1965: New role in Vietnam has dire consequences

Maj. Bruce Crandall's UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search-and-destroy mission in Ia Drang Valley.


By TERRY LEONARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2015

At the dawn of 1965, America was assured of its moral supremacy and confident in a future shaped for the better by its own enterprise, ingenuity and vision. Fighting in Vietnam was not yet a major concern and few foresaw how it would divide the country and cultivate an abiding cynicism and distrust in government.

It was not that America didn’t have major problems. It had been just over a year since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The country was embroiled in a bitter and often violent struggle for civil rights. The Domino Theory and the Cold War with its implied threat of nuclear annihilation defined foreign policy.

Yet at that moment, Americans believed they could surmount any problem and had what would be seen now as an astonishing faith in government. Polls indicated 77 percent believed their government would do the right thing all or most of the time. In 2013, at the time of the government shutdown, that figure had fallen to 19 percent. Vietnam would play a major role in that decline.

In his inaugural address in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made no direct mention of the war in Vietnam. But within weeks the president would redefine America’s role in the war with dire consequences for the country, his presidency and American optimism and faith in government.

Johnson began his own term with the largest electoral victory in modern history and saw the landslide as a mandate for the Great Society, a sweeping liberal legislative agenda that would transform American politics and the role of government in society.

“For a century we labored to settle and subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all our people,’’ Johnson said in a speech outlining the Great Society.

“The challenge of the next half century,” he said, “is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.’’

Johnson envisioned the Great Society as his legacy. He believed Vietnam was a national commitment that must be honored. Still, he told aides that he worried the political and economic demands of the war would derail his dream.

A week after his inauguration, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent Johnson a memo saying that limited military involvement was not succeeding. The U.S., they counseled, must soon decide to escalate or withdraw from Vietnam.

Johnson chose escalation.

On March 2, U.S. warplanes began Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Before the end of the war, the U.S. would fly 3 million sorties and drop nearly 8 million tons of bombs – four times the tonnage dropped in all of World War II.  Six days after the start of the bombing, 3,500 Marines landed in Vietnam to defend the air base at Da Nang.

Less than a month later Johnson sent two more Marine battalions and about 20,000 logistical personnel. In July, he ordered 44 more combat battalions to go to Vietnam, raising the number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam to 125,000. At the same time, the number of men called up in the military draft almost doubled to 35,000 a month.

The president abandoned the campaign pledge he made just weeks before the election: “We are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.’’

Johnson worried about the political fallout over a communist takeover in Southeast Asia and believed we had a national commitment to defend the south. In his first speech about the war in April, he said we were fighting in Vietnam to end aggression, the same reason we fought in World War II.

“We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement,’’ he said. He offered North Vietnam unconditional discussions to stop the war and a pledge of massive economic aid, but the offer was quickly rejected.

Polls showed the majority of Americans supported the government’s involvement in Vietnam and largely ignored the nascent peace movement. The majority simply didn’t believe such a small, backward country could not be forced to bend to American will. Support for the Vietnam War crossed party lines.

“It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home for Christmas," then gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan said in a 1965 interview with the Fresno Bee.

Vietnam wasn’t Johnson’s only war. In April, the president ordered 22,000 U.S troops to land in the Dominican Republic to prevent what Johnson portrayed as a Cuban-style communist takeover.

Sen. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, complained that Johnson’s intervention was marred by a lack of candor and by misinformation. He contended the troops were not sent for the purpose of saving lives. The reports of massacres and atrocities by rebels were exaggerated, he believed, and could not be verified. Internationally it was seen as more American gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.

Soon, that same lack of candor and the same penchant for misinformation by the government would weaken popular support for the war in Vietnam, bolster the anti-war movement on the streets and in Congress and eventually erode the faith that gave Johnson and other presidents the mandate to act.

In the first half of 1965, America’s other problems were larger and more troubling than Johnson’s military interventions.

On March 7 about 600 marchers protesting consistent resistance to black voting in Selma, Ala., began a march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery. Shortly after they began and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were blocked by the Alabama state police and ordered to turn around. When they refused the protestors were attacked with tear gas and billy clubs. More than 50 people were hospitalized.

It became known as “Bloody Sunday” and the images of the brutality were televised around the world. Martin Luther King called for civil rights supporters to come to Selma for a second march. He led a second march two days later, but turned back at the bridge to avoid violating a federal court order seeking a halt until it could be decided if the marchers would be given federal protection. On March 21, they successfully marched with federal protection. Johnson used the episode to help pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That act would change the face of American politics, shifting the party loyalties in the once solidly Democratic South, giving specific federal protection for voting, granting federal courts jurisdiction over redistricting efforts to dilute minority votes and bring more minorities into the Democratic process. Before its passage the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimated there were about 300 African-Americans in elected positions in the country. By 1970 it said there were 1,469, and by 2011 there were more than 10,500.

Selma was just one major event in a civil rights struggle that dominated much of the domestic agenda in 1965. Another major event would have less positive impact on public policy and it would be a hint of trouble yet to come.

