Lyndon Johnson Considers Troop Increase in Vietnam

Lyndon Johnson Considers Troop Increase in Vietnam

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In June 1965, shortly after a coup in South Vietnam led to the 10th change of government in the war torn country, an attack by the North Vietnamese destroyed three U.S. aircraft at Danang. During a recorded telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on July 2, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson contemplates whether the war can be won.

Lyndon Johnson Considers Troop Increase in Vietnam - HISTORY

President Lyndon Johnson's Defense of the U.S. Presence in Vietnam (1965)

Lyndon B. Johnson, Statement, Press Conference, July 28, 1965, Department of State Bulletin, vol. 53 (August 16, 1965).

In July 1965 U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating. That month, President Johnson had approved an immediate increase in American troop strength to 125,000, with a commitment to raise that number to 200,000 by year’s end. But the speech that Johnson gave to defend his actions in Vietnam was not delivered to Congress, nor was it a prime-time television event. Rather, it was given at a press conference and, according to Johnson’s advisers in later interviews, was meant to be as “low-key” as possible.

. . . Three times in my lifetime, in two world wars and in Korea, Americans have gone to far lands to fight for freedom. We have learned at a terrible and brutal cost that retreat does not bring safety and weakness does not bring peace.

It is this lesson that has brought us to Viet-Nam. This is a different kind of war. There are no marching armies or solemn declarations. Some citizens of South Viet-Nam, at times with understandable grievances, have joined in the attack on their own government.

But we must not let this mask the central fact that this is really war. It is guided by North Viet-Nam, and it is spurred by Communist China. Its goal is to conquer the South, to defeat American power, and to extend the Asiatic dominion of communism.

There are great stakes in the balance.

Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian Communism.

Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise or in American protection.

In each land the forces of independence would be considerably weakened and an Asia so threatened by Communist domination would certainly imperil the security of the United States itself.

We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.

Moreover, we are in Viet-Nam to fulfill one of the most solemn pledges of the American nation. Three Presidents--President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and your present President--over 11 years have committed themselves and have promised to help defend this small and valiant nation.

Strengthened by that promise, the people of South Viet-Nam have fought for many long years. Thousands of them have died. Thousands more have been crippled and scarred by war. We just cannot now dishonor our word, or abandon our commitment, or leave those who believed us and who trusted us to the terror and repression and murder that would follow.

US escalation in Vietnam

Combat troops from the United States began arriving in Vietnam in early 1965. The catalyst for this US escalation in Vietnam was Lyndon Johnson’s election victory in November 1964. With a full four-year term ahead, Johnson now turned his full attention to Vietnam. He was not pleased by what he heard.

Conditions in South Vietnam

In South Vietnam, the Viet Cong insurgency had grown rapidly in the final months of 1964. Estimates of its numbers at this point ranged from 80,000 to 100,000. The South Vietnamese military, while expanding and improving due to American aid, was unable to respond to Viet Cong attacks.

The South Vietnamese government, now led by a military junta fronted by General Nguyen Khanh, was also at risk of collapse. The junta promised a new constitution and transition to civilian government, however, its members bickered over religion, political reform and their own interests.

Behind the scenes, US diplomats and CIA operatives worked to hold together this ungainly mess and thwart numerous coup plots that emerged through 1964.

The bombing begins

In Washington, Johnson was in no mood to wait for effective government in South Vietnam. On advice from his military chiefs, the president authorised a heavy bombing campaign against North Vietnam to curtail Hanoi’s support for the Viet Cong.

In January 1965, a week after his inauguration, Johnson ordered the relocation of US planes from Okinawa, Japan to Da Nang. Military planners had already drawn up a list of potential North Vietnamese targets: military bases, munitions dumps, fuel storage depots and critical infrastructures like roads and bridges.

On February 7th 1965, the White House authorised Operation Flaming Dart, a series of targeted bombing runs against the North, purportedly in response to Viet Cong attacks. By early March, this campaign had given way to Operation Rolling Thunder, a more intensive and sustained program of aerial bombardment.

Operation Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder would continue for more than three years. It was scaled back in March 1968 and officially ended later that year. During Rolling Thunder, American aircraft flew more than 300,000 sorties over North Vietnam and Viet Cong targets, dropping 864,000 tons (more than 780 million kilograms) of bombs.

