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What led the US to the Vietnam War?

INTERACTIVE | 10 key players of the Vietnam War in 1965

America stepped onto the “slippery slope” on a quiet stretch of beach just northwest of the Vietnamese city of Da Nang.

On March 8, 1965, two battalions of about 3,500 Marines waded ashore on Red Beach 2 — becoming the first American combat troops deployed to Vietnam.

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Vice President Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson view the Inaugural Parade from the review stand. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)

In the ensuing months they were followed by thousands more combat forces, making 1965 the year the United States transformed the Vietnam conflict into an American war.

For generations of Americans who know Vietnam only through books, movies and legend, it’s difficult to imagine how the United States could have stumbled into such a war in a distant land that many of their parents and grandparents could barely find on a map.

In 1964 a Gallup poll found that 63 percent of the American public was paying no attention to Vietnam, which President Lyndon B. Johnson himself called a “damned little pissant country.”

Few Americans outside the Beltway realized the giant step their government had taken toward a war that ultimately claimed more than 58,000 American lives and was widely seen as a political and military disaster.

The landing at Red Beach 2, complicated by bad weather and occasional sniper fire, climaxed years of soul-searching, frustration and policy battles largely hidden from the American people. Their leaders couldn’t decide whether Vietnam was a petty internal fight in an Asian backwater or part of a grand communist strategy for global or regional domination.

Image_52172558.jpgImage_52172557.jpgSix months before the landing — in the midst of a presidential election campaign — Johnson told an audience at University of Akron in Ohio, “We are not about to send American boys nine or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

Top: The University of Akron's Memorial Hall is packed with political supporters during President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign speech Oct. 21, 1964. The banner over the stage reads "ALL THE WAY ... WITH LBJ."
Bottom: Johnson shakes hands with spectators as he makes a campaign stop Oct. 21, 1964, in Akron. He faced Republican challenger Sen. Barry Goldwater in the general election two weeks later. (Photos courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal)

Three months after that speech, a victorious Johnson said in his inaugural address: “We can never again stand aside, prideful in isolation. Terrific dangers and troubles that we once called ‘foreign’ now constantly live among us.”

By 1965 a confluence of events — South Vietnamese defeats on the battlefield, political turmoil in Saigon and North Vietnamese resolve in the face of an American bombing campaign — had come together to produce a situation in which Washington faced the choice of war or disengagement.

American leaders were nervous about the first option but unwilling to face the political consequences of the second. They clung to the belief that if they committed more resources, the North Vietnamese would ultimately “come to their senses” and back down rather than risk all-out war with world’s strongest military power.

At the height of the Cold War, phrases like “American credibility” and “the Domino Theory” — a belief that defeat in South Vietnam would spread communism throughout Southeast Asia — clouded judgment as Washington weighed its options.

When Johnson assumed the presidency Nov. 22, 1963, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the new president inherited a Cold War foreign policy forged during the three previous administrations. At the heart of that policy was confronting communism.

The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the building of the Berlin Wall and communist incursions into Vietnam’s neighbor Laos had convinced Kennedy that the U.S. needed to stand firm against communist expansion. Kennedy told a New York Times journalist in 1961 that “we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.”

Although reluctant to commit ground combat forces, Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military advisers to 16,000 — up from 900 who had been there since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.

Their role was to train and bolster the South Vietnamese army, known as the ARVN or Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Since the southern insurgency escalated in 1958, the South Vietnamese army had steadily lost ground, even as the North Vietnamese pushed into neighboring Laos in 1961 and expanded supply lines through Cambodia.

Johnson had not been deeply involved in Vietnam policy when he was thrust into the presidency. His priority was enacting the social and economic reforms of his signature Great Society program. His close aide Jack Valenti recalled that “Vietnam at the time was no bigger than a man’s fist on the horizon. We hardly discussed it because it wasn’t worth discussing.”

Vietnam65 frontAVietnam65 frontt the same time, Johnson feared that displaying weakness in Vietnam would cost him political support to enact the Great Society. He told confidants that he worried about receiving blame for “losing Vietnam” much as President Harry S. Truman was accused by his Republican rivals of having “lost China” to the communists two decades before.

“I am not going to lose Vietnam,” Johnson told the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge soon after becoming president. “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”

The Kennedy administration had pinned its hopes on President Ngo Dinh Diem being able to prevail against the communists with American help. But corruption and political turmoil between Diem, a Roman Catholic, and his majority Buddhist rivals undermined U.S. confidence.

Increasingly frustrated with Diem, the U.S. stood aside as senior South Vietnamese officers ousted and killed him only three weeks before Kennedy’s assassination. The coup shook the administration, and scholars are still divided over whether that would have led Kennedy to disengage entirely from Vietnam.

