Lyndon B. Johnson's Policy Towards Vietnam

December 1963 - July 1965

Seminar Paper, 2003

13 Pages, Grade: 1


I. Introduction

”Look, Mr. President, everything that the Secretary of Defense has been telling you this morning, I used to listen to with my French friends. They talked about the fact that there was always a new plan, and (...) that was going to win the day. And they believed it just as much as we're believing it sitting around the table this morning. I can tell you, however, that in the end, there was a great disillusion. And there will be one.”1

In spite of the advice given to him by his Under Secretary of State, George Ball, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson decided on the 27th July 1965 to push ahead and increase military forces from 75,000 to 125,000 in Vietnam. With this decision, Johnson escalated the American intervention in Vietnam and made what has been seen as the ”formal decision for a major war”2. The inability and, to an extent unwillingness, to foresee that the conflict was going to be as catastrophic as it turned out to be is what lead Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence, to say that the Johnson administration’s ”greatest failure of all was Vietnam.”3 It was not until April 1975 and then under President Gerald Ford that the United States would finally withdraw from Vietnam, following a defeat of the South Vietnamese forces and a reunification of the country under the leadership of Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. With approximately 58,000 American casualties, not to mention the estimated 1,5 million Vietnamese killed, this military intervention continues to be seen as a sore point of American history4.

How a country, more than 13,000 kilometres from the US could become such a fixation and, in the end, disaster, for America and the Johnson administration remains, to many, a mystery until today. In an address at the John Hopkins University in April 1965, Johnson stated the US objective as being the independence of South Vietnam, claiming ”we want nothing for ourselves”5. Such altruistic motives would have struck a cord with his listeners, mostly academics and students, but were far from the truth. At the bottom of the decision making process of American intervention and going to war, lay a complex set of issues. The vast literature available on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War does not necessarily make it easier to shed light on the reasons for commitment and to analyse his policy as the numerous and opposing viewpoints become apparent. Often there is a wide divergence between the ways Johnson is portrayed by others, how he portrays himself and the way he appears to be in transcripts of meetings, memos and tapes. Johnson is said to have left behind data that can ”support almost any interpretation”6. This does not come as a surprise when one looks at the National Security Action Memoranda 273 which requests that with regard to all planning to do with Vietnam ”the plausibility of denial”7 had to be considered. Consequently, it is helpful to look at Johnson’s general approach to foreign policy in order to better understand his policy towards Vietnam.

Johnson’s foreign policy was dominated by both the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which made it the aim to contain communist aggression, as well as the domino theory which was first introduced by Dwight Eisenhower shortly before the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. This theory said that if one country in Southeast Asia should fall into the hands of communism, others would quickly follow.8 The Johnson Doctrine of 1965, although issued in the face of growing turmoil in relations with Latin America, also decisively influenced Johnson’s foreign policy approach as a whole and consequently also towards Vietnam. The Doctrine stated that the President had the reserved right to use military force whenever there was the perceived threat of communism in the US sphere of interest.9 In addition, there is the issue of Johnson’s foreign policy inexperience and, to some in extent, disinterest in foreign policy. Added to this is the fact that he in a way suffered from the consequences of McCarthyism. This had resulted in the removal of many East and Southeast Asian specialists from the State Department. The Johnson administration was left with very few genuine specialist advisers for Vietnam. Instead, the Cabinet from 1963 to 1965 was dominated by largely hawkish former John F. Kennedy members of staff who Johnson had decided to keep on after the President’s assassination in November 1963. Taking Johnson’s approach to foreign policy and his Weltanschauung as a framework, this paper attempts to analyse the reasons which brought the Johnson administration to decisively extend the US engagement in Vietnam during 1964 and, finally, escalate it in July 1965.

II. The Origins of American Involvement in Vietnam and the situation in 1963

”It’s the biggest—it’s the worst mess I ever saw in my entire life. You couldn’t have inherited a worse mess”, Richard Russell said. ”Well, if they’d say I inherited, I’ll be lucky. But they’ll all say I created it!” Lyndon Johnson replied.10

Although the escalation of the war in Vietnam did not occur until July 1965, the history of American involvement and interest in the country dated back two decades. Johnson did indeed inherit, if not a mess, then at least a situation formed by a number of Presidents preceding him. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were first sympathetic towards Indochina’s strive for independence and viewed France’s interest in maintaining its colonial empire with displeasure. However, as a result of growing antagonism towards the Soviet Union, Truman saw himself forced to assist Paris. The United States supported the French colonial war until the downfall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 with approximately 2 billion dollars, more than three-quarters of the total costs.11 Whereas Washington was thereby able to secure French consent to America’s leading role in Europe, especially with regard to issues relating to Germany, this involvement also paved the way to a marshy commitment in Vietnam.

