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Johnson's Escalation of Vietnam: A Timeline
Soldiers in Vietnam
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November 20, 2009

The origins of the Vietnam War lie in 1945, when the British ignored Ho Chi Minh's declaration of independence and restored French rule to the country.

After a protracted conflict with Ho Chi Minh's nationalist forces and a massive defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French left Vietnam in 1954.

During the Cold War many foreign policy analysts subscribed to "The Domino Theory" — which contended that should one country come under communist rule, its neighbors were likely to follow suit. President Eisenhower, worried about the spread of communism, sent U.S. advisors to train forces in South Vietnam in 1956, and President Kennedy increased American forces significantly, with 12,000 U.S. military advisors stationed in Vietnam by 1962.

But it was under President Johnson that the U.S. escalated the conflict to a full scale war.

Explore the timeline of Johnson's decision-making below, and listen to audio of Johnson's phone conversations as he decides to escalate the war.

The conversations below are of varying quality and for some conversations, everything not related to Vietnam has been removed. But they leave in substantially more of the conversations than the broadcast, which is limited by the time requirements of TV.

Johnson Contemplates Escalation

February 3, 1964 President Johnson has been in office only three months, and is told the situation in Vietnam is deteriorating. Here, Johnson sounds out an old friend's opinion — newspaper publisher John Knight.

President Johnson speaks with John Knight.

May 27, 1964 Beginning in 1959, the North Vietnamese Army moved supplies into South Vietnam using a route along the Cambodian border. In 1964, Johnson approved secret bombing of what was known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.

In Saigon, where there's been another military coup, Defense Secretary McNamara promises the new government that "We'll stay for as long as it takes. We shall provide whatever help is required to win the battle against the Communist insurgents." But he brings back news of an army nearing collapse, and tells the President he needs to increase military assistance quickly. With one eye on that deteriorating situation and another on the coming election, he turns for solace to his old friend and mentor in the Senate, Richard Russell of Georgia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee:

President Johnson speaks with Richard Russell.

May 27, 1964 After speaking with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who inform the President that he has few good options in Vietnam. Johnson discusses the situation with McGeorge Bundy, his special assistant for national security:

President Johnson speaks with McGeorge Bundy

June 9, 1964 Congress and the public are increasingly restless about Vietnam. Negative press reports undermine all the positive statements issued by the administration. Below, Johnson and McNamara discuss the bad press and the further deterioration of the situation in Vietnam — Vietcong guerrillas have extended their control of the countryside and South Vietnamese soldiers quit the fight faster than Americans can train them. The president reads McNamara a memo he received from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.

President Johnson speaks with McNamara

June 11, 1964 The Vietcong continue to gain strength, and a corrupt and incompetent government in South Vietnam is tottering again. The U.S. ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican, is resigning, and the president thinks he may be coming home to campaign against him in the fall. Johnson turns again to his trusted friend Senator Russell. He tells him of advice he received from a his neighbor, a Texas rancher, Judge A.W. Moursund:

President Johnson speaks with Senator Russell June 11, 1964

U.S. Escalates the War

August 2, 1964 The captain of a navy ship, the U.S.S. Maddox reports that his ship has been fired on and is about to be attacked. On August 4, the captain reports a second attack. Though it would later become clear no August 4 attack actually took place, President Johnson orders retaliatory air strikes against two North Vietnamese naval bases and an oil facility. Two American planes are shot down in the attacks.

In the conversations below, the President plans the American response with Secretary McNamara.

August 3, 1964, 10:30 am
President Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.

LBJ / McNamara, August 3, 1964

August 3, 1964, 1:21 pm
President Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.

LBJ / McNamara, July 2, 1964

August 4, 1964, 11:00 am
In the midst of discussing the American response to the August 2 attack, McNamara informs President Johnson that an American ship is under torpedo attack.

LBJ / McNamara, August 4, 1964, 11:00 am

August 7, 1964 Congress passes a joint resolution "to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia." The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that "Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression." In other words, the resolution gave the President the right to pursue military action in Vietnam without a declaration of war. Both Johnson and Nixon would rely on the resolution as legal justification for the war.