Instead, the new president increased the number of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam to 23,000. Johnson named Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who had urged Kennedy to deepen U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as his ambassador to Saigon. With Taylor’s support, Johnson named Gen. William Westmoreland as the top American commander in Vietnam.

Image_52172562.jpgThe moves drew little public attention in 1964, when Americans were absorbed with a presidential election. Johnson and his Democrats sought to portray the conservative Republican challenger Sen. Barry Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Sen. Barry Goldwater four days before Johnson's 1965 inauguration. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)

Goldwater warned that Johnson’s Vietnam policy lacked “goal, course or purpose” and would result only in “sudden death in the jungles and the slow strangulation of freedom.”

Those comments, however, were drowned out by Goldwater’s own calls for use of tactical nuclear weapons. Johnson kept insisting publicly he did not want to expand the war, even after the August attack on two U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and the U.S. airstrikes in retaliation.

The American electorate saw Goldwater as the belligerent hawk. He was trounced in the November 1964 election, winning only his home state of Arizona and five in the Deep South.

Meanwhile, the situation on the battlefield was moving from bad to worse. By July, U.S. intelligence detected regular North Vietnamese Army units in the south, fighting alongside Viet Cong guerrillas. The U.S. estimated that 40 percent of the country was under the control or influence of the communists with desertions on the rise within the ARVN. The options were to go in deeper or get out — with all the political risks of a “cut and run” strategy.

Image_52172559.jpgIn late 1964 the communists launched a series of military operations, inflicting casualties on the South Vietnamese that they could not afford. An attack in Binh Gia, a village near Saigon, killed 201 South Vietnamese soldiers and five American advisers, even though the South Vietnamese managed to recapture the village in an eight-hour battle.

On Feb. 7, 1965, the Viet Cong raided a U.S. airfield near Pleiku, killing eight American soldiers and destroying or damaging 25 helicopters. Within hours of the attack, Johnson ordered selective bombing of North Vietnamese targets.

Three days later, the communists attacked the U.S. base at Qui Nhon, killing 23 Americans. Johnson responded by ordering a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam — Operation Rolling Thunder — that would continue throughout his presidency. The Soviets, in turn, agreed to provide North Vietnam with missiles to resist the attacks.

Results of the bombing proved disappointing, fueling Johnson’s personal skepticism about air power. Even before ordering Rolling Thunder, Johnson told Taylor, “I have never felt that this war will be won from the air.” Instead he urged greater use of Marines and special operations units. “I myself am ready to substantially increase the number of Americans fighting in Vietnam.”

Viet Cong attacks on U.S. airfields convinced the administration that the bases needed more protection if the bombing campaign were to succeed. Westmoreland’s staff recommended sending Marines to guard the airfields because of “the questionable capability of the Vietnamese to protect the base.”

Four U.S. ships of Amphibious Task Force 76 appeared off shore on the morning of March 8. Intermittent rain and up to 4-foot waves delayed the landing for about an hour. The Marines were welcomed by signs in Vietnamese and English and a delegation of local dignitaries, including high school girls who presented a scowling Brig. Gen. Frederick Karch with flowered leis.

Image_52172540.jpgImage_52172549.jpgWith the arrival of the Marines and the escalation of the air campaign, America’s military role in Vietnam crossed the line from advise and assist to offensive warfare.

Top: Lyndon B. Johnson holds a televised press conference to announce the greatly increased commitment of U.S. armed forces to Vietnam, a decision that he had approved months earlier in a secret memorandum. (LBJ Library)
Bottom:  Under the watchful eyes of an armed helicopter, unloading continues at Dong Hoi beach, Vietnam, in May 1965. The equipment was being used in the construction of an airfield for tactical support at Chu Lai. (U.S. Marine Corps)

Johnson, still leery of a big ground war, offered North Vietnam a major economic development plan, which Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh promptly rejected. In a top secret memorandum dated April 6, Johnson approved thousands more troops for Vietnam. He also changed the mission to allow “more active use” of ground troops — meaning offensive combat operations.

A few weeks later, the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived at Bien Hoa to protect the air base, the first U.S. Army combat unit to deploy to Vietnam.

The U.S. public largely supported the move. A Gallup poll in May 1965 found only 26 percent of the public believed that sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. By November 1965, with tens of thousands more Americans in Vietnam, the figure actually dropped to 21 percent.

Doubts were expressed, though most often in private.

“Ever since 1961 — the beginning of our deep involvement in Vietnam — we have met successive disappointments,” Undersecretary of State George Ball wrote Johnson in June 1965. “We have tended to overestimate the effectiveness of our sophisticated weapons under jungle conditions. We have watched the progressive loss of territory to Viet Cong control. We have been unable to bring about the creation of a stable political base in Saigon.”

Nevertheless, Westmoreland insisted on more troops, telling the president, “I see no course of action open to us except to reinforce our efforts … with additional U.S. or third country forces as rapidly as is practical.”

