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Johnson Americanizes the War in Vietnam

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  • 0:01 The Road to Americanization
  • 1:03 Limiting American Operations
  • 4:26 Escalating the War in Vietnam
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The path toward the full Americanization of the Vietnam War was a gradual process. Learn about President Lyndon B. Johnson's initial strategy, his response to North Vietnam and his decision for escalation in this video lesson.

The Road to Americanization

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.

Limiting American Operations

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.

Escalating the War in Vietnam

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.

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