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Andrew Gehrt

History 436 Term Paper
Spring 2014

Lyndon Baines Johnson: Damned if He Did, Damned if He Didnt

On November 3
, 1964 millions of Americans went to the polls to elect
Lyndon Baines Johnson as the man that would lead the country towards a Great
Society and pilot the country on the course that Kennedy left for him to pick up
after his untimely death. Instead of piloting on the social program driven course of
the Great Society the American people revolted when they looked out the window
and saw they were flying into a storm of Rolling Thunder instead. Millions of men
and women protested against the war in Vietnam and blamed Johnson for being
blood-drunk on American power and consequently his own power. History, albeit
not all parts, remembers President Johnson for the debacle that would be the
Vietnam War and the lives of countless Americans lost in a land nearly ten thousand
miles away for what they thought were meaningless deaths. Looking back at the
decade of the sixties, more specifically 1964 and 1965, an argument can be made
that Lyndon Johnson was thrown into a situation in which he could not have
possibly come out on top. He was plagued with the thought of the opposing political
party, the Republican Party, marring the name of his beloved Democrats for failure
to act; but if he pulled out and retreated from Vietnam it would be viewed as a loss,
something he would not accept: I will not be the first President to lose a war.

Ken Walsh, The Most Consequential Elections in History: Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964.
U.S. News article, September 17
, 2008.
Where, on the other hand, he did not want to bring America into a war, he wanted to
improve the domesticity of Americans lives and introduce them to his Great
Lyndon Johnson was thrown into the hell-storm of the oval office in the early
1960s upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas Dealey
Plaza on November 22
1963. Although Kennedy and Johnson were two
complimentary liberals in office, separately they were vastly different in their policy
priorities. Kennedy was known for being a masterful in the realm of foreign
relations, on the flip side, Johnson was more concerned with domestic affairs;
unfortunately Vietnam has overshadowed his enormous contributions to Americas
domestic operations. Upon entering office Johnson almost immediately urged
congress to pass Kennedys bills and policies to which he added some of his own; it
became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was massively important for the health and
future of the United States. What history has forgotten is that Johnson inherited a
pre-existing quagmire in Vietnam and was faced with only two choices: fight or
flight. Johnson later remarked that he saw his fate before any choices or
commitments had even been made, 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.
If nothing else, he had the gift of foresight.
G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot waste no time in their book The
Liberal Hour when they begin their chapter on Johnson and Vietnam:

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. (St. Martins Press 1991) p. 251.
Lyndon Johnson inherited chaos in South Vietnam. The strategic hamlets in
late 1963 looked as though hit by a hurricane, demolished either by the Viet
Cong or by their captive residents. The government in Saigon was marginally
more secure. A dozen civilian and military regimes ascended and fell between
November 1963 and February 1965. None governed effectively; all relied on a
demoralized army under corrupt officers paralyzed by ineptitude and
reluctant to engage the Viet CongHanoi added to the pressure by enlarging
the jungle paths of the Ho Chi Minh Trailinto a modern logistical system able
to infiltrate northern combat units into the highlands of South Vietnam.

To say that Johnson had a mess on his hands would be an astronomical
understatement; all the while his dream was to establish a Great Society at home
through his numerous social programs and liberal values. The source of Johnsons
worries was two fold; if he did nothing the Republicans would use that to tear apart
his beloved Democrats, if he escalated he was getting involved in a war he didnt
want and that in the end no one wanted. He had just come out as the victor, by the
sixth largest margin in U.S. election history, of an election that was a turning point
for the country as far as getting rid of the old politics of the south and instilling
liberal values of equality versus supporting the States Rights, a veiled racist and
segregationist cry. After the rollercoaster that was the campaign against Barry
Goldwater, Johnson was out of the frying pan and into the fire. History, and
Americans today, lost sight that before the escalation to war Johnson was strongly
encouraged by most everyone he was in contact with to commit to helping South
Vietnam. The push to escalate in South Vietnam came from all angles spanning from
Gallup Polls all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff advisement that preventing
the loss of South Vietnam was of overriding importance to the United States even if

G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot, The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change
in the 1960s. (Penguin Books, 2009) p. 297
nuclear weapons were needed.
In large part history was a strong catalyst to
Johnson committing to Vietnam, Everything I knew about history, told me that if I
got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then Id be
doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. Id be giving a big fat reward to
aggressionYou see, I was as sure as any man could be that once we showed how
weak we were, Moscow and Peking would move in a flash to exploit our weakness.

