Lyndon Johnson (1908-73) was president of the United States from November 1963 to his retirement in January 1969. Under Johnson’s leadership, US involvement in Vietnam escalated significantly, culminating in direct military intervention. Johnson’s presidency, which began with grand plans for domestic social reform, was ultimately marred by American failures and casualties in Vietnam.
Under Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, the United States had gradually increased its involvement in Vietnam, though not the point of direct military intervention or the use of combat troops. Like Truman and Eisenhower before him, Kennedy’s goal had been to halt the southward march of communism in Asia.
At his inauguration speech in January 1961, Kennedy promised the world that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend… to assure the survival and success of liberty”.
Yet Kennedy’s approach in Indochina was measured. During the thousand days of his presidency, Kennedy boosted funding to Saigon, wanting to grow and strengthen the South Vietnamese army. He also increased the number of American military advisors and trainers from a few hundred to around 12,000 in 1963, though Kennedy resisted calls for direct US military involvement in Indochina.
Johnson’s tragic ascension
Kennedy’s presidency is perhaps best remembered for its tragic end. In November 1963, the president paid an official visit to Texas. Accompanying him were Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline and vice president Lyndon Johnson. The visit was a political sweetener, intended to boost Kennedy’s popularity in Texas.
On November 22nd, Kennedy landed in Dallas and addressed a civic reception, before boarding a motorcade. As Kennedy’s open-topped limousine passed through the streets of Dallas, shots were fired in his direction. Kennedy was struck in the upper back, then in the head. The second wound shattered his skull and killed him almost immediately. Texas governor John Connally, riding in the front of Kennedy’s car, was also wounded in the chest, wrist and leg.
Lyndon Johnson, then Kennedy’s vice-president, was riding in another car and was not fired upon or injured. On Kennedy’s death, Johnson became the 36th president of the United States. He was sworn into office two hours after Kennedy’s murder, during a flight back to Washington.
Lyndon Johnson – or LBJ, as he was widely known – was born on a small farm in Texas in 1908. He graduated from high school and went on to teachers’ college, where he was active in debating, public speaking and student politics.
In 1927, the 19-year-old Johnson took a job in a one-room school in southern Texas, teaching mostly Spanish-speaking students from poor backgrounds. It was in this setting that Johnson developed a keen social conscience and a desire to improve opportunities for minorities and the underprivileged.
Like his father before him, Johnson soon became involved in politics. In 1937 he was elected to the US House of Representatives. He served there until 1949 when he transferred to the Senate.
The ‘Great Society’ reforms
Johnson had a reputation as an honest, no-nonsense politician who spoke his mind and was eager to get things done.
Despite hailing from a conservative southern state, his real passion was domestic reform. Johnson dreamed of creating what he called the “Great Society”, by using American affluence to combat poverty, public housing shortfalls, gaps in public education and job shortages. Johnson was passionate about ending racial discrimination, particularly in his native south. Like Kennedy before him, Johnson was also an anti-communist and an advocate of the ‘domino theory’.
Days after taking office, Johnson reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the government and people of South Vietnam. By his own admission, the new president was less informed and probably less interested in foreign policy than domestic issues. But he was well travelled, keenly aware of history and astute enough to understand the situation in Vietnam was critical.
He explained this in his memoir, written in 1971:
“I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.”
Reliance on ‘hawks’
Johnson’s decision making with regard to Vietnam was heavily shaped by advice from foreign policy experts and military chiefs. By early 1964, these advisors had reached a consensus: the communists in Indochina could be defeated in the short to medium term if the United States became more directly involved.
According to these military ‘hawks’, a combination of American military intervention, sustained aerial bombing and repeated offers of peace would force the Viet Cong to surrender and withdraw to North Vietnam. With the communists contained, Johnson was told, Vietnam would evolve as two politically distinct states, much as Korea had done after the armistice of 1953.
This strategy was articulated by defence secretary Robert McNamara and endorsed by the military general staff, others in Johnson’s inner circle and many in Congress.
There were also voices of dissent and disagreement. One of the loudest was undersecretary of state George Ball, a long-standing critic of military action in Vietnam. From Kennedy’s election in 1960, Ball strongly advised against direct US involvement, preferring an ‘arm’s length’ policy. In 1961 he had a conversation with McNamara and other officials:
“We must not commit forces to South Vietnam or we would find ourselves in a protracted conflict, far more serious than Korea. The Viet Cong were mean and tough, as the French had learned to their sorrow, and there was always danger of provoking Chinese intervention as we had in Korea. The Vietnam problem was not one of repelling overt invasion but of mixing ourselves up in a revolutionary situation with strong anti-colonialist overtones… Within five years we’ll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles, and never find them again, he warned the president. Ball also emphasised the precedent of the French defeat in Vietnam. Kennedy seemed unimpressed by Ball’s arguments: ‘George, you’re just crazier than Hell. That just isn’t going to happen’.”
Johnson’s own views
The president’s own views on Vietnam were conflicted. Johnson accepted the Domino Theory and, like others who had lived through the 1930s, he was wary of the dangers of appeasement. For the most part, he accepted the advice of his generals. In early 1964, the president told an audience that “if we quit Vietnam tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to be fighting in San Francisco”.
Johnson was also concerned about the presidential election due in November 1964. He knew very well that committing American troops to another foreign war in an election year would be political suicide – and that losing the election would spell the end of his Great Society reforms.
Over Christmas 1963, Johnson reportedly told military commanders and hawks in his administration “just get me elected and then you can have your war”.
Though he backed his advisors, Johnson admitted to nagging doubts about America’s military prospects in Vietnam. He repeatedly sought advice and reassurance that North Vietnam was incapable of matching American escalation. Even as late as September 1964, a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Johnson asked his advisors whether “Vietnam was worth all this effort”.
A historian’s view:
“McNamara’s report confirmed everything LBJ had heard about south-east Asia. Laos might fall to the communists any day, and the government of South Vietnam might collapse overnight. Clearly, American policy there sagged from a shambles toward a catastrophe. Johnson knew he would, sooner or later, have to decide whether the United States got farther in or got out. For Johnson at the end of 1963, any decision might affect the election of 1964. He wanted to run and he wanted to win. But the question was: would the war in that ‘damn little piss-ant country’ blow up into an election disaster and smash his whole campaign?”
Frank E. Vandiver
1. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a teacher turned politician from Texas. He became vice president under John F. Kennedy and president after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
2. Johnson’s main agenda was social reform. He hoped to build what he called the Great Society by undertaking sweeping reforms to eradicate discrimination and poverty.
3. Like others of his era, Johnson was also an anti-communist. He was an advocate of the Truman Doctrine, the Domino Theory and the need for containment of Asian communism.
4. Johnson was less informed about foreign policy than domestic issues. He relied extensively on military advisors, who assured him that a campaign against North Vietnam would succeed.
5. Johnson eventually agreed to escalate US military involvement in Vietnam, though not before the presidential election of November 1964.