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.