After ending the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in 1945, revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, declared independence for his country before a crowd of 500,000 people in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. Ho began his speech with a passage from the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Twenty years later, Ho Chi Minh and the communist government of the northern half of a partitioned Vietnam, were fighting a bloody and costly war with the United States over the fate of the southern half of his country. The Vietnam War remains almost as controversial today as it was in the 1960s and 70s. U.S. involvement in Vietnam spanned five American presidential administrations. However, it was Presidents Johnson and Nixon who would be consumed by the war, with the legacy of their presidencies permanently tied to the war, and perhaps forever stained by it.
Their goals differed; Johnson started the war preaching to the American people of an easy victory. Nixon wanted to end the war without the stigma of defeat. Johnson’s decision to start a war, and Nixon’s decisions on how to end a war, were both influenced by their individual goals to hold power through the seat of the presidency. The decisions were not made of any real moral concerns about South Vietnam, the fate of its people, or the cause of democracy. Both Nixon and Johnson failed to achieve victory in Vietnam, and the war lives on as a dark chapter in United States history, and parallels current U.S. involvement throughout the world.
President Johnson Takes Office
Occurring within weeks of each other in 1963, the dual assassinations of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and United States President John F. Kennedy, mark a turning point in the Vietnam war. The coup that brought down Diem’s government in South Vietnam weakened the country even further as the stability of Diem’s government fell way to a period of chaos in which South Vietnam saw fourteen different regimes rise and fall over the next decade.
South Vietnam was ever more dependent on U.S. involvement for its existence, and the ever growing presence of American troops appeared more as an occupying force to the South Vietnamese than as a liberating army. President Johnson had been a supporter of Diem’s government and believed U.S. support for the coup was “the worst error made by the United States during its long involvement in Vietnam.” The beginning of Johnson’s Administration to March 1965, when the first U.S. Marines arrived on the Vietnamese shore near Danang, marks an important period of policy deliberation in American involvement in South Vietnam.
Johnson, worried that an increase in U.S. involvement might jeopardize his reelection in 1964, continued a similar, yet more intensified, policy that Kennedy had established. It was also during this period that Johnson and his administration deliberately chose to pursue war in spite of potential resistance from the American public, media, and government.
Like his predecessors, Johnson’s foreign policy sought to contain the spread of communism in Indochina by supporting South Vietnam both financially and militarily. Johnson’s domestic goals laid on his “Great Society” reforms and securing reelection through popularity and consensus in the American public and Congress. However, LBJ’s foreign policy threatened to jeopardize his domestic political goals, as it became increasingly apparent to Johnson that the U.S. would need to increase its involvement in Vietnam if it wanted to prevent the spread of communism from North Vietnam.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, wrote an assessment of the situation in Vietnam to President Johnson saying, “Unless we can achieve this objective in South Vietnam, almost all of Southeast Asia will probably fall under Communist dominance, accommodate to Communism so as to remove effective U.S. and anti-Communist influence, or fall under the domination of forces not now explicitly Communist but likely then to become so.” McNamara again urged the President to escalate U.S. involvement in the war in 1965 predicting that “Even though casualties will increase and the war will continue for some time, the United States public will support this course of action.” This last assessment would be proven incorrect.
The “Americanization” policy in South Vietnam did not have the widespread consensus that Johnson would have liked. Prominent members of American society were opposed to escalation. This included most of the Democratic leadership, leading lawmakers in that party, respectable media commentators, and newspapers throughout the U.S. It is also important to note, that “out of 126 nations in the world in 1965, the United States had the unequivocal support for its Vietnam policy of exactly one.”
