Vietnam War - Americanization 1963 - 1969
Johnson (LBJ), as he took over the presidency after the death of Kennedy, did not
consider Vietnam a priority and was more concerned with his "Great Society" and
progressive social programs. Presidential aide Jack Valenti recalls, "Vietnam at the time was no
bigger than a man's fist on the horizon. We hardly discussed it because it was
not worth discussing."
On 24 November 1963, Johnson said, "the battle against communism... must be joined... with strength and
determination." The pledge came
at a time when Vietnam was deteriorating, especially in places like the Mekong
Delta, because of the recent coup against Diem. The military revolutionary council, meeting in lieu of a strong South
Vietnamese leader, was made up of 12 members headed by General Minh—whom Stanley Karnow, a
journalist on the ground, later recalled as "a model of lethargy."
His regime was
overthrown in January 1964 by General Nguyen Khanh. Lodge, frustrated by the end
of the year, cabled home about Minh: "Will he be strong enough to get on top of
On 2 August 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence
mission along North Vietnam's coast, fired upon and damaged several torpedo
boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second
attack was reported two days later on the USS Turner Joy and Maddox
in the same area. The circumstances of the attack were murky. Lyndon Johnson
commented to Undersecretary of State George Ball that "those sailors out there
may have been shooting at flying fish." The second attack led to retaliatory air strikes, prompted Congress to
approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and gave
the president power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without
declaring war. In the same month, Johnson pledged that he was not
"... committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought
by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land."
An undated NSA publication declassified in 2005,
however, revealed that there was no attack on 4 August. It had
already been called into question long before this. "The Gulf
of Tonkin incident", writes Louise Gerdes, "is an oft-cited example of the
way in which Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign
policy in Vietnam." George C.
Herring argues, however, that McNamara and the Pentagon "did not knowingly lie
about the alleged attacks, but they were obviously in a mood to retaliate and
they seem to have selected from the evidence available to them those parts that
confirmed what they wanted to believe."
"From a strength of approximately 5,000 at the start of 1959 the Viet Cong's
ranks grew to about 100,000 at the end of 1964...Between 1961 and 1964 the
Army's strength rose from about 850,000 to nearly a million men" -The U.S.
Army in Vietnam, by Vincent H. Demma. The numbers for US troops deployed to
Vietnam during the same period were quite different; 2,000 in 1961, rising
rapidly to 16,500 in 1964. The National Security
Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North
Vietnam. On 2 March 1965, following an attack on a U.S.
Marine barracks at Pleiku, Operation
Flaming Dart, Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Arc
Light commenced. The bombing
campaign, which ultimately lasted three years, was intended to force North
Vietnam to cease its support for the National Front for the Liberation of South
Vietnam (NLF) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam's air defenses and
industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the
South Vietnamese. Between March 1965 and November 1968, "Rolling Thunder" deluged the north with a
million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs.
Bombing was not restricted to North Vietnam. Other aerial campaigns, such as
Operation Commando Hunt, targeted
different parts of the NLF and Vietnam People's Army (VPA)
infrastructure. These included the Ho Chi Minh Trail,
which ran through Laos and Cambodia. The objective of forcing North Vietnam to
stop its support for the NLF, however, was never reached. As one officer noted
"this is a political war and it calls for discriminate killing. The best
weapon... would be a knife... The worst is an airplane." The Chief of Staff of the
United States Air Force Curtis LeMay, however, had long advocated
saturation bombing in Vietnam and wrote of the Communists that "we're going to
bomb them back into the Stone Age".
Escalation of the Vietnam War officially started on the morning of 31 January
1965, when orders were cut and issued to mobilize the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing from Okinawa to Da Nang Air Force Base (AFB). A red alert
alarm to scramble was sounded at Kadena AFB at 3:00 a.m. F-105s, pilots, and support were deployed from Okinawa
and landed in Vietnam that afternoon to join up with other smaller units who had
already arrived weeks earlier. Preparations were under way for the first step of
Flaming Dart. The mission of Operation Flaming Dart, to cross the
Seventeenth Parallel into North Vietnam, had already been planned and was in
place before the NLF attack on Pleiku airbase
on 6 February.
On 7 February, forty-nine F-105 Thunderchiefs flew out of Danang AFB
to targets located in North Vietnam. From this day forward the war was no longer
confined to South Vietnam. It took almost an hour to get all forty nine of the
F-105's in the air. On that morning, the continuous loud roar of the F-105
engines going down the runway, one following another, was described by the
ground crew as a "rolling thunder". After several attacks upon them, it was decided that U.S. Air Force bases
needed more protection. The South Vietnamese military seemed incapable of
providing security. On 8 March 1965, 3,500 United States
Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the
American ground war. U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported the
deployment. Public opinion,
however, was based on the premise that Vietnam was part of a global struggle
In a statement similar to that made to the French almost two decades earlier,
Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then
we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make
peace and invite them to afternoon tea." As former First
Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co has noted, the primary goal of the war was
to reunify Vietnam and secure its independence. The policy of the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was not to topple other non-communist governments in
South East Asia.