Nov 3, 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson defeats Barry Goldwater, and is elected to the Presidency. There are just over 15,000 American troops in Vietnam.

February 13, 1965 President Johnson authorizes Operation Rolling Thunder, a campaign of bombing North Vietnam to force it to cease supporting guerrillas in the south. The raids would persist continually for nearly three years.

April 7, 1965 North Vietnam rejects an American offer of economic aid in exchange for peace.

April 20, 1965 The President's top officials conclude that bombing alone is insufficient. Defense Secretary McNamara explains to President Johnson that the military leaders are requesting additional combat brigades.

President Johnson speaks with McNamara, April 20 1964

June 5, 1965 The American ambassador has called Washington with news that the Saigon government is again in crisis. The Vietcong have launched a new offensive during the monsoon season, making it harder to defend ground forces from the air. The cable is blunt: "It will probably be necessary to commit U.S. ground forces to action." An anxious President calls his secretary of defense:

LBJ speaks with McNamara, June 5 1964

June 8, 1965 President Johnson calls Senate Majority Leader Mansfield, who has written the president to urge him not to bomb Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. Wanting to keep Mansfield aboard, he asks him how he should approach Congress:

LBJ, Mansfield, June 8, 1965

June 10, 1965 Another cable has arrived from Saigon, this one from General Westmoreland. He wants 41,000 combat troops in Vietnam and 52,000 more later. And he will need "even greater forces" later to "take the war to the enemy." McNamara says "We're in a hell of a mess."

LBJ, McNamara, June 10 1965

July 2, 1965 In a June 18 coup, South Vietnam formed its l0th government in 20 months. A few days later Vietcong mortars destroy three U.S. aircraft at Danang. During a conversation with Defense Secretary McNamara, Johnson begins to consider what has to happen to get the troops they will need to stay the course:

LBJ / McNamara, July 2, 1964

July 28, 1965 In a press conference, the president announces his decision to commit more troops to the conflict in Vietnam.
I have asked the Commanding General, General [William C.] Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs.

I have today ordered to Vietnam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested. This will make it necessary to increase our active fighting forces by raising the monthly draft call from 17,000 over a period of time to 35,000 per month, and for us to step up our campaign for voluntary enlistments.

I do not find it easy to send the flower of our youth, our finest young men, into battle. I have spoken to you today of the divisions and the forces and the battalions and the units. But I know them all, every one. I have seen them in thousand streets, of a hundred towns, in every State in this Union - working and laughing and building, and filled with hope and life. I think that I know, too, how their mothers weep and how their families sorrow. This is the most agonizing and the most painful duty of your President.
1965 to 1973
By year's end there would be 184,000 troops in Vietnam, even as 90,000 South Vietnamese soldiers deserted. In response to the deployment of U.S. ground troops in 1965, North Vietnamese army combat units officially entered the war in support of the Vietcong. By the war's end in 1975, 2.5 million Americans would serve in Vietnam.

Johnson would not seek reelection in 1968.

As American's casualties mounted, public opposition to the war grew at home, and President Nixon began decreasing troop levels in 1969. But the war would continue to grind on until a 1973 cease fire. In 1975, North Vietnamese troops took control of South Vietnam and united the country. Some 59,000 Americans died fighting in Vietnam, and more than 1 million Vietnamese.
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Listening to History
Bill Moyers shares his perspective on the Vietnam war in an essay featuring archival audio of conversation between President Lyndon Johnson and US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy.

References and Reading:

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
The museum and library, located in Austin, Texas, presents a wealth of material online.

The National Security Archive: Gulf of Tonkin Incident
A collection of materials related to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, including more of President Johnson's phone conversations, as well as essays, primary sources, and images.

This AMERICAN EXPERIENCE site has a more complete timeline, including other notable events for the time period.

Also This Week:
Bill Moyers considers a President's decision to escalate troop levels in a military conflict. Through LBJ's taped phone conversations and his own remembrances, Bill Moyers looks at Johnson's deliberations as he stepped up America's role in Vietnam. Explore a multimedia timeline.

Find out more about the president's advisors and other political players in the escalation of the war in Vietnam.

View a collection of reports on the United States and Afghanistan.

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