A sense of fear gave most of America a reason for involvement in Vietnam, for
almost anyone that advocated escalation, they employed the Domino Theory that
if Vietnam fell to Communism then so would the rest of Asia; after all, China had just
fallen victim to the red plague, as it seemed to be portrayed. Johnson bought into
the Domino Theory as well stating, I am not going to be the President who saw
Southeast Asia go the way China wentI dont think Congress wants us to let the
Communists take over South Vietnam.

Lyndon Johnson, and most of his staff, decided the only way to come out on
top of this situation was to force the Viet Cong to surrender to an exponentially
larger, wealthier, more advanced and more capable fighting force: the United States
Military. Using this logic would allow Johnson to appease those desiring for
involvement in Vietnam while at the same time would (in theory) limit casualties to
miniscule numbers due to a rapid surrender from the Viet Cong. While Johnson, and
most of the U.S. government for that matter, were mostly in agreement to escalate
American involvement in Vietnam, Barry Goldwater was using the situation to put

Ibid, p. 298.
Kearns, pp. 252-253.
Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1994), p.344.
down Johnson and attain a greater showing at the polls by using the apparent lack of
decisiveness on the Presidents part to display an inability to secure borders;
although his comments came back to bite him in the form of a girl in a field picking
petals off of a flower on television. Johnson and his administration were soon given
the opportunity they were looking for to both appear firm in Vietnam and to parlay
Goldwaters charges. On August 2
, 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin incident gave the
United States a reason to retaliate and ramp up their military presence in Vietnam.
From the Gulf of Tonkin incident arose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Johnson
had requested, and advisors had prudently drawn up that spring
that supported
actions in order to deter future aggression in Southeast Asia.
While the facts of
what actually happened to the United States vessels in the Gulf are still not exactly
clear, it was enough to encourage the Senate to vote 88-2 in favor of the resolution,
as well as the House to vote 414-0 in favor just eight hours after the senate vote.

The overwhelmingly large support from the United States government was an
encouragement to Johnson and his administration as well as the American public
owing to the fact that both parties supported it, The thunderous show of bipartisan
support for Johnson neatly deflected Goldwaters charges and effectively removed
Vietnam as an issue in the campaign.
After the incident and subsequent
resolution, the U.S. began to deploy more troops to Vietnam to increase their
presence in Southeast Asia but Johnson and congress did not declare war quite yet.

Mackenzie and Weisbrot, p. 301.
Six months later on February 7, 1965 another opportunity was presented to escalate
American involvement in Vietnam.
The Special Forces of the United States had a compound nestled in the town
of Pleiku, which is located in the central highland area of South Vietnam. The
compound underwent a mortar attack in which eight Americans were killed, one
hundred more injured, as well as ten aircraft were destroyed. After this attack
Johnson authorized retaliatory raids on North Vietnam per his own stance on being
attacked, Cowardice has gotten us into more wars than response has.
The attack
at Pleiku was the excuse that Johnson needed to authorize serious American
Military operations. It seemed everyone was in agreement (again Johnsons legacy
hasnt held onto that aspect) to strike back; even former President Truman pushed
for action during a conversation when Johnson said: I think when they go in and kill
your boys, youve got to hit back, Truman backed up Johnson: You bet you have!
You bust them in the nose every time you get a chance. And they understand that
language better than any other kind.
This was the beginning of a nearly three year
aerial bombardment of North Vietnam code-named: Operation Rolling Thunder.
What people seem to have forgotten over time, is that Johnsons advisors were all
urging him to ramp up actions and Rolling Thunder was the best form of action in
addition to landing Marines at Da Nang to defend the airbases. The Marines orders
were quick to come after the landing that they were to expand their missions to

Memorandum for the Record, Washington, February 6, 1945, Foreign Relations of the United
States, 1964-1968, Volume II, Vietnam, January-June, 1965 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1996), p.160.
Conversation with Harry Truman, February 15, 1965, Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory,
(Touchstone, New York, 2001) p. 180.
search and destroy operations against the Viet Cong, backed by tactical air support
and artillery fire.
At this point America had all but declared war on Vietnam and
few people were against the bombing raids against the North; Johnson received
counseling from the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield that in order to force a
surrender from the North, You dont pull out. You try to something to consolidate
your positionand that may take more troops.
It was not long after that the
number of American boots on the ground had tripled from the numbers that
Kennedy had sent over. This was when the protests and anti-war movement began
their steady growth that would eventually mire Johnsons Presidency.
There is little debate that the way the United States operated in Vietnam was
not working and, with hindsight being 20/20, officials would have changed strategy
drastically if given another chance. This then begs the question for many as to just
why, after the North failed to surrender and American casualties continued to rise,
was the involvement further strengthened if the overall goal was to force
surrender? The answer to that question breaks into dual parts. The first part is due
to a drastic underestimation of the resolve, strength, and commitment to their own
goal of the Viet Cong. The second centers on Johnsons own liberal values, which he
embraced so deeply, of a Great Society in Vietnam requiring removal of Viet Cong
forces; the irony is not lost that liberalism was a proponent to increase commitment
to a war. To explore the former, had the military, or Johnson, or anyone in high
command opened a history book to explore the Vietnamese they would have found
their history sobering, for the Vietnamese had waged protracted, ultimately

