U.S. Policy

Determining Vietnam War policy was a matter of finding the right balance between militant resistance to the threat of communist expansion and avoiding the risk of igniting a catastrophic war. Similarly, gaining and preserving domestic support required maintaining a tough facade while minimizing casualties. The administrations of Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon wrestled with these paradoxical constraints, each in accordance with their world outlook and epoch.

Presidents of War

By Michael Beschloss

On March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder began, with more than a hundred U.S. aircraft striking a North Vietnamese munitions depot and a naval base. Over the following three years, more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than fell on all of Europe during the Second World War. President Lyndon Johnson scrutinized each individual air strike, boasting, They can’t hit an outhouse without my permission! Some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to bomb Hanoi. The president told friends he responded by warning that this could force China to enter the war. Johnson later remarked that some of the military leaders were awfully irresponsible ... They’re ready to put a million men in right quick.

On March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder began, with more than a hundred U.S. aircraft striking a North Vietnamese munitions depot and a naval base. Over the following three years, more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than fell on all of Europe during the Second World War. President Lyndon Johnson scrutinized each individual air strike, boasting, They can’t hit an outhouse without my permission! Some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to bomb Hanoi. The president told friends he responded by warning that this could force China to enter the war. Johnson later remarked that some of the military leaders were awfully irresponsible ... They’re ready to put a million men in right quick.

Kennedy's dismantling of the National Security Council system diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in national security matters. Under Truman and Eisenhower, military representatives could place important items on the NSC agenda. During NSC meetings Eisenhower made decisions with all of the Chiefs in attendance. Kennedy's practice of consulting frankly with his closest advisers and using larger forums to validate decisions already made would continue as a prominent feature of Vietnam policy making under Lyndon Johnson. Under the Kennedy-Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the real influence on decision-making that the Eisenhower NSC framework had provided.

Kennedy's dismantling of the National Security Council system diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in national security matters. Under Truman and Eisenhower, military representatives could place important items on the NSC agenda. During NSC meetings Eisenhower made decisions with all of the Chiefs in attendance. Kennedy's practice of consulting frankly with his closest advisers and using larger forums to validate decisions already made would continue as a prominent feature of Vietnam policy making under Lyndon Johnson. Under the Kennedy-Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the real influence on decision-making that the Eisenhower NSC framework had provided.

The Best and the Brightest

By David Halberstam

John Kennedy was dead. On Vietnam, his legacy was more than cloudy. He had known the dangers of U.S. involvement, yet he had significantly deepened it. He had raised the number of American military personnel there to 16,900 by the time of his death. More importantly, he had markedly escalated the rhetoric and the rationale for being there. Although he had seriously questioned the wisdom of a military commitment, he had never shown those doubts in public. His successor would have to deal not so much with Kennedy's inner doubts but with his public statements. His speeches and programs had raised the importance of Vietnam in American minds.

John Kennedy was dead. On Vietnam, his legacy was more than cloudy. He had known the dangers of U.S. involvement, yet he had significantly deepened it. He had raised the number of American military personnel there to 16,900 by the time of his death. More importantly, he had markedly escalated the rhetoric and the rationale for being there. Although he had seriously questioned the wisdom of a military commitment, he had never shown those doubts in public. His successor would have to deal not so much with Kennedy's inner doubts but with his public statements. His speeches and programs had raised the importance of Vietnam in American minds.

In June 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created a Vietnam Study Task Force. Their job was to compile an encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War, sourced from U.S. government documents; files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense were the main source of material. McNamara did not inform President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk or National Security Advisor Walt Rostow about the study. To maintain secrecy, the Task Force conducted no interviews or consultations with White House staff members or with personnel belonging to any federal agency. McNamara's successor Clark Clifford received the finished study in January 1969, five days before Richard Nixon's inauguration.

In June 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created a Vietnam Study Task Force. Their job was to compile an encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War, sourced from U.S. government documents; files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense were the main source of material. McNamara did not inform President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk or National Security Advisor Walt Rostow about the study. To maintain secrecy, the Task Force conducted no interviews or consultations with White House staff members or with personnel belonging to any federal agency. McNamara's successor Clark Clifford received the finished study in January 1969, five days before Richard Nixon's inauguration.

During the fifteen months that followed the December 1965 bombing pause, the war grew substantially and debates intensified dramatically. The period ended with yet another request from General Westmoreland to escalate. He had asked for 200,000 more troops along with a geographic expansion of the war via South Vietnamese forces. Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs believed this program would require mobilization of the reserves and utilizing the nation's full military capability, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. They recognized the risk of confrontation with China and/or the USSR, but considered these steps necessary to avoid five more years of war. All this demonstrated that our policy was failing.

