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Vietnam War Overview Part 4: 1964-1968
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LBJ takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One
LBJ takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One
Lyndon B. Johnson: 1963-1964
As stated in part 3, the death of Diem was followed by a period of extreme political instability in the South, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Each new regime was seen as a puppet of the United States. Although a planned withdrawal of 1,000 American troops did occur in December, shortly after President Kennedy's death, the instability in South Vietnam in late 1963 and into 1964 soon had President Johnson increasing troop levels. During April and June 1964 American air power in Southeast Asia was massively reinforced. A North Vietnamese offensive in Laos prompted the President to send two aircraft carriers and their escorts to the Vietnamese coast.
Cartoons: Herblock commented several times on the succession of coups in Vietnam (3 images)

[sound Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., former Ambassador to South Vietnam, on Meet the Press, 4/15/64]
[sound U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's Remarks to the Security Council on Vietnam and Laos, 5/21/64]
 
On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission in the Gulf of Tonkin along North Vietnam's coast, engaged 3 North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Although no U.S. casualties resulted, the Maddox fired over 280 shells. Four North Vietnamese sailors were killed and six were wounded. Two nights later, a second incident was alleged to have occurred, although a then-secret National security Agency study concluded that the second incident probably never happened, but might have been a combination of misinterpretation of weather data and the actions of an excitable crew. Regardless, Johnson was in a mood to strike back, and early on August 5, he publicly ordered retaliation:  "The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Vietnam will be redoubled by this outrage." One hundred minutes after his speech, US carrier-based aircraft bombed four torpedo boat bases and an oil-storage facility in Vinh, North Vietnam.
The U.S.S. Maddox under attack, 8/2/64
The U.S.S. Maddox under attack, 8/2/64
 
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
President Johnson was about to dramatically escalate the U.S. presence and role in Vietnam.  At the time, he had aggressively pushed an expensive anti-poverty agenda called The Great Society.  Wars are expensive, and Johnson did not Vietnam to compete with the Great Society for tax dollars, but he believed the shift in policy was necessary, and that American military power could handle the Viet Cong long enough for the South Vietnamese government and military to become strong enough to win their own war.  Rather than declare war, Johnson asked congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the President to assist any Southeast Asian nation whose government was considered to be jeopardized by communist aggression. Americans knew little about what had happened in the Gulf of Tonkin.  But Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress that the American ships had been minding their own business on routine patrol 30-60 miles offshore when they were attacked.  The vote was scheduled for August 7, 1964. sound UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 8/6/4

Senator Wayne Morse on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 8/64
sound Senator Wayne Morse on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 8/64

sound Senator Ernest Gruening, c.1964

In a surge of patriotism, the resolution passed the House 416-0.  Only 2 Senators opposed it, Ernest Gruening (D-AK) and Wayne Morse (D-OR). Senator Morse's main objection was the constitutionality of the Resolution, which authorized an act of war without a formal declaration of war. However, Morse also did not believe a war in Asia was winnable. With the passage of the Resolution, President Johnson now had authorization—what some have referred to as "a blank check"—to dramatically escalate the number of conventional military combat forces in Vietnam and to modify their role.  Mindful of the distasteful experience of the Korean War and its lingering effect on public opinion, Johnson reassured the American public by rejecting strategies that,

“I think would enlarge the war and escalate the war, and result in our committing a good many American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land. And for that reason, I haven't chosen to enlarge the war.”

