This is online at http://tigger.uic.edu/~rjensen/viet36.doc A revised version appears in Richard Jensen, Jon Davidann, and Yoneyuki Sugita, editors. Trans-Pacific Relations: America, Europe, and Asia in the Twentieth Century. (Perspectives on the Twentieth Century.) Westport, Conn.: Praeger. 2003. pp 171-216
"Victory and Defeat in the Vietnam War"
by Richard Jensen
Professor of History Emeritus,
University of Illinois Chicago
Email = firstname.lastname@example.org
Did America lose the Vietnam War? Psychologically, the Vietnam War was almost as traumatic as the Civil War. It is still a painful memory and the subject of ill-tempered debates regarding victory and defeat, imperialism and Communism, good intentions and limited resources, deceit and patriotism. "Victory" and "defeat" meant different things to different interests--this essay explores some of the meanings, with special attention to the US government and its military. In American foreign relations there have been four policies for dealing with ideological adversaries: Isolating America from them, détente (or "peaceful coexistence", with mutual trade regardless of ideological differences), containment (stopping their expansion), and roll-back (military destruction of the foe.) "Victory" and "defeat" can be judged in terms of these four policies. The destruction of the Confederacy in 1865, and of Germany and Japan in 1945, represented roll-back policies. As soon as the Communists had built an atomic bomb (1949), roll-back of Communism risked nuclear war against American cities, and made this strategy too high risk for many Americans.
In Vietnam, "victory" meant independence and the rolling back of French colonization; the question was who would control the process. There were numerous nationalistic movements, of which the Communists were of minor importance before 1941.1 Founded by Ho Chi Minh and fellow students in Paris in 1929, it was primarily an exile group with scant support inside the country. In 1940 the Vichy French regime yielded control of Vietnam to the Japanese, and Ho returned to lead an underground independence movement (which received a little assistance from the O.S.S., the predecessor of the CIA).2 President Franklin Roosevelt detested colonialism--it was ideologically unacceptable and he wanted it eliminated (rolled back) as soon as possible. Thus victory in the war against Japan meant, to him, expulsion of both the Japanese and the French. Colonialism was not a high priority threat in Harry Truman's mind, however. Victory in World War Two meant the total destruction of Japanese and Nazi influence, and a return to the status quo before the war, which coincided with Charles de Gaulle's notions of victory and French glory. Truman helped France return to power in Vietnam in 1946. In contrast with other Asian colonies such as Korea, India, Burma, and the Philippines, Vietnam was not given its independence after the war. As in Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies), an indigenous rebellion demanded independence. While the Netherlands was too weak to resist the Indonesians, the French were just strong enough to barely hold on. As a result Ho and his "Viet Minh" launched a guerrilla campaign, using Communist China as a sanctuary when French pursuit became hot. When the Korean War erupted in 1950, Washington saw Vietnam as another target of Communist expansion and moved to implement a containment policy for Communism in Asia. Washington began to fund about three-fourths of the French military efforts. However, the goals of Washington and Paris were incompatible. Paris was more interested in restoring its old empire than in fighting Communists (who comprised a fourth of French voters). Victory for Washington meant an independent Vietnam that expressed the nationalistic will of the people--which meant the country had to be independent of both France and of international Communism. In 1950 the U.S. officially recognized the theoretical independence of the "State of Vietnam" (under Emperor Bai Dai) even though Paris kept control of its foreign and military policy.3
France admits defeat, 1954
To cut Viet Minh supply lines from China, the French built a fort at remote Dien Bien Phu. In 1954, 12,000 defenders were surrounded and battered by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who unexpectedly used heavy artillery (supplied by China). Paris begged Washington for air strikes. The US Navy wanted to send its carriers into action but the US Army demurred, arguing it would be "a dangerous strategic diversion of limited U.S. military capabilities... [to] a non-decisive theatre." For the Army, containment meant holding back the Russian divisions in central Europe, not chasing guerrillas in Asian jungles. President Dwight Eisenhower, the man who had led the roll-back of Germany in 1944-45 and who was committed to containment of Communism as NATO commander, sided with the Army.4 With the Korean stalemate resolved only a few months earlier, he rejected the advice of hawkish aides and refused to fight a roll-back war in Asia. Dien Bien Phu surrendered, the French government collapsed, and the Mendes-France Socialist government with Communist support came to power in Paris, pledged to get out of Vietnam in 30 days. To save its strength for its bigger war in Algeria, France decided to cut its losses and accept defeat in Vietnam.5
