President Kennedy died just 20 days after South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem died in a coup supported by the United State. This left the war in the hands of Vice President Lyndon Johnson. A clear transition took place in President Kennedy’s thinking about Vietnam in the final days of his administration. Kennedy asked his commanding officers to draw up contingency plans for a withdrawal. Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo on October 4, 1963 which called for the removal of 1,000 military personnel by the end of the year and in which Taylor said that “all planning will be directed towards preparing Republic of Vietnam forces for the withdrawal of all United States special assistance units and personnel by the end of the calendar year 1965.” Additionally, Kennedy’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1964 envisioned no major expansion of troop levels, thereby suggesting no plans existed for an escalation of troops in Southeast Asia.
Just after Diem’s overthrow, U.S. Ambassador of South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge declared, “The prospects now are for a shorter war.” More sober assessments followed as 1963 shaded into 1964. Diem’s regime had reduced South Vietnamese agriculture to a shambles. The forced relocations of peasants into "strategic hamlets," designed to physically separate the rural population from communist forces, disrupted planting and harvesting. Crop yields were down and the poor faced hunger. At the instigation of the ever more numerous communist Vietcong (VC) forces, poor farmers had happily dismantled the hamlets they had learned to hate.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited South Vietnam in December 1963 and had grim news for his boss when he returned. Calling the state of the war effort “very disturbing,” McNamara warned that “current trends, unless reversed in the next two or three months, will lead to neutralization at best or more likely to a communist-controlled state.” Since July 1963, the secretary told President Johnson, the situation in the countryside “had been deteriorating to a far greater extent than we realized . . . [The Vietcong controlled] larger percentages of the population, greater amounts of territory and have destroyed or occupied more strategic hamlets than expected.” ARVN lost more weapons each month than it captured, and injuries and deaths had risen since Diem’s overthrow.
Saigon’s political chaos since the coup added to American troubles. The leader of the coup and head of the new South Vietnamese government, General Duong Van Min, proved to be an incompetent political leader, a “model of lethargy, lacking both the skill and the inclination to govern” as author Stanley Karnow described him. General Nguyễn Khanh overthrew Minh, after three months, in January 1964.
South Vietnam went through seven changes of government after the Diem coup until the military appointed a civilian, Phan Khắc Sửu, as president on October 26, 1964. Sửu held the presidency until June 14, 1965, when Nguyễn Văn Thiệu began his decade-long autocratic leadership which would last until the waning days of the South Vietnamese Republic. McNamara derided the South’s military leaders as “so preoccupied with essentially political affairs” that Army of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers in the field lacked clear direction.
Subsequently released taped White House conversations from the first half of 1964 show that McNamara repeatedly urged Johnson to consider withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam within two years. Johnson shot back that Kennedy and McNamara had hurt the war effort and soldiers’ morale in late 1963 by openly discussing such a possibility. McNamara never aired his doubts publicly and even urged the president to begin an “education” campaign on the need for combat troops even though the defense secretary believed the war was possibly unwinnable.
Johnson, meanwhile, felt torn between two contradictory impulses, which he believed to be inextricably entwined. The future of the Democratic Party, he believed, depended on the success of his “Great Society” programs such as the “war on poverty” and Medicare. But the United States would lose face and its influence in the world if he were perceived to be the first president to “lose a war,” a feckless accommodator who retreated in the face of communist “aggression.”
As he told his biographer, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I 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. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless . . . But if I left the 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 . . . find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody on the entire globe.”
Unable to choose between contradictory demands, Johnson made what proved to be a very expensive choice: he opted for both guns and butter. Even as the ARVN displayed its continued weakness in combat against the VC, American General Maxwell Taylor became a major voice for escalating the American role in South Vietnam. The increasing use of North Vietnamese regular troops in South Vietnam made the ARVN’s task more difficult. Taylor argued that until the South Vietnamese forces could stand on their own, the American military would have to bear the burden of halting communism in Southeast Asia.
Taylor and McNamara made yet another tour of South Vietnam in March 1964.
The secretary of defense reported back to President Johnson that the Vietcong had taken over 40 percent of the countryside and about 90 percent of provinces near Saigon. Desertions of ARVN soldiers skyrocketed after the coup but the Vietcong were expanding rapidly. McNamara urged Johnson to stabilize the South Vietnamese government by making an open-ended commitment to support the country against Ho Chi Minh and his Vietcong allies.
That summer, Lodge resigned as ambassador in order to run for the Republican nomination for president. Johnson replaced him with Gen. Taylor and made Gen. William Westmoreland the new commander of the U.S. military advisory group. The president now relied on an inner circle more hawkish than Kennedy’s. Johnson, meanwhile, worried about the challenge on his right from Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
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.