The major initiative in the Lyndon Johnson presidency was the Vietnam War. By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam and had already lost 30,000 Americans there. Johnson’s approval ratings had dropped from 70 percent in mid-1965 to below 40 percent by 1967, and with it, his mastery of Congress. “I can’t get out, I can’t finish it with what I have got. So what the hell do I do?” he lamented to Lady Bird. Johnson never did figure out the answer to that question.
The Vietnam War was a conflict between North and South Vietnam, but it had global ramifications. The North was led by a Communist and nationalist regime that had fought against the Japanese in World War II and against French colonial rule in the late 1940s. In 1954, it won control of North Vietnam when the French agreed to a partition in the Geneva Accords. The South was led by a non-Communist regime; after 1956, it was headed by Ngo Dinh Diem. A Catholic, Diem was unable to consolidate his rule with a predominantly Buddhist population. He governed with the support of a military supplied and trained by the United States and with substantial U.S. economic assistance. By the late 1950s, a Communist guerrilla force in the South, the Viet Cong, was fighting to overthrow the Diem regime. By the early 1960s, it was receiving substantial military and logistical assistance from the Communists in the North.
Thus the Vietnam conflict could be seen through three lenses: (1) it was a civil war between pro- and anti-Diem groups in the South; (2) it was a war of reunification waged by the North against the South; and (3) it was viewed by the United States as part of the conspiracy by the Sino-Soviet bloc to conquer the Third World and install Communist regimes. Throughout the conflict, American Presidents were unwilling to see South Vietnam conquered by Communist forces, and thus each of them made the same commitment to forestall a Communist victory. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had commenced American involvement there by sending military advisers. Kennedy had begun assigning Special Forces military personnel to Vietnam, ostensibly in an advisory capacity as well, and there were about 20,000 there when he was assassinated in 1963.
For Johnson, the decision to continue the Vietnam commitment followed the path of his predecessors. He was committed to maintaining an independent South Vietnam and to achieving success in Southeast Asia. As a senator, he had embraced “containment theory,” which predicted that if Vietnam fell to Communists, other Southeast Asian nations would do the same. Johnson was deeply sensitive about the judgment of history, and he did not want to be remembered as a President who lost Southeast Asia to Communism.
When Johnson took office, he affirmed the Kennedy administration’s commitments. He quickly approved NSAM 273, a national security agency memorandum, on November 26, 1963, which directed the U.S. government “to assist the people and Government of South Vietnam to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy.” When counterinsurgency failed, Johnson began to escalate U.S. commitments. Johnson approved OPLAN 34A-64 on January 16, 1964, calling for stepped up infiltration and covert operations against the North to be transferred from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the military.
To continue reading, please click here.