Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War Strategy


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“What did the Johnson administration hope to achieve from diplomatic efforts to resolve the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1968 and with what success?”


Lyndon Johnson had become highly besieged in the pursuit of his Vietnam policy. Most historical arguments centre round his inept handling of the situation, in which he escalated the bombing offensives and then tempered them down making a mess of the peace moves, which were never done with any serious intent. The core of the historical criticism of the president is that he allowed himself to be blindly guided by inappropriate advice from Robert McNamara, and caused avoidable loss to American lives. Obsessed with the idea of keeping the armed forces subordinate to the presidency, the Johnson administration gave instructions that were out of sync with the happenings on the battlefield. This paper takes a look at these developments, while listing in some detail the peace moves he tried to make, and how they came a cropper. It finally looks at the reasons for their failures, and tries to point out who could be held responsible for the fracas.

Limitations of this paper

Since this paper is about a highly narrowed down topic, a background to the war and its developments is not made; this paper is limited to discussing its defined purview, and hence these details and the persons involved in the war are taken as given.

Need for negotiations

In order to understand with what objectives the president initiated negotiations, it is necessary to understand the situation that forced him to make these moves. With a series of ill-conceived actions, the president had crossed the Rubicon over Vietnam. Well into the middle of his term, it was a thorn in the flesh from which there seemed no reprieve for the beleaguered president, even as enormous pressure mounted at home to end the war. As aptly summed up, “Vietnam was a stalemate producing irreconcilable domestic divisions and a nightmare…from which Johnson could not awake.” (Dallek, 1998, p. 443) From the sunny days of his presidential campaigning of 1964, when less than a third of the population saw Vietnam as the most pressing problem the nation faced to a near doubling of this figure by the winter of 1965-66, the decline in support for the president’s policies on Vietnam was rapid. (Dallek, 2004, p. 251) His gauche at handling the press was also another factor for this situation, with the result that Vietnam soon became, in the perception of the American public, “President Johnson’s war”. (Liebovich, 1998, p. 45)

Egged on by his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, Johnson had given the war efforts no respite; he was firmly convinced that all it needed were a few more bombings and a few successful fights to end the war. He could not have been more off the target; while the president’s men assessed that the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese regular armies could be subdued, the latter resorted to guerrilla tactics, from scattered and well-spread positions. The result was calamitous –by 1967, nearly half a million Americans had been sent to Vietnam, of whom the total casualties were in the region of 100,000, among whom no less than a seventh had lost their lives. (Liebovich, 1998, p. 44)

Although the Government of South Vietnam, (GVN), whose fragile nature had for so long worried the US, had coalesced, with the Cao Ky coup by the beginning of 1966, the Johnson administration was in a bind about the policy it had to pursue, because astronomical sums were going down the drain. An April 1966 intra-governmental policy review had not seen any major reason for hope. The views of the presidential staff differed sharply from those of the men on the battlefield. Air strikes, on which the administration had pinned its highest hopes to achieve a breakthrough in the war, had come to a virtual naught, and were becoming a colossal waste of resources. One of the prime air strike programmes, ROLLING THUNDER, in the assessment the Institute of Defense Analysis made in the summer of 1966 had “had no measurable direct effect”. This was after the air strikes on the highly strategic and vulnerable areas of Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants, (POL) of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (DRV). (Gelb & Betts, 1979, pp. 146-148) At this point, the lack of effectiveness of the bombing strategy was also severely compounded by the exorbitant cost of carrying out these operations, which according to the CIA, cost almost ten times as much as the gains they brought. Having dropped as much as 643,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, the cost of this on the US exchequer was $ 9.60 for every dollar’s worth of damage they inflicted on the DRV with only half the fighter bombers having the capability of surviving the year-long stint as pilots. (Wiest, 2003, p. 27) This terrible cost of escalation was also reflecting on the economy, taking it on an inflationary spiral, and threatening to neutralise its post-war gains. (Isserman & Kazin, 2000, p. 224) Gold prices were becoming very volatile, and all these contributed to completely undermine his ‘Great Society’ programme, on which he had come to power, (Reiter & Stam, 2002, p. 121) and whose central theme was economic growth accompanied by poverty reduction. (Brown-Collier, 1998) In addition, another extremely important factor was threatening to bring the president on his knees –sustained antiwar movement, that had been inspired by the success of the Civil Rights movement. On the field, the highhandedness of the American forces had only succeeded in making the South support the North, and the infiltration of men and other supplies from the North. Through the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an estimated 90,000 men infiltrated to the South between 1965 and 1967. The Americanisation of South Vietnam was a total disaster. (Best, Hanhimaki, Maiolo & Schulze, 2004, pp. 296) It was in the wake of these major drawbacks associated with continued bombing that the president was forced to mellow his position. By December 1966, the administration was convinced that since there was no way by which they could win the war, at least by election time, the only road that lay ahead was negotiation, (Dallek, 1998, p. 444) since this was the only way by which he could reverse these conditions. However, as the next section illustrates, he was no better at these negotiations, either.

