The Vietnam War and Its Impact - Americanizing the war

Rolling Thunder, the commitment of marines in March 1965, and the deployment of other troops all before June 1965 provided ample evidence that the war was already on the road to being Americanized. Throughout June and July of 1965, the question of "Americanizing" the war was at the center of all foreign policy discussions. Undersecretary of State George Ball tried to warn Johnson of the dangers ahead. In an 18 June memo titled "Keeping the Power of Decision in the South Vietnam Crisis," Ball argued that the United States was on the threshold of a new war:

In raising our commitment from 50,000 to 100,000 or more men and deploying most of the increment in combat roles we were beginning a new war—the United States directly against the VC. The president's most difficult continuing problem in South Vietnam is to prevent "things" from getting into the saddle—or, in other words, to keep control of policy and prevent the momentum of events from taking command.

The president needed to understand the effect of losing control:

Perhaps the large-scale introduction of U.S. forces with their concentrated firepower will force Hanoi and the VC to the decision we are seeking. On the other hand, we may not be able to fight the war successfully enough—even with 500,000 Americans in South Vietnam we must have more evidence than we now have that our troops will not bog down in the jungles and rice paddies—while we slowly blow the country to pieces.

Ball tried to review the French experience for Johnson, reminding the president that

the French fought a war in Vietnam, and were finally defeated—after seven years of bloody struggle and when they still had 250,000 combat-hardened veterans in the field, supported by an army of 205,000 South Vietnamese. To be sure, the French were fighting a colonial war while we are fighting to stop aggression. But when we have put enough Americans on the ground in South Vietnam to give the appearance of a white man's war, the distinction as to our ultimate purpose will have less and less practical effect.

Ball's arguments had little influence on policymakers. On 26 June, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara circulated his "Program of Expanded Military and Political Moves with Respect to Vietnam." McNamara argued that North Vietnam was clearly winning the war and "the tide almost certainly cannot begin to turn in less than a few months and may not for a year or more; the war is one of attrition and will be a long one." McNamara defined winning as "to create conditions for a favorable settlement by demonstrating to the VC/DRV that the odds are against their winning. Under present conditions, however, the chances of achieving this objective are small—and the VC are winning now—largely because the ratio of guerrilla to antiguerrilla forces is unfavorable to the government." The secretary recommended that ground strength be increased to whatever force levels were necessary to show the VC that they "cannot win."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) urged Johnson to call up the Reserves and the National Guard and seek public support on national security grounds. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy proposed that the president go before a joint session of Congress or make a statement in the form of a fireside address. But Johnson decided that there would be no public announcement of a change in policy. Instead, he simply called a midday press conference for 9 July. The content as well as the forum of Johnson's presentation downplayed its significance. The expected call-up of the Reserves and request for new funds were absent. In announcing a troop increase, Johnson did not fully reveal the levels he had now authorized: 175,000 to 200,000. Instead, he noted only the immediate force increment of fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000. Nor did he tell the U.S. people that just a few days earlier, Clark Clifford had privately warned against any substantial buildup of U.S. ground troops. "This could be a quagmire," the president's trusted friend had warned. "It could turn into an open-ended commitment on our part that would take more and more ground troops, without a realistic hope of ultimate victory." Instead, Johnson chose to walk a thin line of credibility. "Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested," Johnson observed at his afternoon press conference. His seemingly passing remark correctly indicated that the U.S. commitment had become open-ended: "I have asked the Commanding General, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs."

Having made the fateful decision, Johnson traveled in February 1966 to Honolulu for a firsthand assessment of the war's progress and to secure additional commitments for political reform from South Vietnam. Johnson utilized his favorite exhortation, telling Westmoreland to "nail the coonskin to the wall" by reaching the crossover point in the war of attrition by December 1966. This so-called light at the end of the tunnel was to be achieved primarily by inflicting losses on enemy forces. Johnson and his advisers expected the enemy to seek negotiations when this ever-elusive crossover point was reached. A fixation on statistics led to use of such terms as "kill ratios," "body counts," "weapons-loss ratios," "died of wounds," and "population-control data" to show that progress was being made. The computers could always demonstrate at least the end of the tunnel; statistically, the United States was always winning the war. In the words of Senator J. William Fulbright, the Great Society had become the "sick society." Disenchantment with the war manifested itself in the growing anti-war movement that began organizing massive protests and moratoriums against U.S. policy.

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