The Vietnam War was the longest deployment of U.S. forces in hostile action in the history of the American republic. Although there is no formal declaration of war from which to date U.S. entry, President John F. Kennedy’s decision to send over 2,000 military advisers to South Vietnam in 1961 marked the beginning of twelve years of American military combat. U.S. unit combat began in 1965. The number of US. troops steadily increased until it reached a peak of 543,400 in April 1969. The total number of Americans who served in South Vietnam was 2.7 million. Of these, more than 58,000 died or remain missing, and 300,000 others were wounded. The US. government spent more than $140 billion on the war. Despite this enormous military effort, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving an independent, noncommunist state in South Vietnam. This failure has led to searching questions about why and how the war was fought and whether a better diplomatic and military outcome was possible for the United States.
Escalation. By 1961, guerrilla warfare was widespread in South Vietnam. Communist-led troops of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, commonly referred to as Vietcong, were initiating hundreds of terrorist and small unit attacks per month. Saigon’s military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), was not able to contain this growing insurgency. During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a small U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), never numbering more than 740 uniformed soldiers, had provided training and logistics assistance to the ARVN. The Kennedy administration determined that the size and mission of the U.S. advisory effort must change if the U.S.-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon was to survive. Some of Kennedy’s aides proposed a negotiated settlement in Vietnam similar to that which recognized Laos as a neutral country. Having just suffered international embarrassment in Cuba and Berlin, the president rejected compromise and chose to strengthen U.S. support of Saigon.
In May 1961, Kennedy sent 400 U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) troops into South Vietnam’s Central Highlands to train Montagnard tribesmen in counterinsurgency tactics. He also tripled the level of aid to South Vietnam. A steady stream of airplanes, helicopters, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and other equipment poured into the South. By the end of 1962, there were 9,000 U.S. military advisers under the direction of a newly-created Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Paul Harkins. Under U.S. guidance, the Diem government also began construction of “strategic hamlets.” These fortified villages were intended to insulate rural Vietnamese from Vietcong intimidation and propaganda.
U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders were cautiously optimistic that increased U.S. assistance finally was enabling the Saigon government to defend itself. On 2 January 1963, however, at Ap Bac on the Plain of Reeds southwest of Saigon, a Vietcong battalion of about 320 men inflicted heavy damage on an ARVN force of 3,000 equipped with troop-carrying helicopters, new UH- I (“Huey”) helicopter gunships, tactical bombers, and APCS. Ap Bac represented a leadership failure for the ARVN and a major morale boost for the antigovernment forces. The absence of fighting spirit in the ARVN mirrored the continuing inability of the Saigon regime to win political support. Indeed, many South Vietnamese perceived the strategic hamlets as government oppression, not protection, because people were forced to leave their ancestral homes for the new settlements.
While Vietcong guerrillas scored military successes, leaders of Vietnam’s Buddhist majority protested against what they saw as the Diem regime’s religious persecution. In June, a monk dramatically burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection. The “Buddhist crisis” and dissatisfaction with Diem by top Vietnamese Army leaders made U.S. officials receptive to the idea of a change in South Vietnam’s leadership. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not interfere as a group of ARVN officers plotted a coup. On 1 November 1963, the generals seized power, and Diem and his unpopular brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were murdered. Three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and U.S. policy in Vietnam was again at a crossroads. If the new government in Saigon failed to show progress against the insurgency, would the United States withdraw its support from a lost cause, or would it escalate the effort to preserve South Vietnam as an anticommunist outpost in Asia?
Lyndon B. Johnson inherited the Vietnam dilemma. As Senate majority leader in the 1950s and as vice-president, he had supported Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s decisions to aid South Vietnam. Four days after Kennedy’s death, Johnson, now president, reaffirmed in National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 273 that the U.S. goal was to assist South Vietnam in its “contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy.” U.S. policy defined the Vietnam War as North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. North Vietnam infiltrated troops and materiel into South Vietnam by sea and along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. Throughout his administration, Johnson insisted that the only possible negotiated settlement of the conflict would be one in which North Vietnam recognized the legitimacy of South Vietnam’s government. Without such recognition, the United States would continue to provide Saigon as much help as it needed to survive.
The critical military questions were how much U.S. assistance was enough and what form it should take. By the spring of 1964, the Vietcong controlled vast areas of South Vietnam, the strategic hamlet program had essentially ceased, and North Vietnam’s aid to the southern insurgents had grown. In June, Johnson named one of the army’s most distinguished officers, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, then commandant of West Point, as commander U.S. MACV. Westmoreland immediately asked for more men, and by the end of 1964 U.S. personnel in the South exceeded 23,000. Increasingly, however, the U.S. effort focused on the North. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and other key White House aides remained convinced that the assault on South Vietnam originated in the ambitious designs of Hanoi backed by Moscow and Beijing.
Throughout 1964, the United States assisted South Vietnam in covert operations to gather intelligence, disseminate propaganda, and harass the North. On the night of 2 August, North Vietnamese gunboats fired on the USS Maddox a destroyer on an intelligence-collecting mission, in the same area of the Gulf of Tonkin where South Vietnamese commandos were conducting raids against the North Vietnamese coast. Two nights later, under stormy conditions, the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, reported a gunboat attack. Although doubts existed about these reports, the president ordered retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese port of Vinh. The White House had expected that some type of incident would occur eventually, and it had prepared the text of a congressional resolution authorizing the president to use armed force to protect U.S. forces and to deter further aggression from North Vietnam. On 7 August 1964, Johnson secured almost unanimous consent from Congress (414-0 in the House; 88-2 in the Senate) for his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the principal legislative basis for all subsequent military deployment in Southeast Asia.
Johnson’s decisive but restrained response to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents helped him win the 1964 election, but Saigon’s prospects continued to decline. The president wanted to concentrate on his ambitious domestic program, the Great Society, but his political instincts told him that his leadership would be damaged fatally if America’s client state in South Vietnam succumbed. Instability mounted in South Vietnam as rival military and civilian factions vied for power and as Vietcong strength grew. A consensus formed among Johnson’s advisers that the United States would have to initiate air warfare against North Vietnam. Bombing could boost Saigon’s morale and might persuade the North to cease its support of the insurgency. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) favored a massive bombing campaign, but civilians in the State and Defense Departments preferred a gradual escalation.
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