That fall Johnson faced the extremely conservative Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in the presidential election.  Goldwater frequently made “off the cuff” remarks that Johnson was able to use against him.  Most memorably, Johnson used a television spot now called “The Daisy Girl ad” to cast Goldwater as a loose cannon who might get the country into nuclear war with Russia.  Johnson spoke reassuring words on Vietnam. At a campaign stop in Akron, Ohio, Johnson said, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Johnson’s tough stance on Vietnam combined with his optimism and assurances that “American boys” would not be waging war there appeased voters, and he won easily.
Daisy Girl Ad
Still image from the "Daisy Girl" ad, 1964
President Johnson’s Decision to Escalate the War
Johnson delayed making a major decision on Vietnam while his advisors debated what to do next. Many of his advisors,
Herblock comments on the domino theory, 5/24/64
Herblock comments on the domino theory, 5/24/64
"Backbone," by Bill Mauldin, 1964
"Backbone," by Bill Mauldin, 1964
including the Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a bombing campaign against North Vietnam in order to sever the connections between them and the Viet Cong and to increase the morale of ARVN troops.  Some advisors recommended sending combat troops to Vietnam immediately. On the other side of the debate was the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, who believed bombing North Vietnam would only increase Viet Cong attacks and draw American combat soldiers into the fray, and Under Secretary of State George Ball, who urged a political solution. In late 1964 the Viet Cong, who by now had formed organized combat units, went on the offensive, striking government outposts and villages throughout South Vietnam. On Christmas Eve a bomb blew up in a Saigon hotel, killing 2 Americans. Ambassador Taylor switched sides and urged the President to bomb North Vietnam, but still Johnson hesitated.
The B-52 in action
The B-52 in action
In early February the action in Vietnam shifted to the central highlands, where the ARVN headquartered in the town of Pleiku.  A short distance away was Camp Holloway, where about 400 U.S. servicemen were billeted next to a helicopter facility. On the night of February 6 the Viet Cong attacked the camp.  In the five minute assault, using only small arms and mortars, eight U.S. soldiers were killed, 128 were wounded, and ten aircraft were destroyed. This forced Johnson’s hand.  He immediately authorized a 3-stage bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  Its main phase, Operation Rolling Thunder, lasted from March 2, 1965 until November 1, 1968, during which
millions of tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the time President Johnson downplayed the situation in Vietnam.  He said the bombings were only a response to the attack on Pleiku and denied they represented a change in U.S. policy.  In part, Johnson did not want to provoke Soviet or Chinese intervention, but it meant the country was slipping deeper into war without few Americans even realizing it. Despite Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Lemay’s boast that "we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age," the bombing campaign never did force North Vietnam to end its support of the Viet Cong, nor did it reduce the flow of supplies delivered to the VC from the North.
With American aircraft now flying missions to bomb North Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, wanted U.S. combat troops to protect U.S. air bases from Viet Cong attacks. Less than a week after the bombing campaign began, Johnson dispatched 3,500 U.S. Marines.  Although a defensive mission, they were authorized to undertake offensive operations. In doing so, Johnson did not fully inform the American people, or even Congress.  Full disclosure was only made by an accidental press release several months later.
General William Westmoreland
General William Westmoreland
Marines arrive at Da Nang, 1965
Marines arrive at Da Nang, 1965
Bill Mauldin cartoon
A U.S. soldier encounters the skeleton of a French soldier in this prophetic cartoon by Bill Mauldin, 11/24/64
Herblock cartoons
Herblock responded to President Johnson's escalation of the war several times in June 1965 (2 images)
The decision to send U.S. combat troops represented a major turning point in the war.  In the months and years ahead, each side responded to the other’s actions, thereby continually causing escalation of the war.  Sure enough, General Westmoreland requested additional troops almost immediately.  Two more Marine battalions were sent in early April.  Soon they were patrolling the countryside, searching for Viet Cong. On April 21, the CIA and the Defense Department became aware that regular army units from North Vietnam (NVA) were now operating in South Vietnam with the Viet Cong.  This meant the threat to South Vietnam was much greater than the Johnson administration had realized. By summer Ky and Thieu had come to power in Saigon, somewhat stabilizing the government, but the ARVN had suffered two major defeats at the hands of the Viet Cong in open, conventional warfare.  ARVN morale dropped and desertions increased.  This time, General Westmoreland made a watershed recommendation.  In order to turn the tide, U.S. forces should assume primary responsibility for combat operations against the Viet Cong.  They would initiate contact to destroy guerrilla forces, wearing them down and driving them from populated areas.  If necessary, a second phase would destroy the
enemy in remote areas.  Westmoreland predicted victory in this “war of attrition” by 1967.  President Johnson approved the plan.  On July 28, 1965, the President held a mid-day press conference and gave a speech titled, “Why We Are In Vietnam.” He announced the immediate escalation of troops by 180,000, with another 100,000 to follow in 1966. A few SEATO allies also sent troops, including Thailand, Australia, and New Zeeland, as did South Korea, but no major allies joined the American cause. Along with American troops and military power came American products.  Virtually all the comforts of home to which Americans had become accustomed were imported, transforming the South Vietnamese society and dramatically increasing corruption.  Most Americans knew little to nothing about Vietnam, but they were once again told that letting it go communist would jeopardize America’s national security position in the Pacific.  If the American government understood little about Vietnamese nationalism, the American people understood far less.  But when told that Vietnam was about the Cold War, plain and simple—that they understood.
Johnson
President Johnson's press conference speech, "Why We are in Vietnam"
tv LBJ, 7/28/65
The Johnson Administration, 1965-1967:
sound President Johnson's State of the Union Address, Vietnam excerpt, 1/4/65
sound Secretary of Defense McNamara on the use of tear gas in South Vietnam, 3/65
sound President Johnson "Peace Without Conquest" speech, 4/7/65
sound President Johnson on bombing North Vietnam, 4/17/65
sound Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, 6/6/65
sound Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Leonard Unger on the Viet Cong, 1965
sound Secretary of State Dean Rusk on Bombing North Vietnam, 1965
sound President Johnson's State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/12/66
sound Secretary of State Dean Rusk, 1/21/66
sound President Johnson's State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/10/67
 
