Johnson, Nixon, and Vietnam

Another War


In 1963, Lyndon Johnson became president following the death of John F. Kennedy.

Johnson sought to transform U.S. society using executive power. He launched the most aggressive domestic program since Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society

Johnson declared War on Poverty and pushed several social programs through Congress.

Job Corps helped educate and train inner city youth for gainful employment. Other Great society programs included Medicare and Medicaid to ensure medical care for the elderly and poor.

Head start was a way to help ensure better education for children of low income families. The Great society required large amounts of money and government spending increased. As a result political conservatism began to increase.

Concerns About Vietnam

In the 1800's France established a colony in a small Southeast Asian country called Vietnam. Following WWI, fighting erupted as Vietnamese nationalist wanted independence from France. This concerned President Eisenhower because of the nationalists ties to communism.

The Geneva Accords, drafted in 1954 called for Vietnam to be divided into two nations. The North established a communist backed government under the rule of Ho Chi Minh. The South , supported by the U.S. supported the government of Ngo Kinh Diem. It was not long before war broke out between the two sides.

U.S. Involvement Begins

In the early 1960's, Eisenhower and Kennedy feared the spread of Communism. Both sent military advisers to aid South Vietnam against the North and against communism rebels in the South known as Viet Cong.

Kennedy knew Communism couldn't be defeated in Vietnam as long as Diem’s corrupt government controlled the South. Kennedy was assassinated but people often wonder how he would have dealt with Vietnam. Johnson vowed he would not lose Vietnam to the Communist.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Johnson won the election of 1964 by portraying his opponent Barry Goldwater as a man ready to plunge the U.S. into a nuclear war over Vietnam. Johnson downplayed his intentions to escalate the war in Vietnam. Once elected Johnson was prepared to increase the U.S. military presence.

In August 1964, just two months before his election, a key incident occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson announced to the U.S. that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S. ships. Some didn't believe it but Johnson used the incident to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

This resolution gave the president the power to take all necessary actions to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. It also gave Johnson the power to take military action against Vietnam without having to get approval from Congress.

The U.S. War Effort in Vietnam

By 1965, the Viet Cong were continuing to expand as more and more of the poor in South Vietnam were drawn to their cause. The key to the Viet Cong’s efforts were the supplies that came from North Vietnam. These supplies made their way south by way of a route through Laos and Cambodia called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

To try and cut off this support and in response to an attack that killed 8 U.S. soldiers – Johnson ordered an intense bombing campaign against North Vietnam. This operation was code named Operation Rolling Thunder. The bombings destroyed bridges, supply lines, and villages, sadly these attacks killed many civilians.

The Viet Cong and Guerilla Warfare

The Viet Cong did not fight a traditional war, instead they used guerrilla warfare. This is a strategy where a weaker army launches surprise attacks against a stronger enemy and then runs away. The Viet Cong used guerrilla warfare effectively as they sought to wear down the U.S. will to fight.

TET Offensive

On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a major coordinated attack against the U.S. and South Vietnam forces. The Tet Offensive produced heavy fighting even in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.

They were eventually turned back but it proved that the communist could launch a coordinated attack. It also led many people in the U.S. to question how the government was handling the war and whether U.S. troops should be there at all.

Attitudes about the War At Home

Few events in U.S. History have divided people in the U.S. like the Vietnam War. On one hand many people believed it was important to fight communism at every turn. They believed Vietnam was a noble cause.

On the other hand, a growing number of citizens and activists proclaimed that it was wrong for U.S. soldiers to even be in Vietnam. Some even viewed the U.S. actions as criminal.

Such unrest led to a large anti-war movement, especially on college campuses. President Johnson found himself in the middle and his popularity plummeted as he was blamed for failures in Vietnam. So much so that Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968.

President Richard Nixon and Vietnam

President Richard Nixon took office in January 1969.He vowed to get the U.S. out of Vietnam; He advocated a policy of Vietnamization.

He wanted South Vietnamese soldiers to take to take the place of the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. However that promise was made during his presidential campaign and he was also determined not to let Vietnam fall to communism.

So he continued bombing raids against North Vietnam and the neighboring countries of Cambodia. In April 1970, Nixon went even further and authorized U.S. troops to invade Cambodia for the purpose of destroying Communist training camps.

The End of Involvement

The U.S., South Vietnam, North Vietnam and leaders of the Viet Cong finally met together in Paris, France in January 1973; there they signed the Paris Peace Accords.

The Paris agreement called for: The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam within 60 days. The release of prisoners of war (POWs).All parties involved would end military activities in Laos and Cambodia. The 17th parallel would continue to divide North and South Vietnam.

Fall of Saigon

Following the U.S. withdrawal, however fighting quickly resumed. In the spring of 1975 (after Nixon had left office), North Vietnamese forces finally surrounded the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. On April 29, the U.S. carried out a last minute evacuation of the city.

Military helicopters airlifted more than 1000 U.S. personnel and 6000 South Vietnamese citizens to aircraft carriers offshore. The next day, April 30, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. 21 years after signing the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was firmly in the hands of the Communist.

War Protests Continue


By invading Cambodia, Nixon set off a firestorm of protest at home. At Kent State University, the protest turned violent. When angry students attacked businesses and burned the army ROTC building on campus, the governor of Ohio sent in National Guard Troops. When students started throwing rocks and other objects, the guardsmen retreated to higher ground and opened fire on protesters. When the shooting ended guardsmen had killed four people and left nine seriously injured.


Another factor that caused support for the war to dwindle occurred in 1971. The New York Times began publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers. The papers were a study that documented the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. They revealed the executive branch had lied to Congress concerning the war. Many in the public were shocked and appalled, and support for the war quickly dwindled.

The Media and Vietnam

Much like the civil rights movement, the visual images of Vietnam greatly impacted people’s attitudes about the war. Prior to Vietnam, citizens learned about foreign conflicts through newspapers and news reels. Vietnam was the first conflict in which citizens could witness the death and destruction of war in their own living rooms. Such exposure to the war along with the inability to win, led many to doubt or oppose it
Ms. Stockman 2013