U.S Escalatation?

Why Did the U.S escalate the war in Vietnam?

Vietnam is an extremely complex and sensitive subject in American history. The Truman and Eisenhower administration had committed the United States to support the French and native anti-communist forces. After the French defeat, there was a peace agreement in Geneva which set up for new countries Laos Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. However the U.S refused to hold elections in the South as they feared a communist victory. Instead they backed Ngo Dinh Vietnam; However Diem was an unpopular leader. He failed to win the support of the people. Instead popular support went to the South Vietnamese communists. The Americans continued to believe in Vietnam as a cold war conflict. They failed to see it as a national uprising seeking independence. There failure to see the conflict in this way, led them to become more enthralled in the conflict. The U.S role, which included financial support, and military aid and advice, expanded after the French withdrawal in 1954. During the Kennedy administration U.S involvement increased steadily in Vietnam. U.S involvement culminated in the Johnson presidency. This essay will examine the various different reasons behind the increase of U.S involvement in Vietnam. There are of coarse many different arguments to this complex question; however this essay will mainly focus on the Johnson presidency, as the main escalation period was between 1964-1966.

During the 1964 election Johnson campaigned as a man of peace in stark contrast to his opposition Barry Goldwater, who wanted a “total victory in the war against

communism1”. However within a few months of his presidency Johnson realised that there limited aid packages weren’t working, and that the collapse of the South Vietnamese government was immanent. Therefore Johnson options were limited. He had to make a decision. Basically he was faced with two choices; either withdraw and admit defeat, or expand the war and force the Vietcong into submission.

Johnson was desperate, in private phone conversation he shows his utter despondency “I don’t think we can get out, I don’t see that we can get out once we are committed”1. What Johnson needed was a way to withdraw, but all the while saving face. However Johnson was a victim of past promises, Kennedy’s promise “to pay any price, bear

any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”5, lent heavily on any decision Johnson made. He felt U.S credibility was at stake. He worried that if the U.S did not support its ally South-Vietnam that no one would trust them in any future conflict. For this reason he opted for the “military solution”. Another factor to considering the escalation of the war in Vietnam, Johnson did not wish to appear weak and indecisive, as he felt the Soviets may take great encouragement from it. In later years Johnson is quoted in saying, “that any hesitation or wavering, any false step, any sign of self doubt could have been disastrous”2. This statement is indicative to Johnson dealing with the Vietnam crises. An important point to note is that, Johnson was put on a train by Eisenhower and rail roaded into Vietnam by Kennedy, once on it he could see no way off of it. He felt he “had to see it through”.

1. Dermot Lucey, Modern Europe and the wider World, Gill & Macmillan Ltd, Dublin, 2004.p358.

2. Robert A. Divine, Exploring the Johnson Years, University of Texas Press, 1981.p49

5. David Halberstam, The Kennedy presidential press conferances, London, Heyden & son. Ltd, 1978.p6.

Revisionists argue that the Vietnam War was a direct consequence of the cold war attitudes and mentality. The red scare and McCarthyism set the tone for American foreign policy in the late 1940’s and for the next thirty years. McCarthyism clouded much of the thinking on foreign policy. It contributed to the view that any event everywhere should be viewed as a communist conspiracy. This heightened tensions in the Vietnam War considerably. Much to the determent of Johnson the containment policy labelled Vietnam “a vital interest” which forced him to act. The U.S now viewed the Vietnam War as a representation of the U.S commitment to contain communism and maintain its reputation as the world super power. To loose the war would be a massive credibility blow. Richard Russell, a government official stated “We are here now and if we were to scuttle and run we would shake the confidence of the free world”2. The role of McNamara, and his fellow advisors must not be overlooked. Johnson never wanted a war. Johnson had spent the previous thirty years developing his domestic policy. Considering Johnson relative in-experience in foreign policy, it is likely that his advisors would have influenced him greatly, not at least McNamara. Johnson considered McNamara “his right hand man”2. He was an action intellectual. He was, and always had been a huge advocate of military force. . He and others argued, that the conflict was necessary to prevent the total conquest of South Vietnam by communism –“part of a wider pattern of aggressive purposes4”, one must take into account the influences on Johnson.

2. Robert A. Divine, Exploring the Johnson Years, University of Texas Press, 1981.p356.

3. Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant, Oxford University Press 1998.p.341.

4. R Evans, R Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson the exercise of power, London University press, New York, 1967.p.256

Johnson hoped for a negotiated settlement, however he felt this could only be obtained favourably as a consequence of a strong military effort3 .Therefore Johnson felt there was no other alternative than to expand military involvement. On the Contrary to today’s view, in the early stages of the war, only 20% of the people favoured pulling out to the 80% who preferred expansion. Perhaps most important 75% of people considered the conflict in world terms as a fight on communism. Therefore if Johnson had decided to pull out, he felt that he would loose support. Support this rather insecure and unsure president felt he couldn’t afford to loose.

1. 4. R Evans, R Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson the exercise of power, London University press, New York, 1967.p359

3. Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant, Oxford University, 1998, p343.p340.