During the fifteen months that followed the December 1965 bombing pause, the war grew substantially and debates intensified dramatically. The period ended with yet another request from General Westmoreland to escalate. He had asked for 200,000 more troops along with a geographic expansion of the war via South Vietnamese forces. Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs believed this program would require mobilization of the reserves and utilizing the nation's full military capability, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. They recognized the risk of confrontation with China and/or the USSR, but considered these steps necessary to avoid five more years of war. All this demonstrated that our policy was failing.

On February 10, 1965, a call for President Johnson from British Prime Minister Harold Wilson on the hot line was finally put through. The conversation began poorly and proceeded to get worse. Wilson wanted to come to Washington to discuss the developing crisis in Vietnam. Johnson said that there was nothing Britain could do to change the U.S. position, and that no gain could come from jumping around the Atlantic every time there is a critical situation. Wilson was under heavy pressure in Parliament to do something about the hazards of escalation in Vietnam. Johnson snapped I won't tell you how to run Malaysia and you don't tell us how to run Vietnam.

On February 10, 1965, a call for President Johnson from British Prime Minister Harold Wilson on the hot line was finally put through. The conversation began poorly and proceeded to get worse. Wilson wanted to come to Washington to discuss the developing crisis in Vietnam. Johnson said that there was nothing Britain could do to change the U.S. position, and that no gain could come from jumping around the Atlantic every time there is a critical situation. Wilson was under heavy pressure in Parliament to do something about the hazards of escalation in Vietnam. Johnson snapped I won't tell you how to run Malaysia and you don't tell us how to run Vietnam.

Like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson defined his objective in Vietnam as winning the war, but unlike Kennedy he did not publicly put limits on U.S. support for South Vietnam. Johnson didn't emphasize, like Kennedy had, that the U.S. could provide assistance for South Vietnam but only the South Vietnamese could win the war. Johnson's approach was rooted in the assumption that the loss of South Vietnam would entail greater costs and risks than the introduction of U.S. combat forces would. Johnson's way of thinking came through clearly in his first meeting with his Vietnam advisors, only two days after Kennedy's assassination, where he clearly stressed that he wanted priority given to military operations over social reforms in South Vietnam.

Like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson defined his objective in Vietnam as winning the war, but unlike Kennedy he did not publicly put limits on U.S. support for South Vietnam. Johnson didn't emphasize, like Kennedy had, that the U.S. could provide assistance for South Vietnam but only the South Vietnamese could win the war. Johnson's approach was rooted in the assumption that the loss of South Vietnam would entail greater costs and risks than the introduction of U.S. combat forces would. Johnson's way of thinking came through clearly in his first meeting with his Vietnam advisors, only two days after Kennedy's assassination, where he clearly stressed that he wanted priority given to military operations over social reforms in South Vietnam.

In pursuit of its policy of containment, the United States entered the war in Vietnam on the strategic defensive. Our failure to appreciate what this posture entailed contributed to our ultimate failure. On the other hand, the overall North Vietnamese posture throughout the course of the war was the strategic offensive, with the conquest of South Vietnam as their objective. On the tactical level they shifted between defensive and offensive campaigns as conditions demanded. Guerrilla warfare initiated in 1964 was a tactical offensive. Frustrated by the massive commitment of U.S. forces and their defeat at Ia Drang in November 1965, they reverted to the tactical defensive.

In pursuit of its policy of containment, the United States entered the war in Vietnam on the strategic defensive. Our failure to appreciate what this posture entailed contributed to our ultimate failure. On the other hand, the overall North Vietnamese posture throughout the course of the war was the strategic offensive, with the conquest of South Vietnam as their objective. On the tactical level they shifted between defensive and offensive campaigns as conditions demanded. Guerrilla warfare initiated in 1964 was a tactical offensive. Frustrated by the massive commitment of U.S. forces and their defeat at Ia Drang in November 1965, they reverted to the tactical defensive.

Intellectuals could and did deride the Diem government in Saigon's cafes and shops, without facing punishment. Attempts to bring substantial numbers of people into a political organization, however, were not permitted, regardless of whether or not they appeared to have a direct link to the Communists. Public gatherings of oppositionists and the publication of anti-government material were expressly forbidden. Ngo Dinh Diem repeatedly professed a desire for democracy, adding that it couldn't come right away, although he didn't define "democracy" as Westerners would. To assuage sensibilities, he erected a façade of democracy in the form of a legislature called the National Assembly.

Intellectuals could and did deride the Diem government in Saigon's cafes and shops, without facing punishment. Attempts to bring substantial numbers of people into a political organization, however, were not permitted, regardless of whether or not they appeared to have a direct link to the Communists. Public gatherings of oppositionists and the publication of anti-government material were expressly forbidden. Ngo Dinh Diem repeatedly professed a desire for democracy, adding that it couldn't come right away, although he didn't define "democracy" as Westerners would. To assuage sensibilities, he erected a façade of democracy in the form of a legislature called the National Assembly.