The Decision to Americanize the War in Vietnam

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Modern America

Mr. Ackerman

The Decision to Americanize the War in Vietnam
President Lyndon B. Johnson and his key foreign policy advisers made a momentous decision during the first half of 1965, weighing whether to commit large numbers of U.S. ground forces to a war then being fought on the other side of the world in Vietnam. Ultimately, in late July, the President opted to expand dramatically the U.S. commitment. That fateful decision--the closest thing to a formal decision for war in Vietnam--launched the United States on a costly, divisive, and unsuccessful war that lasted for 8 more years. Several of Johnson's advisers proposed alternate courses of action.
By 1965, fighting between noncommunist South Vietnam, backed primarily by the United States, and North Vietnam, aided by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, had raged for over a decade. The United States had been directly involved since 1954 in only a limited way, sending noncombatant military advisers to help the South Vietnamese Government counter North Vietnam and the communist guerrillas in the south, the National Liberation Front (NLF). Johnson inherited the limited U.S. role in Vietnam when he became President following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. But he delayed charting a clear course in Vietnam throughout 1964, in part, because he feared that doing so would damage his candidacy in that year's presidential election. He did obtain congressional approval to prosecute the war. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed in August 1964 after two U.S. vessels operating in the waters off the North Vietnamese coast reported being fired upon, authorized the commander in chief to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression."
Vietnam rose to the fore in the months following Johnson's successful election bid, when it appeared possible that America's ally, South Vietnam, would lose the war. Johnson quickly ruled out abandoning Saigon, an action that he believed would hurt him politically at home and damage U.S. credibility abroad, encouraging communist challenges elsewhere. Instead, after several attempts to shore up the South Vietnamese Government had failed, many administration officials increasingly regarded expanding the U.S. role as the only way to stave off NLF advances and save South Vietnam. In early February 1965, McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, traveled to South Vietnam to assess the situation and recommend action. During his visit, the NLF attacked a U.S. Army barracks in Pleiku, killing nine Americans. Upon his return to Washington, Bundy informed the president, "The situation in Vietnam is deteriorating, and without new U.S. action defeat appears inevitable." There is still time to turn it around, but not much." The President responded on February 13 by approving Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam, designed to improve South Vietnamese morale, complicate the north's infiltration of the south, and force Hanoi to the bargaining table. The expanded air war, in turn, provided the justification for the next significant step on the road to escalation: the introduction of the first U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. On February 26, Johnson dispatched Marine brigades to secure a crucial air base at Danang.
1. Who supported North Vietnam? Who supported South Vietnam?

2. Why was Johnson reluctant to chart a course in Vietnam in 1964?

3. What was Operation Rolling Thunder? Why did Johnson eventually authorize ground Us ground forces?

To the dismay of Johnson and his foreign policy team, however, these measures failed to turn the war's tide. As a result, in the spring and summer of 1965, they engaged in a heated debate about what course of action to take in Vietnam. Most of Johnson's key advisers argued that only the introduction of substantial numbers of U.S. ground forces would preserve an independent and noncommunist South Vietnam, halt the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, and uphold U.S. credibility. Ambassador to Saigon Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, Commander of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, among others, met on April 20 in Honolulu, where they recommended the introduction of almost 50,000 additional U.S. troops, bringing the total to about 82,000. McNamara reported these recommendations to President Johnson, explaining that military experts now envisioned a significant offensive role for U.S. troops. The President approved the dispatch of six of the requested nine battalions.

Later, in June, General Westmoreland, whose dispatches from the field first prompted consideration of the issue in Washington, reported that he foresaw a long "war of attrition" developing in Vietnam. And he recommended the deployment of 150,000 additional forces, arguing that such numbers were necessary "to permit the [South] Vietnamese with our help to carry the war to the enemy."
President Johnson and his senior advisers discussed Vietnam during a meeting at the White House on June 23. The attendees were divided, with Undersecretary of State George W. Ball expressing reservations about the administration's ever-deepening commitment. But Secretary of State Dean Rusk sided with the hawks, arguing that, if the United States did not save South Vietnam, the rest of Southeast Asia would fall to communism. Acting on such advice, Johnson ordered additional battalions to Vietnam 6 days later, pushing the total force level to 125,000.
Even that figure proved insufficient, however, and Westmoreland, Wheeler, and McNamara all advocated a deeper commitment, recommending to President Johnson in July that he expand U.S. forces in Vietnam up to 34 battalions, or 175,000 troops. On July 8, President Johnson received a strong endorsement of his gradual escalation in Vietnam from a panel of distinguished informal presidential advisers, known as the "Wise Men." They advised him that Vietnam represented a crucial Cold War test of the American ability to contain communism. Arguing that the administration, thus far, had been "too restrained," they believed that the stakes were sufficiently high in Vietnam for the President to make "whatever combat force increases were required." Concerned about Congress' willingness to endorse such proposals, the President discussed them during a telephone conversation with Sen. Mike Mansfield, who emerged as a leading critic of the President's policies in Vietnam.

