With Vietnam eliminated as a political issue in the 1964 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson successfully portrayed himself as a peaceful man of reason and Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as a dangerous fanatic who might use nuclear weapons to achieve American military ends. Johnson overwhelmed Goldwater in the election and, armed with a mandate from the voting public and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he felt politically strong enough to push a more aggressive approach in Indochina.
Ambassador Maxwell Taylor met with South Vietnamese military brass in early 1965, insisting that Washington would increase American troop levels there if the regime stabilized politically. However, within a few days, Vice Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Ky and General Nguyễn Chanh Thi overthrew the government. Angered, Taylor called the officers together again and, as the historian George Herring puts it, dressed down the military officials “as a drill instructor might talk to a group of troops.” His voice dripping with sarcasm, Taylor suggested that perhaps something had been wrong with his French. “Now you have made a real mess,” he said. “We cannot carry you forever if you do things like this.”
This political uncertainty led Johnson to delay sending a much larger troop deployment. Instead, Johnson spent early 1965 relying on a heavy bombing campaign in North Vietnam aimed at breaking the communists’ will to fight and the Hanoi regime’s ability to supply men and arms to the South. The ostensible rationale for the bombing campaign came with the Battle of Pleiku, in which eight Americans died on February 7, 1965. Called “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the bombing of North Vietnam lasted from March 1965 until November 1968, involving two million sorties in which more than one million tons of bombs were dropped.
In all, 7,078,032 tons of bombs would be dropped by Americans on North and South Vietnam from 1964 until 1973, as compared with the total of 2,057,244 tons dropped by American pilots in all theaters of World War II. This came to about 1,000 pounds for every Vietnamese man, woman and child. Johnson put great stock in the American monopoly on air power and wanted strict control of targets so the conflict would not spin out of control. The president reportedly boasted, “they can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.” Bombing raids on an almost entirely rural country like North Vietnam, however, produced meager military results, and the South Vietnamese military continued to perform poorly. The communists, meanwhile, seemed poised for an offensive in the South’s Central Highlands. Johnson reluctantly gave approval to an expanded air campaign with fewer restrictions.
“My solution to the problem [of communist advances] would be to tell the North Vietnamese communists frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we're going to bomb them into the Stone Age,” declared Air Force General Curtis LeMay. Operation Rolling Thunder didn’t stem North Vietnam’s momentum, but it did become the rationale for a larger commitment of ground troops.
Two battalions of Marines waded ashore at Danang on March 8, 1965, along with tanks and howitzers, to protect the airbase there – the first American combat units dispatched to Vietnam. “[T]hey were welcomed by South Vietnamese officials and by pretty Vietnamese girls passing out leis of flowers,” historian George C. Herring wrote. “It was an ironically happy opening for what would be a wrenching experience for both countries.”
The administration decided to lengthen the bombing campaign to a year (it would be extended to more than three years) and to put 40,000 combat troops “in country.” Eventually more than 500,000 Americans would be fighting and dying in Southeast Asia. To avoid the possibility of a devastating engagement such as the French experienced in 1954 at Dienbienphu, troops would be assigned to protect limited, 50-mile enclaves around American bases. These enclaves, the Americans hoped, would prevent the communists from scoring a knockout blow while giving the air war a chance to cripple the enemy.
“A TVA FOR THE MEKONG”
Johnson never felt secure about the troop escalation, afraid he was getting sucked into a commitment from which he could not retreat. A small number of domestic critics, including the influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippman, began to speak out against the prospects of a land war in Asia,. Aware that more ground forces meant higher American casualties and aware that the deaths of servicemen could erode support for his policies, Johnson made his first extensive attempt to win public backing for the war.
Johnson decided to make a peace offer to the North Vietnamese on April 7, 1965. Speaking from Johns Hopkins University, Johnson described his plan as “peace without conquest.” Johnson undercut his offer by repeatedly underscoring his commitment to South Vietnam’s separate existence as an independent state, even though the North Vietnamese had made clear they would accept nothing short of national unification.
"We have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam defend its independence,” he said. “We are also there to strengthen world order . . . We are also there because great stakes are in the balance . . . We will not withdraw." At the same time, he offered $1 billion in aid to economically develop the Mekong River in Vietnam. He called the proposal the equivalent of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which provided electricity for much of rural America. Initially, the speech was a domestic political success. Johnson’s firm commitment to South Vietnam assuaged war supporters while his peace offer and pledge to economically build Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia for a time assuaged skeptics of the war.
As a foreign policy initiative, however, it failed. Johnson believed he had made an offer that Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, couldn’t refuse. On a return flight to Washington, Johnson confidently told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “Ol’ Ho, he can’t turn me down.” The North Vietnamese government did just that the following day. Ho Chi Minh would not surrender to the famous “Johnson treatment” that had served the president so well when he served as senate majority leader. From this point on, Johnson stopped speaking of economic aid to Indochina as a major priority and instead focused rhetorically on the dangers that would be posed by a communist victory in the region. Unwilling to accept a military retreat, the president committed to a ground war.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.