Sunday, March 15, 2015

The 1965 Vietnam decisions fifty years on

As has been extensively reported, this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the famous civil-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of U.S. ground forces in a combat role in Vietnam.  The immediate justification for the move was the need to protect the U.S. air base at Danang from possible Vietcong attack in response to Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that the Johnson administration launched in February 1965.  As one historian writes:
The expanded air war...provided the pretext for the introduction of the first U.S. ground forces into Vietnam.  Anticipating Vietcong attacks against U.S. airbases in retaliation for Rolling Thunder, General Westmoreland in late February urgently requested two Marine landing teams to protect the air base at Danang.... [O]n March 8 [1965], two battalions of Marines..., with tanks and eight-inch howitzers, splashed ashore near Danang where they were welcomed by South Vietnamese officials and by pretty Vietnamese girls passing out leis of flowers. (George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 2d ed. (1986), pp.130-131)
Several months later, in July, Johnson decided to commit ground forces on a large scale (50,000 immediately, followed by another 50,000 before the end of the year).  Johnson did this without going to Congress for authorization; attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach assured Johnson that bypassing Congress was within his prerogatives (Herring, America's Longest War, p.140, citing Katzenbach to Johnson, June 10, 1965, Johnson Papers, National Security File, Country File: Vietnam, Box 17).     

One of the reasons Johnson decided to take this approach was that "he feared that going to Congress for authority to wage war in Vietnam would destroy his dream of creating the Great Society at home" (Herring, p.140).  He also declined to mobilize the reserves, call up the National Guard, seek a tax increase or do much of anything else to indicate the country was preparing to wage a war (ibid.).  While this might have avoided political problems in the short term, in the long run it helped paved the way for disillusion with the U.S. war in Vietnam, especially as it became clear that the conflict was not going to be short.

The leading explanation in the literature for the Vietnam escalation decisions of 1965 used to be, and perhaps still is, that the general commitment to containment of Communism and the specific commitment to not let a Communist regime take power in Vietnam dictated the decisions.  However, there were different escalation options on the table and containment doesn't explain why particular ones were chosen and others were rejected.  As Y. F. Khong argued in Analogies at War (1992), the Korean War experience and the fear of provoking Chinese intervention weighed heavily on LBJ, inclining him to choose "graduated" escalation options.  One consequence of that choice was to make it very likely that the U.S. would not be able to prevail against an adversary willing to pay almost unlimited costs.  [Clarification added later: I'm not sure, on re-reading, that this makes sense. I guess what I meant to say was that, while no strategy was likely to succeed in attaining its goals, the 'gradual' options chosen were especially unlikely to succeed. I'm not completely sure that's right, but it seems right.] As early as June 1964, North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong had told Canadian diplomat J. Blair Seaborn that "the NLF [Viet Cong] and its supporters were prepared to endure regardless of the cost" (Herring, p.119).  That remark proved to be accurate.


Note: Vietnam War is a new index label; previous posts here about the Vietnam War can be found under the label Vietnam in the topics index.


Added later: Re anniversaries, March 9 was the 70th anniversary of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo; see here. (I may have something more to say about the linked piece later.)


(Post edited slightly after initial posting.)


hank_F_M said...


We should remember that the perception of the war in Washington, and the reality of the military situation on the ground, seldom met except when reality stuck out it's ugly head and forced Washington to make a decision

Of course conservatives and liberals had different perceptions, both disconnected from reality, and what was used to sell actions was also something different.

The reality on the ground was that the North Vietnamese were about escalate to Mao Tse Tung's third phase of guerilla war, and the South Vietnamese did not have the strength to stop it. The US intervention provided the means to stalemate and eventually stop turn it around.

The explanations provided at the time were marketing the intervention.

My previous musings on the subject.

Maothought or Who is Winning

TET 1968, a personal narrative

hank_F_M said...


Your post is a good summary of the marketing of the decision.

