Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam conflict into a full scale war had serious impacts on all aspects of American society.
The fall out of the war in Vietnam had major impacts on south Asia as well. The “Domino Theory” that so many politicians used as a reason for escalation was in fact accurate and took place with amazing speed. Directly after the U. S. withdrawal and the fall of South Vietnam, North Vietnam was successful in toppling Laos and Cambodia. On the American home front the war had led to some of Americas darkest days. The conflict was responsible for great upheaval in American life but that was not all. The outcome of the war on the U. S. military is astonishing as well.
The total price tag for the conflict is estimated at 167 billion dollars. 2. 7 million American men and women sacrificed parts of their lives to fight kin southern Asia of which 58,000 died. The American military lost 8,588 total aircraft and the total number of wounded soldiers was over 300,000. On the 27th of January, 1973 the U. S. signed the Paris Peace agreements and brought to a close their involvement in Vietnam. Ironically article 1 of the agreement states that “the U. S. and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Vietnam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Accords.
The same document that the French used to withdraw from Vietnam was now, 19 years later, being obeyed. Chapter V of the Paris agreement is the terms for the “reunification of Vietnam” a reunification that would not have been necessary had the country not been split along the 17th parallel. The U. S. was responsible for much of what happened in Vietnam. U. S. policies of involvement in anti-Communist crusades did not always benefit the intended country and, in the case of Vietnam, this was also true. The country of Vietnam would have been better off without the U. S. involvement that resulted in tremendous loss.