History 319: The Vietnam Wars
Discussion Section: 307
Ignoring Options; Uneducated Pursuit
By the time Lyndon B. Johnson took office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the United States already had sixteen thousand military personnel in Vietnam in an attempt to create and sustain a government in Saigon that could achieve a wide base of support in South Vietnam. Soon, however, the military advisers alone would not be enough to thwart the supposed Communist aggression emanating from North Vietnam and its supporters in the South. In 1965, Johnson would end up sending over 150,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam. This massive escalation of the war effort would later prove futile as the war progressed and eventually ended with American failure. In reality, this escalation could have been avoided. Despite being faced with opportunities for a negotiated settlement with Hanoi and the lack of support from international allies, Johnson and his administration favored intensified military involvement. The reasons they chose the path to a massive war were that there was a great desire to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia and the fruition of the Domino Theory, the government and army in Saigon were not strong enough on their own to withstand the Communist threat, the idea that all Communists wanted to revolutionize the world, the belief that the United States could not lose the war due to its military superiority coinciding with the belief that the United States held a mandate to be the defender of the free world, and the desire of Johnson and his officials to not seem weak or become failures if the U.S. withdrew. 1
President Johnson was unfortunate to inherit the increasingly difficult dilemma evolving in Vietnam. He could not predict that the troubles for him and his administration would only get worse. Eventually the situation would involve, “a frequently enunciated American commitment to save South Vietnam, an American public poorly informed by their political leaders as to what that commitment might require, and a situation on the ground in South Vietnam which exposed thousands of American soldiers and civilians to injury, captivity, and death.”2 Unfortunately for Johnson, burden and pressure of the struggle throughout Vietnam would only get more and more complicated. The threat of Communism was deemed too legitimate to walk away from and the United States had sworn to protect South Vietnam from falling and becoming the first ‘domino’ in Southeast Asia. Johnson reiterated the policy towards Vietnam in a speech he gave to Congress in August 1964: Our policy in Southeast Asia has been consistent and unchanged since 1954. I summarized it on June 2 in four simple propositions: 1.America keeps her word. Here as elsewhere, we must and shall honor our commitments. 2. The issue is the future southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation in that region is a threat to all and threat to us. 3.Our purpose is peace. We have no military, political, or territorial ambitions in the area. 4. This is not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity. Our military and economic assistance to South Vietnam and Laos in particular has the purpose of helping these countries to repel aggression and strengthen their independence.3
The goals of intervention were liberation and protection of the countries in Southeast Asia. Johnson claimed military ambitions were nonexistent, yet soon enough he would dramatically increase the level of military involvement in Vietnam. He later went on to state the United States intended no wider war, yet around that same time he was calling for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that would enable him to increase the scale of military intervention in Vietnam in whichever way he chose. He called for the “full and effective restoration of...
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