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President Johnson: Escalating American Involvement in Vietnam

Digital History TOPIC ID 64

Every American president makes decisions with enormous repercussions for the future. Some of these decisions prove successful; others turn out to be blunders. In virtually every case, presidents must act with contradictory advice and limited information. The Vietnam War cost the United States 46,000 American combat deaths; another 11,000 American died as a result of the war and 153,000 were wounded. The war’s financial cost was approximately $150 billion. Almost 9 million Americans served in South Vietnam.

This exercise will examine President Lyndon B. Johnson’s momentous decision to escalate American involvement in South Vietnam. Background During 1964, a presidential election year, the pro-American government in South Vietnam appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The South Vietnamese government, which had taken power after the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in a military coup, was highly unstable. North Vietnam had increased its movement of troops and supplies into South Vietnam. The Viet Cong, who opposed the South Vietnamese government, had stepped up its armed activities, and had staged an attack on an American military base at Bien Hoa. In 1965, President Johnson sent his Defense Secretary, Robert S. MacNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to South Vietnam to make policy recommendations. Between July 21 and 27, 1965, the president and a group of advisors met to consider their recommendations, which called for a commitment of 175,000 American combat troops in 1965 and an additional 100,000 troops in 1966.

The president received conflicting advice. Secretary of State Dean Rusk feared that American failure to resist Communist aggression in Vietnam would encourage aggression elsewhere. George Ball, in contrast, argued that the United States was likely to find itself bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war. President Johnson stated that he had several options:

  • to cut the country’s losses and exit from Vietnam;

  • to maintain the current level of commitment and experience gradual defeat;

  • to escalate the American commitment.

Questions to Think About:

1. What arguments were advanced in favor of escalating American involvement in Vietnam? What counter-arguments were put forward by those advisors opposed to escalation?

2. How did the advisors respond to Johnson’s concerns about a protracted guerrilla war; instability in the South Vietnamese government; the weakness of South Vietnamese military; and the possibilities for a political or negotiated settlement in South Vietnam?

3. Based on these discussions, what was the main reason why President Johnson decided to increase the American military commitment in Vietnam?

4. Did President Johnson receive good advice? Were his advisors knowledgeable about realities in South Vietnam?

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