By the end of 1965, more than 184,000 American troops were in Vietnam.

reid.robert@stripes.com
Twitter: @rhreid

 

10 key players of the Vietnam War in 1965

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LYNDON B. JOHNSON

 

Among the most complex figures in U.S. history, Johnson assumed the presidency after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, hoping to transform America through his Great Society program of social and political reform. But he inherited a chaotic situation in South Vietnam. U.S. advisory and assistance efforts had been incapable of stemming the communist threat there. Initially, Johnson questioned the value of staying in a small, impoverished Southeast Asian backwater. But he also believed in the Domino Theory, which held that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, the rest of Southeast Asia would not be far behind. Johnson accepted the recommendation of key advisers to step up military support for South Vietnam to bolster the government in Saigon and scare off the communists in the North. When a massive bombing campaign failed to break the communists’ will, Johnson agreed to send ground forces, first to defend U.S. air bases and later to engage North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. From then on Johnson — and America — was riding a tiger, unable to control the beast but afraid of the consequences if he tried to jump off.

GEN. WILLIAM C. WESTMORELAND

 

A West Point graduate, former academy superintendent and decorated World War II veteran, Westmoreland looked like Hollywood’s image of the model soldier — tall, lean with a strong jaw and a ramrod bearing. In 1964 he was named commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam after Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told the White House that Westmoreland was “the best we have, without question.” To his critics, however, Westmoreland was a “corporation executive in uniform” without a keen understanding of Southeast Asia or the nature of the enemy. Westmoreland believed the U.S. could prevail in Vietnam though a war of attrition, using America’s overwhelming superiority in soldiers and firepower. Like a corporate executive, he would measure success by “positive indicators,” including body counts of enemy soldiers. That strategy demanded more and more U.S. troops on the ground. With more forces, Westmoreland launched large “search and destroy” missions to engage elusive communist troops. The object was not to seize and hold territory as in previous wars but to inflict enough casualties to wear down the enemy. The strategy would require the long-term support of the American people and their willingness to accept ever-mounting bloodshed without visible and tangible gains.

DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT McNAMARA

 

Brilliant, aloof, arrogant and driven, the World War II veteran became defense secretary at 44, only weeks after being named president of Ford Motor Co. He vowed to bring corporate efficiency to the Pentagon, which he described as “a jungle,” and to restructure the armed forces. As early as 1964, when a Senate critic called Vietnam “McNamara’s War,” the secretary fired back: “I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it.” In January 1965, McNamara told the White House that America’s limited involvement in South Vietnam was not working and the only options were to escalate or to withdraw. He publicly endorsed recommendations by military commanders for an expanded U.S. role. Over time, McNamara came to believe the war was futile. In late 1965, McNamara was telling President Lyndon Johnson to expect combat death rates of 1,000 per month. He also told Johnson that the North Vietnamese believed the war would be a long one and that time was their ally. He withheld those views from the American public until near the end of his life in 2009 at 93.

GEN. MAXWELL TAYLOR

 

The West Point-trained Taylor jumped into Normandy as commander of the 101st Airborne Division at D-Day and went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He retired from active duty in 1959 because he believed that President Dwight Eisenhower’s military policy relied too heavily on nuclear weapons to the detriment of conventional forces. The new president, John F. Kennedy, liked Taylor’s ideas and brought him back to active duty as a special military adviser and later as chairman of the Joint Chiefs for a second tour in the post. As early as 1961, Taylor recommended a “hard commitment” of 8,000 U.S. troops to South Vietnam, a proposal Kennedy rejected. Nevertheless, Taylor remained a Kennedy favorite and in 1964 Johnson named him U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. He played a major role in shaping America’s march to war, although his advice against “Americanizing” the conflict was ignored. In his book “Dereliction of Duty,” Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster accused Taylor of misrepresenting the military’s views to civilian leaders, convincing them that the brass signed off on the idea of gradual escalation rather than use of overwhelming force from the start. Taylor retired as ambassador in 1965 but would continue to play an influential role in U.S. policy until the end of the 1960s.

McGEORGE BUNDY

 

An Army intelligence officer in World War II, Bundy was a product of the “Northeast elite,” an Ivy League, New England intellectual and one of the “whiz kids” who helped steer the United States into the Vietnam War. He was appointed national security adviser by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. President Lyndon Johnson kept him in the post and placed him in charge of a special committee to manage U.S. covert operations. In 1964 and 1965, the supremely self-confident Bundy was a strong voice within the White House for escalating U.S. military operations in South Vietnam, including the use of U.S. ground troops and sustained bombing of North Vietnam. In 1965 he predicted that if South Vietnam fell, “there would be a great weakening in the free societies in their ability to withstand communism.’’ A visit to South Vietnam that year strengthened his views. He urged Johnson in a February 1965 memo to order a policy of “sustained reprisals” including airstrikes against the communists. He was skeptical of negotiations with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese, instead believing that use of military power was essential to containing communism.

