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Vietnam: Kennedy, Johhson and Escalation

VietnamThe Kennedy Administration took office in January 1961, shortly after an escalation
in Viet Cong activity to undermine the South Vietnamese government. William Colby, then first secretary in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency, summarized the situation: the fall of 1959 and during 1960 there was a clear increase in communist activity, marked by a series of terrorist events, by the beginnings of infiltration, primarily of southerners back from North Vietnam, not northern forces or anything like that. And [there was] a gradual increase of the insurgency level, which culminated in November or December, 1960 with the announcement of the establishment of the National Liberation Front and what amounted to a declaration of war by the North against the Diem regime or the American Diemists, as they called it, trying to identify their cause with the cause of nationalism, and trying to stress a continuity between that effort and the previous effort against the French. This then led to an increase in our attention to the insurgency problem, primarily reflected in an attempt to increase the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese intelligence services: training programs, assistance to them in their operational activities, liaison with them, some financial assistance to some particular projects, things of that nature, development of the central intelligence organization to centralize the information of the variety of Vietnamese police and military and other intelligence services.....

William E. Colby Oral History Interview, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library

In April 1961, President Ngo Dinh Diem was re-elected as President of South Vietnam, and U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting reported to the State Department that Diem "did not want combat troops in Vietnam". In May, the President declares at a press conference that the use of US forces would be considered if necessary "to help South Vietnam resist communist pressures", and a few days later Vice President Johnson goes to South Vietnam at the President's direction to meet with President Diem.

In September, the Viet Cong stepped up their attacks in South Vietnam, seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh. some 55 miles from Saigon. President Kennedy then asked former General Maxwell D. Taylor, who had retired from the military in 1959 after serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lead a government delegation, including representatives from the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, to visit Southeast Asia ito review the situation and make recommendations for future policy. Following the return of the delegation in November, a report was presented to the President by General Taylor that proposed a "limited partnership" in which the American role would be greatly expanded in support of the South Vietnamese, primarily by placing U.S. advisors at many levels within the South Vietnamese government and military. The report also suggested promoting attempts to reform the government and curtail corruption in the hope of expanding popular support for the Diem government. See Report on General Taylor's Mission to South Vietnam, 3 November 1961, U.S. Department of State.

The President accepted the Taylor recommendations, and the number of U.S. personnel grew steadily during 1962. U.S. advisors in the field rose from 746 in January to over 3,400 by June; at the end of the year, the entire U.S. commitment was 11,000, including 29 U.S. Army Special Forces detachments. Despite the expanded U.S. presence, by 1963 South Vietnam had lost the fertile Mekong Delta to the Vietcong. See Center for Military History, US Army.

In addition to the military setbacks, the Kennedy Administration also became increasingly frustrated with the failure of the Diem government to gain more public support. American concerns escalated when South Vietnamese troops in the City of Hue killed nine Buddhists in June 1963 who had been celebrating Buddha's birthday by carrying the Buddhist flag contrary to edicts proscribing the flying of religious flags. The killings provoked a series of demonstrations and civil disorders in other areas of South Vietnam in which Buddhists protested the alleged repression by the Diem government and its dominance by Catholic officials. In two separate televised interviews in September given a few days apart, the President signalled his displeasure with the South Vietnamese authorities.

MR. CRONKITE. Mr. President, the only hot war we've got running at the moment is of course the one in Viet-Nam, and we have our difficulties here, quite obviously.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY. I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Viet-Nam—against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort, and, in my opinion, in the last 2 months the Government has gotten out of touch with the people.

The repressions against the Buddhists, we felt, were very unwise. Now all we can do is to make it very clear that we don't think this is the way to win. It is my hope that this will become increasingly obvious to the Government, that they will take steps to try to bring back popular support for this very essential struggle.

President Kennedy's Television Interviews on Vietnam
September 2 and 9, 1963
, Professor Vincent Ferraro, Mount Holyoke College

In October, General Taylor prepared a memo for review by the Joint Chiefs to advise the South Vietnamese that American Special Forces units would be withdrawn by the end of 1965. It is unclear, however, whether official action was taken on the memo by the President or whether it was intended to place further pressure for political and military reform on the South Vietnamese government.

On November 1, South Vietnamese Generals led by Duong Van Minh overthrew Diem's regime. The U.S. government had prior knowledge of the coup plans for several weeks, and the Administration apparently gave assurances to the anti-Diem conspirators that there would be no effort to intervene by the Americans in defense of Diem. On the night of the coup, Diem phoned U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., seeking to clarify the official American position, receiving only a noncommital response by Lodge. When Diem refused to resign or place himself in custody of the coup leaders, he and his brother were killed by the conspirators, apparently without the sanction of American officials.

