U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson believed he had no choice but to fight in Vietnam to contain communism. When Johnson assumed office following the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 it soon became clear that he had no intention of withdraw from Vietnam but, rather, to increase its support for the new Saigon government. The Vietnam Workers Party(VWP) leadership concluded that only armed struggle would lead to success and called for an escalation of the war. The critical issues then became the reactions of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hanoi clearly hoped that the United States would opt for a compromise solution, as it had in Korea and Laos, and the party leaders believed that a quick and forceful escalation of the war would induce it to do so. Hanoi's decision to escalate the struggle was made in spite of the risk of damage to its relations with Moscow, which opposed the decision. The new policy also became an issue in the developing rift between Beijing and Moscow because China expressed its full support for the Vietnamese war of national liberation. As a result, Moscow's aid began to decrease as Beijing's grew. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the mid 1960s, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and His Defense Secretary Robert McNamara felt that if the United States didn't move into South Vietnam soon it was going to fall to the Communists. They based this on the fact the South Vietnamese Army was weak and getting weaker and the North-Vietnam-supported guerrillas in South Vietnam were active only a few miles away from Saigon and getting stronger.

One reason Johnson decided to send troops to Vietnam was to deflect accusations that he and the Democrats were soft on Communism, something that had haunted Democratic presidents since Truman. Johnson felt Vietnam presented the same challenge as Cuba. William J. Dobson wrote in the Washington Post, Lyndon Johnson wanted a resolution to scale up in Vietnam — and of course the master of the Senate knew he had the votes — but he inadvertently created his own dangerous precedent: Loose, hasty, open-ended resolutions that support American presidents in committing troops abroad — and are preferably crafted in the White House — have become the standard. [Source: William J. Dobson, Washington Post, September 13, 2013]

On May 4, 1964, the United States imposed a trade embargo on North Vietnam in response to attacks in South Vietnam allegedly orchestrated by the North Vietnamese.

The turning point for U.S. involvement in Vietnam strategy came with the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident in which U.S. destroyers—the Maddox and the Turner Joy—claimed they came under ‘unprovoked’ attack while sailing off the North Vietnamese coast.

Tonkin Gulf Incident

The Tonkin Gulf Incident—which gave Johnson an excuse to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and escalate the war in Vietnam—was actually two incidents involving North Vietnamese patrol boats and U.S. destroyers: the first occurred on Aug 2, 1964 and the second purportedly took place two days later on August 4.

On August 2 1964, the American destroyer “Maddox” was patrolling the waters of the gulf, 30 miles off the North Vietnamese coast, monitoring North Vietnamese communications, when it was surrounded by North Vietnamese junks. Based on the communications the Maddox picked up, the ship's commander thought the junks were preparing to attack, and ordered his crew to fire if the junks came within 10,000 yards. When the junks did approach that close, the “Maddox” fired, and the "junks began pursing it, firing torpedoes." [Source: Tim Larimer, New York Times, November 10, 1995].

August 4, 1964 was a stormy night and the Maddox reported it was under attack again, but there were no actual sighting of a boat, and the ship's radar wasn't functioning properly because of the weather. Although McNamara told a Senate committee in 1964 that he had "unimpeachable" proof that the August 4th attack took place, he said in 1995 that he felt "99 and 99-100ths percent" sure it didn't occur. It is not clear whether the junks acted on their own or whether they received orders from superiors. In 1995, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap said "local coast guard units launched the attack" on August 2 and "there was absolutely nothing" on Aug 4.

