What led the US to the Vietnam War?
By ROBERT H. REID | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2015
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.
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.
Six 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.”
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.”
At 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.
The 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.
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.
In 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.
With 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.
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.
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Sen. Barry Goldwater four days before Johnson's 1965 inauguration.
YOICHI OKAMOTO / LBJ LIBRARY