Three weeks after Diem's death, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22. President Johnson retained the key Kennedy appointees who had developed policy for Southeast Asia, and four days after asuming the presidency signed National Security Action Memorandum 273, reaffirming the policy lines of his predecessor to expand assistance to the South Vietnamese, but also restating the objective of a planned phased withdrawal of U.S. forces announced publicly by President Kennedy shortly before his death. In August 1963, at a meeting with Secretary McNamara, Secretary of State Rusk, General Taylor and other key Kennedy advisers, Mr. Johnson also expressed a relatively hard line on the war:

He [Vice President Johnson] stated that from both a practical and a political viewpoint, it would be a disaster to pull out; that we should stop playing cops and robbers and get back to talking straight to the GVN, and that we should once again go about winning the war. He stated that after our communications with them are genuinely reestablished, it may be necessary for someone to talk rough to them-perhaps General Taylor.

See Memorandum for the Record, Subject: Meeting at the State Department, 1100, 31 August 1963; Subject: Vietnam, The Pentagon Papers, Professor Vincent Ferraro, Mount Holyoke College

While debate continues over whether Kennedy, if he had lived, would have escalated the American participation in the war to the level subsequently approved by President Johnson or would have kept to the threatened pullout of American troops by the end of 1965, Secretary of Defense McNamara, in an interview many years after the war's end, stated that he felt there was "continuity" between the Kennedy and Johnson approaches:

In effect there wasn't a change, or at least there wasn't a policy. President Johnson, as Vice President under President Kennedy, had not been deeply involved in Vietnam. He'd visited Vietnam once or twice; he had been in many of the meetings, but he wasn't a major participant in them. But he in effect had inherited a war; he was determined to carry on Kennedy's policies, for a variety of reasons, and in a variety of areas: civil rights, but also in connection with Vietnam. Moreover, he had inherited Kennedy's advisers: the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, Chairman of Joint Chiefs, and so on. So I think it was a continuity, rather than a change, that was represented by President Johnson succeeding President Kennedy.

See Interview with Robert McNamara, The National Security Archive, George Washington University,

Lyndon Johnson with Robert McNamara
President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara in the Oval Office. Image Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library

On New Year's Day of 1964, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., sent a message to President Johnson:

...I agree that there is much to be done here. It is true that a trend has been arrested which, had it continued a few months longer would have led inevitably to disaster. We are also now just beginning to see the full extent of the dry rot and lassitude in the Government of Viet-Nam and the extent to which we were given inaccurate information. It is also true that praise is due to President Kennedy for his decision to make changes in U.S. policy and personnel without which the trend of last summer and autumn would have rocketed on to certain catastrophe. I am free to say this because, although I agreed with them, I did not make the policies; I carried them out....

See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume I
Vietnam, 1964,
U.S. State Department

On January 22, 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was now chaired by General Taylor who had acceded to President Kennedy's request that he return from retirement to active military duty, sent Secretary of Defense McNamara a memorandum recommending in part "...that the United States must be prepared to put aside many of the self-imposed restrictions which now limit our efforts, and to undertake bolder actions which may embody greater risks." The memorandum went on to give an implicit endorsement to the "domino" theory, first outlined by President Eisenhower, that the fall of South Vietnam would be followed by the loss of all of Southeast Asia:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are increasingly mindful that our fortunes in South Vietnam are an accurate barometer of our fortunes in all of Southeast Asia. It is our view that if the US program succeeds in South Vietnam it will go far toward stabilizing the total Southeast Asia situation. Conversely, a loss of South Vietnam to the communists will presage an early erosion of the remainder of our position in that subcontinent.

See Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, from Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Vietnam and Southeast Asia," 22 January 1964, The Pentagon Papers, Professor Vincent Ferraro, Mount Holyoke College

In January, President Johnson also rejected a proposal by French President De Gaulle to support a neutral Indochina including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. De Gaulle's position was based on the assumption that, without US support, South Vietnam would quickly be defeated by the North; De Gaulle contended that keeping the region from falling under Marxist control would be more likely if a unified Vietnam and its neighbors were neutral, relying on their traditional nationalist hostility to China as keeping them from allying with the communist camp. At the end of January, a coup led by General Khanh deposed the South Vietnamese military government formed in November under the leadership of General Minh. Khanh claimed that the takeover was needed to prevent Minh from endorsing the French plan for neutralization, but his actual motives apparently were his resentment at being given a relatively minor role in the military leadership by Minh. American officials, who had advance notice of the Khanh plans, allowed the takeover to take effect, with Minh soon exiled to Thailand.