Johnson’s objectives, the negotiations and reasons for their failure

These debacles were to reflect heavily on the president personally; by December 1966, the realisation had clearly and irrevocably dawned on the administration that unless the Americans ended the war at the earliest, it would reflect badly on the nation’s elections of 1968. At this stage, there was no alternative to negotiation, if the president was to have the slightest chance of re-election. From the high perch at which the president was seated, the only non-negotiable point at the discussions now became a separate state within South Vietnam (SVN), and a non- communist government for the president. (Dallek, 1998, p. 443) The first concrete steps towards negotiation were taken furtively, in 1966. At this point, the US was still very imperious, even though it was the one that initiated the negotiation. It made a blanket, unconditional demand –that the DRV stop infiltration into the south for bombing to stop. The first of these steps, known as bombing pauses, was hardly fruitful. Taking off from here, the Johnson administration made a clearer move towards negotiation at the Manila Conference in the Declaration of Peace in 1966. The aim of the administration, which was to negotiate from a position of strength, offered the condition that the US would withdraw from South Vietnam within six months of Hanoi withdrawing the last of its troops from there. However, the DRV too was equally determined to bargain from a position of strength. The result was that the Johnson administration was seen to be keen on making peace, but within the administration, the same problem of the mismatch in thinking between the executive and the armed forces remained, (Gelb & Betts, 1979, p. 151) because the president, in whose mind the famous spat between Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas McArthur during the Korean War had been weighing heavily, decided that the best way to avoid a repeat of such a situation now was to keep the military under the firm control of the presidency. Unfortunately, he was ham-handed in doing this, ending up in only isolating the military and creating a terrible disharmony between the two. (Jacobsen, 1996, p. 216) Accordingly, after the raids of December 13 and 14, the president ordered a Christmas ceasefire, and extended it up to January 1 as a goodwill gesture. The main objective for Johnson at this stage was securing the territorial integrity of the north and south of Vietnam, or all Vietnam, should its people choose reunification. His objective was also clearly aimed at silencing his critics at home, of whom there was no dearth. He sought to make these moves towards negotiations to silence the doves in the Congress, who kept insisting on negotiations, and the American public, who were becoming war-weary. (Dallek, 1998, pp. 443-448) The quick progress Eugene McCarthy made at the Hampshire primaries jolted the president about his sagging popularity. Drawing from McCarthy’s success, Robert Kennedy, too decided to challenge the president. (Isserman & Kazin, 2000, p. 224) Internally, the most urgent need for him was to use the Vietnam War as a means to finish off his political rivals at home, chief among whom was Robert Kennedy. “For all his hope and brave talk about progress in the fighting, he still feared that the war would destroy him politically and open the way to a successful Kennedy bid for the presidency.” (Dallek, 1998, p. 448) There was also another factor –a change in US attitudes towards China, following the perception of Chinese expansion being the cornerstone of a Vietnam policy getting significantly reduced around the middle of 1966. (Parker, 1989, p. 142)

Johnson hoped that he could hold his people together while using the armed forces and air strikes to force the Hanoi government to buckle just in time to give him a great fillip for the 1968 elections. Internationally, too, he was keen to be seen as a man who was interested in peace, accepting British and Russian offers to mediate, albeit reluctantly. He followed these up with another ceasefire for February 6-13. (Dallek, 1998, p. 446)

Peace moves

Operation Marigold was the name given to the Johnson administration’s attempt to make peace with Hanoi through indirect means, by which intermediaries in the form of emissaries of neutral countries were sent to develop channels of communication. It first started when the Polish member of the International Control Commission, Janusz Lewandowski apprised the Italian ambassador in Saigon, Giovanni d’ Orlandi and then the US ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., about Ho Chi Minh’s mind. The North Vietnamese leader was surprisingly amiable to US propositions. He suggested that if the Americans suspended bombing, he was more than willing to talk with them; an even greater surprise was that he was not going to insist that a socialist regime be established in the South, would not meddle in the affairs of the southern government, and that he was willing to consider a “reasonable calendar” for American withdrawal. Yet, in typical hubris, the Johnson administration threw away an easy way out of the conflict that had presented itself on a platter. The reason? Washington’s perceived untrustworthiness of the neutrality of communist Poland. Such a baffling, completely unfounded assumption destroyed a great chance for peace. A glaring example of the complete lack of coordination between the presidential and military staff, the basic reason for which bombing had not stopped earlier, showed itself up in December 1966. While the US ambassador in Poland, John Gronouski, was making preparations for a highly sensitive meeting with Polish officials, out of the blue, the US dropped bombs on sensitive targets in Hanoi heavily on December 2 and 3. This completely set the clock back on whatever little progress the Poles were making towards negotiating with the DRV, which centred round the issue of bombing. To this, the unrepentant administration offered the flimsiest of reasons for which the air strikes could not go ahead as planned on November 10 – bad weather! Further, even the planned attacks on December 13 and 14 went ahead as scheduled, giving the Marigold initiative a quick burial. Analysts are of the opinion that even after the bombings of December 2 and 3, there was hope for some salvage, but that the Johnson administration, which had in the first place created the truce move, killed it with its own hands. The simple reason for this was the total lack of sincerity on the part of the Johnson administration about going ahead with the bombing pauses. After briefly halting its bombings in mid-December, the US once again insisted that Hanoi reciprocate unequivocally. It read wrongly the situation on the ground in Hanoi in mid-late January 1967. With the DRV Foreign Minister, Ngoyen Duy Trinh’s tough words on January 28, demanding that the US stop its bombings immediately, the official obituary to the Marigold initiative came to be written. (Gelb & Betts, 1979, pp. 152, 153)

