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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4 Pleiku

After the Gulf of Tonkin the situation in South Vietnam did not improve: if anything, the intensity of the crisis grew even more acute. South Vietnamese society continued to be racked by an increasingly violent civil war and an increasingly destructive political crisis between Catholics and Buddhists. The struggle for power between the two religious groups and the continued factionalism of the religious sects and the non-Vietnamese minorities threatened to destroy the South Vietnamese state. Despite the enormous investment of the United States in the Republic of Vietnam, amounting to billions of dollars by the end of 1964 and running at the widely reported rate of $1.5 million a day, and despite the assistance of thousands of American advisers dedicated to their tasks, the communist insurgency showed no signs of defeat.

Ostensibly, the six months from the Gulf of Tonkin crisis to the February attacks on American barracks in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam was a period of relative inaction by the United States. Yet in terms of planning, what happened between Tonkin Gulf and Pleiku was a rehearsal for the larger decision of the following summer. The United States was not quite ready, not quite mobilized psychologically or organizationally for fighting another land war in Asia. It was a period characterized by the continued refinement of a limited war strategy designed to attempt to force the North Vietnamese to accept a peace treaty on U.S. and South Vietnamese terms. The dialogue between the “political” war strategists and conventional war strategists continued to shape policy planning. The president remained equivocal, unwilling to abandon South Vietnam to its fate but also unwilling to order the virtual destruction of North Vietnam. With the presidential campaign and election, the transition and the inauguration periods, this was not the time to move massively into Vietnam. This changed after the inauguration was behind Lyndon Johnson. The mortar firings on American soldiers at Pleiku forced Johnson to retaliate and subsequently begin the air war against North Vietnam. Once again the neo-Wilsonian, technocratic, and Clausewitzian approaches to Vietnam were intertwined in the planning process shaping a policy that mixed diplomacy, civic

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