In March 1964, Secretary McNamara visited South Vietnam, later reporting to the President that South Vietnam's fall would ultimately lead to the loss of the rest of South East Asia. On his recommendation, the President ordered an increase of $60 million in US aid to South Vietnam, and also directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to begin planning retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam, to be launched on 72 hours notice.

Political unrest continued, however, leading to a series of further changes in the South Vietnamese leadership that may have further contributed to the expandng American role in the prosecution of the war. In August, mob violence broke out after General Khanh attempted to formalize military control, forcing Khanh to give up sole rule in favor of a Triumvirate, which formed a civilian High National Council. The Council then elected the civilian President Suu and Prime Minister Huong to replace the Triumvirate. In December, the military dissolved the High National Council, and in January 1965 they dismissed Huong, replacing him by Khanh as caretaker. In February, a new civilian government was appointed by the military, with Suu still President and with Quat as Prime Minister. In June, General Nguyen Cao Ky, a young Air Force officer, replaced Quat as Prime Minister.

In August 1964, the still controversial Tonkin Gulf incident took place, which became the legal justification for the sharp escalation of the military effort for the remainder of the war. Despite President Johnson's initial concerns over the accuracy of the reports, he relied on President McNamara's assurances that the Navy destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf had been attacked by the North Vietnamese, and on August 7 the Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the President authority to take "all necessary measures" to prevent further aggression.


Highlights of White House Telephone Conversations, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library

Was Congress misled regarding the Tonkin Gulf resolution? Did they misunderstand the resolution? My... and it's important... my answer is: yes and no. The resolution is very clear; the English language is clear in its expression in the resolution. The resolution gave full authority to the President to take the nation to war in Southeast Asia. Senator Cooper from Kentucky asked Senator Fullbright, who was the floor manager during the debate, "Does this resolution mean the President will have the authority to take the nation to war in Southeast Asia?" And Senator Fulbright said, "Yes." So there was no misunderstanding on that. But the Senate had been led to believe the President wouldn't use that authority without seeking further counsel from the Senate - which he didn't. And in that sense, I think they were misled. In any event, it was a very serious error on the part of the Johnson Administration. We did not fully debate the actions that led to the introduction of 500,000 troops, either with the Congress or with the public. And that's one of the major lessons: no president should ever take this nation to war without full public debate in the Congress and/or in the public.

Interview with Robert McNamara, The National Security Archive, George Washington University

As President Johnson started his fall election campaign against the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, he faced criticism over the alleged failure of the Democrats to articulate a clear policy of the objectives in Vietnam. In Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July, he challenged the President:

...And I needn't remind you - but I will - that it's been during Democratic years that our strength to deter war has stood still, and even gone into a planned decline. It has been during Democratic years that we have weakly stumbled into conflict, timidly refusing to draw our own lines against aggression, deceitfully refusing to tell even our people of our full participation, and tragically, letting our finest men die on battlefields (unmarked by purpose, unmarked by pride or the prospect of victory).

Yesterday it was Korea. Tonight it is Vietnam. Make no bones of this. Don't try to sweep this under the rug. We are at war in Vietnam. And yet the President, who is Commander-in-Chief of our forces, refuses to say - refuses to say, mind you, whether or not the objective over there is victory. And his Secretary of Defense continues to mislead and misinform the American people, and enough of it has gone by....

Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech of Senator Barry Goldwater

Yet the Democrats also effectively portrayed Goldwater as an extremist who was out of the mainsteam of his own party. At the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey roused the delegates by reciting a series of legislative measures that had been backed by Republicans, "...but not Senator Goldwater", a refrain soon shouted as a cheer by Humphrey's audience. As the campaign progressed, the Democrats also raised doubts over Goldwater's judgment and his possible reckless use of nuclear weapons. In addition to the famous "Daisy" commercial, which subtly provoked concerns over the potential of nuclear war in the event of a Republcan victory, the Democrats seized upon remarks by Goldwater in a television interview where he said that he would be willing to consider the use in Vietnam of low-yield nuclear weapons to defoliate the forest against communist forces. In November, Johnson was easily elected by 42,328,350 votes to 26,640,178 for Goldwater, with the Republicans winning only six states. By the end of 1964, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam had reached 23,000.