Rolling Thunder is believed to have killed between 80,000 and 120,000 North Vietnamese, many of them civilians. It failed to halt NVA or Viet Cong activities, however, which frustrated Johnson. In February 1965, the US president berated his generals:

“Bomb, bomb, bomb. That’s all you know. Well, I want to know why there’s nothing else. You generals have all been educated at the expense of the taxpayer, and you’re not giving me any ideas and any solutions for this damn little piss-ant country. Now I don’t need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb… I want some solutions. I want some answers. You get things bubbling, General.”

US combat troops arrive

The first months of 1965 also saw the arrival of the first US combat troops. On March 8th, some 3,500 Marines landed at ‘China Beach’, near Da Nang. These arrivals would continue regularly through 1965.

American combat troops were initially tasked with defending US and South Vietnamese bases. Many American military commanders in Vietnam, led by General William Westmoreland, disliked this defensive approach.

In Westmoreland’s view, offence was the best form of defence against the Viet Cong. It made little sense to remain in defined areas and wait for Viet Cong ambushes when US troops could be proactively engaging with the Viet Cong, killing them or driving them out and securing the areas they currently held.

Americans on the offensive

Over time, the rules of engagement laid down in early 1965 were revised and American ground missions became more mobile, expeditious and aggressive. Marines based in Da Nang ventured further away from the city on patrols and counterinsurgency missions.

These missions required additional personnel so there were significant troop increases throughout 1965. By the end of the year, America’s initial investment of 3,500 combat troops had swelled to more than 180,000 men.

This shift in tactics and deployment was seldom reflected in Johnson’s public comments on the war. The president’s usual line to the press was that US soldiers were being deployed to defend bases and support South Vietnamese forces. The reality was that American involvement was changing rapidly.

US operations escalate

By mid-1965, US combat units were joining with South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops to launch offensive operations to the north and north-west of Saigon.

The first major offensive launched solely by US troops came in August 1965. During Operation Starlite, as it was known, 5,000 American soldiers decimated a 2,000-strong Viet Cong force near Chu Lai, killing or capturing more than one-quarter of them.

In November American soldiers had their first major engagement against the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the Drang River valley in central Vietnam. Two US Army regiments, accompanied by air support, held off two NVA regiments in one of the Vietnam War’s few major set-piece battles. Around 1,500 NVA troops were killed while 250 American soldiers also died, most of them in one 24 hour period.

‘Search and destroy’

From late 1965, American battle strategies focused largely on ‘search and destroy’ missions. American troops would move into regions that were controlled by the enemy, usually by hiking or aboard helicopters.

Once in these ‘hot zones’ they would locate enemy bases or tracks, laying anti-personnel mines or setting ambushes. When the enemy was located, soldiers on the ground would engage them with small arms fire, grenades and mortars. Enemy positions or concentrations could be attacked with air strikes called in by radio or, if near the coast, by naval artillery.

The Vietnam War had no single frontline or theatre of war, only areas where the enemy was concentrated and active. Because of this, US commanders gauged the success of these missions by their ‘body counts’, rather than territory captured and held.

These body counts were notoriously dubious: they were often based not on actual bodies but on estimates, ground reconnaissance, radar pings, aerial sightings and word of mouth from observers and civilians.

Limited successes

American ‘search and destroy’ missions were often successful but their strategic impact was limited. In other words, they killed numbers of the enemy but failed to eradicate them completely or halt their activities.

One of the most significant problems was the evasiveness of the Viet Cong. If attacked or outnumbered, most Viet Cong units were able to dissipate, find cover in the jungles or tunnel systems, or move out of the area altogether.

‘Search and destroy’ missions also entailed significant danger. American soldiers moving through these ‘hot zones’ were at risk of booby traps, such as mines and pits containing punji spikes.

‘Zippo missions’

When American soldiers failed to locate or engage the Viet Cong in a known ‘hot zone’, there were often reprisals against civilians suspected of supporting them. Many villages had their grain stores destroyed, their wells poisoned, their livestock killed and buildings torched.

American soldiers came to call ‘search and destroy’ operations “Zippo missions”, after a brand of cigarette lighter, because they often involved burning villages believed to be aiding the Viet Cong. There were occasional atrocities against civilians, such as the killing of 145 villagers at Thuy Bo in 1967 and the better known My Lai massacre the following year.

Once the Viet Cong was thought to have been eradicated or driven out of a particular zone, a new phase called ‘clearing and holding’ was initiated. Clearing and holding was conducted mainly by ARVN forces, supported when necessary by US personnel. It involved questioning the local population, identifying possible Viet Cong agents, locating Viet Cong supply dumps and tunnel systems, removing mines and booby traps and securing the area from further infiltration.

