Vietnam and the U.S., 1954 to 1968

Draft Chapter of The U.S. War Against Asia
by William P. Meyers

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In 1964 the North Vietnamese military also began building what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which would allow them to provide logistical support and soldiers to the Vietcong war effort in the South. Until then aid to the South had consisted almost exclusively of southern Vietminh returning there to provide political and military training. Rather than meeting the threat, the South Vietnamese military leaders intrigued against each other. In 1964 their government changed hands seven times. [Karnow 327-334]

In June 1964 Lodge resigned as ambassador. He was replaced by General Maxwell Taylor. At the same time William Westmoreland was put in charge of the U.S. military in Vietnam. Already the South Vietnamese economy was being Americanized. American teachers, doctors and engineers served as civilian advisors. America paid for innumerable individual programs run by the South Vietnamese government, and paid for a South Vietnamese army now numbering 600,000.  Much of the money and material sent simply disappeared into black markets, as it had when sent to the Kuomintang in China two decades earlier. [Karnow 345-347]

President Lyndon Johnson did not neglect diplomacy. He made a secret offer to North Vietnam. The United States would recognize North Vietnam as a nation and give it economic aid if they stopped the civil war in South Vietnam. If the war continued, the United States would attack Vietnam. The North Vietnamese countered by offering peace if the U.S. withdrew and the Vietcong were allowed to participate in a coalition government in the south. Nothing came of the discussion. [Karnow 347-348]

The event that turned a civil war in South Vietnam into the “Vietnam War,” is called the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. It is still debated whether the original reports by the U.S. military about this Incident were true. Most scholars now believe that the incident was largely a fictional pretext designed to allow President Congress to get authority from Congress to expand the war effort. In July 1964 the U.S. was organizing naval raids by South Vietnamese upon the coast of North Vietnam, coordinated with patrols by the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox in North Vietnamese territorial waters [Karnow 366-367]. Allegedly on August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese patrol boats each launched a torpedo at the Maddox, which was unharmed. One patrol boat was sunk; the other two were crippled by fire from the Maddox and jet fighters. At night on August 3, the captain of the Maddox mistook stormy weather for a massive North Vietnamese attack, and with the Ticonderoga started firing wildly into the stormy night. No one had actually seen any Vietnamese gunfire. Yet as the information went up the military chain of command, it became a definite attack. On August 4 President Johnson asked Congress for a resolution that would enable him to retaliate against North Vietnam. He also addressed the citizens of the United States by television. Without waiting for his resolution, the President began the bombardment of North Vietnam. [Karnow 368-372]

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