“Why We Are in Vietnam”

In this excerpt from Johnson’s speech, with which he began a White House press conference, the president attempts to explain the reasons for the US involvement in the war in Vietnam. While he speaks of a reluctance to commit American forces and material support to a distant war, he also draws upon the perceived lessons of pre-World War II Europe—the belief that appeasement of Hitler’s demands had led to further aggression and that this course should not be repeated in Southeast Asia in the face of perceived communist aggression. Johnson also puts major emphasis on treaty commitments that the US had made to the Republic of Vietnam. Over a period of eleven years, three presidents—Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson—had promised that the United States would aid in defending the South Vietnamese from internal communist insurgency and from attack by the forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).

Summary Overview

In this excerpt from Johnson’s speech, with which he began a White House press conference, the president attempts to explain the reasons for the US involvement in the war in Vietnam. While he speaks of a reluctance to commit American forces and material support to a distant war, he also draws upon the perceived lessons of pre-World War II Europe—the belief that appeasement of Hitler’s demands had led to further aggression and that this course should not be repeated in Southeast Asia in the face of perceived communist aggression. Johnson also puts major emphasis on treaty commitments that the US had made to the Republic of Vietnam. Over a period of eleven years, three presidents—Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson—had promised that the United States would aid in defending the South Vietnamese from internal communist insurgency and from attack by the forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).

Defining Moment

When Lyndon Johnson acceded to the presidency upon the death of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the United States had approximately 16,000 servicemen serving in Vietnam. Johnson noted in his memoirs that of all the crises confronting him when he became president, Vietnam did not seem to be one that required a great deal of immediate attention. Over the course of the next two years, however, Vietnam demanded more and more attention from the president and his administration. As Johnson’s cabinet and civilian advisors, as well as military leaders, debated the proper course of action, several proposals emerged. One was to seek negotiations immediately, in order to begin disengaging from the war. Another option was to maintain the status quo—using US military advisors to help the forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and supplying money and supplies to help the South Vietnamese defend themselves; this plan called for only a small number of US troops, acting principally as advisors, helicopter pilots, and aircraft maintenance crews. By the spring and summer of 1965, however, Johnson had decided on a third option—to dramatically increase the number of US troops in Vietnam and to move toward an active combat mission rather than just an advisory or support operation.

The first step toward this escalation was the beginning of a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam, named Operation Rolling Thunder. Another step was taken in March 1965, when a Marine expeditionary brigade (about 5,000 men) was sent to defend the air base at Da Nang, on the northeastern coast of South Vietnam. Then, in the summer of 1965, General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), requested that substantial US Army forces be committed to the war effort. In this speech, Johnson is reporting that he had approved Westmoreland’s request and is seeking to explain and justify the reasons why Americans should be a part of the war effort in Vietnam. In the weeks prior to this announcement, most of Johnson’s advisors and a significant number of US Senators had agreed that further escalation of American involvement was the only possible course of action. In this speech, Johnson stresses the perceived lessons of history, referring to the appeasement of Hitler’s demands at the Munich Conference, and the necessity of honoring commitments that the United States had made to South Vietnam.

Author Biography

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 on his family’s ranch near Johnson City, Texas. After graduating from Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College at San Marcos in 1934, he taught school briefly, but his interest soon turned to politics. Johnson was elected to the US House in 1937 and served six terms there. He was elected to the US Senate in 1948 and became the majority leader in 1954. In 1960, John F. Kennedy chose Johnson as his vice presidential candidate in an attempt to reassure conservative Southern Democrats. When Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Johnson became President. In 1964, he defeated the Republican challenger Barry Goldwater in a landslide victory. While Johnson’s presidency was marked by the passage of significant civil rights and social welfare legislation, the Vietnam War increasingly alienated the public, and Johnson chose not to run for re-election in 1968. He retired to his ranch in Texas, where he died on January 22, 1973, shortly before a treaty to end US involvement in Vietnam was finalized.

Historical Document

Why We Are in Vietnam?

My fellow Americans:

Not long ago I received a letter from a woman in the Midwest. She wrote:

“Dear Mr. President:

“In my humble way I am writing ‘to you about the crisis in Viet-Nam. I have a son who is now in Viet-Nam. My husband served in World War II. Our country was at war, but now, this time, it is just something that I don’t understand. Why?”

Well, I have tried to answer that question dozens of times and more in practically every State in this Union. I have discussed it fully in Baltimore in April, in Washington in May, in San Francisco in June. Let me again, now, discuss it here in the East Room of the White House.

Why must young Americans, born into a land exultant with hope and with golden promise, toil and suffer and sometimes die in such a remote and distant place?

The answer, like the war itself, is not an easy one, but it echoes clearly from the painful lessons of half a century. Three times in my lifetime, in two World Wars and in Korea, Americans have gone to far lands to fight for freedom. We have learned at a terrible and a brutal cost that retreat does not bring safety and weakness does not bring peace.

It is this lesson that has brought us to Viet-Nam.

This is a different kind of war. There are no marching armies or solemn declarations. Some citizens of South Viet-Nam at times, with understandable grievances, have joined in the attack on their own government.

