Author: Steven Crawford Grundy

Programme: MSC American History

Institution: University of Edinburgh

Supervisor: Dr Fabian Hilfrich


The story has often been told but rarely well explained. On March 8, 1965, two American Marine Battalions, under the command of Brigadier Frederick Karch, splashed ashore at Red Beach in South Vietnam. The event marked a fundamental turning point.

It signalled the end of policy deliberations within the American government and laid the foundations for military escalation. President Johnson had taken the fateful step and plunged the nation into an unwinnable war. The decision condemned the United States to eight dark and difficult years of fighting communist guerrillas, culminating in the death of approximately sixty thousand Americans and up to three million Vietnamese.

This dissertation grows out of the author’s perplexity with the deceptive tale of origins. The facts, as I understood them, made little sense. The very idea of the U.S.A., the hegemonic power of the world, placing so much value on South Vietnam, a somewhat insignificant country situated far away in Southeast Asia, seemed ludicrous. The Cold War, it will be argued, did not inexorably lead to half a million American soldiers fighting in the muddy rice fields of Indochina. Nor did it arise solely out of the actions and convictions of individuals, free from circumstance or context.

This dissertation is, therefore, a study of the build up towards escalation. It breaks from the contemporary historical analysis by focusing on the months between May 1963 and early March 1965. It was at this juncture that Vietnam became a day-to-day problem. It was during this period that America moved ever closer to escalation. It was here that the major decisions were taken.

The attempt to explain the origins of the Vietnam War has a history of its own. The following explanations form the backbone of this dissertation. They act as a compass for both the analysis and the conclusions. The first chroniclers, predominantly journalists and former state officials, were reluctant to allocate blame for military escalation.

The decision was instead described as a terrible mishap, born out of Washington’s “one more step” policy. Most commonly associated with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the quagmire thesis argued that Vietnam had never been of much interest. Opening with Eisenhower’s support for President Diem in 1954, right up to escalation, the issue was constantly dwarfed by other, more complex international problems. Because of this, the succeeding governments employed short-term solutions, confident that their perfunctory decision making would achieve results. The Vietnam War was thus “a triumph of the politics of inadvertence.” Put differently, it was a corollary of policymakers’ negligence and administrative ineptitude.

In 1971, however, the publication of the Pentagon Papers challenged Schlesinger’s claim that Washington was oblivious to the looming pitfalls of escalation. Indeed, it suggested quite the reverse. Rather than optimism and buoyancy, the succeeding administrations appeared to perceive the continual escalation of U.S. involvement with grave misgivings.

The editors of the Pentagon Papers, notably Leslie Gelb and Daniel Ellsberg, argued that policymakers did not expect their policies to be effective. True, they hoped that America would succeed in South Vietnam, but privately they considered the country a lost cause.

This paradox was easily explained. Fear of domestic repercussions, comparable to the fall of China in 1949, caused Democratic as well as Republican presidents to postpone defeat until after the next election. Unlike Schlesinger, then, Gelb and Ellsberg insisted that the bureaucratic system “worked”. Federal executives repeatedly warned against further entanglement in Vietnam. And yet, the memory of virulent McCarthyism as well as fear of losing the next presidential election, compelled policymakers to expand the war.

Following the stalemate theory, revisionist historians presented a scholarly defence for American actions in South Vietnam. Guenter Lewy professed that escalation was simply a riposte to Chinese belligerence. Peking, he argued, had challenged the status quo by attacking its neighbour and the succeeding administration’s had, in turn, tried to protect its ally. The onrush of the communist monolith, controlled by Moscow, had compelled America to employ military force.

Moreover, revisionist scholars contended that the fear of Soviet Russia was not based on irrational obsessions. Previous seizure of Eastern Europe had illustrated the Kremlin’s expansionist program and the war in Vietnam was another step in its universal assault against the Free World. Consequently, U.S. involvement was not unjust but based on noble and good intentions.

Then again, in the same decade another viewpoint surfaced – the flawed containment hypothesis. Argued initially by George Herring, escalation was judged a likely consequence of the doctrines assembled at the outset of the Cold War. America’s Weltanschauung- the belief in and out of office that communism had to be curtailed – was primarily responsible.

The containment strategy had, moreover, exaggerated the strategic value of South Vietnam and compelled policymakers to perceive the struggle as a symbol of U.S. credibility. Defeat, therefore, would cause global doubt vis-à-vis the country’s resolve to curb further communist onslaughts.

The New Left, on the other hand, radicalised the containment thesis. Although Gabriel Kolko agreed that the suppression of communism was a fundamental theme in U.S. decision-making, he argued that this was primarily due to American imperialism.

From 1945 onwards, the succeeding administrations embarked upon a global crusade to form an integrated, essentially capitalist world out of the chaos of World War II and the remnants of the colonial Empires. It was not such much credibility that was at stake in Vietnam but rather America’s entire capitalist philosophy as well as its hegemonic objective. Hence, Washington escalated the conflict in order to shape South Vietnam in its own image.

Other scholars, conversely, sought the explanation in cultural terms. Michael Hunt drew a straight line between American ignorance of Vietnamese history and the conflicts origins. By viewing Ho Chi Minh’s crusade for independence through a Cold War prism, policymakers failed to realise that North Vietnam was an independent actor rather than a puppet of Moscow or Beijing.

Hunt also stressed the importance of American Exceptionalism. The three leitmotifs of U.S. foreign policy- a belief in national greatness, racial categorisation and sponsorship of the status quo- provided national leaders with a clear and coherent perception of the world. This triumvirate interweaved into the fabric of national consciousness and spearheaded state officials towards military escalation.

More recently, however, scholars have begun to seek answers outside the framework of the Cold War. The resilient consensus that there were few alternatives to the programmes pursued, or that American foreign policy was largely steered by entrenched dogmas, has come under avid scrutiny.

Understanding the Vietnam conflict has instead been equated with understanding human choices. And to understand human choices, historians have placed progressively more importance on policy decision-makers- and one individual in particular- Lyndon Johnson.

The significance of Johnson has taken on various forms. Brian VanDeMark has emphasised personal considerations at home. An advocate of domestic reform, LBJ was eager to be remembered as a great legislator and to lead the country in its struggle against injustice and poverty. Vietnam, though, threatened to ruin his aspirations.

The Great Society required congressional ratification and communist victory in Southeast Asia, Johnson feared, would crystallise a right-wing backlash. Hence, in order to prevent a full-scale debate on the Vietnam War, Johnson decided to obscure the nature and cost of America’s deepening commitment whilst utilising the given time to pass his legislative agenda.

Alternatively, Yuen Fong Khong has concentrated on past experiences of state officials. Johnson and his advisers, he argues, had lived through significant historical events and adopted various lessons from the past. Chamberlain’s failure at Munich, for instance, was considered proof that aggression could not be curtailed by pacification and would merely postpone an inevitable clash.

The correlation between appeasement and the Vietnam conflict, thus, precluded either withdrawal or negotiations with the enemy. The Korean War, on the other hand, became an example of a successful military engagement. More importantly, the prediction of eventual success became an attractive characteristic and suggested that the United States would ultimately succeed. Historical analogies, then, predisposed the Johnson administration towards limited military escalation in South Vietnam.

Finally, Fredrik Logevall has put forward the missed opportunity interpretation. He contends that by 1965 the Cold War mind-set had largely eroded. Both on Capitol Hill and within the administration itself, merely a handful of voices championed escalation. Preliminary allies were also wary of American involvement. Britain evaded fervent pressure for military assistance, whilst France deliberately challenged Johnson’s foreign policy. This largely apathetic picture, he argues, gave LBJ significant room to manoeuvre. Yet, despite being aware of his fragile support from both national and international onlookers, the president chose to escalate. Logevall explains the decision by underlining the importance of machismo. Johnson had personalised the struggle and feared that a fig-leaf agreement with Hanoi would inexorably lead to personal humiliation. Consequently, the president gambled on a swift military victory.