DEAN RUSK

 

A staff officer in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II, Rusk was an odd figure, a colorless, soft-spoken Georgian in an administration of overachieving elitists. Rusk served as secretary of state under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Early in his tenure, Rusk displayed strong doubts about U.S. intervention in Vietnam but once the decision was made, he vigorously defended U.S. actions, often drawing sharp criticism from the anti-war movement. Like many of his generation, Rusk believed that standing up to communism was essential to avoid mistakes made in Europe when Western statesmen tried to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II. “Our general view is very well known what the objection is here,” Rusk said in 1965. “Somebody is trying to take over by force a country to which we have a commitment. It should not surprise anyone to suppose that it is an elementary part of our view that that effort should stop.”

HO CHI MINH

 

Born in 1890, Ho spent most of his adult life campaigning for a united Vietnam free of foreign rule. He became a communist in France after World I and spent years in exile in Russia and China before returning home at the end of World War II. His Vietnamese communists defeated the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, but a peace conference divided Vietnam into the communist North and the Western-backed South. Ho told his followers that the arrangement was only temporary, and within a few years the South was embroiled in an insurgency. In 1963 Ho ordered the North to step up the flow of supplies to communist rebels in the South. As the U.S. stumbled toward war, Ho decreed a new military service law in April 1965, extending enlistments, recalling discharged soldiers and increasing the draft. When President Lyndon Johnson sent U.S. ground troops to Vietnam in March 1965, Ho ordered regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army into the South. At the same time, he rejected a U.S. offer for a massive economic development plan that would have benefited the North. Ho insisted that all U.S. military advisers leave South Vietnam as a condition for a peace agreement. Even after the U.S. jumped into the fight, Ho told a Communist Party meeting in December 1965 that the political situation in the United States would never permit full use of U.S. military and economic power. He called for a “decisive victory” in the South and warned the North to prepare for all-out war.

VO NGUYEN GIAP

 

Giap trained as a lawyer and worked as a teacher before meeting Ho Chi Minh in China during World War II. He organized his first military unit in December 1944 to fight Japanese occupiers — with weapons supplied in part by the forerunner of the CIA — and commanded the communist army throughout the war against the Japanese, the French and later the Americans. As the U.S. geared up for intervention, Giap urged the use of the same guerrilla tactics he had used to defeat the French but bowed to political pressure, agreeing to confront the Americans with conventional formations in late 1965. The decision led to massive communist casualties against U.S. helicopters and firepower but did not produce outright defeat. American commanders dismissed Giap as a cold, callous amateur willing to sacrifice thousands of his soldiers. Yet Giap proved resilient, adjusting his tactics as the war unfolded. In March 1965 he predicted in a TV interview that things would go badly for the Americans because “the South Vietnamese soldiers do not want to fight for the Americans.”

NGO DINH DIEM

 

Diem became the first president of South Vietnam in 1955 after the division of the country. Although he was dead by 1965, his shadow loomed over the decisions that led America to war. A Roman Catholic, Diem’s policies discriminated against majority Buddhists and the mountain tribes, or the Montagnards, fanned political turmoil as the communist threat grew stronger. Government repression extended to non-communist political dissidents and anti-corruption campaigners. His flamboyant sister-in-law Madame Nhu wielded considerable influence and sought to reform Saigon life in accordance with Catholic values, closing brothels and opium dens and strengthening laws against divorce. Corruption and government cronyism thrived, much to the alarm of the Americans who feared the South Vietnamese would not fight for a government they could not support. By 1963 Diem had lost the confidence of the Americans, who turned a blind eye away from a military coup that ended with Diem’s assassination. After Diem’s death, Ho was said to have exclaimed, “I cannot believe that the Americans would be so stupid.” Diem’s assassination led to a long period of political instability including coups from which South Vietnam never fully recovered. Diem’s death bolstered communist claims that the South Vietnamese were simply “supporters of colonialism.”

NGUYEN CAO KY

 

A northerner by birth, Marshal Ky, as he was known, was the flamboyant chief of the South Vietnamese air force until 1965 when he became prime minister and the real power in a military junta headed by a figurehead president. Ky was notorious for womanizing and high-risk behavior, which offended many South Vietnamese and alarmed Americans. He had little use for public relations and from time to time threatened to shoot government critics or bomb South Vietnamese units commanded by his rivals. Despite his eccentricities, Ky and his president, Nguyen Van Thieu, brought an end to the coups and produced a modicum of political stability. He and Thieu were also more interested in fighting the communists than some of their predecessors. That was enough to convince Washington that it could escalate the war and try to develop the South Vietnamese into reliable partners.

 

 

 

 

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