But we must not let this mask the central fact that this is really war. It is guided by North Viet-Nam and it is spurred by Communist China. Its goal is to conquer the South, to defeat American power, and to extend the Asiatic dominion of communism. There are great stakes in the balance. Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian communism.

Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise, or in American protection.

In each land the forces of independence would be considerably weakened, and an Asia so threatened by Communist domination would certainly imperil the security of the United States itself.

We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.

Moreover, we are in Viet-Nam to fulfill one of the most solemn pledges of the American Nation. Three Presidents—President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and your present President—over 11 years have committed themselves and have promised to help defend this small and valiant nation.

Strengthened by that promise, the people of South Viet-Nam have fought for many long years. Thousands of them have died. Thousands more have been crippled and scarred by war. We just cannot now dishonor our word, or abandon our commitment, or leave those who believed us and who trusted us to the terror and repression and murder that would follow.

This, then, my fellow Americans, is why we are in Viet-Nam.

What are our goals in that war-strained land?

First, we intend to convince the Communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms or by superior power. They are not easily convinced. In recent months they have greatly increased their fighting forces and their attacks and the number of incidents.

I have asked the Commanding General, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs.

I have today ordered to Viet-Nam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested.

This will make it necessary to increase our active fighting forces by raising the monthly draft call from 17,000 over a period of time to 35,000 per month, and for us to step up our campaign for voluntary enlistments.

After this past week of deliberations, I have concluded that it is not essential to order Reserve units into service now. If that necessity should later be indicated, I will give the matter most careful consideration and I will give the country—you—an adequate notice before taking such action, but only after full preparations.

We have also discussed with the Government of South Viet-Nam lately, the steps that we will take to substantially increase their own effort, both on the battlefield and toward reform and progress in the villages. Ambassador Lodge is now formulating a new program to be tested upon his return to that area.

I have directed Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara to be available immediately to the Congress to review with these committees, the appropriate congressional committees, what we plan to do in these areas. I have asked them to be able to answer the questions of any Member of Congress.

Secretary McNamara, in addition, will ask the Senate Appropriations Committee to add a limited amount to present legislation to help meet part of this new cost until a supplemental measure is ready and hearings can be held when the Congress assembles in January. In the meantime, we will use the authority contained in the present Defense appropriation bill under consideration to transfer funds in addition to the additional money that we will ask.

These steps, like our actions in the past, are carefully measured to do what must be done to bring an end to aggression and a peaceful settlement.

We do not want an expanding struggle with consequences that no one can perceive, nor will we bluster or bully or flaunt our power, but we will not surrender and we will not retreat.

For behind our American pledge lies the determination and resources, I believe, of all of the American Nation.

Second, once the Communists know, as we know, that a violent solution is impossible, then a peaceful solution is inevitable.

We are ready now, as we have always been, to move from the battlefield to the conference table. I have stated publicly and many times, again and again, America’s willingness to begin unconditional discussions with any government, at any place, at any time. Fifteen efforts have been made to start these discussions with the help of 40 nations throughout the world, but there has been no answer.

But we are going to continue to persist, if persist we must, until death and desolation have led to the same conference table where others could now join us at a much smaller cost.

I have spoken many times of our objectives in Viet-Nam. So has the Government of South Viet-Nam. Hanoi has set forth its own proposals. We are ready to discuss their proposals and our proposals and any proposals of any government whose people may be affected, for we fear the meeting room no more than we fear the battlefield.

In this pursuit we welcome and we ask for the concern and the assistance of any nation and all nations. If the United Nations and its officials or any one of its 114 members can by deed or word, private initiative or public action, bring us nearer an honorable peace, then they will have the support and the gratitude of the United States of America.

I have directed Ambassador Goldberg to go to New York today and to present immediately to Secretary General U Thant a letter from me requesting that all the resources, energy, and immense prestige of the United Nations be employed to find ways to halt aggression and to bring peace in Viet-Nam.

I made a similar request at San Francisco a few weeks ago, because we do not seek the destruction of any government, nor do we covet a foot of any territory. But we insist and we will always insist that the people of South Viet-Nam shall have the right of choice, the right to shape their own destiny in free elections in the South or throughout all Viet-Nam under international supervision, and they shall not have any government imposed upon them by force and terror so long as we can prevent it.

This was the purpose of the 1954 agreements which the Communists have now cruelly shattered. If the machinery of those agreements was tragically weak, its purposes still guide our action. As battle rages, we will continue as best we can to help the good people of South Viet-Nam enrich the condition of their life, to feed the hungry and to tend the sick, and teach the young, and shelter the homeless, and to help the farmer to increase his crops, and the worker to find a job.

It is an ancient but still terrible irony that while many leaders of men create division in pursuit of grand ambitions, the children of man are really united in the simple, elusive desire for a life of fruitful and rewarding toil.

As I said at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I hope that one day we can help all the people of Asia toward that desire. Eugene Black has made great progress since my appearance in Baltimore in that direction—not as the price of peace, for we are ready always to bear a more painful cost, but rather as a part of our obligations of justice toward our fellow man.