For the time being, President Dwight Eisenhower remained on solid ground, meaning he did not risk a direct US military commitment on Asian mainland. After the Geneva Conference on Indochina in 1954, the US, however, lost its footing and direction. Instead of supporting free elections in the whole of Vietnam, Eisenhower supported the anti-communist and, at the same time, corrupt regime in South Vietnam. The foreign policy consequences of this were fatal and a kind of foreign policy McCarthyism increasingly clouded the awareness for the problems of the Far East. In the end John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson no longer seemed capable of getting a realistic idea of the situation and, especially the latter, became ”the captive of a war in Vietnam”.12

In the course of 1963, the political practices of Ngo Dinh Diem moved into the centre of the American sphere of interest. The US was no longer willing to tolerate the potent behaviour of the South Vietnamese president. Diem had risen to be an exceedingly dangerous figure for the US, who seemed to seriously threaten American efforts. The North Vietnamese viewed Diems strict position against Buddhists as proof that he was merely a puppet of the United States and not a representative of the Vietnamese people13. Consequently, the Americans came to the conclusion that the war could not be won with Diem and saw themselves forced to consider a drastic change of direction in South Vietnam. In the end after long debates, this change was to be brought about by a putsch, in the course of which Diem was killed.14 However, Diem’s successor General Khanh, too, was not able to solve the military difficulties satisfactorily.

Kennedy saw Vietnam as the test case for a global clash with communism15 and after his assassination in November 1963, Johnson promised ”this Nation will keep its commitments from South Viet-Nam to West Berlin.”16 When Johnson came into office more than 16,000 military advisers were stationed in South Vietnam17. The Kennedy Administration had believed that the Republic of South Vietnam could, with this kind of support, win the fight on its own against the North and its National Liberation Front (NLF) guerrilla fighters. The Johnson administration generally followed this view, yet the basis for this in South Vietnam seemed exceedingly unfavourable. Johnson likened his situation to that of a catfish which ”just grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it.18 ” Seemingly disliking American involvement in Vietnam from the very beginning (he had also starkly opposed removal of Diem, thinking it would bring chaos to South Vietnam19 ), Johnson still saw it as his duty to carry on the work three Presidents before him had done, so as not to lose credibility and also in an attempt to serve the Cold War agenda of global containment of communism.

Johnson saw in Vietnam something like a test case for American alliance reliability, especially with regard to allies in Europe. This meant that an American withdrawal or even a neutral South Vietnam was out of the question. Rather, Johnson put the conflict in Vietnam on a level with the American engagement in Berlin and Korea. Johnson, similar to his predecessors, seemed to be unable to see that the war in Vietnam was, above all, a civil war in a divided country, for which there were no real historical comparisons. The Presidential advisers, however, continued to use reasoning based on ”misplaced historical analogies”20. The belief that aggression had to be stopped when it began, was very much a relict from the Second World War, as was the assumption that appeasement, in any form or to any extent, was unacceptable. The leitmotif of US policy towards Vietnam can, simplified, be portrayed as being the wish to prevent a communist takeover in Saigon in order to stabilise the Southeast Asian region. To the United States the subversive communist aggression represented part of a communist world revolution, which had to be stopped at all costs.


1 George Ball, Transcript Oral History Interview I (7 August 1971) by Paige E. Mulhollan, Internet Copy, LBJ Library, available at (accessed on 28 May 2003), p.21

2 Greg Pemberton ”Australia’s Road to Vietnam, 1945-1965” in Greg Pemberton (ed.) Vietnam Remembered (New Holland, Sydney, 2002), p.37

3 Robert S. McNamara, Transcript Oral History Interview I (1 August 1975) by Walt W. Rostow, Internet Copy, LBJ Library available at (accessed on 28 May 2003), p.9

4 for data see Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (Penguin Books, New York, 1991), p.9

5 Lyndon B. Johnson ”Peace Without Conquest” Address at John Hopkins University (7 April 1965), LBJ Library and Museum: National Archives and Records Administration at (accessed on 17 May 2003)

6 David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2000), p.289

7 National Security Action Memoranda 273: South Vietnam (The White House, Washington, 26 November 1963), available at (accessed on 7 May 2003)

8 George Herring ”America and Vietnam: The Unending War” in Foreign Affairs (Winter 1991-92), p.107

9 for more detailed discussion of the Johnson Doctrine see Walter LaFeber, The American Age: US Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994), pp.607-610

10 Lyndon B. Johnson quoted in Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001), p.213

11 George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America became involved in Vietnam (Anchor Books, New York, 1986), pp.42-43

12 Robert Dallek ”Tales of the Tape” in Reviews in American History, Vol.26, No.2 (1998), p.334

13 See Robert Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam 1941-1975 (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997), p. 117

14 For more detailed account of the coup see Orrin Schwab, Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War, 1961-1965 (Praeger, Westport, 1998), pp.37-80

15 Arthur Schlesinger, The dynamics of World Power: A documentary history of US foreign policy 1945-1973, Volume IV (Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1973), p. 484

16 Lyndon B. Johnson, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress (27 November 1963), available at (accessed on 15 May 2003)

17 For data see Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1982), p.29

18 Lyndon B. Johnson quoted in Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars in Vietnam (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995), p.95

19 see George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1996), p.115

20 Walter Lippman quoted in Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Bodley Head, London, 1980), p. 560

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Lyndon B. Johnson's Policy Towards Vietnam
December 1963 - July 1965
Macquarie University
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ISBN (Book)
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Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson, Internationale Beziehungen, International Relations, Armed Conflict, Krieg, Asien, Asia
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Belinda Helmke (Author), 2003, Lyndon B. Johnson's Policy Towards Vietnam, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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