In 2005, Reuters reported: "U.S. intelligence officials in 1964 skewed evidence of an attack on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin to support claims of communist aggression. An article by a National Security Agency historian, released by the NSA along with intelligence reports and other related documents, said officials at the spy agency withheld nearly 90 percent of intelligence on the Aug. 4, 1964, incident to back allegations of a North Vietnamese attack. "It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened. It is that no attack happened that night," NSA historian Robert Hanyok wrote. [Source: Reuters, December 2, 2005]

"Officials at NSA, the spy agency that monitors transmission signals, provided the Johnson administration only with signals intelligence that supported claims of an attack. The reports were also flawed by severe analytic errors and contained unexplained translation changes, the article said. In fact, Johnson's main proof that the Aug. 4 attack occurred proved to be a "conjunction of two unrelated messages into one translation," the article stated. "Information was presented in such a manner as to preclude responsible decisionmakers in the Johnson administration from having the complete and objective narrative," said the article, which was among hundreds of documents on the Gulf of Tonkin released by the NSA. "The conclusion that would have been drawn from a review of all ... evidence would have been that the North Vietnamese not only did not attack, but were uncertain as to the location of the (U.S.) ships."

Historians have long suspected that government reports of the 1964 attack were fabricated. Robert McNamara, Johnson's defense secretary, said during a visit to Vietnam a decade ago that he had come to believe the attack did not occur. Hanyok's article, which appeared in a classified NSA publication in 2001, was based on a review of newly discovered signals intelligence documents from 41 years ago. The New York Times reported Friday that some intelligence officials believe the NSA delayed the release of the Hanyok article to avoid comparisons between skewed Vietnam intelligence and flawed prewar intelligence on Iraq. But NSA spokesman Don Weber said there was no delay. The agency only waited so it could also make public the raw material Hanyok used in composing his history, he said.

In his 1995 book "In Retrospect," Robert McNamara claimed there was no merit to the assertion that the Johnson administration "deliberately provoked the attacks in order to justify an escalation of the war" and to hoodwink Congress. According to some reports the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had been drafted before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident took place.

Tonkin Gulf Resolution

After the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, President Johnson went on television and said, "Aggression by terror against the peaceful villages of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America. Yet our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting. We Americans know—although others appear to forget—the risk of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war." Johnson also ordered air strikes by 64 U.S. Navy planes against an oil depot and four North Vietnamese patrol boat bases. Two planes were shot down. One of the pilots, Evert Alvarez, was captured and would remain a prisoner of war for eight years.

A few days after the the Tonkin Gulf Incident the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the president the power to "take all necessary measures" to "repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" and authorized the use air strikes against North Vietnam.

The Vietnam War was never a declared war. President Lyndon Johnson escalated the conflict from an American-assisted South Vietnamese war to an South-Vietnamese-assisted American war on the August 7, 1964 with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Rammed through the House with a 416-0 vote and the Senate with a 88-2 vote, after and eight hour debate and 40 minute deliberation, the resolution gave the American president emergency power to send troops to Vietnam without having Congress formerly declare war.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave Johnson the authority he needed to do what he pleased in Vietnam. Until its repeal in 1970 and gave President Johnson carte blanche for a huge U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia that led to the deaths of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and over 2 million Vietnamese civilians. The resolution was passed three months before a presidential election in which Johnson faced Barry Goldwater, who accused Johnson and the Democrats of being soft on Communism.

Terrorist Acts in the Mid-1960s in South Vietnam

On October 15, 1964, Nguyen Van Troi was tied to a stake and executed by a firing squad after he was caught for trying to kill McNamara by placing a bomb under a bridge that the Defense secretary's limousine was expected to drive over. Honored as a national hero in Vietnam today, his name is found on one of Ho Chi Minh City's main boulevards.

On Christmas Eve, 1964, Viet Cong terrorist drove a jeep with a huge bomb into the courtyard of Saigon's Brink Hotel, a popular watering hole for U.S. army officers. The explosion killed two Americans and wounded 58.

In June, 1965, 44 people were killed, including 12 Americans when a bomb set off by Viet Cong terrorists exploded at the floating My Canh restaurant in Saigon. The purpose of these attacks was to push the United States into withdrawing from South Vietnam. But that didn’t happen. They only gave the United States more reason to take retaliatiry measures such as morning raids on North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

American Combat Troops Arrive in Vietnam

A State Working Group set up by Johnson on November 2, 1964, the day before he won a landslide election victory, concluded: "We cannot guarantee to maintain a non-Communist South Vietnam short of committing ourselves to whatever military action would be required to defeat North Vietnam and probably Communist China militarily. Such a commitment...could not be confined to air and naval action but would almost inevitable involve a Korean-scale ground action and possible even the use of nuclear weapons."

