New president Lyndon B. Johnson inherited a difficult situation in Vietnam, as the South Vietnamese government was in shambles and the Viet Cong was making large gains in rural areas of the South. Although Johnson billed himself as a tough anti-Communist, he pledged to honor Kennedy’s limited troop commitments in Vietnam. Indeed, Johnson handled the Vietnam situation moderately during the early part of his term, striving to continue Kennedy’s programs without dramatically escalating the war.
Johnson did make several changes in U.S. military leadership. Although Robert S. McNamara remained as secretary of defense, General Earle G. Wheeler became the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General William C. Westmoreland was instated as commander of the MACV, replacing previous commander General Paul Harkins, by then referred to as “General Blimp” for his tendency to inflate the ARVN’s successes.
Westmoreland, disgusted with the corruption and incompetence of the ARVN, pushed for 200,000 American ground troops. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy argued for increased bombing of targets in North Vietnam, especially factories. McNamara, a student of game theory, advocated a “tit-for-tat” policy against North Vietnam, in which U.S. forces would strike Hanoi every time the Viet Cong went on the offensive in South Vietnam.
Despite these suggestions, Johnson maintained a moderate policy until August 1964, when the situation changed dramatically. Early that month, two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin (off the coast of North Vietnam) reported that North Vietnamese gunboats attacked them unprovoked. The American public was incensed, and Johnson requested from Congress the authority to take “all necessary steps” to protect U.S. interests in Vietnam. Congress complied and passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964. Out of the 535 total members of Congress, only two voted against this resolution, which policy makers considered a declaration of war in everything but name. Indeed, Johnson ordered bombing runs on North Vietnam not long after the incident.
Soon after the resolution was passed, a debate emerged over the nature of the attacks on the U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Many have argued that the second attack did not occur at all. Others have argued that the attacks were not entirely unprovoked, as the U.S. ships were likely involved in covert missions against North Vietnam that were unknown to the American public at the time. Nonetheless, the U.S. government embraced the public’s anger about the attacks and ultimately used it as a justification to escalate the war.
Although Johnson deferred openly escalating the war until after the election of 1964, the furor over the Gulf of Tonkin incident only helped Johnson in his campaign. His hawkish Republican opponent, Barry M. Goldwater, argued that much more needed to be done in Vietnam to contain Communism. Johnson countered by touting his “Great Society” program for domestic reform and by airing the famous “Daisy Girl” political commercial, which played on the American public’s fears that Goldwater’s aggressiveness might start a nuclear war. Johnson also promised that his government would not “supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do.” On Election Day, Johnson won by a landslide.
Meanwhile, South Vietnam, lacking the order that Diem’s dictatorial regime provided, had become increasingly chaotic. Although ARVN general Nguyen Khanh emerged from the leadership vacuum as a figurehead of sorts, he too proved ineffective, and riots against him broke out in November 1964. After a February 1965 coup, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky succeeded him. Ky was a swaggering, beer-swilling military man who styled himself as Vietnam’s John Wayne. U.S. officials tried to control him by making the more conservative Thieu chief executive, but both men were so deeply involved in the rampant corruption in South Vietnam that their leadership was not what the country needed.
By 1965, Viet Cong attacks on U.S. forces were becoming increasingly violent, and though the Viet Cong obviously had many soldiers in South Vietnam, the MACV was still having difficulty locating any bombing targets at all. In February 1965, Viet Cong guerrillas attacked a U.S. Marine barracks at the South Vietnamese hamlet of Pleiku, killing eight and wounding over a hundred others.
With the free hand recently provided by Congress, Johnson ordered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy to begin an intense series of air strikes called Operation Rolling Thunder. He hoped that the bombing campaign would demonstrate to the South Vietnamese the U.S. commitment to their cause and its resolve to halt the spread of Communism. Ironically, the air raids seemed only to increase the number of Viet Cong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) attacks.
Despite Johnson’s campaign promise to keep “American boys” out of Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder set the gears in motion for a major escalation of the war, culminating in the first arrival of U.S. ground troops in 1965. General Westmoreland, doubting the corrupt and ineffective ARVN’s ability to defend U.S. air bases against the Viet Cong, lobbied successfully for two Marine battalions to protect the base at Da Nang. For the first time, U.S. ground troops—not just MACV advisors—were committed to Vietnam. The war was undergoing “Americanization.”
Johnson, meanwhile, advocated an inconsistent strategy: although at one point in 1965 he promised North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh “unconditional discussions,” he also harbored a belief that a gradual increase in the U.S. military presence in Vietnam would make Ho more willing to negotiate and perhaps even cause him to withdraw NVA troops from South Vietnam. The United States did send more troops, and a total of 75,000 were in Vietnam by June 1965, just ten months after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
With these troops in place, U.S. officials instituted an “enclave” strategy under which U.S. forces would try to maintain only those areas of Vietnam already under Saigon’s control. General Westmoreland, opposing the enclave strategy, called for more and more U.S. forces and advocated “taking the battle to the enemy.” Indeed, in July 1965, Johnson sent 100,000 more troops and authorized another 100,000 to be dispatched in 1966.
Throughout 1965, the U.S. military continued its bombing campaigns, so heavily that by the end of the decade it had dropped 3 million tons of bombs on Vietnam—more than all the bombs dropped in Europe during World War II. Despite the enormous number of bombs used, the campaign had little effect. Target selection was difficult against the hidden Viet Cong and rural, non-industrialized North Vietnamese. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh decided to evacuate much of the population of Hanoi in order to give Rolling Thunder still fewer targets. Nonetheless, the United States continued bombing in an attempt to demoralize the North Vietnamese, misunderstanding both the commitment of the Communist nationalists and the terrain of Vietnam.