Johnson would find the consensus he needed for escalation through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and from a public information campaign to increase public support for the war. The truth about the incident in the Tonkin Gulf, in which U.S. naval vessels believed that they were under attack by the North Vietnamese, is contradicted by multiple other accounts but gave the Johnson Administration a proper pretext for congressional approval. Thus, in 1964, Congress gave approval for President Johnson to take, “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
Johnson further convinced the public of the war’s necessity. In 1965 during a speech at Johns Hopkins University, Johnson painted a picture of a war for South Vietnam’s freedom, and reminded U.S. citizens that their country had a duty to fight the spread of communism. Johnson said, “Our objective is the independence of South Viet-Nam and its freedom from attack. We want nothing for ourselves, only that the people of South Viet-Nam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.”
Johnson and a War of Attrition
The U.S. Vietnam War escalated in the summer of 1965; by 1968 the nation was bogged down in a costly bloody war. The U.S. had committed 486,000 troops to the conflict and was spending over $2 billion a month on the war. Johnson gave tactical command over the war to General William Westmoreland who devised a three-phase plan of a war of attrition designed to limit U.S. casualties and win the war quickly.
During phase one, the U.S. would deploy troops to protect a developing logistic system, such as military bases, roads, air fields and communication lines. Phase two consisted of offensive measures to eliminate enemy base camps and sanctuaries and was planned to last about a year. In Phase three, a pacification program would extend throughout South Vietnam as U.S. troops mopped up the remaining insurgent forces. Throughout the attrition strategy in South Vietnam, the U.S. would undergo massive bombing campaigns in North Vietnam to destroy enemy industry and demoralize North Vietnamese troops.
By the end of 1967, Johnson’s political and military goals were failing. The tactic of attrition had only produced a stalemate, despite casualties falling heavily on the North Vietnamese. The time to win the war was running out. Even the aggressive bombing campaigns in North Vietnam proved fruitless. An analysis by the CIA of the bombing campaign surmised that “North Vietnam’s ability to recuperate from air attacks has been of a high order.”
While damage was done to enemy industry and military infrastructure, the bombing campaign, “had not meaningfully degraded North Vietnam’s material ability to continue the war in South Vietnam.” In 1967, as well, support for the war had dropped. Draft calls increased over 30,000 per month and 13,000 Americans had already died fighting in Vietnam, and public approval of Johnson’s management of the war fell to 28 percent by October.
Johnson fretted over alternative solutions to the war and was indicating that he was going to take a similar direction towards something resembling Vietnamization that is associated with the Nixon Administration. However, Johnson would not change course as his own reputation was on the line. Historian George Herring notes that President Johnson was, “Enormously ambitious, he had set high goals for his presidency, and he was unwilling to abandon them even in the face of frustration and massive unrest at home. It was not a matter of courage.
By persisting in the face of declining popularity Johnson displayed courage as well as stubbornness. It was primarily a matter of pride.” Historian Frederick Logevall argues as well, that Johnson’s pride was a deficient factor in the President’s decisions about Vietnam, arguing that Johnson chose for the U.S. to go to war with Vietnam for the sake of his own reputation.
President Nixon Takes Office After the Tet Offensive
The seconded turning point in the Vietnam War was the combined effects of the Tet Offensive and the election of Richard Nixon as the 37th President of the United States. The Tet Offensive was a successful large-scale surprise attack by the North Vietnamese launched during the Vietnamese new year holiday. The attack was unexpected and broke precedent in the war as previously both sides had observed a cease fire during the holiday. The Tet Offensive was intended to “Lure American troops away from the major population centers and maintain a high level of U.S. casualties.”
Reports of the Communists’ success with the Tet Offensive was exaggerated due to misinformation and this caused even greater confusion in the U.S. for the public who was constantly told that victory was on the horizon. Walter Cronkite reacted to the news saying, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were supposed to be winning the war.” This sums up the general shock and attitude of the public. After the Tet Offensive, senators who were on the fence of supporting Johnson’s polices regarding the war were now calling for peace.