This is how things stood when I first became intrigued in the causes of the Vietnam War. From the outset it is important to stress that this dissertation views the American decision to escalate as multi-dimensional. Put differently, the conflicts origins cannot be explained by singling out one distinct factor. As will become apparent, Washington’s reasoning changed repeatedly over time. From dominoes to bandwagons, from credibility to the good doctor hypothesis, U.S. rationale transformed and then re-transformed between May 1963 and March 1965. This dissertation examines these alterations; it opens up for discussion the extraordinary shifts in American foreign policy and seeks to explain why these shifts culminated in the sending of military troops.

Falling Dominoes: The Buddhist Crisis

In order to understand the origins of the Vietnam War it is essential to place U.S. foreign policy within a situational framework, or, more specifically, the Cold War. Herring highlights the significance of deep-rooted guidelines.

Fundamental was the National Security Council (NSC) Resolution 68, which stressed Soviet Russia’s resolve to become the single dominant power. Drafted in 1950, under the supervision of Paul Nitze, NSC-68 perceived the conflict almost exclusively through an ideological and military lens. Unlike Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” it considered Marxist rhetoric the central strand of Soviet foreign policy. Furthermore, the NSC-68 authors contended that defeat in the Cold War could occur, not only as a result of economic manoeuvres or military action, but from the loss of credibility.

Even the mere appearance of a shift in power would have alarming consequences. Indeed, both the successful explosion of a Soviet nuclear device as well as Mao Zedong’s victory in China appeared to validate American angst that communism had seized the initiative. NSC-68, hence, advocated the strategic interdependence of all areas of the world. Each and every nation along the perimeter was portrayed as vital to U.S. security.

Vietnam was no exception. Consequently, the Truman government increased its financial support for the reestablishment of French colonialism as a riposte to Soviet and Chinese recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) under Ho Chi Minh.

In 1953 President Eisenhower inherited his predecessor’s commitment. But as Douglas Macdonald points out, he publicly endorsed a new rationale- the domino theory. “You have a row of dominoes set up,” the president asserted, “you knock over the first one and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over quickly.”

In short, if Vietnam fell to communism then the neighbouring countries would inevitably follow suit. Circumstances, however, compelled Washington to rethink its strategy. The following year the French Armed Forces lay defeated at Dien Bien Phu and Paris made clear its desire to negotiate. The Geneva Conference hereafter sliced the state provisionally in half.

North Vietnam would be governed by Ho, whilst the non-communist side was placed under Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule. With the Mendès-France government disengaging from Indochina, the United States began to take a more direct interest.  It launched a process of nation-building in South Vietnam as well as fashioning an international alliance (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) to help sabotage the 1956 elections. In turn, after the failure of reunification by peaceful means, DRV representatives formed the National Liberation Front (NLF). From 1960 onwards, the NLF employed various methods of subversion in its attempt to unite the country under communist rule. Eisenhower therefore subsidised the Diem regime, fearing that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the collapse of all Southeast Asia.

President Kennedy also continued American support. Yet there were noticeable differences. Both JFK and his advisers judged Khrushchev’s speech in January 1961, which offered aid for “wars of national liberation,” proof of a new communist campaign to seize control of anti-colonial and other revolutionary movements. Unlike his predecessors, then, Kennedy placed more emphasis on non-aligned countries which were threatened by communist infiltration.

The struggle, as John Gaddis emphasises, had switched from Europe to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, Vietnam held a special place in JFK’s thinking; “Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World,” he told his fellow members of the Vietnam lobby as early as 1956, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike.” But at first, President Kennedy did not give the country much thought. It was neighbouring Laos, rather, which was the more complex problem. In fact, it took a particular historical conjuncture to cause the United States to refocus its attention on Saigon.

What did change the government’s perception was the outbreak of the Buddhist Crisis in the spring of 1963. On May 8, during a Buddha birthday celebration, large-scale demonstrations erupted in the city of Hue. The incident began with police attempts to enforce a governmental decree prohibiting the public display of sacred flags. Originally a religious movement, the protests quickly manifested into widespread hatred for the Diem regime.

The demonstrations crystallised on June 11 when a Buddhist monk, named Thich Quang Duc, committed ritual suicide. The reaction from the South Vietnamese government further exacerbated the situation. Madame Nhu, the wife of Diem’s first political adviser, dismissed the immolations as “barbecues” and offered financial assistance for more.

But despite the incubation of political problems in Saigon, there was no significant reason to readjust U.S. policy. David Kaiser points out that the war in the countryside was seemingly unaffected by the Buddhist crises. Two days after Duc burned himself to death, American counterinsurgency planners announced that the strategic hamlet program, a pacification effort to protect the rural population from communist infiltration and the centrepiece of its nation-building program, had successfully incorporated 64% of the local villagers into governmental sanctuaries. Periodic reports from General Harkins were similarly optimistic. He too applauded the achievements of the strategic hamlet tactic and declared that 1963 would be “the year of victory.”

Besides, South Vietnam was still considered a vital periphery of the Free World. It is crucial to note, however, that by 1963 Washington had swapped enemies. Schlesinger stresses that China, not the Soviet Union, had emerged as the imminent danger. The Sino-Soviet split had revealed Peking’s doctrinal divergence with Moscow.

Instead of the Kremlin’s “peaceful coexistence” policy, Mao Zedong advocated a more aggressive form of national liberation; specifically, the overthrow of capitalism in Southeast Asia. Ambassador Nolting asserted in July, that Vietnam was “the principal target of Red China in the Far East” and it was therefore imperative to assist Saigon in its fight against the communist “puppets.”

American sponsorship of its South Vietnamese ally was, however, becoming increasingly difficult. A phalanx of American journalists highlighted their growing displeasure with the Diem government. David Halberstam of the New York Times, Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, Peter Kalisher of CBS News and Neil Sheehan of United Press International informed JFK that a precedent had been established.

For the first time they had been subjected to violent attacks by undercover policemen. Moreover, Nhu’s attempt to quash the revolts by attacking pagodas throughout the country had the exact opposite effect. The use of force only inflamed public antipathy. In response, a number of high-ranking Vietnamese officials, including the Ambassador to the United States, quit their posts and demanded that the government abandon its policy of subjugation.

The pagoda raids also signified an end of trust between Washington and Saigon. Prior to Nolting’s departure, Diem had assured him that the Buddhists would no longer be suppressed. Yet the violent actions of the U.S. trained special forces had blatantly repudiated his promise.

It was because of the growing political turmoil that Washington began flirting with the idea of a coup. On August 24, 1963, Brigadier-General Kim asked Ambassador Lodge whether his country would support a military junta.

With the perfunctory approval of JFK and his Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who were both out of town, a small group of State Department officials- Ball, Harriman, Hilsman and Forrestal- offered vibrant support. Although primarily concerned with the removal of Nhu, they contended that if the South Vietnamese leader refused to cooperate then “we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.” Nevertheless, despite U.S. endorsement, the plotters were unable to line up enough support and ultimately aborted the enterprise.

Meanwhile, respected commentators outside the American bureaucracy where calling for an end to the war. The onset of this peace offensive can be traced back to Charles de Gaulle. As early as May 1961, the French President had privately warned JFK that military engagement in the region would be disastrous. But on August 29, 1963, de Gaulle went public and offered French support for neutralisation. Without mentioning the U.S. by name, he left no doubt that he opposed its commitment to preserve an independent, non-communist South Vietnam and declared that Indochina ought to be “independent of outside influences.”

