Fifty years ago this month, the United States elected President Lyndon B. Johnson to a full term by a landslide. President Johnson, a.k.a. LBJ, won by more than sixteen million vote over the right-wing, ultra-conservative, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. The Electoral College results were even more one-sided; President Johnson received 486 Electoral College votes to Goldwater’s fifty-two.
Johnson had campaigned that he would continue the late President Kennedy’s policies, if elected, which included maintaining a low number of troops in Vietnam. Conversely, the Republican candidate, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, campaigned that he would consider using tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Additionally, Goldwater was opposed to one of Johnson’s main platform issues—Civil Rights legislation. While I have always believed this was the critical factor in Goldwater’s loss, this blog will focus on Johnson’s Vietnam policy, since I am writing a series of books on Vietnam. What got me started on this series of books is that, several years ago, I saw a bumper sticker which said, “We were winning Vietnam when I left!”
As World War II was winding down, President Roosevelt made a deal with Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of free China, to occupy Vietnam. The Chinese would take the North and the United States and France would take the South. They agreed to hold unification elections, as soon as possible. However, China went through a monumental change: the communists won the Civil War, therefore, North Vietnam was occupied by the communists. Then North Vietnam picked Ho Chi Minh to be their leader. Ho Chi Minh had led the country in their defeat of the French, who was trying to re-claim Vietnam as one of their territories. He was viewed as a liberator. Therefore, one of the largest obstacles to peace in Vietnam was overcoming the North, being led by Ho Chi Minh. The South could not come up with anyone to match this charismatic leader. Therefore, the United States refused to allow “free” elections, because they believed those elections would lead to the country falling into the hands of the communists.
The Democratic Party had been vulnerable for having “lost” China to the communists and being satisfied with letting the Korean Conflict end in a draw. The CIA still had two strong opposing factions. One side put forth what would become known as the Domino Theory, which in essence claimed that if Vietnam fell, all of Southeast Asia would fall, and the US would lose a strategic defensive position in the Far Pacific. This theory was held by four administrations; Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. First, President Kennedy, then President Johnson, repeatedly stated that they were not going to be the US Presidents who “lost” Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In the lead up to the election, Johnson quietly grew the US ground forces in Vietnam; however, the United States public was not informed this action.
So what did LBJ do after elected? He did exactly what he wanted! He believed his landslide was a mandate. Kennedy had believed that he could fight the Vietnamese without committing a large number of troops, instead using limited engagements, quick-strike operations with Special Forces, CIA-trained men, or Green Beret. He had consulted with retired General Douglas MacArthur, who might have had the most knowledge of the Asian Theater of anyone alive at that time. MacArthur had advised Kennedy that air and naval support, in conjunction with the South Vietnamese Army, was the way to win this conflict, but it was absolutely not the place for ground troops. Johnson, on the other hand, was beholding to “Big Oil” and the “Military Industrial Complex”; therefore, he needed a way to escalate the Vietnam Conflict to appease the people who funded his re-election. He was given the perfect scenario, the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”, which in reality was nothing more than a false flag to escalate the United States’ role in Vietnam.
The situation was further compounded by Johnson trying to manage the Conflict from the White House, as opposed to taking the advice of officers on the ground. Johnson’s mismanagement was instrumental in the malaise created in Vietnam. Moreover, the US troops were the first to have rules of engagement placed on them. Additionally, many of the South Vietnamese people did not respect our troops, and in many cases, they viewed our troops as occupiers, much like the French. Conversely, our troops knew that many of these Vietnamese were friendly during the day and Vietcong soldiers during the night. This made for a terrible situation where a large numbers of troops were encamped.
Vietnam became a quagmire, and while our troops were winning the fighting, it was totally misrepresented in the press back in the United States. Ultimately, Johnson chose not to run for re-election, and the American public turned against the Vietnamese Conflict and our troops who fought there. While there were atrocities, such as Mai Lia, most of our soldiers acted and fought honorably, but were treated poorly by the U.S. public.
What is your opinion of the Johnson Administration and their handling of the Vietnam Conflict?