The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Vietnam I: Public Opinion and Protest's
Influence on Lyndon Johnson's War

INTRODUCTION

The American military intervention in Vietnam, as conducted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations, took a decade to be brought to an unhappy conclusion. The reasons for this length are many, but in terms of public opinion's influence, the American public's patriotism during most of this period was stronger than its aversion for war or its ability to oppose effectively the government in matters of foreign policy. The two administrations in their turn, sensitive to signs of public disapproval and protest, were also deeply involved in a campaign of rallying the public behind the anticommunist cause and the imperative of an American victory. Anything short of that, the two administrations held, would have severe consequences for world peace and U.S. credibility. Ye t despite this intense campaign, President Johnson's decision not to run for office in 1968 was tied to the loss of support he had suffered with the American people. The American public seemed ready to forego victory and bring the troops home.

Nixon's Silent Majority speech and Vietnamization policy, however, bought some additional time for the new administration. Public opinion showed slight majorities for the president's handling of the war. After four more years, U.S. participation in the war had to end because the public had ceased to support it. A close look at the four benchmark decision periods of the Johnson and Nixon administrations sheds light on the extent to which the nature of these decisions was affected during the course of the war by perceptions various policymakers had about the public's support or opposition to the war.

This chapter focuses on the influence of public opinion at two of the four benchmark periods in the Vietnam War: Lyndon Johnson's decisions to begin escalation after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 and to initiate deescalation after the Tet offensive in January 1968. The chapter identifies the extent to which policymakers were following public opinion and protest—either voluntarily or by necessity— in setting Vietnam policy. The words of the policymakers themselves provide essential evidence of how that complex historical process actually worked.

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