In a January 27, 1965 memo signed by McNamara, Johnson was told: "We see two alternatives. The first is to use military force in the Far East and to force change in Communist policy. The second is to deploy all our resources along a track of negotiation...[We] tend to tend to favor the first course."

On March 8, 1965, the first authorized U.S. combat troops reached Vietnam: two battalions of Marines with a total of 3,500 men came ashore in Danang. Between January 28 and July 28, 1965, bombing raids were conducted over North Vietnam, and the of military personnel in Vietnam increased from 23,000 to 175,000, with another 100,000 arriving in 1966. By 1966, the war was viewed as "open-ended commitment."

Justification for the Vietnam War

In a speech in April 1965, Johnson said, "Vietnam is far away...We have no territory there, nor do we seek any. The war is dirty and brutal and difficult...We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure...This kind of world will never be built by bombs or bullets. yet the infirmities of men are such that force must often precede reason, and the waste of war, the works of peace."

According to McNamara, Johnson consulted Eisenhower, who advised the president that if it was necessary to send eight U.S. divisions to Vietnam, "so be it." If China or the Soviet Union considered intervening on the side of the North Vietnamese, "we should pass the word back to them to take care lest dire results [i.e. nuclear strikes] occur to them."

Johnson initially held back on further exacaltion of the war more out of out fear of angering China or the Soviet Union than out of concern over casualties or pressure from anti-war demonstrators. His proposal for "unconditional discussions" with the North Vietnamese was ignored. The North Vietnamese insisted that the United States withdraw and said the United Nations had no mandate to intevene because the conflict was an internal Vietnamese matter.

In a letter to National Geographic in the 2000s one Vietnam veteran wrote: "I, and other veterans I knew, did not go to South Vietnam to help subjugate South Vietnamese people. We went there to try to help protect them from being oppressed by North Vietnam."

Robert K. Brigham wrote in the Washington Post, "Like the three administrations before it, the Johnson administration had long feared the consequences of withdrawing from Vietnam, including a South Vietnamese blood bath and falling dominoes in the rest of Southeast Asia. But Johnson officials also insisted that the United States had to remain in Vietnam to live up to its obligations under existing treaties, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk believed that Washington would lose international credibility if it pulled out. There was also a strong conviction that our Cold War enemies would smell weakness in the capitalist camp if the United States were to cut and run. But in 1967, CIA Director Richard Helms put his best people to work studying the potential impact of a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam on unfavorable terms. The resulting secret report concluded that the United States could leave without suffering a significant loss in security, global prestige or power. And yet it was six more years before Washington acted on the Helms report.[Source: Robert K. Brigham, Washington Post, January 14, 2007]

Landing at Danang

On 8 March 1965, two battalions of U.S. Marines waded ashore on the beaches at Danang. Those 3,500 soldiers were the first combat troops the United States had dispatched to South Vietnam to support the Saigon government in its effort to defeat an increasingly lethal Communist insurgency. These troops arrived after the February 1965 attack at Pleiku (See Famous Battles), where the North Vietnamese attacked a U.S. military instillation, killing eight and wounding more than a 100. A few days after that at Qui Nhon 23 Americans were killed and 21 were wounded. In response U.S. President Lyndon Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder and ordered bombing of North Vietnamese barracks and staging areas.

Their mission was to protect an air base the Americans were using for a series of bombing raids they had recently conducted on North Vietnam, which had been supplying the insurgents with ever larger amounts of military aid. The raids were the first in what would become a three-year program of sustained bombing targeting sites north of the seventeenth parallel; the troops were the first in what would become a three-year escalation of U.S. military personnel fighting a counterinsurgency below the seventeenth parallel. Together, they Americanized a war the Vietnamese had been fighting for a generation. "I guess we’ve got no choice, but it scares the death out of me. I think everybody’s going to think, ‘we’re landing the Marines, we’re off to battle," U.S. President Johnson said two days before the landing. [Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, David Coleman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs; Marc Selverstone, Assistant Director for Presidential Studies and Associate Professor with the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs]