A US Defense Department memo highlighted some of the problems in carrying out these operations:

“‘Clear and hold’ operations are… usually conducted in direct support of the Strategic Hamlet program and therefore entail the resettlement into strategic hamlets of families living in VC or uncontrolled areas… The shortcomings of [these operations] are evident. The operations seldom are successful, since the VC frequently manoeuvre to avoid the ‘sweep’ forces without a fight, only to return to the area upon the departure of the friendly forces. The confidence and support of the civilian population cannot be won by the adoption of such tactics. The people will not cooperate with friendly forces when they know that several days later, they will be abandoned to the mercy of the VC.”

Further expansion

The year 1966 began with Operation Crimp, a joint US-Australian mission in Binh Duong province that involved 8,000 men. Operation Crimp’s objective was to locate a significant Viet Cong headquarters, which US intelligence placed in Cu Chi, several miles north-west of Saigon.

The Americans and Australians cleared the area with minimal losses, killing several dozen of the enemy and locating a complex network of Viet Cong tunnels. They failed to locate any major base, however.

In February 1966, Lyndon Johnson announced that his country had around 205,000 troops in Vietnam, with more to be gradually deployed.

Search and destroy operations continued through the year. One of the largest and most successful of these was Operation Attleboro (September-November 1966), which cleared a large area of South Vietnam, killing more than 2,000 Viet Cong and capturing important supply dumps.

It was followed in January 1967 by Operation Cedar Falls, which aimed to drive the Viet Cong out of the ‘Iron Triangle’, a large area of South Vietnam. Cedar Falls was largely successful but it caused significant disruption and property damage, so alienated thousands of South Vietnamese civilians. Late 1966 and 1967 also saw US forces participate in more conventional engagements with NVA units.

US deaths increase

With the escalation in US combat activity in 1965-67 came a sharp rise in the number of American deaths. Between 1956 and 1964, only 401 US personnel had died in Vietnam. This rose sharply in late 1965, both from casualties in search and destroy missions, as well as Viet Cong raids, ambushes and bombings:

US military deaths in Vietnam
1956-60 9
1961 16
1962 52
1963 118
1964 206
1965 1,863
1966 6,143
1967 11,153

Many historians consider this spike in US deaths in 1967 to be a turning point in public support for Vietnam.

A series of Gallup polls asked Americans whether they believed direct involvement in the Vietnam War had been a mistake. In August 1965, some 61 per cent of respondents answered “no”. This approval steadily decreased over time, falling to 49 per cent (May 1966) and then 44 per cent (October 1967).

American civilians were more scathing of the Johnson administration’s management of the war. By the end of 1967, only 39 per cent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of the situation in Vietnam. This figure would slump even further – to 26 per cent – after the Tet Offensive in early 1968.

1. In early 1965, shortly after his inauguration, US president Lyndon Johnson ordered massive bombing runs over North Vietnam, a move intended to curtail Hanoi’s support for the Viet Cong.

2. US combat troops began to arrive in Vietnam in March 1965. Their rules of engagement were initially defensive but were soon revised to allow offensive missions against the Viet Cong.

3. Most US operations in Vietnam in the mid to late 1960s were ‘search and destroy’ missions. American troops were sent into ‘hot zones’ to eradicate or drive the Viet Cong out of their strongholds.

4. The success of these operations was gauged not by territory secured but by ‘body counts’. Because it was often difficult to locate the Viet Cong, reprisals against civilians were not uncommon.

5. The escalation in US combat operations between late 1965 and 1967 also produced a rapid rise in casualties. In America, public support for the war in Vietnam, though initially strong, began to fall.


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Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964)

Citation: Tonkin Gulf Resolution Public Law 88-408, 88th Congress, August 7, 1964 General Records of the United States Government Record Group 11 National Archives.

Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Senate roll call tally sheet, 08/07/1964 SEN 88A-M1, Misc Roll Calls, 88th Congress, 2nd Session Record Group 46, Records of the U. S. Senate National Archives.
How to use citation info.

This joint resolution of Congress (H.J. RES 1145) dated August 7, 1964, gave President Lyndon Johnson authority to increase U.S. involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam.