Mackenzie and Weisbrot, p. 303.
Conversation with Mike Mansfield, June 8, 1965, in Beschloss Reaching for Glory, p. 347.
successful struggles against larger, technologically advanced foreign armies
Chinese, French, Japanese, and French again after World War II going back nearly
two thousand years.
Had anyone, with a reasonably important position, noticed
this and understood this they could have clearly conveyed to Johnson the notion
that they [Viet Cong] would desist after briefly sampling American martial valor
rested on slender hopes that aligned poorly with experience.
The Vietnamese
were a people of resolve and this American military force they were against was
nothing new to them relative to their historical struggles. In addition, the lines of
friend and foe were very distorted and often produced situations where enemy and
ally were completely indiscernible. This carried dire consequences from more than
one angle; for the troops on the ground they never knew who was the enemy and
who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike. They were all
Vietnamese. Some of them were Viet Congthe enemy was all around [them].

Aside from the troops on the ground having difficulty discerning friend from foe, the
air raids being conducted were causing massive civilian casualties, another major
point of protest. Mackenzie and Weisbrot address the difficulty of the American aim
to defend South Vietnam:
The stated American aim to protect the South Vietnamese people posed a
further, insoluble problem for military strategists. The Viet Cong guerillas
were drawn from these same people and enjoyed widespread sympathy and
support in battling an ineffectual regime and its foreign backers. There was
simply no way to suppress a peoples war, as Ho and the Viet Cong called
their struggle, without killing, however inadvertently, many innocent South
Vietnamese men, women, and children.

Mackenzie and Weisbrot, p. 316.
Mackenzie and Weisbrot, p. 316.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, (Penguin Books, New York, 1997), p. 481.
Mackenzie and Weisbrot, p. 310.

On top of the Viet Cong resolve and historical experience coupled with difficulty
discerning the enemy, the progress reports coming back to Washington tended to
undercount Viet Cong guerillas and conclude too readily that pacification efforts
were winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.
It was clear that
Johnson was completely unsatisfied and thoroughly enraged with the situation in
Vietnam even before men were on the ground. When the Joint Chiefs suggested a
blockade of the whole northern coast as a solution to spare another ground war in
Asia Johnson spoke very plainly as recalled by Marine Lieutenant General Charles G.
Cooper: He screamed obscenities, he cursed them personally, he ridiculed them for
coming into his office with their military advice.
At this point Johnson was
enraged, he was too deeply involved to pull out of a war he didnt want in the first
place and was receiving serious pushback from ant-war protestors. What
encouraged him to back up his original decision of escalation in Vietnam were his
own misguided loyalties, and the second reason for the perseverance in the war, his
liberal dream of the Great Society this time for the people of Vietnam.
It was no mystery that Lyndon Johnson was the domestic driven half of the
Kennedy-Johnson duo while Kennedy controlled the foreign affairs, which he
enjoyed and had a particular gift for. Lyndon Johnson, as Vice President, played a
major role in many of the bills and programs that Kennedy enacted, as well as
convincing the older, more stubborn and fickle politicians, to play ball with the new
liberal movement that would sweep the nation during the decade. Most notably was

