President Johnson Takes Over and Expands the War

Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, did not think that South Vietnam was worth fighting for. He campaigned for the presidency in 1964 by promising that he would not escalate the war. Ironically, Johnson allowed himself to be convinced that his personal interests (his Great Society domestic program) and the country’s security interests (the Domino Theory) were served by continued and eventually escalated involvement in Vietnam. (Tuchman, pp. 316-317; Reader’s Digest, p. 458; Hakim, pp. 345-348; TFC, Vol. 7, p. 223.)

In August 1964, the U.S. Navy reported North Vietnamese attacks on American ships located at the Gulf of Tonkin off of central Vietnam. Although the accuracy of these reports was later questioned, this led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the President open-ended authorization to use all necessary force to protect American security. President Johnson used the Resolution to increase the draft and to order U.S. combat forces on the ground for the first time.

In February 1965, the draft quota had been 3,000 a month, but by October of the same year it increased to 33,000 a month. In 1966, monthly draft calls approached 50,000. (Reader’s Digest, p. 458; TFC, Vol. 7, p. 212.) In February 1965, just three weeks after he was inaugurated, having been elected on a promise not to increase the war, Johnson authorized the bombing of North Vietnam. (Franklin, p. 71.) Johnson also ordered 210,000 troops to be deployed to Vietnam, and on March 6, 1965, the first American troops, Marines, landed on the beaches near Danang. (TFC, Id.) The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam reached 470,000 in April 1967 and later exceeded 549,000. (Tuchman, p. 339; Anderson p. 136.)

In 1965, the American public generally supported LBJ’s Vietnam policies. In the fall of 1965, two-thirds of those polled favored the handling of the conflict. Throughout 1966, most Americans were hostile to dissenters. But, popular support for the war declined from 72 percent in July 1967 to 58 percent in October as the number of troops sent to Vietnam, and the draft calls and fatalities, continued to rise. Nevertheless, in that year, Johnson decided to expand troop strength in Vietnam to 525,000. Not until 1971 did public opinion shift so that a majority of the American people favored withdrawal from Vietnam. (Anderson, pp. 136, 143, 147, 151, 163.)