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Section 2: Ireland
Section 3: Europe and the World
Essay Skills

Sample: Case Study 2: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, 1963 – 1968

 

CASE STUDY 2: LYNDON B. JOHNSON AND THE VIETNAM WAR, 1963 – 68


Background

    • During WW2, Communist Ho Chi Minh led a nationalist group named the Vietminh in the fight against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam, and also fought against a French colonial presence
    • After the war, the Vietminh declared the northern half of Vietnam to be a communist state
    • The US, wary of the spread of Communism, promised France to help them regain control of Vietnam, and by 1954 were sending advisors as well as contributing 80% of France’s war costs
    • In 1954, the French were left with no choice but to surrender to the Vietnamese
    • As a result of French withdrawal, Vietnam was divided into the North and South by the Geneva Accords, a division that was intended to be temporary until elections (which never happened) could be called
    • The US, in an attempt to curb the spread of communism in Vietnam, placed nationalist Diem in control of the south
      • Diem was both anti-communist and anti-Buddhist and was not trusted by the Vietnamese people
    • In reaction to Diem’s appointment, the southern Vietminh became the Vietcong, and started working to reunify their country

 

John F. Kennedy and Vietnam

    • John F Kennedy became US President in 1961 and agreed with Domino Theory (the idea that if one country “fell” to Communism, then its neighbours would also “fall”), prompting him to increase the amount of aid being sent to Vietnam
    • The Vietcong continued to gain support in Vietnam, and began using the Ho Chi Minh Trail to smuggle supplies into Vietnam from Laos and Cambodia
    • In 1963, huge protests against Diem spread throughout Vietnam, with some Buddhist monks taking extreme action, such as setting themselves on fire
    • In the US, news of rioting and violent protests brought about significant doubt about Diem’s ability to lead, and as a result he was overthrown and murdered
    • In November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated and his vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson took his place

 

How did Johnson view Vietnam?

    • Johnson had very little experience in foreign affairs when he suddenly became the President, and as a result he decided to maintain Kennedy’s policies and staff
    • The main voices advising Johnson were anti-communist, pro-war Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk
    • Johnson was strongly against the idea of a war in Vietnam, as his original plan was to dedicate money to his domestic ‘Great Society’ policies, but also did not want to be remembered as the President who let Vietnam fall to Communism
    • Johnson was convinced by his advisors to allow for a contained war to bring about peace in Vietnam but once fighting started, it quickly escalated into an all out war

 

Operation Rolling Thunder

    • In August 1964, an American ship sent reports of an attack from North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, after which they retaliated
    • The Gulf of Tonkin Incident prompted Johnson to order bombings on North Vietnamese military bases, launching a war with any official war declaration
    • Johnson’s decision to intervene in Vietnam made him very popular among Americans, with approximately 85% of the population supporting his decision
    • Johnson campaigned in the 1964 presidential election against Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by promising that he did not intend to send US troops to Vietnam
    • Despite his public promises, Johnson was privately planning a massive bombing offensive in Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder
    • Operation Rolling Thunder launched in February 1965 and while it was planned to only last 8 weeks, it continued for 3 years
    • The operation was a failure for the Americans, and the deaths of 500,000 Vietnamese as a result allowed the North Vietnamese to produce stirring propaganda
    • In March 1965, Johnson ordered the first American foot troops into Vietnam and by 1968, the number of Americans in Vietnam had increased to 500,000
    • The war became so demanding that the US government introduced conscription, drafting soldiers of one year tours of service
      • The US army in Vietnam was mostly made up of working class and minority groups such as black and Hispanic men, as wealthy white men were able to avoid the draft by going to university or leaving the US

 

Conditions for troops in Vietnam

    • the Vietcong operated as a guerilla militia, hiding in the jungle and wearing peasant clothing as disguises, meaning that the US troops were never sure where or when they would be attacked, and could never know if Vietnamese people were just innocent civilians or members of the Vietcong
    • Herbicides like Agent Orange were employed to destroyed the dense jungles that concealed the Vietcong, and it was also used alongside napalm and phosphorous to create chemical bombs which would burn the skin of the Vietcong
    • As conditions continued to deteriorate, soldiers began to desert and go AWOL (absent without official leave), 30% began to use hard drugs and 60% began to smoke marijuana to cope
    • Fragging, the practice of using fragmentation grenades to kill officers and generals, also became common, as ordinary soldiers began to see their superiors as a threat to their lives

 

Movements for peace

    • In American universities, anti-war movements began to develop among students
    • Due to a lack of censorship, the media also contributed significantly to the development of the anti-war movement
    • Many journalists joined the anti-war movement to express their anger at having been told that the US were winning the war, when this was very clearly not the case
    • Many famous public figures, including Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Norman Mailer were all involved in the anti-war movement
    • The American public were shocked by the brutal treatment of the Vietnamese by the American troops and the 1968 My Lai Massacre, which saw American troops murder almost 350 innocent Vietnamese men, women and children, was the last straw for many Americans
    • As public opinion turned against the war, both the Americans and the Vietnamese attempted to negotiate a peace treaty, but failed to do so

 

US withdrawal from Vietnam

    • In January 1968, the Vietcong attacked cities in south Vietnam during the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, known as the Tet
    • During the Tet Offensive, the American embassy in the south was attacked, and images of the Vietcong on American property shown in the media showed the American public just how badly the US were losing
    • As a result of the offensive, a group of experienced American state officials known as the Wise Men strongly suggested that Johnson pull out of Vietnam while he had the chance
    • In the 1968 Presidential primaries, Johnson was opposed by Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, both from his own Democratic Party
    • The incumbent president is not usually opposed from within his own party, and as a result, Johnson decided to withdraw from the election race
    • Johnson was then succeeded by Republican Richard Nixon who, in 1969, brought in a policy called ‘Vietnamization’, which aimed to to slowly phase US troops out of Vietnam while building up the military of South Vietnam
    • Throughout his process of Vietnamization, Nixon continued bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and anti-war protests continued across the country
    • In 1970, 2 student protesters and 2 students who were just passing by were shot and killed by police at an anti-war protest in Kent State University, Ohio and 2 student protesters in Jackson State University in Mississippi were also killed during protests
    • Also in 1970, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, which proved that Johnson had been lying to the public about the war
    • In 1972, a bombing campaign called Operation Linebacker was launched by Nixon, which he used to make the North Vietnamese agree to ceasefire
    • In January 1973, the US and Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords
    • By 1975, American troops had withdrawn and the North Vietnamese were allowed to take control of the south
    • As a result, thousands of opponents to communism were executed while another million fled persecution
    • In the years following the war, Laos and Cambodia also adopted communist regimes