On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that two days earlier, U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. Johnson dispatched U.S. planes against the attackers and asked Congress to pass a resolution to support his actions. The joint resolution “to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia” passed on August 7, with only two Senators (Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening) dissenting, and became the subject of great political controversy in the course of the undeclared war that followed.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” As a result, President Johnson, and later President Nixon, relied on the resolution as the legal basis for their military policies in Vietnam.

As public resistance to the war heightened, the resolution was repealed by Congress in January 1971.

A Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam

Perhaps no question hovers more ominously over the history of the Vietnam War in 1967 than this: If the United States and its Vietnamese adversaries had been able to hammer out an acceptable peace deal before the major escalation of the 1968 Tet offensive, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. Was such a peace possible?

For years, pundits and policy makers have speculated on this possibility. Many argue that escalation was irreversible, that the adversaries’ collective fate, as it were, was sealed. But recent scholarship has pointed in a different direction. The prospects of peace were arguably brighter than we once thought. One approach came tantalizingly close to success: the secret talks between Washington and Hanoi that began in June 1967, code-named Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania began when two French scientists, Herbert Marcovitch and Raymond Aubrac, approached Henry Kissinger, then a Harvard professor, to offer their services as go-betweens to promote negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam. Kissinger had worked as a consultant on the war for the Johnson administration and was eager to do anything he could to ingratiate himself with the president. Aubrac was an old friend of Ho Chi Minh and promised to deliver a message to the aging leader if President Lyndon Johnson had anything new to say. Kissinger referred the proposal to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, with a copy to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

McNamara took the lead in diplomacy during Pennsylvania. Already committed to finding a negotiated way out of Vietnam, he pushed Pennsylvania vigorously at a Tuesday lunch meeting with President Johnson and his key advisers. Johnson was skeptical about any negotiations with the Communists, however, dismissing the French proposal as “just another of those blind alleys that lead nowhere.” But McNamara persisted, and eventually the president relented, allowing his defense secretary to establish contact through Marcovitch and Aubrac, with a view to future peace negotiations — as long as he did nothing to embarrass the United States.

In early July, Marcovitch and Aubrac traveled to Hanoi and presented the Johnson administration’s so-called Phase A/Phase B proposal to the Hanoi leadership. The United States would stop its bombing campaign in return for confidential assurances from Hanoi that it would halt its infiltration into key areas of South Vietnam. Once North Vietnam acted, the United States would freeze its combat forces at existing levels and peace talks could begin. This was a significant departure from Johnson’s previous insistence on mutual de-escalation. The president took the gamble, hoping to placate liberals in Congress and antiwar protesters, who were already planning a huge rally in Washington for that October. Johnson could always resume the bombing if nothing materialized from the contact.

The initial results of Pennsylvania appeared promising. Aubrac and Marcovitch arrived in Hanoi on July 24, 1967, and met with Ho Chi Minh and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. Ho’s visit with the two scientists was largely ceremonial, but the meeting with Dong was substantive and productive. Dong insisted that North Vietnam could not negotiate while it was being bombed, but he also, surprisingly, indicated that Hanoi would not require the United States to announce the bombing pause publicly, saving Johnson from a potential political problem. If the bombing stopped, Dong assured his guests, negotiations could begin immediately.

A wary Johnson decided to move ahead with a bombing pause, without consulting his South Vietnamese allies or his military command, to get negotiations started. He authorized Kissinger to have Aubrac and Marcovitch tell the North Vietnamese leadership that there would be an additional bombing halt around Hanoi for a period of 10 days beginning Aug. 24, the next scheduled visit of the two French scientists. Hanoi agreed that this was a productive change in the United States’ position and a positive outcome of the Pennsylvania contact.

For the first time in years, it appeared that the two sides were serious about negotiations. Chet Cooper, an aide to W. Averell Harriman, Johnson’s “peace ambassador,” called Pennsylvania the last best chance for peace, knowing that the war was likely to escalate otherwise.

On the day that Aubrac and Marcovitch were to leave Paris for Hanoi, United States aircraft flew more than 200 sorties against North Vietnam, more than on any previous day of the war. The official explanation for the poor timing of the bombing missions was that the attacks had already been scheduled for earlier in the month but had been delayed by bad weather. Once the weather broke on Aug. 20, the bombing resumed according to protocol and lasted four days.

Hanoi publicized the new attacks, claiming that Johnson had used the proposed bombing pause as a diversion while he actually escalated the war. Johnson denounced these claims, but he could not hide the fact that he had indeed approved an escalation to the bombing just two days before it began, on Aug. 18, and had used the weather delay as a convenient cover for his actions.

