Back To CourseHistory 108: History of the Vietnam War
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The decision to introduce American combat troops to the Vietnam War in March of 1965 was the result of several months of gradual escalation by President Lyndon B. Johnson. When Johnson assumed office in November 1963, he made the war in Vietnam a priority. Johnson refused to be the first president to lose a foreign entanglement; he was not fond of fighting in Vietnam, but he would not succumb to communist North Vietnam. However, even though Vietnam was a concern, Johnson's domestic agenda, consisting of civil rights legislation and the Great Society program, as well as the looming presidential election in 1964, took precedence.
In order to balance the war and his domestic goals, Johnson adopted the policy his predecessors employed of doing just enough in Vietnam to prevent a communist takeover. While maintaining the status quo worked during 1964, Johnson had to gradually escalate. This resulted in the introduction of combat troops in 1965 and the United States replacing the South Vietnamese as the main fighting force in the Vietnam War.
Johnson's goal of 1964 was to provide just enough American support to bolster South Vietnam. He refused to introduce combat troops into the region because he believed that the South Vietnamese were responsible for conducting the war. Instead, he provided unlimited American advice and assistance to help the South Vietnamese achieve those means. This notion was solidified in March of that year when Johnson approved National Security Action Memorandum (or NSAM) 288, which identified maintaining South Vietnam as a vital goal.
As a result, the American advisory effort grew from 16,000 to over 23,000 men to help train and equip the South Vietnamese. In April, Johnson launched the 'Show the Flag' program, which encouraged international communities to support South Vietnam by coming to the nation's aid. This was Johnson's attempt at building a coalition effort in the Vietnam War, one that was largely unsuccessful.
By summer of 1964, National Liberation Front, or NLF, insurgents and soldiers from the People's Army of Vietnam, or PAVN, had continued to infiltrate into and engage South Vietnam. Johnson continued to refuse to send American combat troops, settling on increasing covert operations against North Vietnam. He launched a sizable propaganda campaign against the communists while expanding OPLAN-34A, which encouraged raids against North Vietnamese coastal installations that were led by the South Vietnamese but supported by American naval carriers. This ultimately resulted in the North Vietnamese retaliating against American naval carriers in what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Crisis between August 2 and 4.
The incident in the Gulf of Tonkin could not have come at a worse time for Johnson. In July, Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president, lambasted Johnson for not doing enough to defeat the Vietnamese communists. Johnson was forced to respond to the crisis, but without escalating the war and costing himself the election in November. On August 5, Johnson launched Operation Pierce Arrow, which was a limited American airstrike against select North Vietnamese war-making facilities. Johnson was then given a blank check to conduct operations in South Vietnam with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, but he remained adamant that he would not send American troops to fight in place of the South Vietnamese.
While Johnson continued to pursue a limited American effort in Southeast Asia, North Vietnam flooded South Vietnam with troops and insurgents; it also began operations aimed at the United States. On November 1, two nights before the presidential election, members of the NLF mortared the American airbase at Bien Hoa, causing significant damage and injuries. Johnson refused to retaliate on the eve of the election, but he did authorize studies into how the United States could respond to North Vietnam.
Even after Johnson resoundingly defeated Goldwater, he continued to pursue a limited approach throughout the rest of 1964. However, in December, North Vietnam forced Johnson's hand. On December 24, the NLF bombed the Brinks Hotel in Saigon, which housed American advisors; two were killed. Johnson once again rejected retaliation. Then, on December 28, the South Vietnamese military was resoundingly defeated at the Battle of Binh Gia. Johnson's advisors pushed for a gradual escalation to bolster the deteriorating South Vietnam. The president complied.
The year 1965 symbolized Johnson's decision to Americanize the Vietnam War. Johnson had a significant amount of support from Congress as well as the American public to do what was necessary in Vietnam. Many of Johnson's advisors even encouraged a full engagement of North Vietnam. The opportunity presented itself on February 7 when the NLF shelled Camp Holloway, an American base in the Central Highlands; eight Americans died. Johnson responded with another tactical reprisal airstrike known as Operation Flaming Dart. The NLF then attacked another American installation in Qui Nhon on February 10, resulting in 23 American fatalities. Johnson launched Operation Flaming Dart II.
Simultaneously, he asked for the results from the study conducted prior to the election. His advisors recommended the gradual bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson complied and on March 2 approved of the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive air war over North Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder was threefold: it represented the 'carrot-and-the-stick' strategy of dangling a peace treaty favorable to the United States in front of the North Vietnamese while continually bombing the region until the agreement was accepted; it was meant to deter the North from supplying the NLF; and it also signified the United States' determination to protect South Vietnam. The United States now controlled and dictated the advisory effort and the air war.
The full Americanization of the Vietnam War came on March 8 when the first American combat troops, the Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, touched down on the beaches of Da Nang in South Vietnam. The goal of the Marines was to protect American airbases from North Vietnamese retaliation as a result of the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder. Their mission was soon altered by Johnson to support the enclave strategy, which witnessed the Marines safeguarding strategic cities, installations and air strips from the NLF and PAVN along South Vietnam's coast. This also freed many South Vietnamese battalions to fight the war within the interior region. Simultaneously, Johnson expanded naval operations when he approved of Operation Market Time to combat North Vietnamese sea movement.
Even with the new American combat presence, the South Vietnamese struggled mightily to defeat NLF and PAVN forces. By July, General William Westmoreland, who replaced General Paul Harkins as commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), requested 35 battalions of combat troops in order to move from the defensive enclave strategy to an aggressive search-and-destroy campaign to take the war to the enemy.
Between July 21 and 28, Johnson organized meetings to mull granting Westmoreland's request and escalating in Vietnam. On July 28, Johnson approved sending 44 battalions to war; this translated into 125,000 American combat troops in Vietnam, many of whom were draftees. The 'July Decision' represented a point of no return for the United States. Americans replaced the South Vietnamese as the main fighting force, and the United States was locked into a protracted war against a determined enemy. It also posed the question of how Johnson would fund both his Great Society and the Vietnam War?
President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to maintain a limited approach to the Vietnam War. His domestic agenda, consisting of civil rights legislation and the Great Society program, was much more important. Throughout 1964 Johnson refrained from escalating in Vietnam. When situations arose, such as the Gulf of Tonkin Crisis, he responded with limited retaliatory strikes, such as Operation Pierce Arrow. However, when the National Liberation Front (NLF) began targeting American advisors and installations, Johnson was forced to react.
Reprisal strikes were not deterring the North Vietnamese. Johnson then settled on Operation Rolling Thunder to demonstrate the American determination in supporting South Vietnam and to force the North Vietnamese to accept a settlement. Johnson also needed to protect American airbases, so he introduced the first American combat troops into Vietnam on March 8, 1965. With the South Vietnamese unable to defeat the National Liberation Front and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), Johnson approved of sending 44 combat battalions to Vietnam on July 28, 1965. The 'July Decision' deepened the United States' commitment to the Vietnam War.
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Back To CourseHistory 108: History of the Vietnam War
8 chapters | 46 lessons | 7 flashcard sets