At the 1954 Geneva Conference, the French signed agreements with the Viet Minh that amounted to a surrender; the French did not consult the government in Saigon.6 Because of American pressure, however, Paris did not give Ho Chi Minh all he demanded (he demanded all of Vietnam). A permanent cease fire was promised, and the country was split along the 17th parallel, with the north turned over to Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The French promised to leave the southern half, which for the time being would continue as the independent State of Vietnam with the Emperor as head of state and a Catholic anti-Communist as premier. Washington and Saigon both rejected the Geneva Accords: they were both determined to build an independent, anti-Communist South Vietnam.7
Promoting Independent South Vietnam, 1954-63
The United States rejected the Geneva Accords as a violation of the principles of self determination and containment. It worked to build up the new, independent nation of South Vietnam (SVN), by funding local and national economic and administrative infrastructures. In July 1954 Ngo Dinh Diem became premier in Saigon. Diem and his powerful brothers were outstanding nationalists who were both anti-French and anticommunist. As leaders of the well educated Catholic minority, they won considerable sympathy and support in the Catholic anticommunist circles in the US, notably from Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and the Kennedy family. As soon as the Communists came to power in the North, some 800,000 refugees (mostly Catholic) fled to South Vietnam. They provided much of the leadership and support for its government (GVN) and its army (ARVN). American financial aid and military advisors replaced the French, and SVN under Diem took its place among the world's newly independent nations. The Eisenhower Administration, eager to formalize the containment system by treaty, in 1954 set up the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The US promised to aid SEATO signatories that were attacked by a Communist power. The French (still committed to the Geneva Accords) vetoed membership for SVN. To get around this French veto, Washington had inserted in the Treaty a vague protocol that seemed to give Saigon some sort of guarantee, even though it was not allowed to sign the Treaty or become part of SEATO. Furthermore, Eisenhower decided not to sign a mutual defense treaty with SVN in order to avoid overcommitment. The highly ambiguous SEATO Treaty was ratified by the Senate with little discussion of Vietnam by default became the chief legal base for US involvement in Vietnam.
"Victory" for the Communists in Hanoi meant first of all survival of its regime in the north, then "liberation" of the South from capitalism and westernism.8 Nationalism was a factor, especially in terms of maintaining independence from China, but the Communists allowed for only one variety of Vietnamese nationalism. Government of any part of Vietnam by non-communists was unacceptable. Sooner or later all other forms would be suppressed, but meanwhile it was useful to have nationalist allies. In 1960 Hanoi's ruling Politburo established the "National Liberation Front" (NLF) as its political arm, with coalition members, in the South, and the "Viet Cong" as the military arm. The rank and file were southerners, the leadership was northern. The Viet Cong mission was to undertake guerrilla strikes to destabilize the southern regime. They assassinated local officials and village leaders favorable to Saigon, occasionally attack an isolated ARVN detachment, and seized ("taxed") village food stocks or kidnapped ("drafted") young men. The NLF had only a few shadow formations in the cities, where it did poorly; Washington was baffled why it did so well in the countryside. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told President John Kennedy in 1961 it was "absurd to think that a nation of 20 million people can be subverted by 15-20 thousand active guerrillas if the government and the people of that country do not wish to be subverted."9