Although the American public firmly rejected neutralisation, journalists and politicians were more sympathetic. Walter Lippmann, the renowned columnist of the Washington Post, was particularly enthusiastic. He too considered the conflict a civil war rather than an ideological confrontation between East and West. And, like de Gaulle, he deemed the military conflict against guerrillas unwinnable. The Kennedy administration, then, had been handed an alternative to military involvement in South Vietnam- neutralisation.

Not only did American state officials reject the call for neutralisation, they refused to even consider it. Kennedy told the Belgian Foreign Minister Spaak that “if there were ever a country that could not survive as a neutralist nation it was Viet-Nam” and nobody in Washington “submits these grand proposals to careful scrutiny in the light of reality.”

It is not difficult to understand why JFK viewed the French offer with scepticism. He clearly judged the previous attempt to pacify Laos in 1962 as a resounding failure and was certain that the DRV would yet again exploit a military cease-fire. Moreover, the Kennedy government was deeply suspicious of French intrusion.

De Gaulle’s previous obstruction of U.S. foreign policy, notably his refusal to accept Britain into the ECC in January 1963, coupled with the provocative Franco-German Treaty of Friendship, had caused considerable irritation. His offer to act as a broker in Vietnam was, consequently, dismissed as yet another ill-fated attempt to restore French influence throughout the world.

Only one single voice within the administration spoke out in favour of withdrawal. The Head of the Interdepartmental Working Group, Paul Kattenburg, underlined his personal conviction that Washington should exit South Vietnam.

He predicted that Diem would lose progressively more support the longer he stayed in power. Better to withdraw now, Kattenburg concluded, rather than in six to twelve months’ time when the Vietnamese people would realise the futility of the war effort and ask the United States to leave. The response to this statement was solely negative. A plethora of government officials- Rusk, McNamara, Nolting, and Vice-President Johnson- all overrode him. The Secretary of State was particularly opposed, insisting that U.S. policy should start on the firm basis that it would not retreat until the war was won. Thus, in August 1963, very few government officials championed a review of American involvement.

Indeed, as Noam Chomsky points out, the domino theory remained a controlling assumption. Both during a private meeting with Ambassador Lodge as well as in an interview with NBC, the president reaffirmed his conviction that a communist takeover would set off a chain-reaction throughout the Asian theatre. But there was also a second reason.

The administration feared the aftereffects of a Peking-sponsored victory. Failure to eradicate the Vietcong would fuel Chinese propaganda that guerrilla warfare was the solution to American imperialism. Additionally, annexation of Saigon would ruin the nascent trend towards détente with the Soviet Union. The signing of the Test-Ban Treaty on July 25, in conjunction with the cooling of tensions in Berlin, had brought an uneasy truce to the Cold War.

Defeat in South Vietnam, however, would wreck the previous agreements and signpost Maoism as the “wave of the future.” Kennedy put it best: “To renounce the world of freedom now… would be to give communism the one hope which in this twilight of disappointment… might repair their divisions and rekindle their hope.” It was not only the danger of Chinese expansionism, then, which Washington feared, but also the long-term psychological consequences.

Still, if there was widespread consent to stand firm in South Vietnam, there was no such unity on what should be done to stabilise the political situation. A fact-finding mission in mid-September only added to American uncertainty. On the one hand, the military perspective was hugely optimistic.

The war, General Krulak reported, had not been seriously affected by events in Saigon and remained firmly on course for victory. The State Department’s account by Joseph Mendenhall, on the other hand, described a country in utter turmoil. The civil government had virtually collapsed whilst the communal atmosphere was one of fear and hatred.

He concluded that the war could not be won unless there was a change in leadership. Contrary to the stalemate thesis, then, the bureaucratic system clearly did not “work.” Federal executives were offering intrinsically different advice to the president and portrayed a very fuzzy picture.

Then again, the Kennedy administration also disregarded clear hints that the war in the countryside was deteriorating. McNamara and Taylor ignored warnings by both the Ex-South Vietnamese Ambassador Chuong and Vice-President Tho, who dismissed the optimistic military reports as fabricated.

Tho was particularly pessimistic, claiming that there were only twenty to thirty properly defended strategic hamlets throughout the country. Dean Rusk likewise overlooked bleak intelligence reports. The Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Thomas Hughes noted an unfavourable statistical shift in the military balance. More precisely, he emphasised sharp intensifications in guerrilla incursions and a decrease in Vietcong casualties.

JFK was also guilty of snubbing unwelcome reports. In an “eyes only to the President” cable, Lodge cited public hatred for the Diem government as an incentive for young men to join the communists. Moreover, the Ambassador noted a substantial decline in ARVN morale as well as serious communist infiltrations throughout the Delta region. Hence, the Secretary of Defence, the Secretary of State, the Head of the JCS and the president were forewarned of impending military disintegration. But they all chose to neglect these bleak military reports and, as the quagmire theory indicates, remained convinced that victory was close at hand.

By the autumn of 1963, however, America’s policy was coming under considerable scrutiny at home. During a U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in October, members of the board challenged McNamara’s and Taylor’s conviction that the loss of Vietnam would cause a domino effect throughout Southeast Asia. Senator Gore (D-Tennessee) pointed out that the countries which had been listed, “Ceylon, Thailand, Cambodia and others,” had “vigorously protested the suppression of the Buddhists by the Diem regime.”

Indeed, only two members on the panel, Frank Lausche (D-Ohio) and Bourke Hickenlooper (R-Idaho), expressed sympathy for the government’s policies. In contrast, Senator Church, Morse (D-Oregon), and Carlson (R-Kansas) were severely critical, whilst silent doves, such as Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), did not express their opinions.

Nevertheless, within the administration there remained a firm resolve to continue the war effort. Apart from Kattenburg’s previous recommendation only the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, wondered aloud whether it was perhaps time to consider withdrawal.

Nobody concurred. Instead, because of the growing domestic criticism, America returned to the only available alternative; support for a coup. An attempt to coerce Saigon with extraction of military aid, or “selective pressures,” had failed miserably and when the ARVN Generals asked Lodge once more whether his country would sponsor a military takeover, the answer from Washington was frank; “While we do not wish to stimulate [a] coup we also do not wish to leave [the] impression that [the] U.S. would thwart a change of government or deny economic and military assistance to a new regime…”

Alarming reports from Saigon also furthered Washington’s support for a military putsch. General Minh told the CIA that regardless of U.S. involvement, coup d’états were inevitable. Other battalion and company commanders, he claimed, were already working on plans of their own to topple the Diem government and America should therefore sponsor him to avoid a cluster of futile endeavours.

More crucial, though, were rumours of an impending settlement between North and South Vietnam. In an interview with the Italian weekly Expresso, Nhu stated bluntly his opposition to the continuation of U.S. assistance, whilst Diem hinted to General Dinh that he and the DRV had already agreed on the outline of a cease-fire.

But American Exceptionalism was also pertinent here. Racial prejudices filtered through the bureaucratic ranks. Hunt argues that the United States denigrated Vietnamese culture as backward and attempted to recreate it in its own image.

The vilification of America’s ally was particularly noticeable in Lodge, who on the eve of the coup declared that “the U.S. is trying to bring this medieval country into the 20th century.” The capstone of national greatness was evident too. Herring stresses that state officials considered it “a duty to intervene in South Vietnamese affairs as they saw fit.” National security demanded that the United States check communist aggression and if this required the subsidising of a military dictatorship then so be it. True, there were some within the administration, notably Taylor and McNamara, who opposed the coup.

Yet they opposed it, not because they doubted their entitlement to interfere, but rather because they dreaded its impact on the war effort. Kennedy personified American arrogance when he wrote; “our own actions made it clear that we wanted improvements and when these were not forthcoming… we necessarily faced and accepted the possibility that our position might encourage a change of government.” At no point, then, did the government question its right to sponsor a military overthrow or interfere in South Vietnamese affairs.