Let me also add now a personal note. I do not find it easy to send the flower of our youth, our finest young men, into battle. I have spoken to you today of the divisions and the forces and the battalions and the units, but I know them all, every one. I have seen them in a thousand streets, of a hundred towns, in every State in this Union—working and laughing and building, and filled with hope and life. I think I know, too, how their mothers weep and how their families sorrow.

This is the most agonizing and the most painful duty of your President.

There is something else, too. When I was young, poverty was so common that we didn’t know it had a name. An education was something that you had to fight for, and water was really life itself. I have now been in public life 35 years, more than three decades, and in each of those 35 years I have seen good men, and wise leaders, struggle to bring the blessings of this land to all of our people.

And now I am the President. It is now my opportunity to help every child get an education, to help every Negro and every American citizen have an equal opportunity, to have every family get a decent home, and to help bring healing to the sick and dignity to the old.

As I have said before, that is what I have lived for, that is what I have wanted all my life since I was a little boy, and I do not want to see all those hopes and all those dreams of so many people for so many years now drowned in the wasteful ravages of cruel wars. I am going to do all I can do to see that that never happens.

But I also know, as a realistic public servant, that as long as there are men who hate and destroy, we must have the courage to resist, or we will see it all, all that we have built, all that we hope to build, all of our dreams for freedom—all, all will be swept away on the flood of conquest.

So, too, this shall not happen. We will stand in Viet-Nam.

Document Analysis

President Johnson begins this speech with a reference to a letter in which a woman had asked why it was necessary for her son to be serving in Vietnam. In response, Johnson says that he had tried to answer that question in many places and at many times. He admits that the answer is not an easy one, and that the war is difficult to understand. He refers to lessons he believes can be found in the nation’s past. Three times in his own lifetime—World War I, World War II, and Korea—American forces had gone to “far lands to fight for freedom.” Johnson believed that these previous experiences had taught that aggression had to be met with force. Like many Cold War-era American politicians and policy makers, Johnson believed that the appeasement of Hitler’s demands for territory in the years leading up to World War II had only led to further aggression. Now, Johnson believes that the People’s Republic of China is intent on dominating Southeast Asia and is supporting the communist forces fighting in Vietnam. He believes that this attempted aggression should not be appeased and that the United States had to make a stand in Vietnam. Johnson also argues that the US had to honor commitments made to aid the Republic of Vietnam (the formal name of South Vietnam). If America did not keep these commitments, no other nation in the future would be able to have confidence in promises made by the US government.

Johnson admits that it is difficult to order young Americans into combat. He also feared that this foreign war could detract attention from his domestic reform agenda. Johnson promised to do all he could to see that this did not happen, but he also believed that the United States had to meet the communist threat in Vietnam. Later in this address, Johnson announces that he has approved the request of the American commander in Vietnam for additional US ground troops. While not noted in Johnson’s speech, with this commitment of large-scale forces, the United States moved from the role of advising and assisting the Republic of Vietnam to a position of carrying out most of the fighting, as assisted by South Vietnamese forces. Once this fundamental change of policy had been made, the US presence in Vietnam grew dramatically. From the approximately 75,000 US personnel in Vietnam at the time of this speech, the number would increase to more than a half-million by the time Johnson left office in January 1969.

Essential Themes

Two themes prominent in President Johnson’s address are resolve in the face of a challenge, even though there may be a measure of reluctance in considering the matter. He notes his reluctance to send “the flower of our youth, our finest young men into battle,” and he also says that taking this action is “the most agonizing and painful duty” he has faced as president. Yet despite this reluctance, Johnson speaks of a resolve to do whatever he and the others in his administration believed was necessary. Referring to the lessons of pre-World War II Europe, he argues that aggression left unchecked would only become more expansive and destructive. Johnson believed that the stakes were high in Vietnam and that a victory by communist forces in South Vietnam would lead to further communist advances throughout Southeast Asia.

Johnson also emphasizes the theme that the war in Vietnam is a different kind of war, one that is perhaps difficult to understand. After the massive effort by the US and its allies in World War II, in which “unconditional surrender” by the enemy was the only acceptable course, the present war was a limited one aiming at limited objectives; there were no clear-cut battle lines. He also makes a slight reference to the fact that the fighting in Vietnam was at least in part a civil war, as he notes that some citizens of South Vietnam had joined in the fight against their own government.

A theme that was very close to Johnson’s own heart was his fear that this war could derail efforts toward social reform and expanded justice at home. Johnson speaks of the hard times he had witnessed in his youth. Now, as president, he has an opportunity to address many of the problems of poverty, access to education, and equal opportunity, but he fears that the war may take attention away from these domestic issues. Many scholars would argue that this was one of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War—that the divisiveness the war brought to American society indeed had the effect of limiting progress on Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Gardner, Lloyd C.Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995. Print.
  • Herring, George C.LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Print.
  • Johnson, Lyndon B.The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971. Print.
  • Kaiser, David.American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.
  • VanDeMark, Brian.Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.