Ibid, p. 316.
Lt. Gen. Charles G. Cooper, The Day it Became the Longest War, Naval Institute Proceedings,
Volume 122, Number 5 (May 1996), p. 80.
when Kennedy laid the groundwork for what Johnson, upon taking the reigns from
Kennedy, almost immediately after sworn in convinced congress to pass the bill that
would revolutionize the country and be called the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When
things in Vietnam were in a stalemate with seemingly no success to be found,
Johnson fell victim to a betrayal of his own (upright and honorable) desire for a
better society for all. Johnson himself knew that things in Vietnam were beyond the
point of repair, when General Westmoreland told him they could see the light at the
end of the tunnel, Johnson retorted: Light at the end of the tunnel, Hell we dont
even have a tunnel; we dont even know where the tunnel is.
For the criticism he
received it is well worth mentioning that during the Rolling Thunder campaigns and
before the next step in advancing military action in Vietnam, the American public
was, despite the growing protests, still very much in favor of increasing
involvement. In November of 1965 a Gallup Poll reported, in sharp contrast to
recent public demonstrations, the survey evidence indicates that American public
opinion is moving toward greater support of U.S. military action in Vietnam. In
December 1965 [Louis] Harris revealed Americans opposed withdrawal from
Vietnam by ten to one.
One can hardly blame Johnson for increasing involvement
after seeing these numbers in combination with the previously mentioned forces
pushing for escalated involvement. The largest factor that gave Johnson all the
motivation he needed to persevere, as stated before, was his desire to improve the
society for Vietnam; he saw it as the duty of the United States. Johnson saw the
Mekong Delta as a bountiful source in which could flow the Great Society of

Dallek, Flawed Giant, pp. 254-255
Mackenzie and Weisbrot, The Liberal Hour, p.308.
Vietnam. In a speech at Johns Hopkins University he said, The American people
have helped generously in times pastNow there must be a much more massive
effort to improve the life of man in that conflict-torn corner of our world
problem associated with the desire to improve the lives of the Vietnamese, as
Johnson saw them, is that he didnt know very much about their culture. It would be
against fairly good odds that a culture surviving for thousands of years would drop
their life and modernize at the will of a country that had been bombing them for
years. The main problem with Johnsons Great Society abroad, as it pertained to
Vietnam, was his unwillingness to put his Great Society for the United States on
hold in order to fund the war in Vietnam. This was the spark that ignited the fire of
massive protests and unbelievable lack of support from the public for the war effort,
and Johnsons presidency. In an annual budget meeting with Congress he made his
mission statement known, We cannot fight for peace and freedom in Vietnam,
while sacrificing individual dignity and opportunity at home. For it would be a
hollow victory if our pursuit of world peace were carried out at the expense of
domestic progress. Yet we must also recognize that a truly Great Society looks
beyond its own borders. The freedom, health, and prosperity of all mankind are its
proper concern.
It was not long before the economy at home took a turn for the
worse and the proper concern of mankind was no longer focused anywhere other
than the land of the free and home of the brave. The public was outraged and placed

Address at Johns Hopkins University: Peace Without Conquest, April 7, 1965, Public Papers of
the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson: 1965, Book I (Washington D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 396-397.
Annual Budget Message to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1967, January 24, 1966, Public Papers of the
Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, p.48.
Johnson as the scapegoat; reasonably so as the country had just had come from an
era of remarkable price stability, the United States in 1966 experienced the most
rapid price inflation since the Korean War, doubling from an annual rate of about
1.5 percent to more than 3 percent.
Although the protests and anti-war
movement, among other things, would convince Johnson not to run for re-election,
he did seem to have a cavalier attitude towards the youth in revolt. He mentioned
later in life that They were barely in their cradles in the dark days of World War II,
they never experienced the ravages of Adolf Hitler; they were only in nursery school
during the fall of China; they were sitting in grammar school during the Korean War;
they wouldnt know a Communist if they tripped over one. They simply dont
understand the world the way I do.
Ultimately it was Johnsons own good wishes
that were the undoing for him. Johnsons plans to win hearts and minds by building
a prosperous modern state succumbed under the rubble of villages that the U.S.
military leveled.

When looking back at all the decisions and events that led to the escalation in
Vietnam, one can hardly place the blame solely on the shoulders of the President.
Lyndon Johnson had aspirations for greatness for America, those aspirations did not
include Vietnam but they were forced to change and evolve, as Johnson had no
choice but to not back down. In the era of the 1960s Communism was viewed as
one of the largest threats to the freedom of the world; Johnson responded, as any
man would have done in his shoes. Any President of the United States would have

Mackenzie and Weisbrot, The Liberal Hour, p. 318.
Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, p.312.
Mackenzie and Weisbrot, The Liberal Hour, p.314.
done what Johnson did, because each administration had built on and become
prisoner to the commitments of those before it; all believed that in a bipolar world,
the containment of communism must be paramount and American leadership must
never betray weakness; none would risk the stigma of losing Vietnam and, in the
case of Johnson, losing a war for the first time in American history.
Upon entering
the oval office, first by inheriting it second by winning it, Lyndon Baines Johnson
was thrown into a situation where he was damned if he did, and damned if he didnt.

Mackenzie and Weisbrot, The Liberal Hour, pp. 315-316.