Hoping to develop his own legacy as president, Johnson's campaign focused on his "War on Poverty" to assist the poor with education, job training and other assistance. After his inauguration, however, the increasing costs of the war in Vietnam and the budget demands of his domestic policies brought new questions over the ability of the government to pursue both objectives. Within his own party, the President also faced opposition from Senators William Fulbright, Wayne Morse, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Robert F. Kennedy, who resigned as Attorney General from Johnson's Cabinet to run successfully in 1964 for the Senate from New York, initially supported the Administration's Vietnam policy; indeed, fear over Kennedy's criticism of any pullout may have influenced Johnson to maintain the aggressive expansion of the war in 1965. Later, however, Kennedy shifted his position on the war, ultimately breaking with the President for the first time in February 1966 when he proposed participation by all parties in the conflict, including the Vietcong's political arm, the National Liberation Front, in the poltical makeup of South Vietnam. The following year, Senator Kennedy called on the President to cease the bombing of North Vietnam and reduce the war effort. See About Robert F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial.

Despite President Johnson's approval of the escalation of the U.S. role in Vietnam, including the bombing on North Vietnam and the increase of American troop strength in the South, subsequent research has disclosed Johnson's private doubts over the prospect of victory. As early as February 1965, in a conversation with Secretary of Defense McNamara after the commencement of the “Rolling Thunder” air attacks on North Vietnam, Johnson said, “Now we’re off to bombing these people. We’re over that hurdle. I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing and I don’t see any way of winning....” Lady Bird Johnson's tape-recorded diary on March 7, 1965 notes, “In talking about Vietnam, Lyndon summed it up quite simply—I can’t get out and I can’t finish it with what I got. And I don’t know what the hell to do.”

In June 1965, the President approved the request for over 90,000 more troops by General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam. The increase in troop strength provoked both public and private opposition from those questioning the Americanization of the war. Shortly after Johnson's decision was announced, Senator Mike Mansfield sent a series of memoranda to the President criticizing the commitment of U.S. combat troops; the escalation of the war through the bombing of North Vietnam; and suggesting expanded diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict. In his memo of June 5, Mansfield wrote in part:

...As I see it, and you know it is a view which I have long held, there are no significant American interests which dictate an essentially massive, unilateral American military effort to control the flow of events in Viet Nam or even on the Southeast Asian mainland as a whole. There is, on the contrary, only a general interest, shared with many other outsiders, in the stability, peace and progress of the region. That is not the kind of interest which we can serve by overwhelming the region with either our military strength or our substance....

See Memorandum from Senator Mike Mansfield to President Johnson, June 5, 1965, Associated Colleges of the South, The Vietnam Experience Online, Simulation of the 1964-1965 Escalation

The President circulated Mansfield's messages to his key advisers for comment, with the responses generally rejecting Mansfield's concerns.

Reacting to the major buildup in American troop strength, North Vietnam continued to expand its own forces inside South Vietnam, primarily by continued infiltration by sea and along the Ho Chi Minh trail and then, in early 1966, through the Demilitarized Zone established along the border by the post World War II Geneva accords. Although the U.S sought to exert pressure on the North Vietnamese through bombing of the North, American ground forces were prohibited from conducting reconnaissance patrols in the northern portion of the DMZ and inside North Vietnam.

On November 30, 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced that he would become a candidate for the 1968 Democratic Presidential nomination to represent the views of those seeking greater efforts for a negotiated settlement to the war. McCarthy entered the race only after more prominent antiwar politicians, particularly New York's Senator Kennedy, declined to run. See Interview with Eugene McCarthy, National Security Archive, George Washington University.

Shortly after McCarthy's announcement, antiwar sentiment grew as a result of the Tet Offensive launched at the end of January 1968 by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Coordinated assaults by 84,000 troops began in the northern and Central provinces before daylight on January 30 and in Saigon and the Mekong Delta regions that night. The attack in Saigon began with an assault against the U.S. Embassy, with others also directed against the Presidential Palace, the compound of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff, and the nearby Ton San Nhut air base. At Hue, eight enemy battalions infiltrated the city and fought three U.S. Marine Corps, three U.S. Army and eleven South Vietnamese battalions, with the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops not regaining full control until after a month of action. While the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese suffered extensive casualties, the widescale battles further eroded public support for the President's policies.

