Kennedy pulled usa into Vietnam but Johnson had the biggest responsibility



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Eveliina Mielikäinen


“Kennedy pulled USA into Vietnam but Johnson had the biggest responsibility” Discuss the statement.

This essay will evaluate Johnson’s responsibility in the Vietnam War and conclude that he did have the biggest responsibility compared to Kennedy. In the following paragraphs the background and attitudes of both Kennedy and Johnson will be explored, Johnson’s ideas and the foreign policy of his administration and what consequences it had will also be dealt with. This essay will cover the events from 1961 to 1965 in USA.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the American president from 1961 to 1963. Kennedy belonged to a family which hated Communism and Senator McCarthy was a close family friend. Like many other Americans, Kennedy believed in the domino theory and that America had to stop Communism from spreading. Kennedy considered the Third World as the new battleground where Cold War would be fought and he criticized Eisenhower for allowing the rise of Communism there. Due to his background Kennedy was interested and committed to Vietnam which affected his decision in pulling USA into Vietnam in 1961.

Johnson became president of the United States after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and was president until 1969. Johnson’s initial idea for his presidency was to bring about a major social reform creating a “Great Society” however his increase of US involvement in Vietnam shows him being more committed to the war than domestic affairs. Johnson believed that Communism should be fought no matter the cost and like Eisenhower and Kennedy he also believed in the domino theory but also that USA had to continue helping South Vietnam due to US membership in SEATO, it was important to deliver the image to the rest of the world of a loyal America which stood by her allies. Johnson who had the possibility to draw back the US troops from Vietnam preventing a war in which 46 000 Americans were killed and two and a half million Vietnamese lost their lives decided that it was more important to protect the Kennedy legacy and follow in the manner of the previous president and administrations, fighting Communism and therefore has the main responsibility.

Besides Johnson’s patriotism and the fact that he felt it would be important to carry on with the Kennedy legacy also the relationship to his advisors and the information which he received from them explains why Johnson continued the war and thus can be said having the biggest responsibility. Despite the fact that Johnson expected good judgement, honesty and ideas on how to proceed from his advisors they knew that ultimately it would be better to say what Johnson wanted to hear, one of Johnson’s most influential advisors worked upon this principle, not knowing anything about Vietnam instead knowing Johnson well. Also the advisors obsession to win Communism was a foundation to why the advice Johnson received from his advisors was supporting the war, Rusk was obsessed about continuing the struggle and believed that the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam would lose faith in American’s commitment to oppose Communist aggression and eventually lead to World War Three.The Johnson administration has later been criticized for the lack of expertise on historical knowledge and the understanding of the Vietnamese culture. Even though the advisors’ duty was to provide the necessary information which should have been used for determining the US involvement in Vietnam they cannot be considered responsible since Johnson was the president and he had the main responsibility for US involvement in Vietnam and he had no obligation, apart from moral, to act upon the information received from his advisors.

From the inability of Johnson’s advisors it could be said that Johnson simply trusted his staff and due to this was unknowing about the consequences of his decisions however evidence to disclaim this argument and supporting the statement that Johnson had the biggest responsibility concerning the Vietnam War exits. In 1963 Senate leader Mike Mansfield proposed that instead of fighting Vietnam resources should be focused on uniting and neutralizing the country. He also knew that the Saigon government was unlikely to reform and continuously required answers to why USA being a democracy supports the military governments in Saigon, was fighting against Communism a demand from the people in South Vietnam and why were the US interested in Vietnam so much. Johnson was unwilling to answer any of these questions and any of debate and the discussion about the matter was undesired. Also the CIA was uncertain about the situation in Vietnam and Johnson decided to listen to those who did not request answers to questions to which he had no clue what the answer would be. Johnson’s actions were guided by the ambition of not being the first president to lose a war and in the time of war the beliefs and advice of military were highly valued and unfortunately like Kennedy Johnson found some military leaders, especially Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay scary who had the desire of total destruction of Vietnam using heavy bombardment. Johnson’s dread for the Air Force Chef and inability to answer difficult, but vital questions about US foreign policy seems irrational since Johnson after all was the president, the person who had the responsibility and should have had the knowledge to make well considered and beneficial decisions. This was not only the time when decision should have been made, it was also the time when the war could have been prevented and therefore Johnson is escaping his responsibility and when the events escalate and consequences start the affect others than Americans it is very to say that Johnson had the biggest responsibility.

