Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F Kennedy as president. Like many ‘hawks’ in the White House, Johnson was a fervent supporter of the ‘Domino Theory’ and he was keen to support South Vietnam against the NLF:
“If we quit Vietnam tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to be fighting in San Francisco.”
Johnson was encouraged by his advisors to take up a more forceful approach to the Vietnam conflict and to send in US troops to bolster the South Vietnam Army. The new leader of South Vietnam was General Khanh and he made it clear to Johnson that he did not believe that the South Vietnamese Army could withstand the NLF. Initially Johnson was not keen to send in troops to South Vietnam. He knew that politically that this would not be a popular move and that he was facing an election in 1964. Johnson told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to support Khanh but that this would not include sending in US troops until the November 1964 Presidential election was over. This comment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff was made at the beginning of 1964. They became concerned that the eleven-month gap would be too long for the survival of the South Vietnamese Army.
In this situation the military found itself at odds with their commander-in-chief, the US President. They wanted greater US involvement and they wanted it immediately whereas the President, Johnson, was very aware that full US military involvement might have a negative impact on his chances of winning the 1964 election.
Johnson was not adverse to greater US military involvement – he was simply aware that it would not be well received in some quarters of America. He gave his support to ‘Operation Plan 34B’. This involved sending Asian mercenaries in to North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage. As part of a reconnaissance programme, the ‘USS Maddox’ was sent in to the Gulf of Tonkin to examine North Vietnamese naval defences. The outcome of this was the attack on the ‘Maddox’ by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
Johnson was given the reason he needed to order bombing raids on North Vietnam. As president and commander-in-chief he would have been seen as a weak leader if he had done nothing to counter this – just as both his Chiefs of Staff and he, himself, had bargained on. On national television Johnson told the US public:
“Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.”
Congress gave Johnson near enough total support for his actions (Senate 88 to 2 and House 416 to 0) and also authorised him to take whatever measures he deemed necessary against North Vietnam.
In the lead up to the 1964 presidential election, Johnson was chided by the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, for being too soft in his approach to the North Vietnamese. In response, Johnson told the public that he was not prepared to send US troops thousands of miles overseas to do what the South Vietnamese Army should be doing – protecting its people.
Johnson won the 1964 presidential election with ease. It was not long before US troops were sent to South Vietnam.
In early 1965, Johnson authorised ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which started on February 24th. This was the wholesale bombing of North Vietnam and NLF-held territory in South Vietnam. Initially, ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ was meant to last for eight weeks – it lasted for three years. The NLF responded to the bombing by attacking US air bases in the South Vietnam. The commander of US advisors in the South, General Westmoreland, informed Johnson that the men he had in the South were inadequate to defend their bases and that he needed more men. Johnson responded by sending in US troops – this time they were not ‘advisors’. On March 8th 1965, 3,500 US Marines – combat troops - arrived in South Vietnam. Johnson sold this deployment to the US public by claiming that they would be in South Vietnam as a short-term measure. In a poll held in 1965, 80% of those Americans polled indicated that they supported Johnson.
Johnson could never have envisaged what he had started. By the time of the 1968 presidential election, America had become embroiled in a war that was to take on far greater dimensions than anyone could have believed in 1965. Johnson did not stand for the 1968 presidential election and many pundits at the time stated that this was the result of what was happening to US troops in South Vietnam at the time.