As a result, on November 2, 1963, the ARVN under General Minh staged its coup with American approval, culminating in the deaths of Diem and Nhu. There is no doubt that the episode marked a fundamental turning point. Gerard DeGroot points out that the United States was hitherto locked into supporting each new regime. Indeed, JFK told Lodge that they now had “a responsibility to help this new government.”

The American flag had been spattered with blood and its commitment was more rigid than ever. Not only that, the removal of Diem affected every tier of civil administration down to the village level. The country’s entire managerial staff had to be reshuffled and purged from former government subordinates. Even worse, power lay in the hands of military oligarchs who had little or no understanding of political affairs. The first line had been crossed.

Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. To sum up, he and his administration had continued American involvement chiefly because of their firm belief in the domino theory.

Defeat to the Vietcong, it was feared, would crystallise Chinese sovereignty throughout Southeast Asia. Indeed, the fact that the United States placed “the whole future of the country [South Vietnam] and really Southeast Asia” in the hands of an unknown General, illustrates just how crucial Vietnam was considered.

Furthermore, although external commentators had offered an alternative to military support, namely neutralisation, there were few within the Kennedy government who supported it. Only Kattenburg and RFK hinted at withdrawal. In any case, state officials could always hold on to the belief that victory was just around the corner. This, though, could not be further from the truth. The future of South Vietnam was precarious and unpredictable at best. This was the scenario that Lyndon Johnson inherited. It would be up to him to decide America’s fate.

Primacy of Domestic Politics: The Presidential Election, November 1963 – November 1964

During his first address before a Joint Session of Congress, Johnson vowed that America would “keep its commitments from South Viet-Nam to West Berlin.” It was not a cry for war but rather a pledge for continuity. Robert Dallek notes that LBJ was aware of his precarious position. He had become president illegitimately, without an electoral mandate or as a representative of the American people. Hardly anyone knew who Johnson was or what he stood for. Moreover, he had assumed office at a time of great national tragedy. Kennedy’s death had, in essence, caused a constitutional crisis. Grief and despair were prevalent throughout the country and Johnson worried that both Moscow and Peking would draw strength from a broken United States. Hence, his political maxim in November, 1963 was to “continue” the fallen leader’s program.  

Continuance, however, was not solely adopted out of blind loyalty. Gary Hess contends that personal beliefs were also significant. Johnson had supported first Eisenhower’s and then Kennedy’s attempt to create an anti-communist bloc. He too considered the conflict part of the Cold War struggle and firmly advocated the containment of communism. Moreover, the president remembered the bankruptcy of appeasement. He feared that failure to confront militant aggression in South Vietnam would, as it had in 1938, inevitably prompt further attacks against the Free World. Johnson himself put it best; “everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression.” The president, hence, endorsed NSAM 273, which reaffirmed U.S. resolve to support its ally against the external communist conspiracy.

Then again, Johnson’s decision to retain his predecessor’s consultants similarly furthered his steadfastness. In January 1964, Bundy and McNamara repeated to LBJ the central rationale of the preceding administration. Both predicted an inevitable domino effect. Failure to stand firm would lead to the unification of Vietnam under communist rule. The whole of Southeast Asia would subsequently fall into the Chinese orbit. And key allies would lose confidence in American credibility. There was, however, one noticeable difference in the two memorandums. In contrast to the National Security Adviser, who equated the loss of credibility with South Korea and Taiwan, McNamara warned of global consequences. He argued that the war was a “test” of America’s ability to deal with “wars of national liberation” and defeat would not only lead to a loss of prestige in Asia but also throughout other peripheral regions. Even “remote areas” such as Latin America, the Secretary of Defence claimed, “would have reason to doubt whether we would really see the thing [containment of communism] through.” As a result, unlike the JFK administration, which had focused primarily on American credibility in the Asiatic theatre, McNamara cemented Washington’s conviction that South Vietnam exemplified its reputation throughout the world.

On the other hand, it is also crucial to stress Francis Winters’ point that, unlike his advisers, Johnson considered the U.S. government partially responsible for the deaths of Diem and Nhu. As Vice-President he had vehemently opposed complicity in the November putsch and continued to perceive it as a crucial mistake. He was, moreover, unimpressed by Lodge’s report that the incident had been an entirely Vietnamese affair. The president later told Senator Russell (D-Georgia) that the coup had been “a tragic mistake. It was awful and now we’ve lost everything.” Thus, LBJ felt a moral obligation to support the newfound Minh regime. In his first meeting with top-level executives, the president consequently shelved the issue as a fait accompli and told the Ambassador to “go back and tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word.”  

Still, Ellsberg highlights the most significant reason for continuance- the upcoming presidential election. Johnson was convinced that a communist conquest of South Vietnam would not only provide the Republican Party with a juicy electoral issue but most likely torpedo his chances of becoming president in his own right. After all, the loss of China in 1949 had crystallised domestic turmoil at home and LBJ was determined to keep the Vietnam issue on the backburner. News headlines of Eisenhower endorsing Lodge as the Republican presidential candidate verified his worst nightmare. Bundy also warned him that Eisenhower had personally contacted Lodge and had urged him to run for leadership. The president was therefore eager to keep Vietnam out of the firing-line and deal with his Ambassador’s recommendations swiftly and without exception.

Then again, there were some voices which did contest American foreign policy. As early as December 7, 1963, Senator Mansfield made clear to LBJ his long-term disapproval of the conflict as well as the impending danger of a military showdown with Communist China. He concluded that the best solution would involve a U.S. “diplomatic offensive” with help from France, Britain and possibly Soviet Russia to bring peace to Vietnam.

Within the Johnson government, however, neutralisation remained both unviable and a synonym for communist annexation. This was primarily because of its weak bargaining position. The Secretary of Defence’s visit to Saigon in late December had dispelled the myth that the Vietcong was close to defeat. “The situation is very disturbing,” McNamara told Johnson. “Current trends, unless reversed in the next 2-3 months, will lead to… a Communist-controlled state.”

He highlighted the indecisiveness of the Minh administration as the most pressing problem. Its complete lack of political policies and inexperience of governmental management were causing South Vietnam to disintegrate. The enemy had, in turn, taken advantage of the chaotic situation and seized key provinces south and west of the capital.

As a result of this feeble picture, state officials agreed that negotiations would simply mean capitulating to the enemy’s demands. No doubt Khong’s emphasis on analogies is pertinent here.

By juxtaposing Vietnam with the Korean settlement in 1953, Bundy declared that an agreement should only be contemplated once the communist subversion had been stamped out and Hanoi had realised the futility of its efforts. He concluded that “when we are stronger, then we can face negotiation.”

The Johnson administration subsequently authorised covert operations against the North. The plan codenamed OPLAN 34-A involved intelligence over-flights, the dropping of propaganda leaflets as well as commando raids along the Vietnamese coast. Nevertheless, it was the political situation in Saigon, which had been exacerbated further by General Khanh’s counter-coup in late January, that remained the more serious problem.

But rather than equate governmental bedlam with the November putsch, U.S. officials blamed de Gaulle’s maverick policies. Lodge complained that French recognition of Communist China, in addition to constant demands for neutralisation, were having a demoralising effect on the military junta. The Secretary of State also considered the muzzling of France essential. Only if Saigon perceived the West as a central block, committed to the containment of communism, Rusk argued, would the country gain in confidence and pull itself together.

But the adoption of OPLAN-34A, coupled with pressure on the French government, were not the only strategies employed. After another fact-finding mission by McNamara in early March, Johnson implemented a series of policies which became known as NSAM 288.

The Secretary of Defence stressed that in order to combat rumours of an impending retreat, it was essential to make American support for Khanh emphatically clear. “Even talking about a U.S. withdrawal,” he noted, “would undermine any chance of keeping a non-Communist government in South Vietnam.”