From December 1963 the Vietcong was strengthen by North Vietnamese Army regulars and the Vietcong fought the US air force by Soviet and Chinese weaponry resulting in approximately half of the South Vietnam being in Communist control. McNamara together with General Taylor visited Saigon describing the South Vietnamese apathetic and unwilling to fight. Discussions in Washington in 1964 dealt with how the South Vietnamese would be helped winning the war instead of considering how US troops should be taken out of the country. By 1964 200 Americans had died and Johnson had added 2500 men into the US forces. Rusk and McNamara tried to persuade Johnson that escalation was necessary and that if America would attack North Vietnam it might bring success. Johnson realised that in order for escalation to happen he needed both the congress and public support and believed that the support of the congress would be gain by The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the presidential elections in November 1964 would give him the public’s support. Johnson coming up with solutions on how to win both the public and congressional support shows how determinate he was combating Communism and since he knew how to make his actions seem justified and good in the minds and hearts of the people and the members of the congress his impact on how the war continued and the responsibility he had in it cannot be questioned.

Johnson was provoked during the summer of 1964 by Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the upcoming presidential elections by saying that Johnson was too soft on Communism. Similarly Kennedy often heard comments about his inexperience, young age and potential weaknesses in his leadership skill which made him even more determinant in order to disprove those criticizing him; Kennedy’s objective became to focus on the foreign policy and at the same time increase defense expenditure and foreign involvement. Naturally Johnson did not want that the voters would get the wrong impression therefore on August 4 1964 he asked congressional support claiming that the North Vietnamese had twice attacked American ships without any provocation by the Americans. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was introduced by the administration, forgetting the original purpose of raising Saigon’s morale Congress willingly passed the resolution in the belief of those American sailors had been wounded. The resolution was “like grandma’s night-shirt – it covered everything” giving Johnson power to precede how he wanted concerning Vietnam. One problem with the passing of the resolution still existed of which the Congress apparently was unaware of. CIA had engaged themselves in several secret sabotage missions sending South Vietnamese to the North and even though US marines claimed being attacked Hanoi insisted on denying that such attacks on US marine would have taken place. The question arises, what kind of president is willing to falsify facts in order to get his will without any or at the most adequate consideration of the consequences of his actions? President who is well aware of his objectives and ready to do everything in his power in order to achieve his own and those he believes are the whole goals and therefore Johnson can be considered having the biggest responsibility. Partly the press made the decision for him and because Johnson did not want to look like a coward and the press had already reported that Vietnamese had attacked US marine twice so Johnson could not take back what he had said about the attacks. After the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had passed American aircraft bombed North Vietnam for the first time and a new phase in the war against Communism in south Asia had began. Escalation increased the popular support from 42% to 72% and Johnson was re elected.

The weakness of the Johnson administration which also makes Johnson responsible for the war was the total lack of knowledge and ideas on what should be done about Vietnam, the aim of defeating Communism seemed somewhat understandable as in case the rest of the world would be under Communist rule USA would not receive any profits on trade and no demand for US goods would exist and also the traditional thought among the politicians which was based on the above reason for US hostility towards Communism still somewhat understandable but engaging in a war with a country far away with totally different cultural and historical background seemed foolish and unreasonable – an opinion to which related questions were posed during the election campaign in 1964.

The strong want in combating Communism, Johnson’s desire to became re elected, inability of the advisors and ignoring those warning that the war is not a good idea have already been discussed however further explanations to why Johnson escalated exist. Firstly an additional comment about Johnson’s personal reasons, it has been claimed that is was due to Johnson’s combative personality which made escalation inevitable, others think it was because of him being an overconfident man who would seek military solutions to problems. In one way or the other, the fact that it would have been due to Johnson’s personality he made the decision of US escalation it does not remove the fact that he had the biggest responsibility. The incompetence of the Saigon government, the recommendations of the working group and defense of American bomber bases with operation Rolling Thunder and additional American troops can be seen as explanations to why Johnson escalated.