Diem's government was factionalized and inefficient; likewise its army, the ARVN, was a typical third world operation based on patronage, favoritism, and corruption.10 Commands and promotions went to political insiders, regardless of their competence or (more often) incompetence. Food, uniforms, munitions and information were sold for cash. Intrigue was the game, and the generals usually spent most of their time on politics rather than command. Few senior officers had any real military training. Draftees did not want to fight any more than their officers did. Although hardware was abundant and of good quality, training was mediocre, food and pay were unattractive, and morale was poor. Desertion rates were high (home was nearby); this hardly upset the officers because they kept the absent soldiers on the rolls and pocketed their paychecks. Diem (and his successors) were primarily interested in using the ARVN as a device to secure power, rather than as a tool to unify the nation and defeat its enemies. Corruption was essential to the system, but it was the fatal flaw that caused Americans to lose faith in the Vietnamese. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker summed it up: "A corrupt society is a weak society."11
Despite monumental American efforts from 1960 through 1975, the situation never decisively improved. Saigon would be defeated primarily because its large and very well equipped army lacked spirit, motivation and patriotism. The Communists, on the other hand, fine tuned their military forces into a powerful political instrument. In the Viet Cong, and in the North Vietnam regular army (PAVN), every unit down to the company level had a cadre of political officers who monitored ideological correctness on a daily basis. Insubordination was impossible. The Viet Cong had many unwilling draftees of its own; tens of thousands deserted to the government, which promised them protection. The Viet Cong executed deserters if it could, and threatened their families, all the while closely monitoring the ranks for any sign of defeatism or deviation from the party line.12
Kennedy: Victory as Containment of Communism Expansion
The Kennedy Administration came to power in 1961 committed to containing Communist expansion (whether Russian, Chinese, Cuban or Vietnamese). Bored with traditional passive Eisenhowerish methods, it proposed to demonstrate the will of America to be number one in the world, to upgrade the mission of the active Army (versus the passive Air Force), and to defeat Communist-led wars of liberation.13 The original formulation of "containment" in the 1940s posited a weak USSR that needed to expand externally in order to survive; choke off the expansion and the system would collapse. By 1960 analysts agreed that the Soviet Union was economically strong and getting stronger; the rationale for containment became more defensive (underscored by numerous treaties), and reflexive--it was rarely subjected to analysis by anyone. Kennedy opposed rollback because war with Moscow would be catastrophic. As a senator, Kennedy had empathized with the fate of his fellow Catholics in Vietnam. As President, however, he showed less empathy with the sufferings in Vietnam and more concern with the impact of Communist expansion on American allies. The hugely embarrassing case of Cuba was at the top of Kennedy's agenda. Kennedy was impatient with Eisenhower's cutbacks in the defense budget, his many legalistic treaties, and his threats of massive nuclear retaliation in case Russia took the initiative in going to war. Kennedy lived in a constant swirl of activity and sought proactive "masculine" foreign policy.14 Kennedy agreed with General Maxwell Taylor, an outspoken critic of massive retaliation, that the Army could be used as a precision instrument of foreign policy. They both believed that a "flexible response" could win guerrilla wars (sometimes called "low intensity conflict"). The challenge to containment was not so much a full-scale Soviet invasion of western Europe, but a slice-by-slice subversion of small countries. Just a few years before the British had defeated a Communist guerrilla campaign in Malaya, the Greeks won one on their own, and the Philippines contained theirs. Washington paid special attention to the Malaya experience.15 Kennedy believed prosperous people would not choose Communism; poverty was therefore an ally of the enemy and had to be defeated. The antidote was American money, technology and advice to promote economic modernization and nation-building, coupled with military protection during the vital early stages.16
Trumpeting the Cuban Missile Crisis as a personal triumph, and armed with a new military doctrine that seemed well-tailored to the situation, Kennedy moved confidently to contain Communism in the Third World. NATO allies, having just divested themselves of empire, were astonished that the Americans would want to enter that quagmire, and recommended that Washington give priority to European affairs. After settling the Berlin crisis of 1961 was resolved, the European theatre appeared to be a stalemate. With the Soviets fully contained, there was no danger of defeat there. The Third World was another matter. Asia was Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson, meanwhile was reliving the Korean war (when he had been in charge of the East Asian desk); he repeatedly warned of the specter of Red China conquering the rest of Asia. Having recently broken with Moscow as too conservative, China proclaimed itself