In this video segment adapted from American Experience, view archival photos, newsreel footage, and interviews to examine the decision-making process that led Lyndon Johnson to order increased United States military involvement in the Vietnam War. With military and political advisers recommending massive American troop involvement over a number of years, and only one adviser urging complete withdrawal, Johnson chose to continue the commitments made by past presidents. This decision reflected Johnson's conviction that history taught the United States never to give in to aggressors.
After France was defeated at the battle of Dienbienphu in 1954, it negotiated a settlement in Geneva with the Vietminh, the Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh who resisted France's return to Vietnam after Japan's defeat in World War II. The treaty provisionally divided the country into two parts—a Communist North controlled by the Vietminh and a non-Communist South—until elections were held in 1956.
Neither the United States nor the newly created South Vietnamese government, led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, accepted this result. President Eisenhower supported South Vietnam's refusal to hold the elections on the grounds that no fair election could be held under a Communist government. South Vietnam's subsequent refusal to negotiate with the North led to a civil war there between supporters of President Diem and Ho Chi Minh, beginning at the end of the 1950s. This violence, and the assassination of Diem in 1963, suggested to U.S. analysts that the North would prevail throughout all of Vietnam unless the United States intervened.
President Johnson felt both that World War II and its aftermath had taught us to never give in to tyrants, and that Communist governments must always be opposed. At the same time, he could not see the value of putting American lives at risk, confiding to his friend Senator Richard Russell that his conscience argued against sending a sergeant and father of six whom he knew into combat. Johnson's military advisers predicted that a commitment of at least five years and 500,000 troops would be required, and they were unable to provide a strategy to allow America to both withdraw and still save face, particularly in light of commitments from prior U.S. presidents.
The only dissenter was Undersecretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs George Ball, who felt that the proper course was withdrawal, even if it meant the fall of the South Vietnamese government. Yet Johnson feared being seen as appeasing the North Vietnamese, as Britain had appeased Nazi Germany at Munich in 1938. He also erroneously assumed that North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union formed a monolithic Communist force. With assurance from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that victory could be won in two and a half years, Johnson chose to expand the war, a decision that led to 58,000 U.S. fatalities and added significantly to the total fatalities of over two million Vietnamese between 1961 and the war's conclusion in 1975.
For a reference collection of archival videos and interviews about the Vietnam War, see the Vietnam Collection in WGBH's Open Vault.
MAN: Stand by to release.Ready, ready, now.
NARRATOR: All through early 1965, bombs continued to fall on North Vietnam. Johnson thought he could force Ho Chi Minh to bargain. "I saw our bombs as political resources for negotiating peace," he said. But Ho couldn't be pushed. Their positions were irreconcilable. Ho Chi Minh and the Communists had no intention whatsoever of ever allowing a peace treaty to separate their country. They could certainly wait out Lyndon Johnson. Ho Chi Minh was a revolutionary. Johnson didn't understand that. He didn't understand revolutionaries. He didn't understand the history of the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese culture.
NARRATOR: On March 15,Johnson met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Harold K. Johnson made a prediction that sent a shockwave through the room."To win the war," he said, "it could take five years and 500,000 men. "Now Johnson knew the stakes. To keep South Vietnam from falling, he might have to commit hundreds of thousand of American boys to a full-scale land war in Asia. He was face-to-face with the decision he had been dreading. "If I don't go in now and they show later I should have gone, "then they'll be all over me in Congress. "They won't be talking about my civil rights bill or education. No, sir." Every Tuesday, Johnson had lunch with his principal advisers. "If you can show me any reasonable out, I'll grab it," he told them, "but to give in would be a sign of weakness." Of all his advisers, only one was ready to challenge the conventional wisdom that Johnson had no choice but to send in troops:Under Secretary of State George Ball.
BALL: I thought that the balloon was going up much too fast, so I spent a few nights preparing a memorandum, which was 75 pages or so, which is now in the public domain, in which I challenged every assumption of our war in Vietnam and came to the conclusion that it wasn't a war we could win.
BERMAN: George Ball is telling Johnson, "Look, you're going to lose in Vietnam. You're going to end up with a protracted war that will divide America.At the end of three or four or five years, you're going to be in Vietnam with 500,000 American troops and you're not going to accomplish your political objective." And it must be shocking to him; I mean, what if George Ball's right? Now, from his military advisers he hears the same thing: it's going to be a long, protracted war in the jungles of Vietnam-- four, five years; 500,000 troops, 600,000 troops.This must have been extraordinary pressure on this man at this one period. "What do I do? Is George Ball right?Are the military commanders right?Is this going to be a quagmire?" How would Johnson explain to the American people that the country that John Kennedy had promised to defend, that Dwight Eisenhower had promised to defend, wasn't worth defending any longer? Had the people changed?Had our commitment to freedom changed?Or was it the fact that we couldn't defeat the North Vietnamese?
NARRATOR:Johnson grew more and more grim. "Everything I knew about history," he said,"told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what they did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression." The war was careening out of control.South Vietnam was about to fall. Johnson could hesitate no longer. He would have to decide: escalate or withdraw. At the end of July, he invited his advisers to a remarkable series of meetings that lasted all week.Once again, Ball argued his case-- "We cannot win; this war will be long and protracted." And once again, Ball was shot down. Secretary of Defense McNamara assured the president that, "We could win within two and a half years; there was no risk of a catastrophe." But Ball continued to argue. "Take what precautions we can, Mr. President. Take our losses, negotiate, discuss, knowing full well there will be a probable takeover by the Communists."
WILLIAM P. BUNDY, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: It would have been terribly difficult to do what George Ball urged,which was straight withdrawal. It would have been, I think, very damaging to the country. It would have been very divisive.
NARRATOR: After months of doubt, the president made his decision. He had inherited a limited war;now he chose to expand it.
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