Perhaps the president believed that the United States had to hit all available targets before the pause in case it did not get another chance. Johnson even approved one target on the grounds that if talks with Hanoi materialized, he would not want to approve the site later. All along, Johnson had been skeptical about the Pennsylvania contact. He claimed later that the United States should never have held back on the bombing just because “two professors [were] meeting.” Johnson was absolutely certain that the bombing was hurting the North Vietnamese and wanted to keep “pouring the steel on.”

But Johnson never considered how increased bombing raids would play in Hanoi, and that says much about how American leaders went to war in Vietnam. Even after dozens of failed secret peace contacts before Pennsylvania, the Johnson administration could not see that an apparent escalation in bombing on the eve of a possible peace mission was not a formula for diplomatic success.

The bombing raids not only killed the secret peace talks but also played directly into the hands of the hard-liners on the Military Commission of the Political Bureau in Hanoi, who had consistently argued against negotiations of any kind. Rejecting the views of some in the Foreign Ministry, Hanoi’s hawks now had all the evidence they needed that the United States was not serious about negotiations. The top leadership concluded that North Vietnam had no choice but to endure the bombing while simultaneously trying to erode Washington’s ability to remain in South Vietnam.

North Vietnam increased its infiltration into South Vietnam in preparation for a major escalation of the war in early 1968. Gen. William Westmoreland sensed this buildup and asked Johnson to increase United States troop levels in Vietnam. The number of Americans fighting in Vietnam rose to over 500,000 just a few months after Pennsylvania’s failure.

The talks failed because political and military leaders in Washington and Hanoi were afraid to take a chance on peace. Hard-liners in Hanoi won the day after Pennsylvania’s collapse. They pushed for a quick military escalation in South Vietnam, erroneously believing that the planned Tet offensive would lead to a general uprising that would topple the Saigon government and force the United States to withdraw all of its troops. Johnson, in contrast, was desperately trying to keep his options open by escalating the bombing just before a pause, but in the end he actually narrowed his choices.

Trying to placate both antiwar members of Congress and his generals, who wanted a wider war, Johnson tried to find a middle ground when there was none. He never fully committed to negotiations and, believing that the war had to be fought with costs and risks in mind, unsuccessfully juggled competing interests and ideas. Of course, Johnson also never consulted his allies in Saigon about the secret peace talks, which would have added a dimension of complexity to any agreement.

Ironically, within nine months of Pennsylvania’s failure, the United States was engaged in negotiations with North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, that would eventually lead to a unilateral American military withdrawal and a cease-fire in 1973 that allowed 10 infantry units of the North Vietnamese Army to stay in South Vietnam. The failure of the last best chance for peace shaped the war for years to come.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Decision Not to Run in 1968

Use this decision point after discussion of the Vietnam War and its unpopularity to discuss how it affected the presidential election in 1968 and LBJ’s decision not to run in the election.

As 1968 dawned, President Lyndon B. Johnson had every expectation that, notwithstanding the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, he would easily receive the Democratic Party’s nomination that summer to serve a second four-year term and then cruise to re-election against his Republican opponent in November. He had pushed through his ambitious legislative agenda to create a “Great Society” at the beginning of his term. He had presided over a booming economy, due to a large 1964 tax cut for businesses and taxpayers. He had received authorization from Congress to send troops to Vietnam to fight communism and was confident the country was winning the war. Senator Eugene McCarthy had recently announced he would challenge Johnson for their party’s nomination, but the Minnesotan’s bid struck the president, his chief political advisers, and most observers as inconsequential and even unrealistic. Johnson’s decision to run was easy, because he sought to become a great president, like his political hero, Franklin Roosevelt.

However, the Tet offensive, launched on January 30 by America’s North Vietnamese and Viet Cong enemies and aimed at toppling the U.S.-supported Saigon regime, upset Johnson’s optimistic assumptions in dramatic fashion. It set the stage for one of the most tumultuous presidential elections in modern U.S. history.

The North Vietnamese forces (regular North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong guerrillas) failed to achieve their more ambitious goals with the Tet attacks. They were unable to rally significant popular support for the uprising they wanted in South Vietnam, they could not hold any of the cities and towns they had targeted, and they failed to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. North Vietnam’s bold gamble did succeed, nonetheless—and spectacularly so—in puncturing the illusion of progress that the Johnson administration had been holding before the American public. Support for the administration’s policies began to erode steadily in the wake of Tet. Before the offensive, 50 percent of those polled believed the United States was making progress in bringing the war to a successful conclusion after Tet, only 33 percent held that view. A remarkable 49 percent expressed the opinion that the United States never should have intervened in Vietnam in the first place.