LFC said...

I've just read the Maothought post (and I seem to recall having reading the Tet one, albeit a long while ago).

I haven't read Mao on guerrilla war, though I'm sure Giap and the other N. Vietnamese and NLF generals had, and so I'm sure Mao is relevant.

But is it your position that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were about to escalate to Mao's third phase -- the mobile forces attacking larger formations and cities -- in 1965? Because I'm not at all sure that's right. (I'm not an expert on the military history of the Vietnam War, though I do know something about it.)

As for "marketing" the intervention, I think one of Johnson's concerns was to do the ground-force escalation as quietly as possible so that it didn't have to be marketed in the sense of sold to the public at large. In glancing at Herring, whom I quote in the post, I saw that he mentions some protests and teach-ins in response to the 1965 decisions, so these decisions were not a secret (they couldn't be, really). But there was far less public concern and opposition in the US in 1965 than there was a few years later.

As for "the U.S. intervention provided the means to stalemate and eventually ... turn it [the N. Vietnamese move] around":
I know there's a bunch of revisionist historians who say that once Abrams replaced Westmoreland, the US started winning the war militarily, and if only the dastardly Congress and public hadn't, in effect, forced Nixon to withdraw troops and then cut off aid to the South after the US forces had withdrawn, all would have turned out differently.

I don't really buy it. The US was up against two quite insurmountable problems: first, the S Vietnamese regimes it supported were fairly corrupt and, crucially, lacked the domestic political legitimacy necessary to compete on an even footing for the population's allegiance w the NLF. Second, the N. Vietnamese and NLF were willing to accept staggering losses and continue fighting.

If the US had taken a different approach militarily, sending in forces in '65, say, to cut or try to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail and possibly invading the North, as Rostow wanted, would the eventual outcome have been different? Maybe, but I'm very, very skeptical.

As it was, the US committed war crimes, in terms of how it fought the war, on a fairly large scale. (No doubt the other side was hardly pure as the driven snow.) But the well-known fact is that the US dropped more bomb tonnage on Vietnam than it dropped in WW2. And while the bombing did succeed on certain occasions in forcing the N Vietnamese back to the negotiating table, it did not win the war. The war was not winnable at an acceptable moral/human/political cost, it seems to me.

Then of course one can go back to the US's refusal to support holding elections that the Geneva Accords had called for b.c it was afraid Ho would win. If those elections had been held in (in '56, was it), and Ho had won, on balance a lot of lives and treasure would have been spared.

Finally (and I'm sorry for the length of this comment) to me the phrase "the marketing of the decision" refers, as I suggested earlier, to the way the '65 decisions were presented to the public. And my post does not address that.

LFC said...

P.s. The NewsHr had an interesting piece a couple of wks ago about former US soldiers who have moved to Vietnam and set up organizations to work on education, removal of unexploded bombs, etc. I bookmarked it, will link it later.

LFC said...

Ok, I just looked at the opening of your Tet 68 post (which I had forgotten). This

In 1975 South Vietnam fell. Congress made it clear we would not keep the promise to come to South Viet Nam’s aid. The first wave of boat people came to the US. The second wave was abandoned at sea. South Vietnam was put under a totalitarian regime that rivaled anything of Hitler, Mao or Stalin. The same for Laos. But this was child play compared to what the Khmer Rouge (Communist Party) did in the killing fields of Cambodia.

Are you seriously suggesting that in the totalitarian scale Ho rivaled Hitler, Stalin, and Mao? I don't think so. I'm sure a lot of people were put in 're-education camps' and a fair number were killed, and if you had supported the losing side and were someone of any prominence and stayed in the country after 1975, things were not good for you and you might well not have survived. But to put Ho in the same category as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao is I think ahistorical.

Peter T said...