the leader of global revolution against capitalism, and devoted its energies to seizing control of left-wing movements in the Third World. Mao Zedong, eager to radicalize class politics inside China by instilling hatred of the Americans, rejected the advice of moderates who warned against "another Korea." Instead Beijing began to support Hanoi in a major way in 1962, with Moscow racing to keep up or lose prestige among leftwing movements. China provided arms and advice, but never promised to fight if Americans invaded the north. Rusk exaggerated the relationship, and decided Hanoi was Beijing's puppet, despite the long-standing animosity between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Likewise a few years later Rusk paid little attention to the "Cultural Revolution" which from 1966 to 1971 ripped China apart and paralyzed its military capability. Although China eventually sent 50,000 air defense soldiers to help protect Hanoi, it lacked the military capability and the unified leadership necessary to counter an American invasion of North Vietnam.17 Rusk convinced Kennedy and Johnson that a Communist victory in Vietnam would destabilize neighboring countries--they would fall like dominoes to pro-Chinese Communists.18
In the 1961 Hanoi decided to liberate the south from capitalism, imperialism and false nationalism. The Viet Cong, with 25,000 regular soldiers and 17,000 underground operatives, escalated attacks in the rural areas; the Diem regime lost ground every month. The NLF controlled villages containing about a fifth of the rural population of ten million (six million people lived in SVN's cities and towns, where the NLF remained weak.) American observers reported that the Saigon regime lacked legitimacy in the villages. The GVN had never generated spontaneous support or a sense of patriotism; complaints abounded that it was too autocratic, too urban, too Catholic, aloof, corrupt, arrogant, inefficient, self-indulgent and predatory. The challenge was not to restore legitimacy but get it in the first place. By contrast, peasants at first found the NLF appeared to be honest, caring and basically like themselves. It had considerable support--it especially appealed to idealistic youth, and in any case was always feared by the villagers who knew the assassination squads would eliminate any dissent. From 1957 through 1972, the Viet Cong Security Service carried out 37,000 assassinations of government officials, religious and civic leaders, teachers, informers, landowners, and moneylenders. The only effective government response was to hunt the guerrillas down, or target their leaders, but that was too dangerous for the dispirited ARVN. Instead Diem's defensive strategy was the "strategic hamlet" program. Millions of villagers were relocated into new hamlets that the ARVN and local militia forces could defend. By October, 1963, Kennedy had sent 16,000 advisors who were working feverishly to shape up the ARVN; 100 had already been killed. The U.S. Air Force began training pilots; the Army sent in helicopter transports. The choppers terrorized the Viet Cong, until they figured out how to ambush them when they landed. After 9,000 combat sorties, 21 airplanes and 13 helicopters had been shot down, Viet Cong influence had been pushed back, but the NLF still controlled a tenth of the rural villages.19
The biggest problem was the Diem regime itself-- militarily ineffective and politically unpopular. It tried to suppress the non-Communist opposition by large-scale arrests. Its downfall came when it bungled the demands of organized Buddhist monks for a larger voice in political affairs. The multiple interest groups and centers of power in the nation had become alienated from Diem, and gave him no support as he raided the pagodas and arrested demonstrators. Furthermore, he increasingly rejected American demands for political and economic reforms. Washington sadly concluded that Diem had outlived his usefulness, so it stood silent during a military coup on November 1, 1963, that assassinated Diem and installed the first of a long series of unstable governments. Kennedy himself was assassinated three weeks later, and Lyndon Johnson took charge. Diem's death led to chaos; the strategic hamlet program collapsed, and the Viet Cong recouped their losses and pressed forward across the countryside. ARVN battalions one after another crumbled under intense local attacks. The CIA gave GVN only an "even chance" of surviving. In early August, 1964, Johnson seized on an ambiguous minor incident to ram the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" through Congress. The Resolution was itself vague, endorsing the Commander-in-Chief's right to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack...and to prevent further aggression." Not only did the Resolution give Johnson a boost during his heated 1964 reelection campaign, it also provided just enough legality for him to avoid going back to Congress at any time for the next four years.
