Why did Lyndon Johnson escalate the conflict in Vietnam? by David White


Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into tree line to cover the advance of Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh on March 29, 1965, which is northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border. Combined assault routed Viet Cong guerrilla force. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

US helicopters over South Vietnam 1965


Lyndon Johnson could have been remembered as one of the most outstanding of American presidents. His Great Society programs to tackle poverty and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act were socially progressive measures carried out during a period of economic expansion and increased prosperity. Instead his time in office is mostly associated with deepening American involvement in the war in Vietnam which ultimately proved futile. Its legacy was 58,220 American soldiers dead, a huge drain on the nation’s finances, social polarisation and the tarnishing of the reputation of the United States.

Vietnam might not have become a zone of conflict for the United States had she adhered to Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime opposition to the return of French colonialists and his support for independence for Indochina once the Japanese had been defeated. However, America’s traditional anti-colonial foreign policy stance was swiftly superseded by fears of Communist expansionism and the onset of the Cold War. The undesirability of renewed colonialism was seen as a lesser evil, so first Truman and then Eisenhower switched support from the indigenous independence forces to their more powerful ally, France. Restoration of colonial rule fanned the flames of nationalism still further in Vietnam, and significantly elevated the role of the Communist element within the national resistance to the point where it dominated what had previously been a politically broad-based independence movement.

A genuine Communist threat had effectively been created by US policy, based on the speculative domino theory, and this was amplified when the French were defeated and pulled out of south-east Asia. The subsequent division of Vietnam into two zones, plus American prevention of national elections in 1956, and the coming to power in the South of the corrupt and ineffective Ngo Dinh Diem sucked America deeper into the region. Eisenhower authorised massive aid programs which merely made the country more corrupt and dependent on subsidies, and sustained a large ineffectual army whose violent and ham-fisted activities contributed to a guerrilla insurrection waged by the southern Vietcong and supported by the Communist North.

When Kennedy entered office, he too supported the unpopular regime, increasing substantially the number of American military personnel in South Vietnam. Kennedy was essentially continuing the anti-Communist containment policy of his predecessors, but he was also impelled by a sense that he had been repeatedly bested by the more experienced Khrushchev and needed to make a stand somewhere.

It was this pre-existing situation, where maintenance of the regime in South Vietnam had been elevated to symbolic political and ideological importance, which Johnson inherited upon Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963. Johnson took the approach that dictatorships should not be appeased, declaring in July 1965:

If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise, or in American protection. 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 Vietnam 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 crueller conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Lyndon Johnson

Johnson’s actions, both domestically and internationally, arose from his early political experiences as a New Deal Democrat. While the Great Society policies dovetailed well with New Deal policies, Johnson misinterpreted Roosevelt’s foreign policy, reading back into the 1930s an interventionist course of action that Roosevelt only adopted in 1941. Johnson was reflecting the conventional wisdom of most historians and political thinkers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s who saw Appeasement in the 1930s as a mistake, but when he tried to apply this lesson to the Cold War, it served him poorly.

In the 1930s we made our fate not by what we did but what we Americans failed to do… not by action but by inaction. The failure of free men in the 1930s was not of the sword but of the soul. And there must be no such failure in the 1960s.                                                                                                                                                                                           Lyndon Johnson

It is clear that Johnson was reluctant to become involved in Vietnam. In 1970 he reflected:

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 in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home… 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.                                                                                                                                                                                      Lyndon Johnson

From the above two quotations, there seems little doubt that Johnson genuinely believed there was a threat of world domination by Communism, a very mainstream Cold-War view among American politicians from the late 1940s to the 1980s. He was following the political interpretation and policy direction known as “Containment” which had first been suggested by George Kennan and adopted by Harry Truman in 1947. Joseph Siracusa stated that, “America developed an increasingly rigid ideological view of the world – anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-leftist – that came to rival that of  Communism.” This appears to be as true of Johnson as it was of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Domino Theory Snake

Yet Johnson was a genuine social reformer who wished to raise Americans out of poverty, expand education, provide enhanced welfare and free medical care, tackle urban renewal, preserve and protect the environment and end racial discrimination – the Great Society vision. This raised the problem of balancing the demands, both political and financial, of his cherished domestic program and his deep ideological hostility to Communism. Despite Democrat control of Congress, he felt hampered by conservative elements within his own party: “Those damned conservatives, they don’t want to help the poor and the Negroes but they’re afraid to be against it … They’ll say we have this job to do, beating the Communists. We beat the Communists first, then we can look around and maybe give something to the poor.”