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
McNamara's replacement, Clark Clifford
McNamara's replacement, Clark Clifford
As escalation continued, some of President Johnson’s advisors began to have doubts about their Vietnam policy. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was particularly troubled by the failure of the bombing campaign on North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to achieve its objectives. Even as pro-war “hawks” in the government argued that stepping up the bombing would win the war, McNamara testified before a congressional committee in August 1967 about the ineffectiveness of the bombing.  Johnson felt betrayed and replaced McNamara with Clark Clifford.  But
privately, the president began to have his own doubts. 500,000 troops were in Vietnam, 9,000 had been killed that year alone, and no end was in sight. Johnson feared further American escalation would provoke Chinese intervention, as it had in Korea in 1950. Publicly Johnson and his policy supporters continued their optimistic message.   Secretary of State Dean Rusk told reporters that progress was being made and that Viet Cong forces were being hurt “very badly.”  In November General Westmoreland announced a new phase of the war would start in early 1968, and said, “We have reached an important point when the end begins now to come into view.”  Weeks later National Security Advisor Walter W. Rostow eerily echoed French General Henri Navarre’s advisor’s statement of confidence back in 1953 by saying, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

sound South Vietnam's President Thieu on Meet the Press, 9/10/67
sound President Johnson's State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/17/68
Herblock cartoons
Herblock was very critical of those who wanted to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam (5 views)
Herblock cartoons
Democracy remained elusive in South Vietnam (2 views)
General Westmoreland
General Westmoreland announces new phase of the war, 11/22/67
 
The Tet Offensive
Meanwhile, the communists were planning an all-out offensive for 1968. Their objectives were to break the stalemate the war had settled into, to test the remaining strength of American resources, and to demonstrate to the South Vietnamese that the United States was not all-powerful. To that end, symbolic targets were chosen, including the American embassy in Saigon.  General Westmoreland had evidence that something was in the works, but he assumed it would take place in the north, so he diverted resources there.  But Viet Cong were quietly infiltrating cities and towns throughout South Vietnam, sometimes disguised as ARVN soldiers.  They smuggled weapons in wagons and carts, even used fake funeral processions. Possibly as a diversionary tactic, the NVA began to surround an isolated Marine outpost near the North Vietnamese border.  Soon America’s attention was
Khe Sanh Combat Base
Khe Sanh Combat Base
drawn to the siege of Khe Sanh, where the Marines were completely cut off.  January 30 marked the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year.  It was traditionally a time of celebration, and a prior agreement had been made with the communists to observe a cease-fire.  On that night, however, some 80,000 Viet Cong attacked 36 of the 44 provincial capitals, 64 district towns, numerous villages, and 12 American bases. Around 4,000 Viet Cong attacked Saigon.  They took over the radio station, hit General Westmoreland’s headquarters, and occupied the American embassy.
U.S. soldiers battle in a Saigon street
U.S. soldiers battle in a Saigon street
Soldiers drag away a dead VC soldier in Saigon
Soldiers drag away a dead VC soldier in Saigon
Wounded Child
Wounded Child
Guards battle to defend the U.S. embassy in Saigon
Guards battle to defend the U.S. embassy in Saigon
South Vietnam's police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes a Viet Cong Prisoner.  Photographed by Eddie Adams
South Vietnam's police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executes a Viet Cong Prisoner. Photographed by Eddie Adams
This Herblock cartoon depicting the Vietnam War as a quagmire was published 2 days before the Tet Offensive
This Herblock cartoon depicting the Vietnam War as a quagmire was published 2 days before the Tet Offensive
Herblock's criticism of the propaganda machine, 2/1/68
Herblock's criticism of the propaganda machine, 2/1/68
Herbock, 2/13/68
Herbock, 2/13/68
Herblock, 2/22/68
Herblock, 2/22/68
Map: Tet Offensive
Map: Tet Offensive
Within a few days President Johnson dismissed the Tet Offensive as a “complete failure.” In many ways it had been.  In most instances the Viet Cong were quickly crushed.  Some 50,000 were killed, virtually ending them as a significant threat for the rest of the war.  And the hoped for uprising of the South Vietnamese against the Americans didn’t materialize either.  But the imagery of the offensive clashed so dramatically with the optimistic pictures being painted by the administration that it severely shocked and polarized the American people.
 