In 1965, Westmoreland began to implement a search-and-destroy strategy that sent U.S. troops out into the field to find and kill Viet Cong members. Westmoreland was confident that American technology would succeed in slowly wearing down the Viet Cong through a war of attrition—a strategy of extended combat meant to inflict so many casualties on the enemy that it could no longer continue. U.S. leaders agreed, believing that North Vietnam’s economy could not sustain a prolonged war effort.
In light of this new strategy of fighting a war of attrition, U.S. commanders were instructed to begin keeping body counts of enemy soldiers killed. Although body counts were indeed tallied, they were often exaggerated and proved wildly inaccurate, as the bodies of Viet Cong soldiers often were difficult to distinguish from the bodies of friendly South Vietnamese soldiers.
In November 1965, Westmoreland found justification for his search-and-destroy strategy in the Battle of Ia Drang, fought in a highland valley in central Vietnam. One of the largest battles of the war, Ia Drang was a damaging loss for the North Vietnamese. The battle simultaneously convinced Westmoreland that his strategy of attrition through search and destroy would work and the North Vietnamese that they should return to their strategy of guerrilla warfare, choosing battles only on their own terms. As it turned out, America’s top military minds—which had been trained in a tradition of conventional warfare, such as the massive troop movements and invasions of World War II—would indeed have great difficulty fighting a guerrilla war.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces continued to try to cut off Viet Cong supply lines through air power. These efforts expended a great deal of time and resources, but the North Vietnamese government proved extremely savvy in its ability to keep the Viet Cong supplied. Rather than attempt to send materials across the heavily guarded DMZ (the demilitarized zone surrounding the border between North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel), they sent supplies via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. Troops and supplies streamed into South Vietnam via the trail, and despite intense U.S. bombing throughout 1965, the trail never closed once, not even temporarily.
In the fight against the United States, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap (still Ho’s top general) followed the same three-phase strategy that had worked against the French. In the first phase, Ho and his forces focused on mere survival and building up a support base. Then, in the second phase, they moved to guerrilla warfare, utilizing small groups of fighters behind enemy lines, placing booby traps, and making small ambushes. This phase, which had frustrated the French enormously, could be maintained for years, as the Viet Cong could disappear into the jungle and their extensive tunnel systems whenever the enemy tried to confront them directly.
The Battle of Ia Drang marked the North’s attempt to start their third phase, a “general counteroffensive” that Ho hoped would spark rebellion against imperialists throughout Vietnam. Although Ia Drang resulted in a significant defeat for the North Vietnamese, the eventual Tet Offensive of 1968 (see The Tet Offensive, p. 45 ), would be far more effective.
Arguably, the United States’ main problem in Vietnam was not poor strategy but rather the fact that it greatly underestimated Viet Cong tenacity. Although U.S. leaders did indeed make a series of bad decisions in Vietnam, not every aspect of the U.S. strategy was unsound. Westmoreland’s war of attrition, for instance, did in fact have significant impact. However, the Viet Cong’s tenacity enabled it to draw the war out into a prolonged guerrilla conflict that the United States was ill equipped to deal with. Rather than hold permanent positions and fight along conventional lines, the Viet Cong harassed U.S. troops incessantly in small groups, striking quickly and then disappearing into the jungle or the peasant population. With this dogged strategy, even a poor, third world nation was able to make significant headway against the world’s leading military superpower.
The Viet Cong’s tenacity stemmed from its nationalistic motivations, which were quite different from the United States’ objectives in Vietnam—in effect, the Americans and North Vietnamese were fighting two entirely different wars. From the American viewpoint, Vietnam was just another pawn in the great Cold War chess game.
Though U.S. leaders claimed they were defending democracy in South Vietnam, this claim was mostly false. The South Vietnamese “democracy” was largely a U.S.-created fiction in the first place; the U.S.-backed regime under Ngo Dinh Diem had been brutal, corrupt, and not even remotely a democracy. As a result, though Johnson claimed repeatedly that winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people was key to winning the war, U.S. policy only alienated the Vietnamese further and further. Privately, U.S. policy makers generally saw themselves as fighting the Soviet Union through the proxy of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Vietnam thus was largely a symbolic prize that U.S. leaders wanted to prevent from falling embarrassingly into the Soviet Bloc. Moreover, having propped up Diem, U.S. policy makers were quick to assume that Ho Chi Minh was similarly just a Sino-Soviet puppet and not a real nationalist leader.
In reality, Ho was much more than simply a puppet: he saw himself and his Communist forces as fighting a heroic, centuries-long crusade to finally push out foreign invaders and reunite their homeland. Indeed, this was, and remained, North Vietnam’s military objective all along. Ho stated repeatedly that peace would come only after U.S. troops had left Vietnam, U.S. bombing raids stopped, the NLF was allowed to participate in South Vietnamese politics, and North and South were reunified. For this reason, the Viet Cong, simultaneously Communists and nationalists, would pay any price to keep their hope of independence and a unified Vietnam alive. They were always willing to accept higher casualties and costs than their American opponents, and this gave them a distinct advantage. For this reason, although more than ten Viet Cong soldiers were dying for each U.S. soldier killed, Americans felt themselves to be losing the war while Ho and his followers smelled victory. The fact that U.S. objectives were rather undefined did not help American morale. Though U.S. forces were fighting for victory, it was unclear what victory constituted; for Ho and his forces, the goal was concrete and seemed increasingly within reach.