The War in Vietnam,1965-1968

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Americanizing the War

As a domestic policy innovator, LBJ hit the ground running in 1965.  His legislative accomplishments included securing congressional passage of  the landmark Voting Rights Act and numerous great society programs including Medicare.  Again, to avoid the tradeoff between "guns and butter," decisions about Vietnam were not highly publicized. Nonetheless, there were several decisions made in 1965 that would essentially "Americanize" the war and increase the commitment to levels that were feared in the policy discussions of the early 1960s.

After a Viet Cong attack on American barracks in Pleiku, Johnson ordered reprisal bombings of North Vietnam on February 6, 1965. This was later expanded, on February 21st, into a program of sustained bombing called Rolling Thunder.  In March, deliberations led to the decision to escalate the ground war (see Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy). In April, a battalion of  U.S. marines landed at Da Nang; in May, the President submitted an emergency appropriation request to Congress to fund the U.S. effort in Vietnam; in June, LBJ gave General William Westmoreland the authority to commit American troops to ground combat operations in Vietnam.


Marines landing at Da Nang & B-52 Flying Fortress

The "story" of decision making throughout the remainder of the Johnson term was the escalation of American involvement. As the following graph demonstrates, the number of troops stationed in Vietnam steadily climbed in the years from 1965 to 1968.

From 16,000 troops at the end of the Kennedy Administration, the U.S. commitment grew to 184,000 troops by the end of 1965 and reached a peak of 537,000 in the last year (1968) of the Johnson Administration. In a sense, this was a "back door" escalation. There were no dramatic national addresses in which the public was "called to war."  In fact, the troop increases were typically announced at mid day with little or no fanfare. And LBJ explicitly refused to put the nation on a war footing and argued, in his 1966 State of the Union message, that the country could have both "guns and butter."

Conventional "Warfare" in the Nuclear Age

The Johnson Administration essentially found itself in a predicament --- a "political war trap" --- that was a product of the nuclear era, the Cold War, and domestic politics in the United States.  The "trap" involved a wavering ally whose regime was threatened. The option of not using military force was discounted for fear of a "communist success" if the ally fell and the domestic repercussions this would trigger.  However, it was believed that unrestricted military force --- such as crossing the Yalu River in the Korean War --- threatened to embroil the United States in a superpower confrontation.  Johnson believed, for example, that an all out military effort against North Vietnam would trigger a Chinese or Soviet response that could escalate into a nuclear exchange. Given this logic, action was limited to conventional military force designed to achieve limited and political (as opposed to territorial) objectives.

Thus, the administration escalated in response to North Vietnamese actions. Its objective was to inflict a level of pain on the North Vietnamese that was sufficient to make them bargain in earnest.  Thus Vietnam became a war of attrition.  Johnson would regularly characterize his decisions as taking the middle ground.  He would not "pull out" as the "doves" and "nervous Nellies" suggested nor would he go "all out" as the "hawkish" military advisors recommended.

Fighting a war with limited and political objectives had an added liability. It was difficult to define and convey the idea of  "progress" to the public. There were few set piece or conventional battles and American objectives were not defined in geographical terms (e.g., Berlin and Tokyo).  Instead, the administration was forced to create and essentially sell indicators of progress to the public. Herein lies the origin of such commonly used terms as  "pacification zones"  and "kill ratios." 

Domestic Opposition to the War

Questioners, critics, and opponents to Johnson quickly arose.  Perhaps the most prominent establishment figure was J. William Fulbright, the Democrat from Arkansas, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Fulbright was a one-time friend and ally of Lyndon Johnson and had, ironically, served as floor manager of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.  He broke with Lyndon Johnson over the war in Vietnam and, in February 1966, led the Foreign Relations Committee through six days of televised hearings on the conduct of the war.  To divert public attention from the hearings, Lyndon Johnson traveled to Honolulu to meet with South Vietnamese President Thieu. The Senate Committee would again hold hearings in August 1966 and in October-November of 1967.


Senator J. William Fulbright

Another source of early criticism against the war took the form of "teach ins" on college campuses. The first occurred at the University of Michigan in March of 1965. The practice spread to campuses throughout the nation.


Teach-in at the University of Michigan, March 1965

As the war escalated, demonstrations and other forms of protest become commonplace on university campuses and in major cities of the U.S, including the October 1967 march on the Pentagon.

     

The protests focused upon American policy in Vietnam, the military draft, connections between universities and the Defense Department as well as Lyndon Johnson himself. The mention of "gaps" became commonplace in political discussions. Lyndon Johnson was said to suffer from a "credibility gap" owing to his campaign as "peace candidate" in 1964. There was a so-called "communications gap" between supporters and opponents of the war. Finally, there was increasing mention of a "generation gap" that divided those who came of age during World War II and those coming of age in the Vietnam era. Criticism of the Johnson Administration grew more widespread and strident because of the increasing number of Americans killed in Vietnam. The number of Americans killed in action rose from a monthly average of 172 during 1965 to an average of 770 in 1967.