This looks to me like a typical policy-maker's move in the face of an intractable problem. LBJ was very much focused on domestic affairs, did not want his domestic program de-railed by either the "loss" of South Vietnam (cue waves of denunciation from the China lobby and friends) or by bargaining with Congress over a formal military vote. But, at the same time, could see that a large war was not on (China, maybe Soviet help, remarks by associates that Diem was in the same class as Chiang for competence and popularity, perhaps even a basic grasp of strategic geography...). So put in enough to do the immediate job and hope. Without thinking about how the other side could respond, or the basic drivers - because that would require real expertise, and most such expertise had been driven away by McCarthy and friends.

Best book on Vietnam is still War Comes to Long An.

The proportion of the South Vietnamese population that fled after the war was somewhat smaller than the proportion that fled the US after the Revolutionary War. Make of that what you will.

LFC said...


I agree on the pressures facing Johnson. I probably should have mentioned somewhere in the OP the notion that US global 'credibility' was on the line (something Nixon and Kissinger also believed). The (so-called) domino theory as applied to the region lost whatever plausibility it had when the Indonesian CP was slaughtered en masse, which occurred before the July '65 decision to send 100K ground forces to Vietnam. (A CIA report at the time apparently said something along these lines; if read at all, which it might not have been, it was ignored by the top policymakers.)

War Comes to Long An -- seen it cited a lot, looked at it once at a lib. or used bkstore. Don't own and haven't read it, however.

LFC said...

p.s. Diem was out (removed w US approval, in effect) by the time Johnson became pres. But Diem's successor(s) were not huge improvements.

LFC said...

The number of good books on one or another aspect of the Vietnam War is a long list (and keeps growing). In particular there is a recent bk by a young historian that uses the N Vietnamese archives more extensively than they have been used in the past. Don't remember the title offhand; possibly I've mentioned it here earlier. Will look it up at some point.

hank_F_M said...


My main point was that the main reason for the US intervention North Vietnam was about to escalate, an escalation the South Vietnamese forces did not have the means to defeat.

The South Vietnamese Army was spread out in small and medium sized units fighting Viet Cong forces. They had virtually no general reserves and only small local reserves. Their units would have been defeated one by one by locally superior forces unless there was reinforcements. Most other questions would become irrelevant as the North Vietnamese pushed on to victory.

I have read a number of accounts of the military side of the war, US, Vietnamese, and other, any serious military history says the same thing.


The central fact of the war is that the North Vietnamese leadership was willing to fight to last man to unite Vietnam under their rule, what ever change in situation and tactics they always worked to that goal. The US had no equivalent goal or resolve. Anything the US could have done to break or neutralize that resolve was unacceptable to LBJ and eventually the US political situation.

LFC said...

My main point was that the main reason for the US intervention North Vietnam was about to escalate, an escalation the South Vietnamese forces did not have the means to defeat.

Ok. I accept that that was the military situation and that
U.S. policymakers, unwilling to see a N. Vietnamese/NLF victory, decided they had to aid the South more directly.

But that doesn't answer the question of what precise form the US reinforcement/escalation would take.

As I wrote in the post:
"there were different [U.S.] escalation options on the table and containment [i.e. commitment to a non-Communist S. Vietnam] doesn't explain why particular ones [i.e. particular escalation options] were chosen and others were rejected."

I can't go into this further here. Khong, Analogies at War, does a good job of laying out the options that were being considered, even if one doesn't agree w/ his explanation of why the chosen options were chosen.

On your last paragraph: yes, I basically agree.


It occurs to me that you might have been misled by the way I phrased the opening of the post. I wrote:

"The immediate justification for the move [the intro of ground forces in March '65] was the need to protect the U.S. air base at Danang from possible Vietcong attack in response to Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that the Johnson administration launched in February 1965" (italics added).

That's an accurate statement. It does not address the underlying justification for the 1965 decisions, i.e., that N Vietnam was about to escalate etc., but the fact is that the immediate, the proximate reason for the intro of 2 Marine battalions in March '65 was as stated. At least, I see no reason to assume the contrary.