First ashore was the Battalion Landing Team 3/9, which arrived on the beach at 8:15 a.m. Wearing full battle gear and carrying M-14s, the Marines were met by sightseers, South Vietnamese officers, Vietnamese girls with leis, and four American soldiers with a large sign stating: "Welcome, Gallant Marines." Gen. William Westmoreland, senior U.S. military commander in Saigon, was reportedly "appalled" at the spectacle because he had hoped that the Marines could land without any fanfare. Within two hours, Battalion Landing Team 1/3 began landing at Da Nang air base. [Source:]

The 3,500 Marines were deployed to secure the U.S. airbase, freeing South Vietnamese troops up for combat. On March 1, Ambassador Maxwell Taylor had informed South Vietnamese Premier Phan Huy Quat that the United States was preparing to send the Marines to Vietnam. Three days later, a formal request was submitted by the U.S. Embassy, asking the South Vietnamese government to "invite" the United States to send the Marines. Premier Quat, a mere figurehead, had to obtain approval from the real power, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, chief of the Armed Forces Council. Thieu approved, but, like Westmoreland, asked that the Marines be "brought ashore in the most inconspicuous way feasible." These wishes were ignored and the Marines were given a hearty, conspicuous welcome when they arrived.

Decision-Making and Logistics Behind Danang

According to eHistory archive: "By the end of February, President Johnson had made the decision to commit a two-battalion Marine expeditionary brigade to Da Nang with the mission of protecting the base from enemy incursion. General Karch and members of his staff once more visited General Westmoreland on 25 February to discuss plans for a Marine landing at Da Nang. The MEB commander left Saigon two days later for Da Nang where he coordinated his plans with the South Vietnamese I Corps Commander, Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, the virtual warlord of South Vietnam's five northern provinces. Karch later recalled: On our way back into Thi's headquarters a jeep came out with a New York Times reporter in it. Westmoreland's J-3 [BGen William E. DePuy, USA] turned to me and said, "That is bad news." When he got in he had a phone call from Saigon saying, "Get Karch and his staff out of the country as quickly as possible.'' [Source:eHistory archive, OSU Department of History]

General Karch and his staff immediately departed Da Nang for Subic Bay and then Okinawa. On 27 February (26 February, Washington time), the Department of State cabled Ambassador Taylor that the Marines were to be landed and that he was to secure approval from the Government of Vietnam for this eventuality. On the afternoon of the 28th, Ambassador Taylor met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Huy Quat to discuss with him the proposed American landing. The following day, l March, the Ambassador met with the Minister of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, General Nguyen Van Thieu and the Vietnamese Chairman of the Joint General Staff, General Tran Van Minh ("Little Minh") to discuss the details of the deployment of the 9th MEB. The two Vietnamese officers posed no objections to the proposed commitment of American combat troops. They did, however, express concern about the reaction of the Vietnamese population and requested that the American forces be brought into Da Nang "in the most inconspicuous way feasible."

Evidently this "inconspicuous way" statement had some effect on U.S. officials in Washington. On 3 March, Ambassador Taylor received a message from Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton stating that it was desirable to deploy the Army's 173d Airborne Brigade by air from Okinawa instead of the 9th MEB.17 Some Washington planners obviously believed that the light infantry of an airborne brigade landing at Da Nang airfield would be a "quieter arrival" than the more formidable appearance of a Marine brigade with its tanks, amphibian tractors, and other heavy weapons arriving in an armada of amphibious ships. General Westmoreland, supported by the American Ambassador, immediately objected to the proposed change. Both considered that the Marines were more self-sustaining. Admiral Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, cabled the JCS:

Since the origination of OPLAN 32 in 1959, the Marines have been scheduled for deployment to Da Nang . . . contingency plans and a myriad of supporting plans at lower echelons reflect this same deployment. As a result, there has been extensive planning, reconnaissance, and logistics preparation over the years. The CG, 9th MEB is presently in Da Nang finalizing the details for landing the MEB forces in such a way as to cause minimum impact on the civilian populace ... I recommend that the MEB be landed at Da Nang as previously planned. The objections to the MEB landing were overruled and on 7 March 1965 (6 March 1965, Washington time) the JCS sent the long-awaited signal to land the 9th MEB at once with two of its three BLTs.