General Maxwell Taylor had resigned from his occupation as the an American ambassador in 1964 having as his only solution that America should be prepared to run South Vietnam. His attitude towards the Saigon generals was something along the lines of commanding cadets at the military academy rather than co operating with the common goal of creating a powerful and stable government. Due to the incapability of the Saigon regime many were tired of the South Vietnamese, one of those being Dean Rusk “Somehow we must change the pace at which these people move, and I suspect that this can only be done with a pervasive intrusion of Americans into their affairs.” Johnson administration justified the escalation by that it was necessary for the safety of Americans in Vietnam when Vietcong in the South fought with determination against the Americans which the Saigon regime seemed powerless to strike back.

The presidential elections made Johnson doubt whether escalation would be a wise thing to do and instead of making any final decision so far, he ordered a Working Group consisting of the Defense Department, State Department, CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to study Vietnam and suggest policy options. The Working Group thought anti-Communist independent South Vietnam is vital, referring to the domino theory and America’s credibility and honor. They emphasized that escalation was necessary due to a weak government in the south. As mentioned earlier Mansfield opposed the idea of increased US involvement in Vietnam, the US diplomat George Ball was a fellow opponent. Ball thought rather than interfering in Asia focus should be to contain Communism in Europe. He warned Johnson that every step of US involvement would make the withdrawal when the public no longer supported the war harder. Instead of listening to Ball, Johnson took the suggestions made by the Working Group far more serious. Why, maybe he felt it would be easier to follow the same political agenda all the presidents have done, maybe he wanted believed that this would be the better solution, or he was afraid he would lose public support and cause major uprising in America due to his change in policy and in case the public would not support the president neither would the Congress and it was enough to fight one battle in Asia instead of one in Asia and the other one at home. With reference to Ball and Mansfield it can be argued that Johnson did have advisors who regarded the popular opinion too simplistic and unrealistic for this particular situation, Johnson could have discussed with them on how precede but instead he made of choice of not listening and therefore has the main responsibility.

In 1965 the first great step to escalation was taken in the form of continuous bombings. Same year the Vietcong attacked an American leaving eight soldiers dead and 100 wounded. Johnson himself was furious and pressure from his military advisors. Johnson’s reaction is an example on his temper, which was previously described in this essay and due to his strong emotional reaction he orders massively increased air attacks on North Vietnam, this is also known as the Rolling Thunder. Johnson however did not declare war because he was afraid that China and Soviet would interfere as well. This shows that Johnson acted partly on his emotions and had the main responsibility for increasing bombings but instead he was not ready to declare war.

Later in 1964 the next step to escalation was made by sending a new set of ground troops to Vietnam. Taylor pointed out that Americans would face problems when distinguishing who are members of Vietcong and who only ordinary citizens. He also pointed out that as long as US was sending more troops Moscow and Beijing would be kept involved. Many Americans planes were shot down by Soviet designed arms but Johnson ignored this and the warnings he received. In April 1965 Johnson was asked to support the increase of over 180 000 American troops which he did and even more soldiers were sent in. Johnson had the biggest responsibility and he could have influenced the amount of increased soldiers but instead of accepted it as it was. However, the public did support Johnson in his decisions in 1965 polls showed that 70% stood behind him, 80% believed in the domino theory and 80% favoured sending US soldiers to stop South Vietnam from falling. 47% wanted to send in more troops and by the end of 1965 almost 200 000 American soldiers were in Vietnam. No matter the public’s support the fact that Johnson had the biggest responsibility is not removed by this both Johnson and his administration together with the military had disagreements on what should be done in Vietnam and while these parties discussed this, more and more soldiers poured into Vietnam. From 1965 onwards some parts of the population started opposing the war, mainly students in several universities around the nation so the claim that everybody would have supported Johnson is incorrect and he was in fact during the whole of his presidency surrounded by people who felt that his decision on increased US involvement is unnecessary and the protests at universities where students even got killed could have not escaped from his attention.



In conclusion, in case Johnson would have been more aware of the information he received and understood why the was told exactly what he thought himself the war could have been ended far earlier and it was because of Johnson’s strong ideas about defeating Communism that made it impossible to objectively evaluate the true nature of the situation in Vietnam. Johnson had biggest responsible for the war due to the fact that he had no courage to act against the mainstream political ideas of the time and that his own personal beliefs, which he wanted to achieve during his presidency were so strong.



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