He also advocated a considerable enlargement of economic and military aid, as well as delegating U.S. personnel to train paramilitary forces. Moreover, whilst McNamara underlined the government’s conviction that “the South Vietnamese must win their own fight,” he kept the door ajar for possible future military action. For the first time, then, state officials concurred that failure of NSAM 288 would result in aerial bombing of North Vietnam.

Interestingly, when considering the political motivations for an increase of U.S. support, Bundy not only reiterated the domino effect but also emphasised a new motive- to fulfil a long-standing pledge. He contrasted the Johnson government’s policies with Eisenhower’s letter to Diem, written in 1954, which, Bundy contended, were based on the same principles. “Indeed,” he argued, “the language of that first commitment reminds me very much of the language we still use.”

The wording of the memorandum implied that nothing had changed. America was, as it had under Eisenhower, assisting the South Vietnamese government and had done so “in good and in bad.” Bundy concluded that “this is no time to quit and it is no time for discouragement.” Thus, policymakers maintained that despite the deteriorating situation, they, like their predecessors, had a commitment to protect Saigon from the communist enemy.

Nonetheless, the implementation of NSAM 288 produced meagre results. Charles Kogan highlights the administration’s inability to quash demands for neutralisation.

Both the Ambassador in Paris, George Bohlen and Undersecretary of State, George Ball, failed to silence the French leader. During a meeting with de Gaulle in June, Ball explained U.S. assistance to South Vietnam by juxtaposing the Chinese government with Lenin’s Soviet Russia of 1917. He argued that the enemy was in a progressive phase and poised to take over the whole of Southeast Asia. Not by negotiations, therefore, could the Chinese menace be restrained but by a demonstration of firmness.

But de Gaulle refused to fall in line. Drawing from his previous statements, the French President argued that the war in Indochina was unwinnable. The United States, as a very big, very white foreigner, was distrusted by most Vietnamese and would consequently lose increasing support.

Additionally, Logevall stresses that the State Department’s execution of the “more flags” campaign, designed to acquire greater international contribution for the war effort, similarly failed to satisfy American demand.

Rusk reasoned that foreign support would jump-start South Vietnamese resolve to fight. Put differently, the portrayal of a Free World unified in its determination to check communist expansion would send a strong signal to the Khang regime. Yet, America’s allies were wary of becoming enveloped in Indochina.

The two most important European countries- Britain and West Germany- paid lip-service to future assistance but attached little urgency to the matter. The Johnson administration, likewise, failed to persuade Hanoi to quit its continual assistance to the Vietcong. In June, Washington sent a Canadian intermediary, J. Blair Seaborn, to Hanoi, hoping that military threats coupled with hints of possible economic aid would compel the DRV to rethink its policy.  

Prime Minister Van Dong, however, dismissed the proposal and made clear North Vietnam’s resolve to unify the country. By the summer of 1964, then, the United States had made little progress in its attempt to bring the conflict to a conclusive end.

More importantly, it was at this juncture that the entire reasoning for involvement was modified. In a memorandum to the CIA Director McCone, the Board of National Estimates rejected the central leitmotif of Washington’s foreign policy. “We do not believe,” the report stated, “that the loss of South Vietnam and Laos would be followed by the rapid, successive communization of the other states of the Far East… With the possible exception of Cambodia, it is likely that no nation in the area would quickly succumb to communism as a result.”

Kai Bird’s description of the paper as the “Death of the Domino Theory Memo” is crucial. The United States had since 1954 endorsed the metaphor of falling dominoes to rationalise its economic and military assistance. Each and every president- Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson- had confirmed its legitimacy. And yet on June 9, 1964, the argument was dismantled.

Instead, credibility became the guiding principle in South Vietnam. “Failure here,” it was argued, “would damage U.S. prestige and would seriously debase the credibility of U.S. will and capability to contain the spread of communism.”

Defeat to the Vietcong, then, after years of continual assistance, would portray the United States as a paper tiger. It would validate Maoist belief that the world was ripe for revolution and raise Chinese prestige as a leader of World Communism. Nations in Indochina and throughout Asia would either move towards a neutralist position or, even worse, accommodate with the enemy.

Primary allies, such as Britain, would likewise be troubled by American weakness, whilst revolutionary movements would gain in strength and confidence. Consequently, policymakers shelved the long-standing belief that the loss of South Vietnam would inevitably lead to communist annexation of all Southeast Asia. The Johnson government had reshuffled the cards. In short, prestige had replaced dominoes at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.

But if there was a shift in political reasoning, then there was no such change in the problems Washington faced. NSAM 288 had clearly failed to silence de Gaulle and boost South Vietnamese morale.

Indeed, Lloyd Gardner points out that in July the French leader publicly appealed once more for a political settlement. This time de Gaulle went beyond his previous hints of international neutralisation. He specifically proposed a Four Power Conference without preconditions, in which America, China, Soviet Russia and France would all renounce their influence throughout Indochina.

The United Nations Secretary General U Thant similarly called for the reconvention of the Geneva Conference as well as offering U.N. assistance for the implementation of a military cease-fire. In conjunction with fresh appeals for neutralisation, U.S. state officials were troubled by General Khang’s flamboyant calls for a “march to the North.”

The Head of State told the newly-arrived Ambassador Taylor that his people were becoming increasingly war weary and only a dramatic move against the DRV could rejuvenate morale. The Johnson administration was therefore being pressurised from two opposing fronts. On the one hand, respected international figures were calling for an end to the war, whilst Saigon, in turn, was advocating a sharp intensification of the conflict.

Nevertheless, as Schulzinger emphasises, the Tonkin Gulf Incident changed everything. In early August, whilst carrying out OPLAN 34-A patrols along the North Vietnamese coast, two American navy destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, reported unprovoked attacks by DRV patrol boats.

Although the Johnson administration chose not to retaliate following the first assault, it swiftly exploited vague suggestions of a second incident as a pretext for an airstrike against the enemy. This was done for several reasons. First of all, it would quell rumours of an imminent retreat.

It would pour cold water over pestering requests for neutralisation as well as counter Chinese portrayals of American weakness. And it would also serve as a warning to Hanoi that Washington was not afraid to flex its military muscle. Accordingly, the Secretary of State claimed: “For months and months we have been trying to get to them a signal… that we are not going to run out of Southeast Asia.”

The signal Rusk was referring to also required congressional approval. In May, the State Department had prepared a draft resolution, which gave the president a blank cheque throughout Southeast Asia. It was above all intended to portray the United States as a united entity in its determination to assist the people of South Vietnam.

The Tonkin Gulf incident seemed the perfect opportunity to submit it to Congress. Consequently, on August 7, 1964 both the House of Representatives and the Senate authorised the president to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Only Senator Morse and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) publicly objected to its implementation as a pretext for war. The president was, hence, given enormous latitude for future military initiatives.

But escalation was not yet on Johnson’s mind. His actions reflected short-term objectives rather than long-term calculations. Edwin Moïse stresses that the incident transpired during an election campaign. The Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was repeatedly criticising LBJ for failing to meet the communist challenge. But through both the resolution and air raid, Johnson exercised strength tempered by restraint.

Democrats, in turn, capitalised on the opposition’s belligerent rhetoric to portray Goldwater as a sabre-rattling extremist who would plunge the country into war. During the presidential campaign in September and October, Johnson was, hence, able to run as a man of “peace” and assure voters that he had no intention of sending “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

Indeed, following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, his public standing shot up by 4%, whilst 71% of American’s agreed that the administration was handling the situation “as well as could be expected.” The supposed attack on the Maddox was therefore a golden opportunity for Johnson to blunt Republican criticism and strengthen his domestic support.

