Johnson Administration’s Escalation Of The Vietnam War & Domestic Politics


This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my CLUSTER 60 course, which earned a grade of A.

“The man who adapts his course of action to the nature of the times will succeed, and likewise, the man who sets his course of action out of tune with the times will come to grief.” Such was the timeless lesson Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince left in 1513, exactly 450 years before President Johnson was sworn into office. Nevertheless, Johnson and his successors failed to heed this advice as they overvalued public opinion. They did not comprehend that there are severe limitations to public opinion pollings, primarily imperfect information of the nuanced, complex and rapidly shifting nature of the Cold War. While the Administration has direct access to the latest intelligence reports and expert advice, the public are not as readily informed. Hence, this paper contends that by succumbing to the domestic political pressure, the Johnson administration was restricted in its ability to make objective and rational judgements regarding the US’ decisions in the Vietnam War. Domestic politics also did not allow Presidents to reserve their right to change their strategies as new information came to light.

Before citing instances where domestic politics affected Johnson’s foreign policy decisions, it is worth noting his journey into the Oval Office. As Vice President, LBJ inherited the presidency after JFK was assassinated in 1963. He did not contest his predecessor directly and win the presidency in his own right. Given that JFK was famous for being willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to ensure the survival of liberty worldwide, LBJ felt pressured to carry out JFK’s “intended policy”, at least for the remainder of his term. However, little did the public know that despite his sweeping pledge against communism, JFK was seriously considering pulling out of Vietnam, but he was waiting for the right time, i.e. after his 1964 reelection when the issue can “no longer be used against” him.

However, JFK was assassinated and his future foreign policy plans would always remain a debate among scholars. The undeniable fact here is that since JFK kept his intentions to withdraw from Vietnam private to protect his vested political interests, LBJ was compelled to maintain JFK’s apparent stance to remain in Vietnam indefinitely, which extended the Vietnam war by a further 12 years.

Soon after LBJ was sworn in, he began sharing his predecessor’s skepticism about American prospects in Vietnam, He expressed his doubts to National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, in a May phone call: “I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of [Vietnam] once we’re committed…I don’t think that we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere in that area. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.” Due to domestic political concerns, LBJ would continue to struggle with both of these options - withdrawing from or committing to Vietnam - for the remaining years of his presidency.

The primary factor that dissuades the Johnson Administration from withdrawal is the “special burden” that is borne by all Democrats during the Cold War: to demonstrate at all times an unyielding toughness against the Soviets. Well aware of how effectively the Republicans bludgeoned Truman for supposedly “losing China” to communism, LBJ was determined to not go down in history as “The President Who Lost Vietnam.” The latent right-wing McCarthyism also posed an ever-present threat, waiting in the wings to strike at all that Democrats held dear should LBJ ever “lose” the Vietnam War. Moreover, he knew that the conservatives still held the reins of Congress power, and it was necessary to appease them if his Great Society legislation was to be a success. Perhaps, the only reason that pulling out from Vietnam remained a consideration is LBJ’s deep personal doubts that lasting military victory against the Vietcong could be achieved, or that the outcome there really mattered to U.S. security - especially given the increasingly ineffectual Saigon government. LBJ also knew that the American public would, sooner or later, be disillusioned by empty promises that the end of war was in sight.

In 1963, LBJ’s ability to rationally judge the long-term impact of US involvement in Vietnam was severely stifled by his engrossment with his short-term goals—the upcoming 1964 election. He was determined to win the presidency in his own right and he knew that withdrawing from Vietnam was simply not a viable option due to its heavy political costs. In fact, LBJ and his aides saw the political advantage in escalating the Vietnam War. The GOP presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, had spent the entire summer advocating a tougher stance in Vietnam and repeatedly charged the LBJ for being “soft on communism”. Here, LBJ realized that he had “The Incumbency Advantage” . If he made an aggressive move that showed his administration’s unwavering commitment to Vietnam, he could potentially cripple the foundation of Goldwater’s entire campaign and secure major support.

In August 1964, an opportunity presented itself. When US destroyers were allegedly attacked twice by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson authorized retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese bases. To further indicate that he was determined to protect the US against its adversaries, LBJ pushed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress, essentially granting himself limitless powers to prosecute the war in Vietnam. Americans applauded their President for his decisiveness in handling the crisis, and he was rewarded with soaring approval ratings. With the election just three months away, LBJ took the chance to reap major political benefits by “wrapping himself in the flag” and silence Republicans who critique him for being “soft on the Soviets”. Besides capitalizing on the “rally ‘round the flag” effect that boosted his short-run popularity (a much sought after goal as the election approached), his decisions also portrayed him as an experienced statesman that can lead America through global crises without involving US troops—appeasing the doves, while demonstrating resolve to expand the US’ role in Vietnam—placating the hawks.

