America went to war over Vietnam in 1965 in order to uphold her credibility as a Great Power
The upholding of her status as a Great Power was part of the reason for the war but it is fairly subsidiary in light of some of the other factors pushing Johnson at this time. The issue of credibility was on America’s mind given the way the cold war had gone during much of the 50’s particularly with the faith of her allies being something particularly important to her, credibility was something key to who was seen to be winning the cold war at that stage but it is a long way from being essential.
Instead there were much more pressing factors on Johnson’s administration than just the great power credibility, such factors included Johnson’s own background, the general cold war assumptions and attitudes such as set ideas like the domino theory being ever present on any governments mind. Kennedy’s legacy was also something which helped push America into war along with his advisers and Johnson’s conundrum with his plans for reform via the “Great Society”.
There were also factors within Vietnam itself such as the failure of Diem and the other 9 prime ministers who had come and gone since his execution, the ever-aggressive north and the losing of the hearts and minds of the people. Of course some strategies such as rolling thunder were carried through but these failed and such failures were another sign that America would be forced to go to war against Vietnam. There is some merit in the statement since upholding her credibility as a great power was part of the reason why America went to war.
America had to be seen by her allies but even more so by the communists as a serious force to reckon with being strong, commanding and dominant in the world. Korea had illustrated China and Soviet expansionist policies and it was vital to save South Vietnam in order to put across an effective message that America should not be messed with. A loss would bolster communist confidence, weaken trust among American allies and trigger of a chain reaction of future communist success. It was vital America did not allow this to happen after a particularly shaky period during the 50’s with incidents such as Hungary and the Suez canal.
Any communist success could trigger successes elsewhere thus triggering the domino theory in which when one state fell to communism, like a chain reaction it would cause the next state to fall and the next, like a set of dominoes. Given the fragile state of Southeast Asia with communist insurgencies in Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam America could not afford to allow this to happen. Concessions could also have greatly damaging consequences with grave domestic repercussions from the Republicans as Johnson would be seen as far too soft on the communists and another McCarthy like witch hunt could begin.
A loss would also reveal weak will power encouraging aggression in Berlin which was already on a knife-edge at that point. Americas allies would also see it as a sign of her readiness to abandon them causing them to doubt the value of an American connection and turn to the communists for security and peace of mind, as Lyndon B Johnson said ” We would say in the world that we don’t live up to our treaties and don’t stand by our friends”.
Despite the validity of the statement it is certainly not unanimously true since it is clear that this is not the only reason why America ended up fighting Vietnam. The war was often referred to as “Johnson’s war”, and there was a reason for this, Johnson’s own character made him more inclined to go for an all out war against the Vietnamese. Johnson’s background contributed to many of his key ideas and philosophies, he was brought up in the state of Texas and adopted many of the values of the southern states.
These values included Patriotism, a value present in many other American’s of his time. Within the senate he always tried to build up the armed forces via voting for the relevant bills and defeat from Vietnam to which he referred to as “that damn little puissant country”, was something he could not allow. He took great pride in the US and its role as a world defender of democracy and freedom with loyalty to the US flag being an obligation for every American regardless of political views.
Another virtue he held in high regard was of courage, he abhorred the idea of appeasing the enemy believing it would be the same mistake made in the 30’s in regard to Hitler saying that leaving Vietnam to Ho would be the same as what Chamberlain did in WWII. As he said “If you let a bully come into your front yard one day, the next day he will be up on your porch and the day after that he will rape your wife in your own bed”, he regarded abandonment of south Vietnam as cowardice believing there was a moral obligation not to give it up on it and go home.
Along with most Americans Johnson had difficulty in dealing with foreigners and understanding foreign affairs, “The trouble with foreigners is that they’re not like the folks you were reared with”, he stated. He read and travelled widely but this did not aid his understanding, in a visit to Thailand he was furious when and adviser told him not to shake hands with the President since the Thai’s did not like physical contact with strangers. In regard to Ho Chi Minh, as far as his understanding went he was simply another Hitler and should be treated accordingly.
Along with his own values he also adopted many of the traditional attitudes and assumptions which were now part of the cold war. Of course one of these assumptions was the one of Americas credibility as a great power but there were others. The cold war was seen as a struggle against monolithic communist bloc intent upon subverting free and independent states and spreading Soviet power under the guise of communism. Actions by all communist parties and regimes were determined in Moscow.
Values of communism ran totally counter to those of capitalistic America and the free world in the West, the USSR policy of world domination was something the US had to stop in order to stop such values being spread throughout the world. The way to stop it was through pro-active policies throughout the world by supporting pro-western regimes against communist infiltration through financial, diplomatic and if needs be military support. The communist threat was similar to the fascist threat back in the 1930’s and the mistakes of then could not be repeated.