On the other hand, the bombing of the DRV had, like the November coup in 1963, set a precedent. The government’s resort to military means further enmeshed American credibility. Washington was henceforth not merely committed to defending South Vietnam but to counteracting future communist provocations. The initial employment of military force would also make it much easier to authorise subsequent attacks.

Moreover, the wording of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had exaggerated South Vietnam’s importance. Its contention that the struggle was vital to America’s national interest, coupled with senatorial consent for the president to use “any means necessary” raised the publicly articulated states. Taylor thus contended that: “With this authoritative confirmation of the essentiality of our mission no senior official could in conscience harbour thoughts of retreat.”

Still, there is no doubt that the president accomplished his central objective. He had prevented South Vietnam from becoming an electoral issue. He had also successfully prolonged the middle-of-the-road policy- neither to escalate nor to withdraw- whilst ensuring that the objective remained the same; to assist Saigon primarily through advice and material. On the other hand, the entire rationale for American involvement was modified.

The domino theory had been rejected. No longer did Washington fear that defeat would crystallise a geo-political disaster throughout Southeast Asia. But as fears of falling dominoes ebbed, concern about credibility flowed.

True, prestige had always been a significant theme in American foreign policy, but it had, until mid-1964, remained secondary. This was no longer the case. More importantly, prestige proved to be a crucial strand in the Johnson administration’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.

Credibility: Turning the Corner, November 1964 – March 1965

The 1964 presidential election was a landslide. Lyndon Johnson won forty-four states and 61% of the general vote. Both in the Senate and the House of Representatives Democrats gained seats, whilst LBJ was elected president by the largest plurality in the country’s history.

He had evidently succeeded in his election-year strategy of keeping the Vietnam problem on the backburner. His Realpolitik during the Tonkin Gulf Incident had been applauded by a large majority of the American people and the administration consequently gained a rock-solid mandate to continue its policies.  Domestically, then, the newly-elected president had significant political room to manoeuvre.

Yet this manoeuvrability also has to be equated with the international context. A trio of events generated new pressures on the American government. Less than three weeks before Election Day, October 15, Khrushchev was ousted as premier of the USSR.

Power had swapped hands only twice since the Bolshevik Revolution, both times prompting chaotic disorder. Although a major change in American-Soviet relations was considered unlikely, state officials worried that the Kremlin’s reshuffle would bolster Chinese confidence. CIA intelligence reports contended that the display of the uglier side of Soviet politics had weakened its international prestige.

It had, moreover, provoked second thoughts among many of its allies and with the dismissal of Khrushchev, Mao remained “the only old-line, world-known Communist figure, with no visible Russian rivals of significant stature.” Hence, Washington feared that China was gradually eclipsing the Soviet Union as the central communist state and would propel other countries to jump on the bandwagon.

American concern about Chinese prestige was exacerbated further on October, 16 by its successful detonation of a nuclear device. It is worth pausing to dissect the significance of this element in detail; primarily to fill a lacuna in the historiography of the Vietnam War. Whilst in military terms Peking remained a secondary power, it was the psychological impact that the Johnson administration dreaded most.

After all, Maoist aggression seemed to be paying dividends: French recognition, Soviet fragility and its own nuclear test all seemed to certify Washington’s long-held conviction that China was growing stronger. More crucially, the nuclear blast signalled that Maoism was “here to stay” as well as the end of America’s 15-year attempt to isolate the enemy. China, it was believed, would inevitably enter the United Nations and be brought into international negotiations regarding the control of nuclear weapons. Yet even though the U.S. government accepted the need for a policy shift, it worried about the impending consequences.

And this was why Vietnam gained even more importance- two foreign policy failures at the same time was deemed unacceptable. Robert Komer of the National Security Council Staff warned Bundy that “If we appear to cut and run or to be losing, it will be domestically and internationally impossible to “make concessions” on ChiRep too.” Defeat in South Vietnam, then, would occur “at just the wrong time.” It was essential, therefore, to defuse Chinese confidence and ensure that its admission into the United Nations did not ensue against the backdrop of a military victory.

In conjunction with the changing international climate, the military situation in Saigon was worse than ever. After a year of kaleidoscopic turmoil, there seemed little hope of a united front. Factionalism pervaded throughout the ARVN, war weariness and hopelessness among the South Vietnamese people was palpable, whilst the Vietcong had gained stunning successes in the Northern provinces.

Additionally, U.S. personnel were coming under increasing attack. On November 1, communist guerrillas deliberately shelled the American air base at Bien Hoa, killing four people. Washington perceived this brazen assault by the enemy as an ominous challenge, testing its patience and resolve to fight. Although the Johnson rejected retaliation, owing to fears that it would be perceived as an “election device,” the highest echelons nevertheless agreed that they were reaching the point “where policy hardening must be acutely considered.”

It was in this atmosphere that on November 2, 1964 Johnson asked the Assistant of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, William Bundy, to chair a major review of American policy on Vietnam.

The paper prepared by the NSC working group firstly analysed the consequences of a communist victory. It agreed with the Board of National Estimates that the domino theory was oversimplified. It also concurred that American prestige was heavily committed to South Vietnam and defeat would be “a major blow.” Furthermore, the suggestion of a “defence line breached” would have a serious effect on the country’s Pacific and South Asian security structures as well as trigger a loss of confidence in U.S. credibility within both Southeast Asia and the entire Asiatic theatre. But on one point the National Security Council paper disagreed with the analysis conducted the previous June.

It did not believe that American prestige would be damaged among its NATO allies or that in the world at large (with the possible exception of Turkey and Greece) defeat in South Vietnam would shake “confidence in us.” Additionally, the memorandum warned that European willingness to accept continued American leadership depended upon the way the government handled the situation.

Whilst West Germany and Britain sympathised with its policy of containing Communist China and would “understand our applying an additional measure of force” they would nevertheless “become seriously concerned if we get ourselves involved in a major conflict that degraded our ability to defend Europe.” Eugenie Blang, thus, notes the quagmire which Washington faced. On the one hand, South Vietnam could not fall in fear of losing international prestige, but on the other hand, all-out war would alienate its European partners and diminish their confidence in American judgement.   

The Bundy group therefore recommended a middle way. It rejected both the continuation of America’s ill-fated attempt to rely on economic assistance as well as the JCS’s suggestion of a systematic program of military action against the DRV. Instead the NSC working group proposed the policy of gradual escalation.

This involved military moves against infiltration routes in Laos and the DRV, coupled with subsequent action against other targets in North Vietnam. These military pressures would walk hand-in-hand with repeated public support for a conference, thereby giving the impression of a steady deliberate approach.

By the end of November, then, the United States had formulated concrete proposals for the use of American airpower. The program would be conducted in two parts. Phase I would consist of a thirty-day bombing raid against the Ho Chi Minh trail, as well as reprisal attacks against any major or spectacular Vietcong activities.

In the meantime, Ambassador Taylor would use the promise of direct strikes against the DRV to rejuvenate the South Vietnamese government’s morale and strengthen its political position. After a stable bureaucracy had been established, Washington would adopt Phase II, constituting a large-scale air offensive, progressively mounting in scope and intensity in order to force Hanoi to the conference table. On December 1, 1964 the president approved the immediate initiation of bombing operations against Laos. The decision marked the beginning of a new chapter in America’s involvement. Slowly but surely, it was taking over responsibility for the Vietnam War.

This is not to suggest that Johnson took the decision lightly. On the contrary, as Herbert McMaster indicates, he was not advocating war. The president was particular concerned with the absence of governmental stability in Saigon and complained that there was “no point hitting [the] North if [the] South [was] not together.”

He also wondered aloud whether they should not just cut their losses and say “’This is it?’” Nonetheless, despite his reservations, the president was moving ever closer to the point of no return. LBJ remained convinced that the United States had a responsibility to protect South Vietnam.