Lyndon Johnson's Search for Victory at Home and Abroad
Immediately after his triumphant landslide, Johnson made his move. The CIA warned that American withdrawal "would pave the way toward Communist takeover of all of Southeast Asia," warning especially that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia were at risk.20 The NLF was on the verge of announcing a provisional government in the northernmost six provinces; three elite regiments from the North Vietnamese Main Force moved into South Vietnam. Hanoi thought it could win quickly and that America was a paper tiger. It was a tragic miscalculation that would bring endless misery to the Vietnamese. Johnson sent in the first American combat troops in March, 1965, to protect the air bases. By the end of 1965 there were 184,000 Americans inside Vietnam, plus 22,400 Allies from Korean Australia, and New Zealand. Having quietly become so deeply involved, national honor and prestige meant the US could no longer easily back out; the war had become a quagmire.
The question is why Johnson decided to escalate the American involvement. "I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went," Lyndon Johnson vowed.21 Johnson's own political history structured his definitions of victory. He had been a Democratic leader in the Senate in 1950 when the Truman Administration responded to the invasion of North Korea by abandoning containment and calling for reunification of the entire peninsula under UN auspices--that is, rollback of Communism in the north.22 As allied troops were rolling toward total victory, the Chinese suddenly intervened, whipped the Americans, and reconquered the north. Truman reverted to containment, and fired his commander, Douglas MacArthur, who continued to argue for roll-back. Truman's credibility was destroyed, and the Republicans roared back to power in 1952 on the promise of ending the mess in Korea. Johnson could never allow a repeat of that. In early 1965 his advisors warned a humiliating defeat in Vietnam was imminent; he decided to use military power to force Hanoi to negotiate.23 He had to prove that containment was a viable strategy, and that American power could achieve a victory over global Communism by stopping this invasion, and teaching Communist powers a lesson. Experience elsewhere in the region--especially the British success in Malay--proved to Johnson that an insurgency could be stopped. The operation had to be an object lesson to Moscow and Beijing to not try anything like this anywhere else in the world ever again. As a believer in the "domino theory," Johnson worried that other countries in Southeast would fall to Communism if the line was not held. The only alternative to containment, he believed, was rollback as advocated by Republican leader Barry Goldwater. "Why Not Victory?" Goldwater asked; because it means nuclear war, Johnson retorted, as he used the rollback issue to overwhelm Goldwater in the 1964 election. (Whereupon the Air Force revised its manual of air doctrine, to state that "total victory in some situations would be an unreasonable goal."24)
Johnson paid very close attention to his critics--in order to politically neutralize them. The antiwar movement grew rapidly, but it was a loose coalition of groups with strikingly different goals. The largest numbers, convinced that misperceptions caused the impasse, wanted to get negotiations going with the Communists. Others saw resistance to an unjust war as the highest form of civic duty; some were committed to the overthrow of capitalism and bourgeois morality. While Washington tried to keep the war quiet, radical college students in the US launched a noisy antiwar protest movement with teach-ins and rallies.25 Their efforts were counterproductive, because they forced millions of Americans who might have had doubts about the war to support the Administration for patriotic reasons. Year by year the more radical elements seized center stage, and alienated public opinion in the process26
On the right, the Cold War "hawks" in Congress, led by Mississippi Senator John Stennis, wanted to give all aid to South Vietnam to fight Communism--but not send American troops to do the job. They never liked the policy of containment--rolling back Communism was a worthy goal, but the problem with containment is that it allowed the enemy to choose the time and place for a confrontation--exactly the place America would be weakest. The hawks believed the main enemy was the Soviet Union, and Vietnam might be an unwise diversion of effort. Stennis held hearings to demonstrate the war was draining strength from the army in Europe. If America had to be there, they demanded the war be won by overwhelming power, fast. In June 1967 California Governor Ronald Reagan argued against a long involvement: "Our goal should be to win as swiftly as possible. Attrition over the long period will cost more in lives than a sudden strike for victory." The main danger to Johnson was that the hawks might form a coalition military leaders the way MacArthur tried in 1951.27
Complaints about Vietnam mounted among doves inside the party, especially Senator J. William Fulbright (chair of the Foreign Relations Committee), who said containment was an arrogant extension of Americanism and should be replaced by détente. Dovish attitudes grew rapidly among civil rights leaders, intellectuals, students, and religious leaders, but never won over a majority of Democrats. Johnson needed doves to support his domestic programs, so he handled them by making "a search for peace" the theme of his foreign policy. In terms of actual policy he ignored the doves, and when his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, seemed to listen too closely, he banished Humphrey and concentrated on reliable allies in Congress, in the big cities, and in the hawkish labor unions.
