Sunday, April 01, 2007

Prelude to the Tonkin Gulf (part 1 of 2)

(I've got a week to turn these next two posts into a thoughtful twenty page paper. Any editorial suggestions are appreciated.)

In early 1964 President Lyndon Johnson was under pressure from two separate, but not unrelated, fronts. The Republican Party presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was accusing him of appeasing Communists. A clip from the film The Fog Of War shows Goldwater campaigning. In his speech he accuses the Johnson of either not realizing or not behaving as though the United States was fighting a war for its survival.

In his autobiography, The Vantage Point, Johnson recalled that Goldwater’s belligerent rhetoric isolated him from mainstream voters. He wrote that his strategy was to let Goldwater dig his own hole while holding the line on Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Indeed, there was never much doubt that Johnson would win the election. But while he presents this in his memoir almost as an aside, he did obsess over the election. He wanted to win by the “largest landslide in history,” rebuking any notion that he became president by accident and winning a mandate for his Great Society programs. Even if he downplayed it later, he began 1964 knowing he needed to answer Goldwater’s criticisms.

The other problem for Johnson was Vietnam. He had inherited, and had pledged to see through, President Kennedy’s commitment to keeping the new South Vietnam from becoming a Communist nation. At the time Americans were officially operating in Vietnam in an advisory capacity. By March of 1964, though, it did not look promising for the anti-Communist forces. The South Vietnamese military had a high desertion rate, and the civilian population was growing either apathetic about the communists or hostile to the continuing war.

Vietnam was also not the sort of crisis Johnson was best suited for dealing with. He had an unparalleled mastery of domestic policy making (not only in terms of understanding legislative procedures, but in bending opponents to his will), but not a corresponding authority of foreign policy. He also was concerned about contrasting poorly with Kennedy on a world stage; he was frequently concerned that others would see him as less than presidential, as a Texas-bred hick. Still, though, there’s no reason to think that he would have done anything different than Kennedy with regards to Vietnam had be been elected president in 1960, and not assumed the office in November 1963.

Johnson had doubts about the America prospects in Vietnam. American policy sought an independent, non communist-state. When he became president, Johnson did not think that goal was worth an open-ended commitment of American forces. He did not want to be the US President who lost Southeast Asia to communism, but also thought South Vietnam was too young a country to establish a lasting internal peace or be shaped in the image of the US. He felt like the Vietnamese, Thai and other nations of Asia had a better idea of what kind of society they wanted to become, and we should allow that they might not be thriving 20th century democracies right away. Johnson was not willing to send troops during an election year, nor did he sign off on a plan from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to commence air strikes against the North. He did see some value, perhaps even a solution to his problems, in authorizing covert action.

(Part Two is here)

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