The reaction to the news spurred a wave of anti-war protests and attributed to the political unrest already dividing the United States. In a somewhat unexpected move, Johnson announce that the U.S. would be scaling down the bombing in North Vietnam and would be willing to negotiate with North Vietnam if they deescalated violence on their end. He also announced that he would not be running for re-election for the 1968 presidential election. Richard Nixon largely won the 1968 presidential election because of his promise to end the war.
Domestically, Nixon had to convince Americans to support his strategy for ending the war without an automatic withdrawal of all American troops. In a national address, President Nixon laid out his plan for ending and winning the war. He called out for the support of the Americans not protesting in the streets. He said, “And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans. I ask for your support.”
Nixon confessed that Johnson’s decision to start the war was a mistake, but to withdraw now would result in death and destruction for so many people in South Vietnam and reminded the American people of the United States’ duty to protect freedom throughout the world. Nixon made it a point to distance himself from his predecessor refusing to let “Johnson’s war become Nixon’s war.”
While Johnson Americanized the war in Vietnam, Nixon would Vietnamized the war, giving the South Vietnamese the training and equipment that they needed to defend themselves. Still, throughout his Presidency, Nixon was under constant stress to end the war, and thus would quicken the incremental withdrawal of troops out of Vietnam. Nixon’s success thus rested on two strategies; the effectiveness of Vietnamization, and the diplomatic skills of Henry Kissinger.
Nixon and Kissinger’s Diplomacy
Throughout Nixon’s presidency, Kissinger acted as chief diplomat regularly meeting with his communist counterpart from North Vietnam and extending communication between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. Nixon hoped that pressure to end the war from China and Russia would give reason for North Vietnam to be more willing to make concessions in diplomatic talks.
North Vietnamese leaders also feared that the U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R. would find consensus on ending the war before the Americans could be driven out of South Vietnam. In the past Geneva Conference of 1954, pressure from China and the Soviets on the Vietminh led to the partition of Vietnam, and to the war with the United States. North Vietnamese leaders where afraid of history repeating itself. Diplomacy with North Vietnam failed repeatedly to find an agreement on peace terms, neither side willing to budge on specific issues over the existing role of the South Vietnamese government.
Nixon and Kissinger practiced a heavy-handed approach to diplomacy, meaning that while peace talks were in session, extra pressure would be forced upon North Vietnam through extensive bombing campaigns, and other expansions of war that were intended to prove that Nixon was willing to go to further lengths to achieve victory than Johnson had. The most controversial extension of war was Nixon’s secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through western Indochina, was left untouched during the Johnson Administration for fear of over-extending the war.
Nixon would use air power to continually check North Vietnamese aggression as he was pulling U.S. troops out. The efficieny and effectiveness of U.S. aerial warfare found a new high-water mark in Vietnam. During operation LINEBACKER, the United States introduced guided precision weapons using laser or electro-optical guidance systems that could “destroy targets in heavily populated areas without causing large civilian casualties.” With the addition of U.S. diplomacy with the Chinese and the Soviets, aerial warfare, and mining of North Vietnamese ports, Nixon was able to isolate his North Vietnam from its major allies.
The War Ends Only for the United States
Nixon was only successful in the fact that he did end the war, but it was not a war that the United States would win. The Vietnamization of the war failed to establish a strong state and military for South Vietnam to hold off the Communists on its own. A test of Vietnamization’s effectiveness came with a South Vietnamese-led incursion into Laos during February 1971, which proved to be a disaster. Historian Melvin Small states that, “The North Vietnamese knew that the South Vietnamese were coming and were well dug in, and the South Vietnamese withdrew before achieving their goals.”
Nixon refused to admit the failure of the Vietnamization program, insisting that “everything had gone according to plan” and that that the South Vietnamese were “fighting… in a superior way.” By the spring and summer of 1972, the South Vietnamese military was diminished in regards to its number of men, the quality of its officers, and of a will to continue the war. South Vietnam had existed as a separate entity for over twenty years, and in that time had failed to develop a national identity for its people to rally behind. “After 20 years, its leaders had utterly failed to project a vision, define a cause, or proclaim a goal that could inspire its citizens to fight a patriotic war.” Many people in South Vietnam preferred peace under the communists rather than war under an American puppet regime.