Force had to be met with force. Negotiated agreements were useless unless they were based on ones military superiority or after a victory in a war. Along with these regular woes faced by all the presidents though there was also Johnson’s own worry about the implementation of his “great society”, which is where his heart truly was. But wholesale US commitment to a war in Vietnam would divert the nations attention and resources from the Great Society and thus his legislative program at home, moving through congress during 1964-5, would stall.
Worse yet, the conservatives in Congress were inherently suspicious of Johnson’s enthusiasm for reform and they may have used the excuse of widening the war in order to kill of any planned reform program of Johnson’s part. But if Johnson did not fight the war he would have been booted out from office in 1964 and he would have had no hope of implementing the Great Society leaving him in a rather awkward position he said “I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved”.
This all meant that Johnson would be forced to fight in South Vietnam in order to have any hope of having his reforms pass. Along with this was the legacy of the late John F Kennedy. Johnson faced a set of inescapable circumstances surrounding his elevation to the presidency and the aura of greatness still surrounding the late president which was a stark contrast with his own personal feelings of inadequacy and he did not have a free hand due to several factors.
There was already a firm US commitment in Vietnam in propping up the Saigon government, irrespective of any failings or the chaos that ensued following the assassination of Diem, there were 16500 US advisers there and a covert war in both Laos and North Vietnam. In the relationship between Kennedy and Johnson, Johnson was treated as rather inferior and since Johnson was only president due to Kennedy’s assassination he felt obliged to carry out his policies. He was overshadowed by Kennedy so he could escape the shadow by making the policies a success.
He often fretted at the insignificance of his vice-presidential tasks and it would often have crossed his mind during his time in office that all that stood between him and the world’s greatest office was Kennedy’s death often sore at the younger and less experienced man having the top job. He succeeded Kennedy without a proper mandate so he did not really feel he had the right to pursue alternative policies. This resulted in him saying “My first major decision on Vietnam had been to reaffirm President Kennedy’s policies”.
The guilty feelings he felt due to his jealousy would also have made him more determined to stand by all that Kennedy had done and those who helped Kennedy do it. There were various claims that Kennedy wanted to pull out but the veracity of such claims is doubtful and Johnson’s early decisions were taken in the belief that he was following at least the general policy lines of his predecessor and so within 48 hours of taking office he announced that the US commitment to South Vietnam remained undiminished and he expressed his desire to win the war in private.
Along with Kennedy’s legacy Johnson also inherited his advisers. His freedom of action was greatly compromised due to his retention of Kennedy men such as McNamara and Rusk meaning often no fresh ideas on what to do with Vietnam emerged. McNamara had so much influence in policy that some called Vietnam McNamara’s war. Rusk continually wanted to carry on with the struggle in South East Asia believing withdrawal would cause a loss of faith in America’s commitment to oppose Communist aggression and could indirectly lead to WWIII.
During wartime the beliefs and advice of the military were inevitably influential and Johnson found some military men scary such as Air Force chief Curtis LeMay. He wanted to “bomb Vietnam back into the stone age”, but Johnson inherited involvement in a war and since he was commander in chief he was duty bound to listen to the generals. Vietnam was the only war the generals had and so they wanted to continue and escalate so they could win.
Johnson’s own personal political ambitions reinforced what the generals said as he did not want to be the first president to lose a war, particularly to the communists. Along with the various American factors there was also the issue of the political and military realities within Vietnam over the period of 1963-5. A major factor for going to war was that it was apparent that the Saigon Regime was not winning the war. The generals squabbled over petty differences to such an extent that an exasperated General Lodge proposed America get ready to run the country by late 1964.
Lodge also reported that the communists owned far more of South Vietnam then had been previously suspected with the strategic hamlets being a total failure and the Saigon government seen as incompetent and highly unpopular. McNamara reported that the situation in South Vietnam was “very disturbing”, after a visit there with the military rule showing no aptitude in winning popular support or waging a successful war. Rusk was also growing tired of the South Vietnamese with a consensus among the advisers that something had to be done about the situation.
By spring 64, US intelligence estimated South Vietnam would stand for about a few months at best. Political instability was ubiquitous with 6 changes in government. The countryside was communist controlled with towns becoming fortresses under siege. The loss of Diem had created a huge political vacuum. General Minh took over from Diem in 63 but he had no experience, programme or support and South Vietnam continued to deteriorate. The January coup in 64 was motivated simply by personal ambition rather then a sense of public ambition continuing the perpetual down spiral with anarchy taking rule.
Not only was the regime in constant crisis but also there was an intensification in communist military activity with Hanoi pledging to destroy the South Vietnamese army, destroy the hamlets and engage in an offensive to destroy the government in December 1963. This caused an expansion in numbers and quality of the Vietcong troops, greater infiltration and a campaign in South Vietnam to be run by a top North Vietnam General. The Vietcong were striking at will against Americans in South Vietnam with a US air base near Saigon greatly damaged in November 1964.