Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War, 1961-1965

By Orrin Schwab | Go to book overview
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3 Toward the Gulf of Tonkin

The transition to a new administration would have important consequences for both American and international history. Of course, the fundamental organization of U.S. foreign policy did not change with the new president. The production of strategic, economic, and political power for the United States and the international expansion of American society continued. Irrespective of the occupant of the White House, the core values and objectives of American technocratic internationalism remained. The direction and staffing of the White House under Lyndon Johnson, however, did change in very important ways. The new president would determine the near-term path of the enormous resources under his control. With respect to Vietnam, the moderate cadre of Roger Hilsman, Michael Forrestal, Averell Harriman, all of whom were averse to a conventional war in Indochina, were removed from influential positions.1 Indeed, a significant transition was made from the quintessential Wilsonian Kennedy White House to a Johnsonian administration that gave more power to the Pentagon and the possibilities for the use of force in Southeast Asia.

Recently declassified tape recordings demonstrate that Lyndon Johnson had severe, agonizing doubts about his country's and his personal commitment to defend South Vietnam. Like David Halberstam, he saw Vietnam as a quagmire as early as spring 1964. Nonetheless, he found himself trapped politically, with strong anti- interventionist elements in Congress balanced by equally strong interventionist elements allied with the “military,” broadly defined. Yet even with his premonitions of tragedy, Johnson remained personally convinced of the political and strategic reasoning behind the drive to hold South Vietnam.2 What bedeviled Johnson also plagued the minds of his advisers and the informed public. But the premise of the argument in this mongraph is that agency does not exist at the level of individuals, or of groups or of institutions for that matter. If it appears so to contemporary or historical observers, it is or was an illusion.

The literature on the Gulf of Tonkin depicts an incident that, although probably contrived, resulted in a presidential mandate to expand American intervention in

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