Any hope for victory was doomed from the start of Nixon’s presidency. As Melvin Small points out in his essay Nixon’s Flawed Search for Peace, “Once the United States committed itself to no further escalation, and once the Nixon administration began its phased withdrawal, the North Vietnamese had little incentive to make a speedy peace, since there would come a day when the last American combat soldier would leave Vietnam.”
Nixon’s Vietnam strategy was primarily about exiting the United States from the war in a way that would not tarnish the reputation of the U.S., or Nixon’s presidency. Nixon’s “peace with honor” only applied to Americans because, while the U.S. withdrew from the war, the South Vietnamese government was left in vulnerable position. Its end would predictably come within a matter of years. While the United States enjoyed its peace, fighting continued in Vietnam.
President Nixon and President Johnson both inherited a deteriorating situation in South Vietnam and in the United States; Johnson tried to solve the crisis left behind by the assassinations of South Vietnamese President Diem and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Nixon inherited an unwinnable war from Johnson and an America divided over the war after the Tet Offensive. Both Presidents spoke of protecting South Vietnamese freedom, and checking the spread of communism, however, there was little intent in both their practices that pushed for greater self-determination for South Vietnam.
Johnson and Nixon were concerned with their own popularity and future re-election being jeopardized by domestic opposition to the ways in which they handled the Vietnam situation, and their decisions concerning Vietnam were both shaped by their own individual needs for power. Johnson and his advisors chose to pursue war vaingloriously. As Logevall suggests, “They were willing to sacrifice virtually everything to avoid the stigma of failure.” Nixon campaigned on ending the war, but not wanting to be the first President to lose a war, he extended the war because withdrawing too soon would hurt his chances for reelection.
Nixon’s “peace with honor” was an illusory peace that accomplished little. It would have been possible for Nixon and Kissinger to have received similar terms in negotiating peace with North Vietnam four years before the war’s end. Instead, “Four more years of war had cost more than 15,000 additional U.S. battle deaths, about 150,000 additional South Vietnamese battle deaths, and over 400,000 additional North Vietnamese battle deaths.”
-  George D. Moss, Vietnam, 6th Edition. (New York: Person Education, Inc. 2016), 5.
-  Moss, Vietnam, 112.
-  Ibid.
-  Logevall, Fredrik. “Choosing War” 183.
-  George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 9th Edition. (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2014), 135.
-  Robert S. McNamara Reassesses U.S. Policy in South Vietnam, 1964, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 156.
-  McNamara Recommends Escalation, 1965, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 166.
-  Logevall, Choosing War, 185.
-  Ibid, 186.
-  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, 1964, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 161.
-  Lyndon B. Johnson Explains Why Americans Fight in Vietnam, 1965, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 163.
-  Moss, Vietnam, 160.
-  Ibid, 164-165.
-  The Central Intelligence Agency Critiques the Bombing Campaign, 1967, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 206.
-  Ibid, 205.
-  Herring, America’s Longest War, 220.
-  Ibid, 231.
-  Herring, America’s Longest War, 186.
-  Ibid, 191.
-  Nixon Advocates Vietnamization, 1969, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 370.
-  Ibid, 367.
-  Moss, Vietnam, 315.
-  Moss, Vietnam, 316.
-  Ibid, 321.
-  Ibid, 323.
-  Robert J. Small, “Nixon’s Flawed Search for Peace.” In Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 4th ed (Boston: Wadsworth, 2008) 390.
-  Ibid, 391.
-  Moss, Vietnam, 323-324.
-  Small, Nixon’s Flawed Search for Peace, 382.
-  Logevall, Choosing War, 196.
-  Moss, Vietnam, 334.