South Vietnamese troops defending Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Although North Vietnamese forces suffered huge casualties, the Tet Offensive was still considered a U.S. defeat because of the damage it did to American support for the war at home.

On February 8, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a sworn political enemy of Johnson and an increasingly outspoken opponent of the war, offered a withering critique of administration policy that resonated with the growing ranks of skeptics. “Our enemy, savagely striking at will across all of South Vietnam, has finally shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves,” he declared in a major public address. Kennedy called for immediate negotiations aimed at a peaceful settlement, emphasizing that the United States appeared “unable to defeat our enemy or break his will—at least without a huge, long and ever more costly effort.”

Johnson’s own political party, dominant since the New Deal of the 1930s, was by then profoundly split over the war. That point was driven home when, on March 12, McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the first presidential primary in New Hampshire. Then, just four days later, the charismatic Kennedy announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, confronting Johnson with a much more formidable political foe than the introverted, less-well-known McCarthy. Meanwhile, from the other end of the political spectrum, Republican contender Richard M. Nixon and third-party hopeful George Wallace—a former Democratic governor of Alabama, ardent segregationist, and supporter of the war—were readying their challenges to the globalism and liberalism of an increasingly fractured Democratic Party.

The embattled Johnson responded to mounting political pressures and those shifting popular opinions by announcing, on March 31, a major shift in U.S. policy in the Vietnam War. In an address to a nationwide television audience, the president said he was ceasing nearly all bombing raids against North Vietnam and called upon Hanoi to enter into formal negotiations with the United States to secure a peace settlement. Just before the close of his address, Johnson shocked his listeners by declaring he would neither seek nor accept his party’s presidential nomination. Johnson’s decision was not easy, because he was driven by deep political ambition, but he was greatly troubled by the divisions and turbulence in American society and by an increasingly unpopular war that was so closely tied to his administration.

Formal peace talks opened in Paris in May 1968, but unrest in the United States enormously complicated the prospects for a resolution of the diplomatic issues separating Washington, Hanoi, and Saigon. The assassination in April of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. the dozens of bloody and destructive race riots that followed, including in Washington, DC, itself the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy two months later the protests, street fighting, and heavy-handed police crackdown that accompanied the Democratic convention in Chicago that August and the bitterly contested three-way election pitting Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey against Nixon and Wallace—all served to persuade North Vietnam not to compromise with a lame-duck U.S. leader. Johnson’s final months in office were thus buffeted by a bloody stalemate on the ground in Vietnam and a frustrating impasse around the peace talks’ conference table in Paris, each unfolding against the backdrop of a highly contentious election campaign. Nixon heralded his secret plan to end the Vietnam War and insisted he would reinstitute “law and order” throughout American society, appealing to voters unsettled by a seemingly unending conflict and the domestic unrest and disorder brought in its train. Humphrey sought to distance himself from Johnson’s Vietnam War policies without actually breaking from the notoriously thin-skinned Oval Office patron whose support he needed.

President Johnson (center) and Vice President Hubert Humphrey (left) in a cabinet meeting discussing the Vietnam War in March 1968.

In a last-ditch effort to break the diplomatic deadlock, Johnson approved a complex compromise with North Vietnam that allowed South Vietnamese and National Liberation Front participation in the Paris peace talks. The seeming breakthrough was made possible only by Hanoi’s sudden abandonment of its longstanding opposition to participation by the American-backed “puppet” Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese dragged their feet, nonetheless, with President Thieu charging that the compromise amounted to a “clear admission of defeat” by the United States. At this juncture, the South Vietnamese president was quite obviously awaiting the outcome of the American election, calculating that he could cut a better deal with Republican nominee Nixon than with the White House’s current occupant. Signals to that effect were being conveyed clandestinely to Thieu’s representatives by representatives from inside the Nixon camp. This was a treasonable offense, if proved, and one that Johnson learned about to his fury and disgust via telephone taps, intercepts, and surveillance.