It was for these reasons that Johnson carried out the military escalation quietly and almost clandestinely. The bombing of North Vietnamese cities was not announced to the press, the soaring military costs were met by borrowing rather than tax increases, and most significantly no Congressional approval was sought for the dramatic increases in troop numbers. Escalation was achieved through use of the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 which empowered the president to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.”

Throughout his time in office, Johnson stressed that his policy on Vietnam was a continuation of his predecessors’ actions going back to 1954. He emphasised four factors which justified not just a presence but an escalation of American military force. These were: that America keeps her word; that the future of all south-east Asia was the issue; that “our purpose is peace”; and that the war was a “struggle for freedom”. Johnson also repeatedly referred to the legal basis for escalation, citing SEATO obligations, the Geneva Accords, the UN Charter, Eisenhower’s commitment to South Vietnam in 1954 and Kennedy’s in 1961. And like most politicians he routinely asserted that everything was done for principled non-self-regarding reasons:

Why are we in South Vietnam? We are there because we have a promise to keep. Since 1954 every American President has offered support to the people of South Vietnam… Our objective is the independence of South Vietnam… We want nothing for ourselves.                                                                                                                                                        Lyndon Johnson

In late 1963 the North Vietnamese greatly increased supplies of weapons and equipment to the Vietcong and infiltrated regular army units into the South. This coincided with the assassination of Diem (with American collusion) and subsequent chaos in the South Vietnamese government, administration and army. The North Vietnamese were gambling that the South would collapse and the Americans would have nothing to support, leaving them no option but to withdraw. Limited war was a guiding principle restraining successive US presidents for fear of triggering Chinese or Russian intervention as had happened in Korea in 1950. It meant in particular that America could never send ground troops into the North. This was in keeping with the Containment policy originating in the Truman Doctrine, causing keen pro-war advocates such as General William Westmoreland to lament that America always had to fight with one hand tied behind her back.

Even after winning the 1964 presidential election, Johnson still felt he had to tread carefully with public opinion. However, pressurised by his closest cabinet advisers, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Dean Rusk, along with the Head of Military Command in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, he agreed to a large-scale aerial bombing campaign against the North – Operation Rolling Thunder. On the pretext that the airfields needed for US aircraft had to be defended, the number of ground troops increased swiftly. These forces were, however, largely used for search-and-destroy missions because the administration was receiving reports that the South was about to collapse, a concern that grew when it was realised that the air offensive was making little impact on the war in the South. And once the troops started arriving, their numbers kept growing, hawkish military commanders repeatedly insisting that victory was just around the corner if only they could deploy a few more divisions. Those few more divisions eventually reached 550,000 men by 1968. What was being undertaken was essentially a war of attrition, with the hope that eventually they could kill more cadres than the enemy could replace (the body-count measure of “success”).


Johnson had a choice over his course of action and was not as constrained by circumstances as is sometimes suggested, the crucial period when this was most possible being late 1963 to early 1965. American public opinion was willing to go along with whatever course of action the administration chose, Johnson’s standing being so high at this point. However, owing to a dogmatic commitment to conventional thinking about the Cold War and Containment, and because opponents of escalation did not speak up till too late, Johnson proceeded with the “Americanization” of the conflict after recognising that the South Vietnamese could never win the war on their own. The credibility concerns of Johnson and his advisers were not limited to how the USA would be viewed if it did withdraw – it would not have been seriously damaged since only Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea backed continued American involvement – it was equally the threat to their own and the Democratic party’s standing. Thus ideological inflexibility and political self-interest snuffed out any alternative to escalation; and Johnson’s pride and his domineering, machismo character led him to see any weakening of the American position in Vietnam as a personal humiliation. George Herring describes Johnson as “a product of the hinterland, parochial, strongly nationalistic, deeply concerned about honor and reputation, suspicious of other peoples and nations and especially of international institutions.”

The Cold War was essentially fuelled by a conflict of ideology, and Johnson’s ideology was strongly rooted in the past. It was focussed on the 1930s’ appeasement of Hitler and the Containment Doctrine of Truman, and these greatly contributed to his decision to escalate the war. His constant refrain about continuity and legality appears to have been as much a justification/rationalisation as a cause of his choices and actions. He was an overbearing man who tolerated no dissent, and though he appears to have been poorly advised, he chose who to listen to, was secretive in his decision-making, and was overly concerned with how the USA and he himself appeared to others. His ability to broker agreement in Congress through his powerful personality and his single-mindedness allowed him to implement more than 90% of his Great Society legislative proposals, a truly remarkable and positive achievement. However, those same factors facilitated his disastrous escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, and it is for this that he is largely remembered.

Johnson and Vietnam Scar