The Democratic leadership in Congress was divided and confused; both Senate leader Mike Mansfield and Fulbright were ignored and marginalized.28 Increasingly annoyed at being shut out of the decision-making process, Congress sought ways to reassert its Constitutional powers, culminating in the "War Powers Act" of 1973 which attempted to sharply limit the power of the president to intervene militarily. The Republicans wielded little power in Congress. The hawks among them were strongly anti-Communist and Johnson's aides stressed how important it was to support the military when it was actually fighting Reds in the field. Everett Dirksen, the Republican Senate leader, supported Johnson's containment policy and headed off criticism from such hawks as House GOP leader Gerald Ford, that a more aggressive roll-back strategy was needed. By successfully identifying Goldwater with roll-back, extremism and high risk of nuclear war, Johnson demolished the political strength of the hawks in 1964. Richard Nixon--Johnson's likely opponent in 1968--was another matter. A realist and not a hawk, Nixon contended that victory was necessary to stem the Red Tide in Southeast Asia, and that negotiation or retreat would damage American credibility.29 Johnson knew that his policy had to work or Nixon would replace him.
Vietnam was a "political war" because the President always put domestic politics first. He tried several different strategies, but running through them all was a policy of controlling popular perceptions. In plain words, deception. The American people were never to become alarmed at the magnitude of the problem; White House policy was to keep reassuring the nation that everything was going fine in Vietnam, and that LBJ could be trusted to handle the situation in his own way. This was the only war in American history in which Washington did not try to rouse patriotic fervor behind the cause. The economy was not mobilized.30 There were no rallies, parades or posters--not even welcome home receptions for returning troops; indeed, Johnson tried to subdue any spontaneous outpourings of patriotism.31 The reason was that a surge of patriotism would lead to demands for victory and rollback--Goldwaterism--and risk nuclear destruction from Russian missiles. Even if the nation escaped nuclear war, a frenzy of pro-war patriotism would shifty national priorities and doom funding for Johnson's New-Deal-like "Great Society".
Passively allowing the Communist to take over a free country by force would violate America's containment policy, encourage more aggression elsewhere, and cause allies to doubt American commitments to them. "The central lesson of our time," Johnson told a John Hopkins audience in April 1965, "is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next." He continued, We must say in southeast Asia--as we did in Europe--in the words of the Bible: 'Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.'" Privately he felt that if he lost Vietnam to the communists, everything he wanted to work for at home--civil rights, the War on Poverty, and his Great Society--would also be lost. "I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression," he explained years later, and "there would follow in this country an endless national debate--a mean and destructive debate--that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy." 32 Johnson was so fixated on the dangers that Vietnam posed for his domestic policy that he did not appreciate major gains when they happened. The Cultural Revolution in China crippled American's most implacable foe, yet was scarcely noticed by Johnson or his top aides.33 Indonesia was almost in the hands of the Communists in 1965 when they reached too far. Indonesia, much larger and more important than South Vietnam, commanded a strategic location, a large population, and significant oil wealth. Its dictator, Sukarno, was hostile to the West, friendly toward Beijing, and tolerant if not actively supportive of domestic Communists. Anti-Communist generals seized power in 1965, shelved Sukarno, and totally destroyed the Communist movement in Indonesia with wholesale arrests and executions; hundreds of thousands died in an anti-Communist bloodbath.34 The US had played little or no role in the episode, and failed to realize how it had shifted the momentum against Mao's power and prestige.