His frequent reference to the dead South Vietnamese leader, such as “You know my views of Diem” as well as his insistence that “We could have kept Diem” illustrates the president’s personal belief that there was a moral chasm between the two countries. Similarly, Johnson felt that it was his duty to continue his predecessor’s policy. Even though he had been elected president in his own right, he could not shake off the feeling that failure in Vietnam would perfidies JFK’s legacy. He accordingly told Taylor that “we have been building our strength to fight this… war ever since 1961 and I myself am ready to substantially increase the number of Americans in Vietnam.”

Then again, the president was also badly advised. In the NSC Working Group’s paper on the courses of action there was no reference to a political solution. The three alternatives outlined, all included the continuation of military measures. In fact, the first option- to rely on maximum economic assistance- specifically excluded negotiations.

There was, hence, no executive debate on whether neutralisation was a viable option or if the United States could actually win in Vietnam. Indeed, the idea of discontinuing America’s commitment in December 1964 was considered illogical. The Johnson government had not yet exhausted all its alternatives or made inroads in its vast resources. It possessed the largest military arsenal on the planet and was facing a “damn little pissant country” which had not yet suffered the full wrath of U.S. power.

Taylor pointed out: “We could still try a number of things which might supply the new ingredient we were seeking to reverse the adverse trend.” The suggestion, therefore, that America might be in any way inferior to the DRV was preposterous. Besides, the Vietnam War came on the back of three major military victories. Both World Wars and the Korean conflict had ended favourably; there seemed little reason why history should not repeat itself.

Yet despite its awesome military strength, Washington remained unable to fix the core problem in South Vietnam- political mayhem. Between late October 1964 and January 1965 a political standoff developed with the civilian executive on the one hand and the ARVN on the other. The political crisis was instigated on October 28, after Khanh’s resignation as Prime Minister. The main rationale for his decision was to prove that there was no viable alternative to a military junta and to rejuvenate public support for his leadership.

Sure enough, the civilian government under Tran Van Huong found few friends and was unable to prevent a group of young officers known as the “Young Turks” from dissolving the High National Council. Thus, with the assistance of the Armed Forces Council, Khanh accused the administration of failing to cope with the political crisis and subsequently regained control of Saigon.

Because of the South Vietnamese government’s inability to pull itself together, the major argument against military involvement gradually turned into the main reason for it. George Kahin notes that Johnson had conditioned Phase II of U.S. escalation on a stable political administration. “At a minimum,” he argued, “the government should be able to speak for and to its people who will need guidance and leadership throughout the coming critical period.” But in the light of persistent political chaos this prerequisite seemed unattainable.

American state officials consequently turned logic on its head. Following Khanh’s military coup, McNamara and Bundy bluntly stated that there was no likelihood that the South Vietnamese would fashion a satisfactory regime. But rather than advising the president to use the hopeless situation as an excuse to exit the war, the infamous “fork-in-the-road memorandum” argued that the underlying difficulties in Saigon could only be solved by the use of military force.

Put differently, the South Vietnamese were failing to “pull up their socks” because of the United States’ refusal to employ its gigantic strength or take serious risks. Both presidential advisers consequently urged LBJ to axe the self-imposed conditions and instead seek stability through escalation.

Andrew Preston’s claim that Bundy (and McNamara) had turned from adviser to advocator is pertinent here. The forceful and alarmist tone of the memorandum leaves no doubt that both were trying to coerce Johnson towards military escalation. In fact, they were essentially giving the president an ultimatum.

“McNamara and I,” Bundy concluded, “have reached the point where our obligations to you simply do not permit us to administer our present directives in silence and let you think we see real hope in them.” Hence, if the president wanted their continual support then he should abandon the middle course and initiate large-scale aerial bombing against the enemy.

The threat worked. On the same day, Johnson sent a telegram to Ambassador Taylor which read; “I am determined to make it clear to all the world that the U.S. will spare no effort and no sacrifice in doing its full part to turn back the Communists in Vietnam.” The key explanation for the president’s consent was his own uncertainty. Above all, he was determined not to embarrass himself. He was more aware than anyone that he had little knowledge of foreign affairs. He was also untested and did not have a presidential success to fall back on. Thus, LBJ relied heavily on his advisers to formulate policies in Vietnam. Accordingly, Doris Kearns points out:

“He felt that so long as his policies were approved by those men who represented the established wisdom, he was, at least, insured against appearing foolish or incompetent.” It was concern for his own political skin, then, which drove Johnson ever closer towards military escalation.

Yet this is not to suggest that the president had made a clear-cut decision. He was still in two minds; as his conversation with the Director of the CIA, John McCone illustrates. On February 4, Johnson asked him “if you were President of the United States, what would you do about it [Vietnam],” as well as inquiring what the consequences of an American retreat would be.

McCone responded that defeat would have grave effects throughout Southeast Asia, citing specifically Thailand and Malaysia as trouble spots. Similar to Bundy and McNamara, he also recommended intensive bombing against North Vietnam and entrenched Johnson’s conviction that military escalation was the only option.

But what did tip the president over the edge was the Vietcong attack against the U.S. army barracks at Pleiku. The assault on February, 6 culminated in the death of eight Americans and acted as a crucial strand for the initiation of Phase II. Robert Divine stresses that throughout its history, America had always gone to war in self-defence. The Vietnam conflict was no different. Military retaliation became a patriotic banner under which every state official (with the exception of Mansfield) united and subsequently endorsed reciprocal air strikes against the enemy.

Furthermore, the international prestige of the United States as well as a substantial part of its in influence within the Asiatic hemisphere was at risk. Failure to retaliate would be considered proof by Beijing and Moscow that Washington was apathetic to its ally’s fate as well as fuelling South Vietnamese fear that they had been abandoned. Similarly, it would have a negative impact on the morale in other parts of the world, “even to the extent of affecting Berlin.”

Historical analogies were important too. Johnson recalled the country’s failure to act swiftly against aggression both in 1918 and 1945, thus concluding that “cowardice has gotten us into more wars than response has.” On the other hand, it is crucial to emphasise that cowardice was also equated with personal prestige. The angst of being considered weak was paramount.

“What would happen to me,” the president asked, “if I didn’t defend our boys; what would the American people think of me with those boys out there dying in their sleep?” The unspoken answer was that they would think he did not have the guts to go to war; that he himself was a coward. He therefore authorised the launching of retaliatory raids on four targets in North Vietnam. Bundy was right when he noted that Lyndon Johnson had “turned the corner.”

Then again, following the initiation of Operation Flaming Dart, a number of government officials tried to reverse the decision. Both George Ball and Vice-President Humphrey sent memorandums to the president, urging him to reconsider. Ball highlighted the international consequences of military involvement. He emphasised the danger of America’s commitment spiralling out of control.

The possibility of Chinese retaliation was particularly significant and Ball warned that escalation would propel Peking to move massive ground troops into the Southeast Asian theatre. Likewise, the Under Secretary of State noted his scepticism regarding a possible military victory. He pointed out that the DRV had been fighting for ten years and predicted that it would never abandon its goal of unifying the country. Consequently, the paper proposed that Johnson organise a conference to settle the problem politically. Humphrey, on the other hand, underlined domestic issues.

He argued that the American people did not understand why its government was supporting a country which was “unable to put its house in order.” The Vice-President contended further that 1965 was the first year in which the government could face the predicament without worrying about political repercussions. He concluded therefore that Johnson should use his strong electoral support to start decreasing America’s commitment and cut its losses.

Indeed, another military putsch in mid-February as well as rumours of imminent rapprochement between the two Vietnamese states underlined Humphrey’s contention that the situation was a fiasco. Still, there were two fundamental problems with the opposition. The first was that none of the critics could give Johnson a viable alternative. Instead, it was considered inevitable that South Vietnam would collapse and the United States should simply bow to fate.