LFC said...

I suppose the post would have been better if I had gone into more detail about the military situation and so on.

I don't really address the underlying reasons for 1965 decisions as a whole, so in that sense the post's title is a bit misleading.

I was using the fact that this month -- March -- is the 50th anniversary of the first intro of combat forces as the 'hook' for the post. That influenced, or if you prefer, skewed the way it was written.

Blogging, as I see it, is not writing a PhD dissertation. It's not even writing a journal article. I was using a topical, temporal perhaps is a better word, 'hook' -- and, as I say, that influenced the way the post was constructed.

Also perhaps worth noting, which I didn't in the post, that one of LBJ's advisors, George Ball, favored no escalation at all, and if the Communists took over well, so be it. But he was very outnumbered. With hindsight it would have been better if LBJ had taken Ball's advice.

LFC said...

A final thought: I think I should stay off the Vietnam War at this blog, for a while at any rate. I've touched on it in several posts over the years, but I don't think there is that much general interest in it any more. I suppose the exception would be if the war is placed in some broader context, as I did, e.g., in the post on 'modernization and development as persistent themes in US foreign policy'.

Anonymous said...

Re: the Jacobin piece on the Tokyo firebombing (which of course I agree was a war crime), their links re: the Trohan piece take us to (1) a Google Books version of a book that doesn't, on a search for "MacArthur," disclose any support and (2) a website blocked by my firewall for "racism/hate."

Googling around, it seems Trohan's source was allegedly a memo "shown him" by MacArthur.

Call me mainstream, but it seems to me that such evidence, if it existed, would have made a bit more of a splash in the historical record.

LFC said...

well, I didn't click on the Trohan links (tho I just did on the Google Bks one now). But even if MacArthur did not relay a Japanese surrender offer, it wdn't, as you say, change the verdict on the firebombing; maybe the author of the Jacobin column shd not have made so much of it.

Anonymous said...

As posted at my blog, the Jacobin article's sourcing is even worse than I thought. IHR??? I've emailed their editor and tweeted at the author, but I will be surprised if they revise/retract.

LFC said...

I have been thinking about Vietnam a bit more, partly b/c of a recent post at the USIH blog, and partly b/c of having looked just now an '08 post I wrote on a review by Kissinger of a book on McGeorge Bundy by Gordon Goldstein.

This leads me to comment further (and briefly) on this statement from Hank:

The central fact of the war is that the North Vietnamese leadership was willing to fight to last man to unite Vietnam under their rule, what ever change in situation and tactics they always worked to that goal. The US had no equivalent goal or resolve.

From another perspective, one cd say that "the central fact" of the war was that the US intervened in a war
that was, at least in
significant part, a civil war; however, the US refused to see it as such and a good many of the resulting failures stemmed from that basic misperception of the situation.

Actually, I doubt there was one "central fact" of the war; there were a number of facts that came together to create the disastrous situation.

There seems little question that the US's conduct of the war violated the laws of armed conflict in a number of ways, which is an antiseptic way of referring to agent orange, napalm, indiscriminate (in some cases) killing of civilians, and the dropping of so much ordnance on a relatively small country that a great deal of unexploded ordnance remained after the war, affecting about 20% of the land area.

(Details in next box.)

LFC said...

Patrick O'Donnell, commenting at the USIH blog on the recent post by Ray Haberski I mentioned, cites the Wiki entry on Agent Orange and in particular a passage on unexploded ordnance that says that approx. 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war in '75.

LFC said...

To be more exact: the Wiki entry, acc. to the linked comment, says that the Vietnamese govt figure is that more than 100,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance since '75, but that many casualties go unrecorded and that the govt. does not make detailed info on this subject public.

LFC said...

To qualify, very belatedly, the comment I made upthread that "I haven't read Mao on guerrilla war": it occurred to me that I have in fact read a bit of Mao, just for the record. It's been a long time, though.