The problem, Johnson's advisors agreed, was that a military victor was unlikely--military action had a one in three, or maybe one in two chance of success.35 He could not win a military victory by escalation, and anyway escalation would cause disaster with his domestic programs. He had to achieve a victory through negotiation with the enemy. Johnson therefore devised a policy of gradual military punishment designed to punish Hanoi just enough to force it to the negotiating table. Johnson believed that all disputes arose out of mutual misunderstandings, and could be resolved through negotiation. His plan was to offer détente--to offer Hanoi billions of dollars in foreign aid if they would play along, or else bomb them into negotiations, from which a permanent peace would result that allowed South Vietnam to continue as an independent nation. Johnson did not reject the possibility that the Communists could become part of some sort of coalition government and might ultimately prevail by peaceful means. But they could not prevail by force during his watch.
Realizing that the South Vietnamese were too weak to save themselves with just American supplies and advice, Johnson made the fateful decision to rescue them with US combat troops. He figured that as soon as Hanoi realized it could never defeat the biggest military power on the globe it would negotiate a settlement and Americans would leave. No one in Washington seriously proposed a large-scale invasion to destroy North Vietnam.36 Roll-back was also against the spirit of containment, and risked the same sort of Chinese intervention that had been so devastating in Korea in 1950. It would also undermine efforts to soften relations with the USSR, and might even drive Moscow and Beijing together again. It would alienate America's allies in Europe, and dismay the liberals, intellectuals, Blacks and church leaders who already were dubious about Johnson's leadership of the Democratic party.37
To head off the danger of another Douglas MacArthur, it was necessary to select yes-men who deferred to the White House and to the all-powerful Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara; no matter how wrong the brass thought Johnson was, they would never resign in protest.38 In mid-1964, LBJ assembled a new team. He passed over 43 more senior generals to promote Harold Johnson to Chief of Staff of the Army. General Earle Wheeler--one of the few senior officers never to have combat experience-- replaced Maxwell Taylor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his mission was to keep the senior commanders loyal to the White House. General William Westmoreland became head of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), with authority over US Army and Marine ground operations, and some naval and tactical air operations. He had studied at Harvard Business School, and his freedom from standard doctrine and his interest in quantification attracted him to McNamara. Admiral Ulysses Sharp, at Pearl Harbor, became head of all US forces in the Pacific. He had charge of the naval blockade that kept Hanoi from running supplies by sea, and most importantly, of strategic bombing operations over North Vietnam. Westmoreland could always be counted upon for a public statement exuding optimism; he reassured LBJ that the war would be won in time for the 1968 elections. The intricate division of responsibility was set up so that there would be no powerful theater commander like MacArthur; it also guaranteed a steady flow of disputes that could only be resolved by McNamara or the President. The military thus never had control of the war it was called upon to fight.
To reverse the downhill slide in the villages, Westmoreland called for 24 more maneuver battalions added to the 20 he had, plus more artillery, aviation (helicopters), and support units; McNamara rounded the total to 175,000 troops, with 27 more maneuver battalions to come in 1966. Westmoreland's strategy was to hunt down and attack enemy infantry formations. He rejected the Marine Corps alternative program of building up a close rapport with the peasant and defending their villages. McNamara realized that Westmoreland's search and destroy plan would be costly, with perhaps 500 Americans killed every month. Washington having explicitly rejected rollback and victory had a goal of containment that would allow South Vietnam to continue to exist as a non-Communist state.39