Since I'm going to be posting more about stuff I looked at in the LBJ Presidential Archives, and because I think it's one of the better things I've produced in school, I thought I would also post the current version of the paper I was researching. Unlike that long, unwieldy version from before, this one is more detailed and will be serialized in shorter, easier to follow posts.
The footnotes won't show up, but I have references for everything. The first part (below) gives background on the election of 1964, and sorts of pressures Johnson was feeling. The second part (maybe tomorrow) describes the development of OPLAN 34-A and how it relates to the election politics; the third discusses the practical aspects of the secret 34-A missions. Then there is a section on how those missions precipitated the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The final section discusses points where policy alternatives (because it's a policy school) could have avoided escalating the Vietnam war.
Background: The War and the Election, 1964
When he became president following President Kennedy’s death, Vietnam was a conundrum for Lyndon Johnson. The new government of South Vietnam was fighting the Communist Viet Cong (V.C.), who were supported by the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. Johnson inherited, and pledged to see through, Kennedy’s commitment to the region. American policy sought an independent, non communist-state, though not necessarily an American proxy. The United States was backing the South Vietnamese in their fight against the Viet Cong by “means short of the unqualified use of US combat forces.”
Since 1954 the United States had been invested in the success of South Vietnam in its fight against Communists forces. This commitment made Vietnam a litmus test for American’s ability to “help a nation meet a Communist ‘war of liberation.’” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara enumerated the potential repercussions if the U.S. failed in its mission: If Vietnam went Communist, Laos and Cambodia would likely follow. Burma would acquiesce and remove American and other anti-Communist agents. Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines were also thought to be at-risk if Vietnam fell. This Communist-controlled Southeast Asia would then threaten India, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.
In spite of the stakes, Johnson did not think the American goal was worth an open-ended military commitment. He did not want to be the 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 U.S. He felt like Vietnam Thailand and other nations of Asia had a better idea of what kind of society they wanted to become, and that the U.S. should allow that they might not be thriving 20th century democracies right away. So 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.
The Republican Party, and particularly their general election candidate Barry Goldwater, would not make things easy for Johnson. Goldwater had been giving a series of speeches attacking not just Johnson’s foreign policy with regards to Communism, but also his commitment to protecting the United States. Speaking to his party’s platform committee on July 10, 1964, he charged that the democrats had been fooled into accommodating Communism around the world by the notion that the ideology had softened. “We cannot condone the foreign policy of this administration. Our party will reject unfounded assumptions of Communist change.” Three days later, he said the democrats “quake at the possibility of taking a risk so we can remain free.” In a speech excerpted in the film The Fog of War, he accused Johnson of either not realizing or not behaving as though the United States was fighting a war for its survival.
In his autobiography, Johnson recalled that Goldwater’s belligerent rhetoric, which included implications that he would make the of use nuclear weapons a part of his Communist policy, did not require a retort. “He was clearly isolating himself from the majority of voters.” He wrote that his strategy was to let Goldwater dig his own hole while he held the line on Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
There may not have been much doubt that he would win the election, but the confidence Johnson expressed in his memoir was disingenuous. Robert Dallek wrote that by July 1964 Johnson was nervous about polls showing “discontent” with his Vietnam policy. In a Gallup polls about 38 percent of people thought Johnson was handling the issue “badly.” Another poll, by Lou Harris, indicated that 58 percent of the country had a negative view of the matter. Moreover, even though the poll showed strong support for Johnson generally it showed a narrower margin between the candidates on the question of who was more trusted to deal with the issue.
He was losing ground in Vietnam, too. A pair of memos from late 1963, painted a grim picture. One from Henry Cabot Lodge to Secretary of State Dean Rusk said “in its five weeks of existence, [the South Vietnamese government] has shown itself incapable.” It went on to describe the government as “groping blindly… meanwhile the war and the nation is disintegrating.” Another memo, from CIA Director John McCone, said that statistics provided by South Vietnam during the previous years were “grossly in error.” “Conditions… are more serious now that expected and were probably never as good as reported.”
Two more memos from early in 1964, McNamara’s and one by William Colby, give a sense of what the U.S. was up against if it was going to continuing aiding South Vietnam. Colby reported that the “tide of insurgency” was overwhelming the South Vietnamese. The Viet Cong controlled over 50 percent of many provinces, and in some others they help over 80 percent of the area. This problem was exacerbated by, among other factors, southern militias being disarmed or overrun by the V.C. The militias also had a high rate of desertion.
McNamara reiterated these same points, and also found that a large portion of the population was “showing signs of apathy and indifference.” For the U.S. to make good on its pledge to protect South Vietnam would require more than it was presently giving, though overtly escalating the American role or presence at that point was more than Johnson could do politically.