Lyndon B. Johnson and Escalation

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • The background of Johnson’s policies in Vietnam
  • The causes and consequences of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964);
  • The attack on Pleiku air base, Operation Rolling Thunder and the arrival of ground troops.

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • LBJ – Lyndon Baines Johnson (POTUS, 1963-8);
  • Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence
  • McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser
  • Maxwell Taylor, Special Military Adviser
  • Dean Rusk, Secretary of State
  • Operation Plan 34A;
  • USS Maddox;
  • USS Turner Joy;
  • Captain Herrick;
  • Barry Goldwater – Republican presidential nominee;
  • Pleiku Air Base;
  • Rolling Thunder;
  • Ground troops.
  1. The background to Johnson’s policies in Vietnam
    • LBJ was a strong supporter of domino theory, and believed that prevention of an NLF victory was vital to the defence of the US: ‘if we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we’ll be fighting Hawaii and next week we’ll have to fight in San Francisco’.
    • LBJ saw it as his duty to sustain JFK’s policies and retained his team of advisers: Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, all of whom argued for expanding the US role and taking it to the North from whence the NLF, Vietcong received its supplies and reinforcements;
    • LBJ was also aware that he possessed no popular mandate for escalation in Vietnam, but nor did he think he could pull out of Vietnam despite the fact didn’t think think ‘its worth fighting for…. its just the biggest damned mess….’.
    • in the midst of all this, it was an election year, and LBJ’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was accusing Johnson of being ‘soft on Communism.’
    • At Christmas 1963, LBJ told his Joint Chiefs of Staff the he did not want to lose South Vietnam or get America into a war before the election: ‘Just let me get elected and then you can have your war.’

  3. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution
    • Johnson did not want to risk his election prospects by escalating a war in Vietnam that would be unpopular with the American public so he sought a means of persuading Congress that escalation was necessary. He believed that if he did not get Congress to buy in at the beginning there would be nothing to stop it turning on the president and leaving him high and dry if it went badly later on.
    • The opportunity was engineered by means of Operation 34A – which involved the use of Asian mercenaries in North Vietnam to commit assassinations and acts of sabotage whilst US Navy destroyers were sent into the Gulf of Tonkin to gather information on North Vietnamese naval defences (known as De Soto missions);
    • The result was the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy were fired upon, retaliated and sunk three North Vietnamese torpedo boats (August 2nd). The USS Maddox retreated into international waters before being ordered to return the following day. The report by its Captain, Herrick, that she was under attack upon once again (August 4th) but sent another message to say that this was probably not true;
    • Johnson ignored the second message and ordered bombing of torpedo boat bases and an oil depot that had been planned three months previously. He then went on television to tell the American people: “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.”
    • August 7, 1964, Congress approved of Johnson’s decision and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the House of Representatives by 416-0 and in the senate by 88-2, which authorized the President to take ‘all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States ’. The administration denied reports that the US destroyers had been involved in covert operations, and the Resolution became the justification for an escalation of American involvement. The Gulf Tonkin resolution was one of the most controversial and most consequential decisions in American history.
    • The resolution gave Johnson the power to wage war in Vietnam: as he said ‘its like grandma’s night-shirt – it covered everything.’
    • November 1964, Johnson won a landslide election victory against his Republican opponents, Barry Goldwater who had called for escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. By comparison with Goldwater, Johnson appeared like the ‘peace candidate’. But the American public did not appreciate that Johnson was waiting until after the election to pursue the very policies advocated by his opponent. He had gained Congressional approval for ‘all necessary measures’ without the need for a declaration of war.’
    • As a result of the resolution, Johnson’s approval rating rose from 42 to 72%, helping him to win the 1964 election.

  5. The attack on Pleiku and the arrival of ground troops
    • On February 7th 1965 – Whilst McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara were in Vietnam on a fact finding mission – the Holloway Camp at Pleiku was attacked. Eight Americans were killed and 100 were injured. Traumatised by what they saw, they assumed that Hanoi had planned the attack against the American base and that it had been planned to coincide with their visit. On the basis of those assumptions – all of which turned out to be false – McNamara and Bundy recommended escalation. The immediate reprisal for Pleiku was a bombing campaign known as Flaming Dart, which in turn led to Rolling Thunder, but also to increasing NLF attacks on American air bases.
    • Westmoreland argued that the 23,000 troops in Vietnam were not enough to defend American interests and requested more troops to fight the double threat from Vietcong and the PAVN (People’s Army of Viet Nam – the North Vietnamese regular units).
    • March 8 1965, 3500 US Marines arrived in South Vietnam – these were the first ‘official’ US combat troops to be sent in to the country. It was presented to the country as a short-term measure. By the end of 1965 there were nearly 200,000 American troops in Vietnam. Yet an opinion poll of 1965 indicated that 80% of Americans supported the bombing raids and the deployment of troops.
    • The first major engagement between US troops and North Vietnamese (PAVN) troops took place at Ia Drang Valley on the 26th October 1965. It saw the first major use of helicopters in battle and because it ended in a high kill rate – of 10:1 – was considered a success for Westmoreland’s strategy, but the North Vietnamese also considered it a success. They learned to avoid direct confrontation or at least to minimise US firepower by ‘clinging to the belt’ of the enemy (i.e. getting as close to the American perimeter as possible so as to make the use of air power and artillery too dangerous. The US journalist Joseph Galloway described Ia Drang as the as ‘the battle that convinced Ho Chi Minh he could win.’



  • Johnson’s presidency marked a massive escalation in the Vietnam War. But before concluding that this was ‘Johnson’s War’, it is important to realise that at this early stage, the majority of American journalists, as well as congress and the American people and all of Johnson’s advisers – including a Working Group from the Defence Department, the State Department, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – were in favour of escalation.
  • There were a few dissenting voices – like George Ball, under secretary of state, Mike Mansfield the Senate Leader, and to a lesser extent Ambassador Maxwell Taylor who feared that American troops would fair no better than the French and would only serve to undermine the nationalist credentials of the Saigon regime.
  • In April 1965, Johnson gave a speech in which he summed up the reasons the US had to escalate its commitment to Vietnam, in which he spoke of North Vietnam as a puppet of Communist Russia and China who wanted to conquer the whole of Asia. America had to fight if it wanted to live in a free world.
  • Perhaps more important for Johnson, however, as Doris Kearns Goodwin argues, was his need to appear tough on foreign policy in order to stop conservatives defeating his domestic plans and his Great Society dreams. At the same time, however, he desperately wanted to avoid a Third World War.
  • For that reason, despite the military escalation, Johnson remained more cautious than his Joint Chiefs of Staff and restricted their freedom of movement to fight a ‘Limited War’, i.e. one that was designed to avoid confrontation with China or Russia. This strategy would put him at odds with his generals, and particularly Westmoreland.


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