On April 7, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his first major speech on the war in Vietnam. Opposition to the war had been growing as a result of Operation Rolling Thunder, an expanded U.S. bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese that began the previous month. LBJ ordered his staff to compose an address that would appease his detractors. In the speech Johnson, attempted to do what he had done so successfully throughout his long and colorful political career -- make a deal.
The president announced plans for an ambitious $1 billion development program along the vast Mekong River that would benefit not only Vietnam, but all of Southeast Asia. The program was intended as an offer to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Flying back to Washington after the speech, Johnson confidently predicted to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, "...old Ho can't turn me down." But the next day, Ho did just that. The rejected Mekong River development proposal was one of many instances in Vietnam where Lyndon Johnson's formidable skills as a consensus builder and deal-maker would fail him. Lyndon Johnson did not initiate American involvement in Vietnam. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy laid the groundwork for U.S. intervention. But the Vietnam War would come to be seen as Johnson's war. It would dominate not only his entire foreign policy, but overshadow his ambitious domestic programs.
Since the close of the 1954 Geneva Convention, when Vietnam was split in two, the Vietnamese Communists had been conducting what they termed a battle for liberation. Their stated goal was a Vietnam unified under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Military strategists in the U.S., however, saw a creeping Red menace, poised to envelope all of Southeast Asia. China had already been "lost" to the Communists. Visions of falling dominoes haunted the Pentagon and the White House.
As vice president, Lyndon Johnson privately advised President Kennedy to minimize escalation. But at the time of Kennedy's death, the extent of U.S. involvement was increasing, not lessening. By the time Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency on November 23, 1963, 16,700 American troops had already been committed to the unstable and unreliable government of South Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson never fully understood Vietnam's fierce determination to endure whatever was necessary to prevent foreign domination. Equally significant, Johnson's sense of patriotism and manhood would not allow him to even consider the possibility of the most powerful nation on earth being bested by what he termed a "damn little pissant country."
Early in 1964, Johnson had his staff draw up a congressional resolution that would allow him to expand the war as he deemed necessary. In August, the U.S.S. Maddox, an American destroyer patrolling the Tonkin Gulf in Vietnam, reported that it had been the target of a torpedo attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. Two days later, a highly disputed second attack was alleged to have taken place. Such supposed provocation on the part of the North Vietnamese was all Johnson needed to present his resolution to a compliant Congress. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution sailed through Congress in 40 minutes. It passed unanimously in the House and encountered only two dissenters in the Senate. Commenting on the broad scope of the resolution, Johnson said, "It's like grandmother's nightshirt. It covers everything."
Johnson's response to the Tonkin Gulf incident was moderate -- only select military targets in North Vietnam were bombed. Johnson had no desire to exert the full force of his presidency on Vietnam. In 1964, he still considered the conflict an annoyance. Soon it would become an obsession.
In July 1965 General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, requested 175,000 to 200,000 additional soldiers. Johnson denied the full request, but ordered an additional 50,000 troops into combat. The president repeatedly expressed how difficult it was for him to send American boys half-way around the world to fight the battles of "Asian boys." But Johnson maintained that the U.S. had made commitments to South Vietnam that had to be honored. By the end of 1965, nearly 200,000 Americans were serving in Vietnam. The U.S. bombing campaign continued to be expanded as well.
By early 1968, one-half million American troops were bogged down in jungle warfare. Over 25,000 Americans had already been killed. Relentless bombing had failed to break the will of the North Vietnamese. Bombing halts had failed to produce meaningful negotiations. Johnson, the would-be architect of a Great Society, was now routinely vilified by protesters as a "baby killer."
On March 31, 1968, Johnson's presidency became a casualty of the Vietnam War. Johnson announced to a nationwide television audience that he would not seek re-election. He would instead devote his remaining time in office to the advancement of peace talks. As the nation convulsed in a tumult of assassinations and riots, a lame-duck Johnson remained in office for ten more months. The war in Vietnam would continue to rage for five more years and claim an additional 33,000 American lives.
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