On October 31, in a final attempt to end the deadlock—and to help bolster his vice president’s electoral prospects as well—Johnson announced a complete halt of all U.S. bombing operations against North Vietnam. It proved too little, too late. Once again, Thieu balked. A furious Clark Clifford, Johnson’s new secretary of defense, thought the South Vietnamese leader guilty of double dealing and duplicity. Only after another two weeks had elapsed did the South Vietnamese leader reluctantly agree to send a delegation to Paris. By that time, Nixon was the president-elect, having defeated Humphrey by a razor-thin margin.

South Vietnamese President Thieu and President Johnson in a meeting in July 1968.

The election of 1968 proved pivotal to the course of modern American history in numerous respects. It demonstrated the efficacy of the “backlash” tactics pioneered by Nixon and Wallace to highlight and condemn the perceived excesses of liberal permissiveness, the welfare state, the anti-war movement, and the counterculture. It also brought to the White House a chief executive dedicated to extricating the United States from the chaos of Vietnam, but to do so slowly and deliberately, without compromising the credibility of U.S. commitments, without diminishing America’s commanding status as a global superpower, and without threatening his plans for dealing with China and the Soviet Union. In political terms, it heralded the high-water mark of the New Deal order and the onset of a new era of Republican ascendancy.

Review Questions

1. Republican candidate Richard Nixon played on all the following concerns in his 1968 presidential campaign except

  1. growing dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam
  2. the growing welfare state
  3. widespread support of the Tet Offensive
  4. protests by the counterculture

2. The Tet Offensive in January 1968 marked a turning point because it

  1. represented a military victory for the North Vietnamese
  2. led to the collapse of the South Vietnamese military
  3. illustrated the limitations of U.S. military efforts in Vietnam
  4. strengthened support for containment in the United States

3. The third-party candidate who complicated the 1968 election was

4. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded to the events of 1968 by

  1. reaffirming his support of South Vietnamese President Thieu
  2. withdrawing U.S. troops from South Vietnam
  3. ceasing bombing raids on North Vietnam and calling for peace negotiations
  4. endorsing the campaign of Richard Nixon

5. South Vietnam did not commit to a decision at the 1968 peace talks, because

  1. it was awaiting the results of the U.S. election
  2. it refused to take a seat alongside the North Vietnamese
  3. the United States had dramatically increased bombing of Laos and Cambodia
  4. President Johnson had withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam

Free Response Questions

AP Practice Questions

“I don’t accept the idea that this is just a military action, that this is just a military effort, and every time we have had difficulties in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia we have had only one response, we have had only one way to deal with it – month after month – year after year we have dealt with it in only one way and that’s to send more military men and increase our military power and I don’t think that’s what the kind of a struggle that it is in Southeast Asia. . . .

. . . We can continue to escalate, we can continue to send more men there, until we have millions and millions of more men and we can continue to bomb North Vietnam, and in my judgment we will be no nearer success, we will be no nearer victory than we are now in February of 1968.”

Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The provided excerpt most directly contributed to

  1. an end to the New Deal welfare state
  2. a fracturing of the Democratic Party
  3. passage of Great Society legislation
  4. successful peace negotiations with North Vietnam

2. The excerpt most directly reflected a growing belief that

  1. law and order were important priorities for Americans
  2. postwar decolonization did not pose a threat to American interests
  3. military actions undertaken in Southeast Asia were not effective
  4. the counterculture represented the views of 1950s

Primary Sources

Johnson, Lyndon B. “A New Step Toward Peace.” March 31, 1968. The Department of State Bulletin, 58, no. 1503 (1968): 481–86.

Suggested Resources

Clifford, Clark. Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1991.

Gilbert, Marc J., and William Head, eds., The Tet Offensive. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Gould, Lewis L. 1968: The Election that Changed America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.

Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. Fourth revised ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002.

LaFeber, Walter. The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Schmitz, David. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Spector, Ronald H. After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1991

President Johnson Justifies U.S. Intervention in Vietnam

President Johnson, in this speech delivered at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965, lists the reasons for escalating the United State's involvement in Vietnam. Having secured Congressional authorization with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Johnson launched a bombing campaign in the North, and in March 1965, dispatched 3,500 marines to South Vietnam. With this speech, Johnson laid the political groundwork for a major commitment of U.S. troops.

The world as it is in Asia is not a serene or peaceful place.

The first reality is that North Viet-Nam has attacked the independent nation of South Viet-Nam. Its object is total conquest.

Of course, some of the people of South Viet-Nam are participating in attack on their own government. But trained men and supplies, orders and arms, flow in a constant stream from north to south.

