Us intervention in Vietnam: 1961-65



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US intervention in Vietnam: 1961-65
1. The Kennedy Administration’s approach to Vietnam:

  • Like his predecessor (President Eisenhower), John Kennedy saw the Vietnam conflict in the light of the Cold War – the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union for global influence. The administration’s thinking was influenced by the Domino Theory – the idea that the nations of Southeast Asia would collapse like a row of dominos if South Vietnam fell to communism.

  • Kennedy saw the spread of communism as a threat to US interests, but was unwilling to commit American ground troops to combat it. He settled on a combination of military and political initiatives to fight the Viet Cong (VC). Militarily, he sent advisers to train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). He also sent more military equipment. Politically, he supported Diem’s strategic hamlet program.

  • By the end of 1963, there were 16,000 US advisers in South Vietnam, but they failed to stop the VC, who increased their political influence and military effectiveness in 1963.

  • When Diem began using violent tactics against the Buddhist movement, Kennedy decided to sponsor his overthrow. In November 1963, Diem and his brother Nhu were killed by their own generals.

  • Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, leaving an ambiguous policy on Vietnam. Publically, the president was committed to preventing a VC victory. Privately, he had doubts about the chances of achieving this, and the wisdom of attempting to do so.

2. The Johnson Administration’s approach to Vietnam:



  • Lyndon Johnson came to power promising to continue Kennedy’s policies. These included preventing a communist takeover of South Vietnam.

  • During the first half of 1964, the VC continued to make advances. Johnson reacted to this by approving a series of raids on coastal targets in North Vietnam (carried out by South Vietnamese commandos), hoping this would pressure Ho Chi Minh to stop supporting the VC. The plan failed.

  • Johnson was more concerned about the impact the war was having on his re-election prospects than on American foreign policy. He feared he would be branded as ‘soft on communism’ by his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. He need a way to demonstrate his resolve. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident provided it.

3. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident:



  • On August 2nd 1964, a US warship was fired upon by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. (In fact, they were retaliating against the US-sponsored raids.) When the North Vietnamese appeared to attack a second time (on August 4th), Johnson demanded that America retaliate, and on August 5th US carrier based planes bombed North Vietnam. (In fact, the consensus is that the second attack never took place.)

  • Johnson got Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7th, giving him the power to take whatever action was necessary against the North Vietnamese. Effectively, it gave him a blank cheque to escalate the war.

  • By bombing the North, the president put its leaders on notice that the US would not tolerate a communist takeover of the South. Thus Johnson locked himself into a policy that would take America to war if Ho Chi Minh did not give up on reunifying Vietnam.

  • Johnson spent the rest of 1964 getting himself re-elected. However, the war continued to go badly. By January 1965, the VC were close to achieving victory. Johnson’s advisers now presented him with a grim choice: escalate the war or face defeat.

4. The ‘slippery slope’:



  • Johnson decided to initiate a bombing campaign, to try to persuade Ho Chi Minh to cease supporting the VC. Operation Rolling Thunder began in March 1965. With it, America found itself on the so-called ‘slippery slope’ to war.

  • The VC reacted to the bombing raids by attacking American air bases in South Vietnam. This forced Johnson to send Marines to protect those bases. The first detachment of 3,500 arrived in March 1965.

  • When the Marines found themselves under attack, Johnson allowed them to conduct search and destroy operations against the VC. These began in April.

  • The Marines now found themselves in combat with the VC, and needed backup, which the ARVN couldn’t provide. Johnson faced a difficult choice: send American ground troops, or face defeat.

  • Johnson was determined to demonstrate America’s resolve, so in July 1965 an extra 82,000 troops were sent to Vietnam.

  • By mid 1966, there were 300,000 troops in the country. By 1967, the number was half a million.

5. Reasons for the US intervention in Vietnam:



  • Fear that communism would spread across Southeast Asia if South Vietnam fell to Ho Chi Minh. The Domino Theory dominated American thinking in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

  • The desire to demonstrate that America would not be pushed around in regions it regarded as vital to its interests. This line of thinking was important during the early and mid 1960s.

  • Domestic political considerations. Both Kennedy and Johnson feared that losing Vietnam would lose them political power. This was paramount in Johnson’s thinking during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964.

  • By the beginning of 1965, America found itself on a ‘slippery slope’. Escalation was essential to avoid defeat, but each new step made the next all but inevitable. Before the nation knew it, it was at war.


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