Aided by the media accounts of the Tet Offensive, Senator McCarthy's campaign quickly generated strong volunteer participation, particularly from college students who traveled to New Hampshire, the site of the first primary. Although President Johnson won 49 percent of the vote to the 42 percent for McCarthy in the March 12, 1968 primary, McCarthy won 20 of the 24 delegates elected to the Democratic National Convention, and his surprisingly strong showing was widely viewed as a sharp rebuke of the Johnson Administration's policies. Four days after the primary, Robert F. Kennedy announced his own candidacy, provoking a split among the antiwar movement as McCarthy declined to leave the race. Facing an almost certain loss to McCarthy in the Wisconsin primary, President Johnson announced his withdrawal from the race in a televised address on March 31, 1968,

...What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.

With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President...

March 31, 1968, Speech by President Johnson announcing Decision Not To Seek Reelection

Two days after President Johnson announced his withdrawal, McCarthy outpolled the President in Wisconsin by 56 to 35 percent. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, with President Johnson's support, then entered the race, focusing his campaign on gaining delegates in non-primary states where the traditional Democratic Party machinery remained strong. In the Oregon primary on May 28, McCarthy again surprised most observers by defeating Kennedy. Just after delivering his victory speech for the June 4, 1968 California primary, Kennedy was assassinated by an Arab immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan, who was angered over the Senator's support of Israel.

Meanwhile, the the principal contenders for the Republican nomination were Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. Nixon had spent considerable time in restoring his image with politicians and the media since his defeat in his run for California governor in 1962, which concluded with his famous remark to the press at the post-election: "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore".. Rockefeller's campaign was hurt within the conservative wing of party by his moderate policies as governor, as well as his divorce and remarriage. During the primary season, Nixon also said that he had a "secret plan" for ending the war in Vietnam based on seeking help of the Soviet leaders in ending the War and proceeding to "de-Americanize" the conflict, indicating a phased reduction of US troop involvement in the war. Nixon won the nomination relatively easily, and in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention attacked the Johnson Administration for its failure to achieve victory in Vietnam:

...We all hope in this room that there's a chance that current negotiations may bring an honorable end to that war. And we will say nothing during this campaign that might destroy that chance.

And if the war is not ended when the people choose in November, the choice will be clear. Here it is: For four years this administration has had at its disposal the greatest military and economic advantage that one nation has ever had over another in a war in history. For four years America's fighting men have set a record for courage and sacrifice unsurpassed in our history. For four years this Administration has had the support of the loyal opposition for the objective of seeking an honorable end to the struggle.

Never has so much military and economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively. And if after all of this time, and all of this sacrifice, and all of this support, there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership not tied to the mistakes and policies of the past. That is what we offer to America.

And I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next Administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam....

Richard Nixon, Acceptance Speech for the Republican Party Presidential Nomination, August 8, 1968

At the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 26-29, where Chicago police battled protesters in the streets outside the convention hall, Vice President Humphrey won the nomination.

Chicago 1968
Police battle protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Image Source: Eagle Condor Institute
Image Source: Hubert H. Humphrey Museum

The Humphrey campaign was adversely affected by the splits within the Democrats illustrated at the Chicago convention, and Humphrey's reluctance to provoke President Johnson by courting the antiwar and younger constituents who made up so much of the core Kennedy and McCarthy supporters. The third-party candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace, running on themes of states' rights, segregation and populism, further divided the Democrats.

While Humphey trailed Richard Nixon by double-digit numbers in most of the early polls, his campaign was sparked a few days before the election when Humphrey finally risked Johnson's disapproval by stating that the war in Vietnam "must come to an end". Four days before the election, Johnson also announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam, belatedly implementing a pledge that Humphrey had made.On election day, the Republicans won with just over forty-three percent of the votes, half a percent more than the Democratic ticket. See Election of 1968, Voice of America.

Richard Nixon
In the fall of 1968 the South Vietnamese government, with major U.S. support, launched an accelerated pacification campaign. All friendly forces were coordinated and brought to bear on the enemy in every tactical area of operation. In these intensified operations, friendly units first secured a target area, then Vietnamese government units, regional forces/popular forces, police and civil authorities screened the inhabitants, seeking members of the Viet Cong infrastructure.

The next president, Richard Nixon, advocated Vietnamization, withdrawing American troops and giving South Vietnam greater responsibility for fighting the war. His attempt to slow the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam by sending American forces to destroy Communist supply bases in Cambodia in 1970 in violation of Cambodian neutrality provoked antiwar protests on the nation’s college campuses. Counteroffensive, Phase VI, 2 November 1968 - 22 February 1969. In November 1968 the South Vietnam government with American support began a concentrated effort to expand security in the countryside. This project was known as the "Accelerated Pacification Campaign."