This support is the heartbeat of the war.

And it is a war of unparalleled brutality. Simple farmers are the targets of assassination and kidnapping. Women and children are strangled in the night because their men are loyal to their government. And helpless villages are ravaged by sneak attacks. Large-scale raids are conducted on towns, and terror strikes in the heart of cities&hellip.

Over this war&mdashand all Asia&mdashis another reality: the deepening shadow of Communist China. The rulers in Hanoi are urged on by Peking. This is a regime which has destroyed freedom in Tibet, which has attacked India, and has been condemned by the United Nations for aggression in Korea. It is a nation which is helping the forces of violence in almost every continent. The contest in Viet-Nam is part of a wider pattern of aggressive purposes.

Why are these realities our concern? Why are we in South Viet-Nam ?

We are there because we have a promise to keep. Since 1954 every American President has offered support to the people of South Viet-Nam&hellip.

We are also there to strengthen world order. Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Viet-Nam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America's word. The result would be increased unrest and instability, and even wider war.

We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance. Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Viet-Nam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next&hellip.

In recent months attacks on South Viet-Nam were stepped up. Thus, it became necessary for us to increase our response and to make attacks by air. This is not a change of purpose. It is a change in what we believe that purpose requires.

We do this in order to slow down aggression.

We do this to increase the confidence of the brave people of South Viet-Nam who have bravely borne this brutal battle for so many years with so many casualties.

And we do this to convince the leaders of North Viet-Nam&mdashand all who seek to share their conquest&mdashof a very simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired.


Nine years after the U.S. initially sent aid, the first American soldiers were killed in action in Vietnam on July 8, 1959. Maj. Dale Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand were watching a movie at a camp site in Bien Hoa when six Northern Vietnamese attacked and killed the two men, according to news archives.

Initially, American efforts overseas were perceived positively stateside. "Most Americans supported the containment policy. They saw communism as an international conspiracy," said Crapol. But as time passed and more soldiers were sent to fight, positive sentiments faded.

"The ambiguity of the war, the endless length of the war and the growing number of combat deaths all contributed to a gradual increase in dissent and opposition by the late-1960s," Falk said.

War on Poverty

Soon after being sworn in, LBJ declared a War on Poverty.   He used it to push through Kennedy's tax cut and civil rights bills.  

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson announced the program's audacious goals.   He stated, "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."

His first step was to sign the Revenue Act of 1964.   It reduced income taxes, lowering the top rate from 91% to 70%. It reduced the corporate tax rate from 52% to 48%. It created the minimum standard deduction. According to the Tax Foundation, the cuts spurred the economy enough that revenue increased 33%.   It rose from $94 billion in 1961 to $153 billion in 1968.  

On August 31, he signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964.   It made the food stamp program permanent. It led to today's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow laws that discriminated against Blacks in the South.   The Act outlawed segregation in housing, voting, education, and the use of public facilities. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act protected Blacks’ right to vote.  

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1965 established the Jobs Corps and the federal work-study program.       These provide academic and career skills for students. It implemented JFK's concept of the Volunteers in Service to America, which became AmeriCorps in 1993.     It also created the Head Start preschool program.  

It created the Office of Economic Opportunity to run the War on Poverty programs.   Federal community action agencies managed both federal and state programs. These included social services, mental health, medical care, and job programs. Many states, especially in the South, opposed the expansion of federal power.

The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 expanded funding for housing programs.   It subsidized rent for the elderly and disabled. It also constructed low-income housing and public works projects. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was created as a cabinet-level department to manage all federal housing programs.   It remains responsible for public housing and redevelopment of slums.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 established Title I public school funding for poor neighborhoods.   Its goal was to promote equity in education. In 2001, it became the No Child Left Behind Act.   In 2010, it became the Every Student Succeeds Act.  

The War on Poverty was designed to reduce the racial wealth gap.

Although the unemployment rate was only 5.5%, it was 25% for Black youths. The percentage of families living below the poverty threshold wasn't getting better. The number of children on welfare had doubled between 1950 and 1960 to 2.4 million.

The programs successfully reduced poverty, according to a Columbia University study.   Between 1967 and 2012, poverty rates declined from 26% to 16% of the population. Food stamps kept 4 million people out of poverty. The programs especially help those living in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2 a day.  

The Jobs Corps program increased participants' earnings by 12% and reduced crime. Medicare reduced medical expenses for seniors, while Medicaid did the same for the poor.    


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