Reactions to Tet:
tv General Westmoreland on the Tet Offensive, 2/1/68
sound Sec. of State Dean Rusk & Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara discuss Tet on Meet the Press, 2/4/68
tv President Johnson to the National Alliance of Businessment, 3/16/68, & to the National Farmers Union Convention, 3/18/68
 
After Tet, the American public increasingly called on the president to pull America out of the war (although just as many people urged further escalation of the war to assure victory).  But even before Tet, President Johnson faced opposition within his own party. On November 30, 1967, the relatively unknown Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota officially entered the race for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, running on an antiwar platform. After Tet, McCarthy suddenly surged in popularity and came within 300 votes of defeating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Only a few days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the slain president’s brother, announced he too was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination. Just as troubling to Johnson was yet another request from General Westmoreland for more troops, this time 206,000.  Faced with the possibility of defeat on all sides, Johnson authorized just 13,500 troops.  He then stunned the nation (and the troops in Vietnam) on March 31 by announcing in a televised address an end to the bombing of
Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN)
Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN)
Herblock
Herblock's take on McCarthy's New Hampshire primary challenge, 3/14/68
President Johnson announces he will not run for re-election, and orders a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, 3/31/68
tv President Johnson announces he will not run for re-election, and orders a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, 3/31/68
Newspaper reporting on President Johnson's annoucement that he will not run for re-election, 4/1/68
Newspaper reporting on President Johnson's annoucement that he will not run for re-election, 4/1/68
Herblock
Herblock reacts to President Johnson's annoucements
North Vietnam, an offer to open negotiations with the communists, and that he would not seek re-election to the presidency. Johnson’s war and political career were over.

The 1968 Election
After Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his own candidacy.  The three-man race stayed close into June, when an assassin ended the life of Robert Kennedy.  Humphrey won the nomination at the convention in Chicago while outside war protestors had themselves a riot.  Humphrey’s image couldn’t recover from the riots, or from
having been Johnson’s Vice President.  Additionally, former Democrat George Wallace ran on a segregation third party ticket.  The election was won by Republican candidate Richard Nixon; former Congressman, former Senator, former Vice President, loser of the 1960 presidential election, loser of the 1962 California governor’s
Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968
Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968
Police clash with protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 27, 1968
Police clash with protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 27, 1968
Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Former Vice President Richard Nixon
Former Vice President Richard Nixon
Herblock
Herblock on the peace process, late 1968 (3 images)
election.  Nixon focused his campaign on the message of restoring law and order to the nation’s cities, which had been racked by race and anti-war riots.  On Vietnam, Nixon gave the vague promise that a new administration would end the war by achieving “peace with honor.”

During the campaign, peace talks on Vietnam had begun in Paris.  The Democrats had pinned their hopes for the election on achieving some results there.  However, evidence suggests that representatives from the Nixon campaign told the government of South Vietnam they would get a better peace deal with a Republican in the White House than they would with a Democrat.  South Vietnam withdrew from the negotiations on the eve of the election and Nixon won. Negotiations resumed shortly thereafter.

sound President Johnson's State of the Union Address, Vietnam section, 1/14/69

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