The fate of another such mission, Operation Sunflower, was no different; having been declared on February 6, 1967, the first reaction it drew was a strong letter from Ho Chi Minh, who warned the president that “the people of Viet Nam are determined not to surrender under the threats of bombing”. (Brigham, 1998, p. 143) This phase offered a six-day bombing pause in February 1967. Even while the Americans were again strict on the condition of reciprocity from North Vietnam, that of stopping infiltration, the administration gathered evidence that the North Vietnamese were taking advantage and were supplying arms to the South, forcing Washington to drop the plan. Another initiative was the San Antonio formula of September-December 1967. This, too, did not offer anything new or different; it reiterated American willingness to stop bombing and talk, if the North met its obligation of supplying arms to the South. North Vietnam, predictably, dismissed the offer. There were other initiatives for negotiation, too, between October 1966 and February 1968. Starting with moves initiated on the occasion of the funeral of Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, other steps, clearly half-hearted, were taken. These, in addition to neutral moves by eminent persons and the Glassboro summit, were given high sounding codenames such as Packers, Aspen, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Gelb & Betts, 1979, p. 163) Another prominent attempt of a peace mission was that of the Italian cleric, Giorgio La Pira in 1965. To his desperate pleas to end the war, all that the Johnson administration made was this indifferent reaction: State Department Executive Secretary Benjamin Read commented to presidential advisor, Walt Rostow thus: “[La Pira’s] telegram is another in a voluminous series of peace messages. In view of La Pira’s well-known position on Vietnam and other issues, it is recommended no reply be made.” (Miller, 1999, p. 143) The net result of these peace overtures was a near zero. All these gave rise to the Tet offensive. (Gelb & Betts, 1979, p. 165) This was the event that signalled what a morass the US had got into. On the night of January 31, 1968, some troops owing their allegiance to the North Vietnamese leader attacked the American embassy of Saigon. Although the Americans put it down in no time, the event opened the floodgates to the seemingly never-ending nature of the war, showing up the complete lack of understanding of the war of the American soldiers, who went on the rampage, committing acts of unheard of savagery. (Isserman & Kazin, 2000, p. 223) Thus, while peace was being sought, the actions of the administration took the two sides anywhere but there.


While fixing the blame for the failures of the negotiations processes, students of history need to see the situation in the backdrop of the Cold War era. In retrospect, in the age of extremely fierce rivalry between the two superpowers played out through their allies, perhaps some of the blame can be mitigated from Johnson when he refused to trust the Polish, a staunch communist country. To be fair, he was only reciprocating an attitude of great mutual distrust of the Cold War protagonists. (Vandiver, 1997, p. 156) However, it needs to be said that on this particular, extremely important occasion, he was allowing the history of their relationship to cloud his judgement, when there appeared no motive on the part of the Polish other than to bring about a ceasefire during Operation Marigold.

The bottom line of the historic criticisms against Johnson relates to his oscillation between escalation and negotiation, the total disconnect between the executive and the armed forces, and the catastrophic consequences these produced. Offensives continued even as Operation Marigold was on; later, two months into the Tet offensive, there were no concrete results, by when the president had made up his mind not to run for the 1968 elections. This decision made no great difference: the purpose for which the bombing operations took place, forcing North Vietnam to end its support for Vietcong, was not served. The bombings of ROLLING THUNDER were in no way deterring a regrouping of the North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters, who still possessed all the strength to defeat the South Vietnamese Army. (Jacobsen, 1996, p. 216)

Taking an overall view of the escalation and the failure of the peace negotiations, it is difficult to point an accusatory finger at anyone other than the president. The decision to escalate the offensive was entirely his and McNamara’s. In dealing with the situation, the president had thoroughly misread the situation, and had kept insisting to the American public that the war was all but won. At no stage of the war did the president behave in a manner befitting his office. In what was to be the ultimate show of lack of conviction in the peace moves, the man he appointed to oversee the peace negotiation, Averell Harriman, was never invited to the Tuesday Lunches briefings, where updates about the situation used to be made! Moreover, the Johnson administration regarded bombings as its biggest bargaining chip, a basis upon which all its negotiations were to proceed. A lack of coordination and understanding between these two vital organs was one of the prime reasons for the failure of whichever peace missions the president undertook. (Gelb & Betts, 1979, p. 151)

Neither his offensives, nor the peace moves he made later when left with no other choice was done in the right spirit. As a result, the president’s handling of the Vietnam War was to dwarf the stature of one of America’s tallest presidents.


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