Digital History

Vietnam War

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Digital History ID 3461



President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to commit the United States to fight in South Vietnam. "I just don't think it's worth fighting for," he told McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser. The president feared looking like a weakling, and he was convinced that his dream of a Great Society would be destroyed if he backed down on the communist challenge in Asia. Each step in deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam made it harder to admit failure and reverse direction.

President Johnson campaigned in the 1964 election with the promise not to escalate the war. "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," he said. But following reports that the North Vietnamese had attacked an American destroyer (which was engaged in a clandestine intelligence mission) off the Vietnamese coast, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson power to "take all necessary measures."

In February 1965, Viet Cong units operating autonomously attacked a South Vietnamese garrison near Pleiku, killing eight Americans. Convinced that the communists were escalating the war, Johnson began the bombing campaign against North Vietnam that would last for 2 ½ years. He also sent the first U.S. ground combat troops to Vietnam.

Johnson believed he had five options. One was to blast North Vietnam off the map using bombers. Another was to pack up and go home. A third choice was to stay as we were and gradually lose territory and suffer more casualties. A fourth option was to go on a wartime footing and call up the reserves. The last choice--which Johnson viewed as the middle ground--was to expand the war without going on a wartime footing. Johnson announced that the lessons of history dictated that the United States use its might to resist aggression. “We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else,” Johnson said. He ordered 210,000 American ground troops to Vietnam.

Johnson justified the use of ground forces by stating that it would be brief, just six months. But the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were able to match our troop build-up and neutralize the American soldiers. In North Vietnam, 200,000 young men came of draft age each year. It was very easy for our enemy to replenish its manpower. By April 1967, we had a force of 470,000 men in Vietnam. We were learning that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Johnson administration's strategy--which included search and destroy missions in the South and calibrated bombings in the North--proved ineffective, though highly destructive. Despite the presence of 549,000 American troops, the United States had failed to cut supply lines from the North along the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran along the border through Laos and Cambodia. By 1967, the U.S. goal was less about saving South Vietnam and more about avoiding a humiliating defeat.

Then, everything fell apart for the United States. We suddenly learned the patience, durability, and resilience of our enemy. In the past, our enemy had fought in distant jungles. During the Tet Offensive of early 1968, however, they fought in the cities.

The size and strength of the 1968 Tet Offensive undercut the optimistic claims by American commanders that their strategy was succeeding. Communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese army regulars blew up a Saigon radio station and attacked the American Embassy, the presidential palace, police stations, and army barracks. Tet, in which more than 100 cities and villages in the South were overrun, convinced many policymakers that the cost of winning the war, if it could be won at all, was out of proportion to U.S. national interests in Vietnam. The former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who had assured Johnson in 1965 that he was "entirely right" on Vietnam, now stated, "I do not think we can do what we wish to do in Vietnam.” Two months after the Tet Offensive, Johnson halted American bombing in most of North Vietnam and called for negotiations.

As a result of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson lost it all. Senator Eugene McCarthy, who picked up more than 40 percent of the vote, challenged Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary.

The next primary was in Wisconsin, and polls showed the president getting no more than 30 percent of the vote. Johnson knew he was beaten and withdrew from the race. Johnson was not invited to attend either the 1968 or 1972 Democratic presidential conventions.

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