Even after LBJ’s landslide victory in 1964, he continued to view the Vietnam War through the lens of domestic politics and how it would affect his legacy. Given that 1965 brought minimum political risks, and LBJ was enjoying massive support, Vice President Humphrey sent LBJ a memorandum recommending that the US begin planning an exit strategy in Vietnam and consider the multiple warnings given by seasoned observers inside and outside of Washington. Among them, Senator Mansfield argued that the cost of American lives and resources necessary to win over Vietnam was not justifiable and could potentially harm LBJ’s political interest. Other Western leaders expressed doubts that communism in Vietnam inevitably meant the same for neighboring states. Unfortunately for LBJ, successive administrations had been selling the Domino Theory for almost a decade to the American people, and he knew that backing out of Vietnam portends a political lashback that even the level of admiration he currently enjoyed couldn’t support. As he felt his actions were constrained by the past, he couldn’t, as Machiavelli put it, adapt his course of action to the nature of the times.

Eventually, LBJ decided that he would not go all-out to win the Vietnam War, as that presented a double nightmare for him politically. If the public decided that the resources and troops required to win the war weren't worth it, massive anti-war movements would arise and have detrimental effects on his legacy. Even if the public went along with it, asserting maximum force on Vietnam threatens direct confrontation with China and Russia, which leads to a risk of World War III. On the other hand, LBJ refused to replay Vietnam as China, since that would mean that he would be the next Truman. As a last resort, he would play Vietnam as Korea, committing just enough forces to gradually increase pressure, in hopes that he would outlast the other side at the risk of wearing down his own nation.

To LBJ, this strategy of “gradualism” or “quiet escalation”—sufficient involvement to stay in Vietnam and not risk charges of “being soft”, but not so much as to threaten public support at home —offered him the path of least resistance. By staking out the middle ground, he placated both the Right and the Left. On the Right, he reassured them that escalation was in place and South Vietnam would not be lost; on the Left, he utilized the occasional peace overtures to temporarily show that progress was being made and used McCarthyism to explain why a full withdrawal from Vietnam was not possible.

Although this strategy was politically beneficial, LBJ failed to understand that it exposed the US’ Achilles Heel to its rivals. Hanoi knew that it could gear its war strategy towards capitalizing on the US leaders’ desperate desire to appease its people and eventually achieve its ultimate goal of pushing the US out of Vietnam. For one, Hanoi attempted to convince Americans that their vicious Viet Cong would continuously kill Americans, unless the US forces withdrew. They also reinforced the idea that staying in Vietnam was pointless, especially in view of the politico-military weakness of the Saigon government. On the other hand, they attempted to make the exit increasingly appealing by offering settlement packages that, if accepted, would benefit the US, i.e. “saving face”. Both strategies work simultaneously to utilize domestic politics to place pressure on the president to withdraw from Vietnam. Eisenhower referred to Vietnam as the vital piece that would determine whether the world would fall into communism, when in fact, American public opinion was the essential domino that inhibits the ability of the president to make rational decisions to prevent that fall.

By the time the Vietnam War came to an end under Nixon in 1975, more than 7.5 million tons of bomb were dropped, contributing to the death of more than three million Vietnamese. It could be argued that LBJ’s mistake was too little escalation, in fear of political lashback and triggering WW3. However, upon closer scrutiny, those in this camp overlook the fact that the North Vietnamese were fighting for their country, and had a much stronger will than the US, whose leaders themselves had strong doubts of the importance of their involvement, and were only staying in Vietnam to appease the public. This underestimation of North Vietnamese resolve and over-consideration of bureaucratic and electoral politics proved a fatal combination. Rather than engaging in a slow deliberative military process that indefinitely entangled the US in an open-ended war with a fully-committed enemy, LBJ should have considered the situation in Vietnam in a vacuum (without over analyzing how it would impact his political ambitions) and recognized that the strategy of graduated pressure would not be effective in Vietnam. Unfortunately, LBJ chose to direct his focus towards how his decisions played out for him politically, and both the US and Vietnam paid a heavy price for this lack of prudence.