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.