The days before the landing were a hectic period for General Karch and the Marines of the brigade. General Karch and his staff had completed 9th MEB Operational Plan 37D-65 for the amphibious landing of a BLT and the airlift of another battalion from Okinawa to Da Nang on 26 February. The MEB staff then conducted a command post exercise (CPX) on Okinawa. According to Major Ruel T. Scyphers, the MEB G-l, the operations order for the deployment of the MEB, ' 'was put together following a non-stop 48 hour CPX ... we got word about 2000 [27 February] and armed with a staff manual and some borrowed clerks we put together an order and had it boxed about 0300."

Escalation of the Vietnam War After 1965 and Failed Attempts at Negotiations

In June 1965 it was acknowledged that American troops were engaging in combat in Indochina. In the first six months of 1965 the number of troops doubled from about 25,000 to 50,000. They were joined by forces from South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. With the arrival of more troops there was more fighting not less.

Military escalation was President Johnson’s answer to unrelenting attacks by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese in an uncontrollable civil war — an increase from 16,800 advisers in 1963 to 545,000 combat troops by 1968.

At the end of 1965, there were 184,300 U.S. military people in Vietnam and 636 dead American soldiers. At the end of 1966, there were 385,300 U.S. military people in Vietnam and 6,644 dead American soldiers. At the end of 1967, there were 485,600 U.S. military people in Vietnam and 16,021 dead American soldiers. At its peak in April 1969, there were American 554,000 troops stationed in Vietnam.

In 1965, Johnson boasted, "Old Ho can't turn me down." In 1967, Ho Chi Minh told Johnson, "We will never negotiate." Part of the reason for his stubbornness was his understanding that any political settlement of the conflict would involve a permanent partition of Vietnam, and his dream was a independent, unified Vietnam. According to McNamara, the U.S. tried unsuccessfully in seven attempts to initiate negotiations with Hanoi between mid-1965 and 1968. Three efforts were made in 1967, through Canada, Poland, and a meeting between the British and Soviet foreign ministers. Another attempt was made in Paris by enlisting the help of a godparent of Ho Chi Minh. [Source: Washington Post]

Impact of the Vietnam War on South Vietnamese Society

As the war in the South intensified, it created unprecedented social disruption in both urban and rural life. Countless civilians were forced to abandon their ancestral lands and sever their network of family and communal ties to flee areas controlled by the Viet Cong or exposed to government operations against the communists. By the early 1970s, as many as 12 million persons, or 63 percent of the entire southern population, were estimated to have been displaced; some were relocated to government-protected rural hamlets while others crowded into already congested urban centers. Few villages, however remote, were left untouched by the war. The urban-rural boundary, once sharply defined, seemed to disappear as throngs of uprooted refugees moved to the cities. Traditional social structures broke down, leaving the society listless and bereft of a cohesive force other than the common instinct for survival. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The disruption imposed by the war, however, did not alter conventional socioeconomic class identifiers. In the urban areas, the small upper class elite continued to be limited to highranking military officers, government officials, people in the professions, absentee landlords, intellectuals, and Catholic and Buddhist religious leaders. The elite retained a strong personal interest in France and French culture; many had been educated in France and many had sons or daughters residing there. In addition to wealth, Western education--particularly French education--was valued highly, and French and English were widely spoken. *

Village society, which embraced 80 percent of the population, was composed mostly of farmers, who were ranked in three socioeconomic groups. The elite were the wealthiest landowners. If they farmed, the work was done by hired laborers who planted, irrigated, and harvested under the owner's supervision. In the off-season, landowners engaged in moneylending, rice trading, or rice milling. Usually the well-to-do owners were active in village affairs as members of the village councils. After the mid-1960s, however, interest in seeking such positions waned as village leaders increasingly were targeted by Viet Cong insurgents. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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