Johnson’s War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

If Kennedy was cautiously optimistic about finding a resolution to the conflict without expending great amounts of blood and treasure, Johnson was hopeful that a strong military response would put the communists on the defensive and allow the United States a way out. He termed this scenario “peace without conquest.” That is, Johnson had no intention of occupying the region. Under pressure from his advisers, however, he did believe that it was necessary to pursue the war in order to force a peaceful settlement. Thus, Johnson was pleased to have the excuse of a minor naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 to enable him to turn US involvement in Vietnam from “cold” to “hot.” He supplemented American military advisers with large numbers of combat troops and brought in substantial amounts of military weaponry and supplies. He authorized major bombing raids in North Vietnam and the use of air bombing, napalm, and toxic defoliants (such as Agent Orange) in South Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1968, the number of US troops skyrocketed from 6,000 to 536,000; and between 1965 and 1967, the tonnage of bombs used against the North expanded from 63,000 to 226,000. Tough search-and-destroy missions and a misguided “strategic hamlet” program impacted civilian populations and turned many of them against the United States.

If Kennedy was cautiously optimistic about finding a resolution to the conflict without expending great amounts of blood and treasure, Johnson was hopeful that a strong military response would put the communists on the defensive and allow the United States a way out. He termed this scenario “peace without conquest.” That is, Johnson had no intention of occupying the region. Under pressure from his advisers, however, he did believe that it was necessary to pursue the war in order to force a peaceful settlement. Thus, Johnson was pleased to have the excuse of a minor naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 to enable him to turn US involvement in Vietnam from “cold” to “hot.” He supplemented American military advisers with large numbers of combat troops and brought in substantial amounts of military weaponry and supplies. He authorized major bombing raids in North Vietnam and the use of air bombing, napalm, and toxic defoliants (such as Agent Orange) in South Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1968, the number of US troops skyrocketed from 6,000 to 536,000; and between 1965 and 1967, the tonnage of bombs used against the North expanded from 63,000 to 226,000. Tough search-and-destroy missions and a misguided “strategic hamlet” program impacted civilian populations and turned many of them against the United States.

Johnson was faced with a situation where the more he tried to do, the less he seemed to achieve. The National Liberation Front (NLF) in the South continued to grow and wage an effective guerilla war, augmented by North Vietnamese forces. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), assigned primarily to back-up and pacification duties, did not acquire the training or experience it needed to assume a greater share of the fighting—even though by 1968 its numbers had reached 800,000. Meanwhile, the influx of foreign fighters and of billions of dollars in aid inside a small, undeveloped country had profound effects on the society and the economy: the entire region was destabilized and corruption flourished. Millions of refugees were created in the countryside. Moreover, the North was not persuaded to compromise. Instead, the ultimate result of Johnson's expansion was a grand stalemate in which neither side had the upper hand. On top of that, opposition to the war in the United States was gaining momentum. Critics complained not merely of the war's military failure but of its moral indefensibility, the havoc it wreaked in Vietnam in the name of a loose theory about stopping communism in the Third World.

The problem, too, was that Johnson's heart was never in the subject of international relations or global political dynamics. He cared far more about his ambitious domestic policy agenda, the so-called Great Society (civil rights, antipoverty measures, educational opportunities, etc.). Thus, following the latest series of questionable US “successes” in the Vietnam War, including the quelling of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Johnson, under increasing political pressure at home, chose to wash his hands of the matter and not seek the presidency for a second term.

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