Riots erupted in the Watts section of south central Los Angeles on Aug. 11 after white policemen attempted to arrest a black motorist. Six days of violence left 34 dead, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and arson and looting caused $40 million in property damage. It took 14,000 National Guardsmen to quell what had been the worst urban riot in America in two decades. The riot was a precursor to similar riots in Detroit, Newark and other American cities.

During the riots, government officials argued the violence was the work of "outside agitators," a familiar and increasingly discredited claim by public officials dealing with civil rights protests. It would become an often used and little believed claim about anti-war demonstrations.

An investigation prompted by California Gov. Pat Brown determined the Watts riot stemmed from longstanding grievances and growing discontentment with high unemployment, inadequate schools and substandard housing.

Years later, Lady Bird Johnson would tell Bill Moyers, who had been Johnson’s press secretary, that the president had no stomach for the war in Vietnam. “It wasn’t the war he wanted,’’ she told him. “The one he wanted was on poverty and ignorance and disease, and that was worth putting your life into.’’

Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed primarily at easing the emergency created by the Great Depression. Johnson’s Great Society aimed at transforming a wealthy society into something gentler, kinder and more inclusive and fair.

Major provisions of the Great Society included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other laws created Medicare and Medicaid and the Head Start preschool program for disadvantaged youth. Great Society legislation provided major funding for public schools, endowed the arts, provided funds for low-cost housing, tightened pollution controls on air and water, raised standards for consumer safety, protected wilderness areas from industrial development and ended discriminatory ethnic quotas on immigration. The Economic Opportunities Act created the Office of Economic Opportunity and sought to attack the roots of poverty. The Job Corps was created to provide vocational skills. It also was the high point of government expansion.

Moyers later would describe Johnson in 1965 as paranoid and depressed about the war. Johnson, he said, saw the decision to send troops as potentially marking the end of his presidency and of course his legacy.

Aides would say the decision to escalate despite his own misgivings made the president irrational at times. Former White House aide Richard Goodwin said Johnson told him that opponents of the war were close to being traitors and that “the communists already control the three major networks and the 40 major outlets of communication.’’

While continuing to express optimism and resolve publicly, the president’s doubts about the war continued to grow, even in the beginning months.

“I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest mess …,’’ he lamented during a conversation in May with Bundy, his national security adviser.

“What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?’’ Johnson asked Bundy. “… What is it worth to this country?”

Facing requests for more troops the next month, Johnson expressed doubts about defeating the North Vietnamese.

Yet Johnson would send the additional troops and over the next few years would continue to grant requests for more and more troops. More troops meant more casualties, and more casualties meant more controversy. In August, CBS showed Marines using flamethrowers, Zippo lighters and matches to set fire to the thatched roofs of the suspected Viet Cong village of Cam Ne.

“I don’t believe they are ever going to quit, and I don’t see how – that we have any way of either a plan for victory, militarily or diplomatically,’’ Johnson complained to McNamara, his secretary of defense.

“The Marines went on a search-and-destroy mission, but it really was a destroy mission,’’ CBS correspondent Morley Safer said in the report. “What was in the village were a lot of old women and men, young women and babies, and the Marines went in shooting and burning.’’

Many credit the report with changing the way the war was covered. The reaction was incendiary. The Department of Defense demanded that Safer be recalled. CBS refused. Safer received death threats. Safer said Johnson accused him of being a communist. When the network president told Johnson that Safer was not a communist and was a Canadian, Safer said the president said, “Must be the same thing.’’

Johnson resented the eroding support and the more he was attacked, aides said the more he resented it and the more he developed a sense the media hated him personally. Moyers said in 1965 that Johnson complained to him that the “communist way of thinking’’ had infected everyone around him.

The government that had the astounding trust of its people suddenly had begun to distrust the people. That tendency continued through successive administrations.

Anti-war demonstrators and civil rights protesters began to be portrayed in government-run campaigns of character assassination as anti-American or communist sympathizers. Security agencies spying on civil rights leaders and political dissidents added people who spoke out against the war to their surveillance lists. Later, a Senate investigation would detail widespread illegal intelligence gathering on U.S. citizens.

In August the government made burning a draft card a felony offense. Destruction of the card didn’t prevent a young man from being drafted, it merely expressed his displeasure with the system. Burning the U.S. flag was free expression. Burning a draft card was now a crime.

As the year began to close, the anti-war movement began to grow and there were troubling signs of the country becoming divided. On Oct. 30, five Medal of Honor recipients led a march by 25,000 people in Washington supporting U.S. involvement in the war. On Nov. 27, 35,000 anti-war protesters circled the White House and then rallied at the Washington monument.

In November, U.S. troops and North Vietnamese regulars fought their first direct battle in the Ia Drang Valley. When the NVA retreated into the jungle two days later, 79 Americans were dead and 121 were wounded. NVA losses were estimated at 2,000.

A day later, 400 U.S. soldiers sent to occupy the nearby Landing Zone Albany are ambushed by NVA troops. That attack killed 155 Americans and wounded 124.

The Pentagon has already recommended Johnson increase troop strength to 400,000 in the coming year. As the year ends, there are an estimated 184,300 American troops in Vietnam and American combat deaths for the year total 1,369, up from 147 the year before. Every number would increase dramatically in the year to come.


Demonstrators clash with police in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. The event helped push President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act.