 

The Light at the End 

In November of 1967, the Administration launched an extensive "public relations" campaign. It was designed to convince Congress, the press, and the public that there was "progress" in Vietnam and that the war was being "won."  Johnson was advised to "[E]mphasize light at the end of the tunnel instead of battles, deaths, and danger." "There are ways," Johnson was told, "of guiding the press to show light at the end of the tunnel"  (quoted in Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson's War, p. 98 and 99).  To head this effort, Johnson brought General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, to Washington. Westmoreland addressed the National Press Club saying that the U.S. had reached the point "where the end comes into view" (Berman, p.116).


General William Westmoreland

In the wake of this effort, public support of Lyndon Johnson rose. The effects of this effort would be short-lived however. On January 21, 1968, North Vietnamese regular forces launched an attack on the American installation at Khe Sahn, a remote outpost. The attack conjured up fears, especially for LBJ,  of Dien Bien Phu and American forces were ordered to hold the base. The seige lasted for over two months and the North Vietnamese were eventually turned back after the base was reinforced in April of 1968.

The Seige at Khe Sahn

 
The Seige at Khe Sahn, January-April 1968

The TET Offensive

Khe Sahn was just a prelude however. One of the most controversial interludes of the war began on January 31st, 1968. Early that morning, the North Vietnamese regular army and the Viet Cong launched what came to be called the TET (New Year) offensive. These forces attacked over 100 cities in South Vietnam including 35 of 44 provincial capitals. The offensive included Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as Viet Cong guerillas penetrated the U.S. Embassy compound.

c
MPs seek out a sniper at the embassy compound & fighting in the streets of Saigon

 
The battle for Hue

In light of the "PR Campaign" of November 1967, the TET offensive came as a shock. How could, critics asked, the enemy mount such a campaign if the war was being won? The fighting continued into February.  In January 1968, the number of US troops killed in action was 1,163; the death toll increased to 2,197 in February; in the next three months, another 5,000 would loose their lives in battle.

TET also elevated a debate that began early in the war. In a sense, Vietnam was the first televised or "living room" war.  Each evening, the networks would show film of the fighting that was, at times, gruesome.  Unlike the practice during World War II, the film was neither censored nor subject to any systematic scrutiny by the government.  Thus, the public was shown scenes of battles in progress, the dead and wounded, and the coffins of the dead being unloaded.  One of the more shocking photographs of the war occurred during the TET offensive. A Viet Cong terrorist was captured by South Vietnamese military officials and summarily executed in the streets of Saigon.

As the TET offensive continued into February, the anchorman for the CBS evening news, Walter Cronkite, traveled to Vietnam and filed several reports. Upon his return, Cronkite took an unprecedented step of presenting his "editorial opinion" at the end of the news broadcast on February 27th. "For it seems now more certain than ever," Cronkite said, "that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."  After watching Cronkite's broadcast, LBJ was quoted as saying. "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

    
[Full Text of Walter Cronkite's broadcast]

The TET offensive remains a matter of controversy to this day. Militarily, the American forces repelled the attacks and retook the cities initially occupied by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Critics argue that this was not emphasized in media reports so that TET was framed and interpreted as, at minimum, a "psychological defeat."  Others assert that there was a disjuncture between the optimism of  the administration's PR in late 1967 and the coordinated enemy attacks of January-February 1968.

One thing is certain. TET had a substantial impact on American public opinion.

Indicator

Pre-TET

Post-TET

Change

 Approves Johnson's handling of job as president

48%

36%

-12

Approves Johnson's handling of Vietnam

39%

26%

-13

Regards war in Vietnam as a mistake

45%

49%

+4

Proportion classifying themselves as "hawks"

60%

41%

-19

 

TET also had an impact within the Administration. In its wake, President Johnson refused the request for a substantial troop increase from General Westmoreland and initiated a reconsideration of his policy of escalation. Finally, TET took a personal and emotional toll on LBJ himself.  In the face of a challenge for renomination by Senators Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and  Robert Kennedy of New York, LBJ addressed a national television audience on March 31. After discussing Vietnam, he announced that he would not seek nor would he accept the nomination for another term as president.  Johnson was withdrawing from the race.

The emotional and physical toll on Lyndon Johnson is apparent. Compare his appearance at the signing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to that when he withdrew from the presidential race.

 

Politically, the toll of Vietnam is also evident in path of public support for President Johnson from January 1965 through the end of December in 1968. The mounting casualties, along with domestic unrest, had a most corrosive impact on the president's support.  In retirement, LBJ spoke of this.  He referred to his Great Society program as a "beautiful woman" and noted that she was gradually replaced by the "bitch" that was the Vietnam War.

 

All Text & Analysis, Copyright , August 2002, Dennis M. Simon