In considering the U.S escalation of the war, one must consider the context of Johnson path to the presidency. In the wake of Kennedys assassination there was great public uncertainty. America was a country who had lost its leader. In a pole taken,70% of people in the country had doubts about how the country would carry on without Kennedy”3. Understanding the immense pressure Johnson was under is crucial to examining the reasons for military escalation in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson had the impossible task of trying to fill the shoes of the much loved Kennedy. To gain public support Johnson felt a need to implement a continuation of Kennedy’s policy’s and promote a degree of continuity. The war in Vietnam represented Johnson greatest challenge. Johnson advertised a sense of strength and unity. For Johnson Vietnam not only represented a public challenge but it was a great personal battle. “I am not going to be the first president to loose a war”1.General Westmoreland (commander of the forces in Vietnam) always said he could win the war if “he just had more troops.1”The U.S government and Johnson firmly believed that Vietnam was vital to the containment of communism. Bill Moyers an American journalist, who served as a special assistant to Johnson, recalled a conversation with Johnson. Who he recalls Johnson saying “They’ll think with Kennedy gone we’ve lost heart. “Who? ” Moyers asked. “The Chinese the fellows in the Kremlin will be taking the measure of us. They’ll be wondering how far they can go…I’m not going to let Vietnam go the way of China.” Within the U.S memories of such disasters like the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Loosing China to communism was still fresh in the American mindset. “Kennedy believed that another failure on the part of the United States to gain control and stop communist expansion would fatally damage U.S. Credibility with its allies and his own reputation”1.Johnson also shared this view. Is it possible that Johnson feared the political consequences of appearing too soft in foreign policy. Johnson felt if he were to back out, it would appear as if the U.S had been intimidated in the face of communist aggression, and that this would be of disastrous consequences in any future dealings with the U.S.S.R. In Robert McNamara’s interview with……he states “that there is no doubt that the loss of China was on his mind, but it was not the driving force”6.

“So what was the driving force?” Contemporary thinking within the department of defence was that of the domino theory. It was widely accepted that Vietnam was of vital interest to the United States6. Vietnam task was to “contain China”. If one domino was to fall the others would fall soon after. According to McNamara “he (Johnson) believed it I believed we all believed it, and the establishment believed it.” The U.S misinterpreted and over exaggerated the threat Vietnam posed. The U.S didn’t know there enemy, “they didn’t understand the north Vietnamese6. The U.S government were ignorant of Vietcong determination to resist any foreign interference. As a result of this, the U.S government expanded the war on being over apprehensive and a deep misunderstanding of the enemy. They genuinely believed they were doing “bad things for the good” The military failed to adapt their tactics to the situation, General Westmoreland’s answer was always “we need more resources.1” As a consequence Johnson was always under severe pressure from republicans, military men and some members of congress, to increase forces in Vietnam.

  1. Dermot Lucey, Modern Europe and the wider World, Gill & Macmillan Ltd, Dublin, 2004.p754.

6.     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InM-E64AUOc&feature=related. 26/2/09/13:46.

In conclusion, the key reasons, for why the U.S escalated the war, was the U.S believed they could not appear weak in front of the Soviets. For them to do so would be unthinkable. The American government were predetermently fixed to the Truman doctrine, and tied to, following their policy of containment to the letter. The Johnson government was haunted by past promises and mistakes. The loss of China in 1949 affected many administrations future thinking; the Johnson government wasn’t any different. It too suffered from the same fears of the Eisenhower and Kennedy governments.  The war was expanded for both political and military reasons. The people who Johnson had surrounded himself with in the EXCOM advocated the use of force rather too easily4” The U.S government felt they would hold better bargaining chips if the were backed up by a strong military effort. After reading McNamara’s book, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”, Professor Donald L. Hafner believes that McNamara admits to being unsure and confident in what he was doing. In fact when he learned that President Kennedy, out of dissatisfaction with Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, was considering him for the post, McNamara says he would have declined because “I did not consider myself qualified to be Secretary of State8”. Ultimately it was the common belief amongst the U.S officials that Vietnam was vital for the containment of China. They over estimated the threat, and the importance of Vietnam. To loose against the Vietcong would be like a direct defeat against the Soviets. The Domino theory and the fear of a communist dominated world, a realistic fear or not it was a genuine and widely held view amongst the U.S hierarchy. It was this belief coupled with the inevitable collapse of the Southern Vietnamese government which led the U.S government to take the unprecedented step to expand the war.

4. R Evans, R Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson the exercise of power, London University press, New York, 1966.

8. http://www2.bc.edu/~hafner/mcnamara_rev.html.


1. Dermot Lucey, Modern Europe and the wider World, Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2004.p352.




1. Dermot Lucey, Modern Europe and the wider World, Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2004.

2. Robert A. Divine, Exploring the Johnson Years, University of Texas Press, 1981

3. Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant, Oxford University Press 1998.

4. R Evans, R Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson the exercise of power, London University press, New York, 1966.

5. David Halberstam, The Kennedy presidential press conferances, London, Heyden & son Ltd, 1978.


6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InM-E64AUOc&feature=related. An interview on international affairs, by Harry Kreisler, at the University of Berkly, California. 15/4/1996.Accesesed at 2:56 on the 19/2/09

7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-6C922KaI0&feature=related., Interview with Robert McNamara, by Charlie Rose. Accessed at 3:45 on the 21/2/09.


Web Sites;

8.  http://www2.bc.edu/~hafner/mcnamara_rev.html. A review of Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, written by Donald L. Hafner, Professor of Political Science Department at Boston College. 1995.

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