The Marines' assignment was defensive. The initial deployment of 3,500 in
March was increased to nearly 200,000 by December. The
U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare. Regardless of
political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically
unsuited to a defensive mission. In
May, Army of the Republic of Vietnam
(ARVN) forces suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Binh
Gia. They were
again defeated in June, at the Battle of Dong Xoai.
Desertion rates were increasing, and morale plummeted. General William
Westmoreland informed Admiral Grant
Sharp, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, that the situation was
said, "I am convinced that U.S. troops with their energy, mobility, and
firepower can successfully take the fight to the NLF [National Front for the
Liberation of South Vietnam]."
With this recommendation, Westmoreland was advocating an aggressive departure
from America's defensive posture and the sidelining of the South Vietnamese. By
ignoring ARVN units, the U.S. commitment became open-ended. Westmoreland
outlined a three-point plan to win the war:
"Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt
the losing trend by the end of 1965.
Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the
initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would be
concluded when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven
back from major populated areas.
Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months
following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces
remaining in remote base areas."
The plan was approved by Johnson and marked a profound departure from the
previous administration's insistence that the government of South Vietnam was
responsible for defeating the guerrillas. Westmoreland predicted victory by the
end of 1967. Johnson did not,
however, communicate this change in strategy to the media. Instead he emphasized
continuity. The change in
U.S. policy depended on matching the North Vietnamese and the NLF in a contest
of attrition and morale. The opponents were locked in a cycle of escalation.
idea that the government of South Vietnam could manage its own affairs was
It is widely held that the average U.S. serviceman was nineteen years old, as
evidenced by the casual reference in a pop song ("19" by Paul Hardcastle); the figure is cited by Lt. Col. Dave
Grossman ret. of the Killology
Research Group in his 1995 book On
Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
(p. 265). However, it is disputed by the Vietnam
Helicopter Flight Crew Network Website, which claims the average age of MOS 11B
personnel was 22. This compares with 26 years of age for those who participated
in World War II. Soldiers served a one-year tour of duty. The average age of the
US military men who died in Vietnam was 22.8 years old. The one-year tour of
duty deprived units of experienced leadership. As one observer noted "we
were not in Vietnam for 10 years, but for one year 10 times."As a
result, training programs were shortened. Some NCOs
were referred to as "Shake 'N' Bake" to highlight their
accelerated training. Unlike soldiers in World War II and Korea, there were no
secure rear areas in which to get rest and relaxation (R'n'R).
One unidentified soldier said to United Press International that
there was nothing to do in Vietnam and therefore many of the men smoked marijuana. He said,
"One of the reasons I guess -- one of the biggest reasons that a lot of GIs do
get high over here is there is nothing to do; this place is really a drag, its a
bore over here. Like right now sitting around here, we are getting loaded.
Whereas, it doesn’t really get you messed up, that's I guess the main reason why
we smoke it."
South Vietnam was inundated with manufactured goods. As Stanley Karnow
writes, "the main PX, located in the Saigon suburb of Cholon, was only slightly smaller than the New York Bloomingdale's..."The American
buildup transformed the economy and had a profound impact on South Vietnamese
society. A huge surge in corruption was witnessed.
Washington encouraged its SEATO allies to contribute troops. Australia, New
Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines
all agreed to
send troops. Major allies, however, notably NATO nations, Canada and the United Kingdom, declined
Washington's troop requests. The U.S. and its
allies mounted complex operations, such as operations Masher, Attleboro, Cedar
Falls, and Junction City. However, the communist
insurgents remained elusive and demonstrated great tactical flexibility.
Meanwhile, the political situation in South Vietnam began to stabilize
somewhat with the coming to power of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and President Nguyen Van Thieu in
1967. Thieu, mistrustful and indecisive, remained president until 1975. This ended a
long series of military juntas that had begun with Diem's assassination. The
relative calm allowed the ARVN to collaborate more effectively with its allies
and become a better fighting force.
The Johnson administration employed a "policy of minimum candor"
dealings with the media. Military information officers sought to manage media
coverage by emphasizing stories which portrayed progress in the war. Over time,
this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. As the media's
coverage of the war and that of the Pentagon diverged, a so-called credibility gap
developed. In October 1967 a large anti-war demonstration was held on the steps of the
Pentagon. Of the thousands of protesters, over 680 were arrested. Some
protesters chanted phrases like, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! The NLF is going to
win!" and "Hey, hey,
LBJ! How many boys did you kill today?