President Lyndon B. Johnson's Address to the Nation Upon Announcing His Decision To Halt the Bombing of North Vietnam, October 31, 1968

This period covers the election of President Richard M. Nixon and a change of policy brought about by his administration after January 1969 when he announced a coming end to US combat in Southeast Asia and a simultaneous strengthening of South Vietnam's ability to defend itself. Formal truce negotiations began in Paris on January 25, 1969. The period can be characterized as marking time in preparation for an about face. Forty-seven ground combat operations were recorded during this period, the following being the most important:

American troop strength had peaked at 543,400 in April 1969 but dropped to 505,500 by mid October. More scattered than before, enemy attacks were concentrated on South Vietnamese positions. U.S. combat deaths were down in the early fall as American units switched to small unit actions. The trend was not constant, however, because U.S. troops deaths which had fallen well below l00 a week in the fall, rose above 100 later in the year.

South Vietnam assumed full control of defense for the area immediately below the demilitarized zone in July 1971, a process begun in 1969. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird announced completion of Phase I of Vietnamization on 11 August which meant that the U.S. relinquished all ground combat responsibilities to the Republic of Vietnam. The participation of U.S. forces in ground combat operations had not ceased, however, U.S. maneuver battalions were still conducting missions, and the 101st Airborne Division joined the 1st Army of Vietnam 1st Infantry Division in Operation JEFFERSON GLEN that took place in Thua Thien Province in October. This was the last major combat operation in Vietnam which involved U.S. ground forces. Following the close of Operation JEFFERSON GLEN on 8 October, the 101st began stand-down procedures and was the last U.S. division to leave Vietnam.

U.S. troop strengths decreased during Consolidation I. American battle deaths for July 1971 were 66, the lowest monthly figure since May 1967. By early November, U.S. troop totals dropped to 191,000, the lowest level since December 1965. In early November, President Nixon announced that American troops had reverted to a defensive role in Vietnam.

In early January 1972 President Nixon confirmed that U.S. troop withdrawals would continue but promised that a force of 25,000-30,000 would remain in Vietnam until all American prisoners of war were released. Secretary of Defense Laird reported that Vietnamization was progressing well and that U.S. troops would not be reintroduced into Vietnam even in a military emergency. U.S. troop strength in Vietnam dropped to 136,500 by 31 January 1972, to 119,600 by 29 February, and then to 95,500 by the end of March.

During the last week of December 1971 U.S. Air Force and Navy planes carried out 1,000 strikes on North Vietnam, the heaviest U.S. air attacks since November 1968.

On 25 January President Nixon announced an eight part program to end the war which included agreement to remove all U.S. and foreign allied troops from Vietnam no later than six months after a peace agreement was reached. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegates rejected the proposal and insisted upon complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Indochina and cessation of all forms of U.S. aid to South Vietnam.

Cease-Fire, 30 March 1972 - 28 January 1973. On 30 March 1972 the North Vietnamese Army launched its greatest offensive of the entire war. The enemy deployed the greatest array of troops and modern weapons to date in a major effort to end the war with conventional forces and seized considerable territory in an effort to exercise control of key provinces throughout Vietnam. Recapture of Quang Tri City on 16 September 1972 marked the complete failure of the enemy to hold any of the targeted provincial capitols. Massive aid replaced materiel lost during the spring counteroffensive. Retraining and reconstruction of selected RVNAF units increased their capabilities. The completion of the massive logistical buildup of RVNAF was accomplished, which enabled the RVNAF to become more self-sufficient as direct U.S. participation diminished. The US ground role in Vietnam was totally replaced by the RVNAF. During December 1972 and January 1973 the RVIVAF flew more than 45% of air sorties within Vietnam.

From 1968 to 1973 efforts were made to end the conflict through diplomacy. In January 1973, an agreement reached and U.S. forces were withdrawn from Vietnam and U.S. prisoners of war were released. In April 1975, South Vietnam surrendered to the North and Vietnam was reunited.


The Vietnam War Internet Project

The American Experience: Vietnam Online >>

Vietnam: Echoes from the Wall

The Pentagon Papers >> Vietnam Veterans of America

US Army Center for Military History

Church Committee Report On Diem Coup >> 25th Aviation Battalion

Educational Tools

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The War in Vietnam -
A Story in Photographs
>> National Archives

The Vietnam Experience Online, Simulation of the 1964-1965 Escalation >>Associated Colleges of the South

America Since 1945—E-Seminar 7, The Vietnam War>> Columbia American History Online