1964 - The Year The Sixties Began

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Few observers could have imagined how quickly LBJ would avail himself of these unprecedented and sweeping powers. Though he promised a national television audience on the evening of August 4 that he would “seek no wider war,” between the incidents of August 1964 and late 1965, the number of servicemen fighting in Vietnam rose from 17,000 to 184,000. By late 1966 the figure had climbed to 450,000, and by early 1968 more than 500,000 Americans were serving in the steadily escalating conflict.

Historians and political analysts have long debated the extent of Lyndon Johnson’s responsibility for the tragedy that was the Vietnam War. Some have convincingly argued that his predecessor, John Kennedy, had grown circumspect about the direct engagement of ground forces after the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961 and that he would never have committed combat troops to Vietnam. By this rendering, LBJ was too personally and intellectually insecure to reject the misguided advice of that group of advisers whom David Halberstam would later dub the “best and the brightest,” the same Ivy-educated technocrats who designed and botched the war. Others, however, have argued with equal force that Johnson inherited a situation he could scarcely have maneuvered past.

As early as the Truman administration, policymakers had agreed that Southeast Asia must not be allowed to “fall into the hands of the Communists like a ripe plum.” Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, declined in 1954 to dispatch U.S. troops to bail out the beleaguered French, who were forced by the nationalist Vietminh army to withdraw from Southeast Asia after a calamitous defeat at Dien Bien Phu. But Ike did not see Vietnam as unimportant. On the contrary, he said the French had “a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.” Rather, Eisenhower had a low opinion of the French military capabilities and thought that it would require an enormous commitment of resources—and a highly destructive land war—to weed out the nationalist forces.

In Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was acting with the full faith and support of his electorate.

Instead, Vietnam was partitioned, with an eye toward reunifying the country in 1956. America began propping up the government in South Vietnam, while North Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, turned gradually to the Soviets for military and economic assistance. With American prodding, South Vietnam resisted the scheduled 1956 elections, realizing that it was almost a certainty that Ho Chi Minh would become president of a unified Vietnam. For its part, Washington continued to treat the government in Saigon as a client state, hoping for a peaceful stabilization of affairs. The assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in November 1963 left John Kennedy at a crossroads. He could commit more military advisers and economic assistance to a regime that was increasingly ineffectual and corrupt, and which seemed incapable of meeting the challenge posed by the Hanoi-backed National Liberation Front, or he could remove the American presence from Vietnam. His assassination three weeks later meant that his thoughts on the question will forever remain a matter of speculation.

On the eve of Johnson’s ascension to power, Vietnam remained divided, and Americans remained committed to the rhetoric of the Cold War, which viewed any retreat as a dangerous crack in the national armor. In September 1963, when the Harris Survey organization asked Americans if it was worth going to war with China—a nuclear power—in order to prevent South Vietnam from falling to the Communist bloc, 29 percent of respondents favored war, 34 percent favored a withdrawal, and 37 percent were uncertain. The same survey revealed that 72 percent of Americans supported the government’s general policy in Vietnam.

Even in the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as Johnson began increasing troop levels in Southeast Asia, 45 percent of Americans wanted to stay the course in Vietnam, 36 percent wanted to “step up the war by carrying the fight to North Vietnam, for example, through more air strikes against communist territory,” while only 19 percent supported pulling out. In short, by a large margin, Americans demanded victory of their leaders. They fundamentally agreed with their martyred President, John Kennedy, that America should “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Lyndon Johnson, then, was acting with the full faith and support of his electorate. In later years he lamented: “I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs… . But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.”