4. How many troops did General Westmoreland say were necessary to achieve victory in Vietnam?

5. Why do you think Johnson’s “wise men” argued for such an increase in American troops? Why did they believe it was necessary to wing the war in Vietnam?

Not all of Johnson's foreign policy experts supported the deepening U.S. commitment in Vietnam. Adviser Clark Clifford believed that the deployment of U.S. ground forces "should be kept to a minimum." Vietnam, he wrote the President, "could be a quagmire. (long drawn out fight) It could turn into an open end commitment on our part that would take more and more ground troops, without a realistic hope of ultimate victory."

Ball similarly opposed the drive toward a military solution. He instead urged Johnson to limit the commitment of U.S. ground forces. American soldiers, Ball argued on several occasions, would be perceived as foreign invaders by the Vietnamese, both north and south, and would be fighting an unfamiliar guerrilla war on unfamiliar jungle terrain. As a result, he argued, there was little likelihood of success in Vietnam, despite the introduction of more and more U.S. troops. The United States, he proposed, should make the best of a bad situation by cutting its losses and immediately seeking "a way out," meaning a diplomatic settlement. The short-term costs of a negotiated withdrawal would be substantial, he admitted. But the long-term costs of escalating the war would be even greater, he predicted, since the United States would fail even after spending its treasure, its prestige, and its soldiers' lives. Ball posed the question, thusly, "Should we commit U.S. manpower and prestige to a terrain so unfavorable as to give a very large advantage to the enemy - or should we seek a compromise settlement which achieves less than our stated objectives and thus cut our losses while we still have the freedom of maneuver to do so?"
6. Explain at least 2 arguments the “doves,” or advocates for peace, had against sending in more troops.
The Decision to Americanize the War

McNamara, who at the President's request visited South Vietnam in early July to determine the potential effect of a large U.S. commitment, provided the clinching argument. McNamara's advice carried particular weight with the President, who had been impressed with his intellect and analytical ability since the early days of the Kennedy administration. Upon his return, the Secretary of Defense again urged the President to increase pressure on Hanoi by augmenting U.S. forces. McNamara foresaw a possible victory in South Vietnam by 1968 if Westmoreland's forces were elevated to the 34-battalion level (about 175,000 U.S. troops) that he had previously recommended. The secretary went even further, though, conceding that an additional 100,000 troops might be needed by early 1966 and advocating calling up 235,000 reservists and National Guardsmen. Ball predicted that such a massive force risked becoming "lost in the rice paddies."

The decision on combat troop deployment came at the July 27 meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). Declaring that the "situation in Vietnam is deteriorating," President Johnson listed the options available to American policymakers: immediate withdrawal, maintaining the present level of U.S. troops, or increasing the U.S. commitment. The President chose to expand the number of U.S. ground troops, approving the immediate deployment of some 75,000 additional forces. But he scaled back the Pentagon's requests, fearing that the all-out commitment they entailed could expand the war by provoking Chinese or Soviet intervention and endanger the Great Society, his cherished domestic reform program. No NSC members, when asked their opinions by Johnson, opposed the decision.
President Johnson's decision Americanized the war by taking the burden of fighting from the South Vietnamese and placing it in the hands of the U.S. military. Recognizing this, Horace Busby, Johnson's political adviser, wrote in July, "This is no longer South Vietnam's war. We are no longer advisers. The stakes are no longer South Vietnam's. The war is ours." President Johnson's decision also launched the United States on its longest and most divisive war that ultimately cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. Despite those sacrifices, the United States lost, withdrawing in 1973 from South Vietnam, which only 2 years later fell to communists backed by North Vietnam. The quagmire in Vietnam, which precipitated anti-war demonstrations in the United States, was so unpopular by 1968 that it destroyed Johnson's political career. The President surprised the nation in March 1968, when he announced that he would not seek the Democratic Party's nomination in that year's presidential election.

  1. What were the three choices Johnson said American policy makers had when it came to Vietnam? What was his eventual decision on what to do?

  2. How did Johnson’s decision affect his political career?

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