Humphrey also weakened his position when he disregarded presidential instructions and publicly hinted that Washington was advocating talks with the communists. More importantly, the opposition was not only advising Johnson to overturn the entire rational of America’s foreign policy since 1945- a formula which to that point seemed to be working- but also to ignore the fundamental lesson of the past; that aggression could only be checked by stealth.

And as Ball himself noted; “how could the President be expected to adopt the heresies of an Under Secretary against the contrary views of his whole top command?” Besides, LBJ’s Vietnam policy received strong backing from his predecessors. Both Truman and Eisenhower applauded the president’s steadfastness and told him that he should continue America’s commitment.

Robert Jervis, however, highlights perhaps the most fundamental reason for Washington’s rejection of both neutralisation and withdrawal- the good doctor hypothesis. Bundy (and later the Assistant Secretary of Defence John McNaughton) stressed that even if the United States failed to win, the policy of escalation would be worth it.

At a minimum, it would damp down the charge that Washington had not done everything possible to deter the enemy. It would, moreover, illustrate American resolve to uphold its promises and set a higher price for future communist attacks against the Free World. It was therefore the effort rather than the effect which was the central strand of U.S. foreign policy in February 1965.

Then again, there was another, more personal reason why Johnson chose to escalate the conflict. Vietnam, as VanDeMark points out, was not the only important item on the president’s agenda. Above all, Johnson wanted to “make America beautiful.”

This meant eliminating racial discrimination and poverty throughout the country. But whilst the Democratic Party had won the presidential election by a landslide, it had lost the southern vote to Goldwater and LBJ considered the prospects for congressional passage of his domestic program as “uncompromising.” Yet a series of black demonstrations in Selma, Alabama throughout the beginning of 1965 changed this outlook.

The violent confrontations, including the death of a twenty-six year old citizen, captured national interest and illustrated perfectly the racial discrimination of African-Americans in the South. Subsequently, on February 6, LBJ declared that the country could no longer ignore these ethnic problems and announced his support for civil rights. This though made it crucial to keep the outbreak of conflict in Vietnam as discreet as possible.

A divisive debate on the war would ruin his golden opportunity and cause Congress to refocus its attention on international affairs. The president therefore decided to go to war on the sly. He would have both guns and butter.

On February 26, 1965 Lyndon Johnson chose to escalate the conflict. He authorised the initiation of a sustained bombing program codenamed Operation Rolling Thunder as well as dispatching two Marine Battalions to defend the U.S. air base at Da Nang. We have come full circle.

The decision signalled the end of policy deliberations. There would be no more argument. America would henceforth “do everything possible to maximize” its military efforts and “reverse [the] present unfavorable situation.” In short, the country was at war.


When analysing the origins of the Vietnam conflict, an obvious point has to be made first, since its significance is sometimes overlooked. State officials within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations did not start out as advocators of escalation. They could not assume, when they began their efforts, that it would culminate in a full-scale military conflict. Instead, over the course of approximately two years, the United States slowly but surely moved towards the deployment of its armed forces. Distressing circumstances were undoubtedly crucial. The inability of South Vietnam to sort itself out was at the centre of the problem.

Its failure to construct a proficient government, coupled with the increasing strength of the Vietcong, forced Washington to adopt drastic measures. But these circumstances were conditions rather than causes. If they predisposed they did not dispose. More was needed. Both the Kennedy and Johnson administration had to believe that South Vietnam was worth fighting for. And there is no doubt that they did.

The question, then, is why. As the various answers have made clear, helping the Vietnamese people mattered far less than more proximate goals. Senator McGhee put it best when he said: “To understand Vietnam, it is necessary to understand that the issue is not Vietnam.” The foundations were laid down long before 1963.

The Cold War certainly made it possible that U.S. policy would culminate in military escalation; as the conflict in Korea had proven. But it would be going too far to suggest that Kennedy and Johnson were merely puppets, compelled to act by forces outside of their control. No, an explanation for the conflicts origins is much more complicated than that.

First of all, the Kennedy administration embraced the domino theory. Every time state officials debated why the United States was involved in Vietnam, the metaphor of falling dominoes was not far off. But unlike his predecessors, JFK perceived China, not the Soviet Union, as the primary threat and consequently shifted America’s interest from Europe to the Third World.

Moreover, policymakers worried that if the Peking-sponsored DRV succeeded in unifying Vietnam, then other “wars of national liberation” would inevitably follow and thusly propel communist movements to recede from Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” strategy.

Then again, American exceptionalism was significant too. The conviction that the United States knew best, that it had a right to intervene in foreign countries affairs filtered through the executive bureaucracy and climaxed with U.S. sponsorship of a military putsch. Finally, Washington was certain that the Buddhist crisis had not affected the war in the countryside. No doubt the optimistic military reports coupled with reassurances of imminent victory were central reasons why the Kennedy government rejected the neutralisation option and instead continued its endeavour to suppress communist aggression by force.

Subsequent to JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson inherited America’s commitment to South Vietnam. Yet there were fundamental differences. Most crucially, he became president without a political mandate and was therefore determined to delay a clear-cut decision until after the general election.

Unlike his predecessor, LBJ also confronted both a political and military conundrum. On the one hand, following the military takeover, factionalism flourished in Saigon and led to the disintegration of the country’s political establishment. On the other hand, the aforementioned military reports were exposed as fabricated and caused the Johnson administration to implement myriad programs in the hope of rejuvenating South Vietnamese morale. Governmental reasoning for U.S. involvement in 1964 also transformed.

The domino theory was shelved by the Johnson administration whilst more emphasis was given to American prestige. More specifically, if Washington failed to check communist aggression in Southeast Asia, then it would be deemed a paper tiger by its enemies. Both allies and neutral states would similarly break away from U.S. leadership and seek détente with the communist bloc.

But there was also an ethical side to American involvement. Johnson perceived the slaying of Diem and Nhu as a tragic mistake and felt that he was morally wedded to South Vietnam. Then again, the Tonkin Gulf Incident also marked a fundamental turning point. Congressional surrendering of its political powers, in conjunction with the first reprisal attack, raised the articulated stakes and made it much easier to justify further military action.

Following LBJ’s presidential success in November 1964, the United States moved ever closer to escalation. Vietcong attacks against American installations as well as the failure of NSAM 288 to boost South Vietnamese morale signalled the end of the middle-of-the-road policy.

Hence, Johnson had to decide between escalation and withdrawal. He chose the former, primarily because he feared losing credibility. He was on the one hand worried that a fig-leaf agreement would damage his own personal credibility and on the other hand destroy American credibility throughout the world.

But although LBJ made the final decision, he was always a reluctant warrior who relied heavily on his consultants. Bundy, McNamara and Rusk all rejected any alternative to military escalation and framed the choices in such a way that standing firm appeared the only option. It is also important to remember though that Johnson was very much a man of his time. Munich had become a euphemism for surrendering whilst Korea predisposed the administration to adopt a limited military program. Also, by February 1965 it no longer mattered whether America actually won the war but rather that it at the very least tried to curtail communist expansion. In short, the effort had become more significant than the result. Nonetheless, U.S. invincibility was also pertinent.

The very idea that North Vietnam, a small, insignificant country in the Far East could withstand the power of the hegemonic power of the world was considered impossible. Surely policymakers reasoned, Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese people had a breaking point and would eventually admit defeat. They were wrong.


Primary Sources

Beschloss, M., ed., Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (London, 2001)

blanked Taking Charge: The Johnson House Tapes, 1963-1964 (New York, 1997)

Ritchie, D., ed., Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Volume XV, Eighty-Eighth Congress, First Session, 1963 (Washington, 1987)

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