LBJ Goes to War

The trend was clear before midnight on November 3, 1964, and it fulfilled Johnson’s most optimistic expectations. He had crushed Barry Goldwater by a margin of sixteen mil¬lion votes, the highest proportion ever scored by a presi¬dential candidate. The spectacular landside swept the rest of his party along and gave the Democrats huge majorities in both chambers of Congress. Now he could make the Great Society a reality.
But there was the war in that “damn little pissant country,” as he called Vietnam. Johnson had shrewdly and skillfully prevented the war from becoming a divisive political issue. He had deflected Gold- water’s early attempts to rally right-wing sentiment against him, and his readiness to bomb North Vietnam had immunized him against charges of being “soft” on Communism. At the same time, he had pledged that “we are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” But even as he campaigned—rushing from city to city to attend dinners, deliver speeches and shake hands in a prodigious demonstration of raw energy—his civilian and military advisers in Saigon and Washington were charting plans that soon brought the United States directly into the conflict.
Some historians hold that events enveloped Johnson in the war. Others portray him as the victim of duplicitous aides, while still others contend that he consciously chose involvement. No single theory tells the entire story, yet each contains a grain of truth.
Johnson was an immensely complicated figure, confronted by a challenge of enormous complexity. Vietnam was not his kind of prob¬lem, and he constantly tried to mobilize a consensus among his advisers before he acted. The specialists may have deceived him—but only to the extent that they deluded themselves. Ultimately, though, he bore the responsibility.
Given his view of America’s position in the world, Johnson could not envisage anything less in Vietnam than an outcome that stopped Communist “aggression”; in that respect he shared the same hope that had guided Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. His purpose was to compel the leaders of North Vietnam to abandon the insurgency in South Vietnam—in short, to deny them victory. And he insisted that he was waging only a “limited” conflict, saying again and again: “We seek no wider war.”
What limitations? Johnson began by exerting gradual pressure on North Vietnam, though he was uncertain the strategy would work. With each new step, he perceived that additional manpower, money and materiel might be necessary. So he entered the war fully aware of the dangers ahead. He eventually failed because he misjudged the enemy’s capacity to withstand pain, believing there was a threshold to their endurance. But, as Ho Chi Minh had warned the French, the Vietnamese Communists would risk annihilation rather than capitu¬late. That concept was beyond the comprehension of Johnson and his advisers, who mistakenly imputed their own values to the Commu¬nists. Paul Warnke, an assistant secretary of defense, was to reflect on this crucial error after leaving office: “The trouble with our policy in Vietnam has been that we guessed wrong with respect to what the North Vietnamese reaction would be. We anticipated that they would respond like reasonable people.”
Johnson’s strategy had an inexorable downward curve. Having dis¬carded diplomacy, he narrowed his choices to only one option—war. He was not blind to the tragedy. But he closed his eyes to the pos¬sibility of other alternatives and seemed to have persuaded himself that his plight was inevitable. As he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “I feel like a hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway. I can’t run. I can’t hide. And I can’t make it stop.”
If Johnson had wanted bipartisan congressional endorsement for do¬mestic political reasons, his advisers welcomed it as an opportunity to intensify U.S. activities in Southeast Asia. As usual, Bill Bundy, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, took the lead. On August 11, 1964, four days after the legislature handed Johnson the Tonkin Gulf resolution—a virtual blank check to conduct the war as he saw fit—Bundy circulated a memorandum outlining the “next course of action.”
Unless South Vietnamese “morale and momentum” were main tained, he warned, General Nguyen Khanh’s fragile regime would crumble, and local politicians or soldiers would either negotiate or embark on armed adventures without American “consent.” He there¬fore proposed intensive military pressures against the North Vietnam¬ese until they accepted “the idea of getting out.” Bundy conceded that too bold an approach “would be difficult to justify to the American public.” His blueprint was calculated to achieve “maximum results for minimal risks,” and it stressed caution: “Probably the sequence should be played somewhat by ear, with the aim of producing a slightly increased tempo, but one that does not commit us prematurely to stronger actions.”
During the first phase, to run through August, the United States would refrain from belligerent gestures that might “take the onus off the Communist side for escalation.” Then tougher actions could slowly be introduced: the resumption of South Vietnamese commando forays against North Vietnamese coastal bases, the redeployment of DeSoto patrols in the Tonkin Gulf and U.S. and South Vietnamese air strikes at Communist infiltration routes in southern Laos, these last carefully camouflaged “so as not to embarrass” the neutralist Lao¬tian prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma.
The “next move upward” would begin in January 1965 with the regular U.S. bombing of North Vietnamese bridges, railroads and oil storage facilities as well as the mining of Haiphong harbor. “Beyond these points,” Bundy added, “it is probably not useful to think at the present time.”
But Ambassador Taylor in Saigon was thinking beyond those points. He foresaw the probability of a U.S. troop commitment to Vietnam—and it rattled him. He subscribed to the doctrine that there should be no American land wars in Asia. He now feared that a big U.S. effort against North Vietnam, such as Bundy suggested, would provoke a Communist reaction in the south that the feeble Saigon government could not handle—and that would require direct Amer¬ican combat intervention. Give the Khanh regime the time to strengthen itself, he argued: “We should not get involved militarily with North Vietnam and possibly with Red China if our base in South Vietnam is insecure and Khanh’s army is tied down everywhere by the Vietcong insurgency.”

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