Presidential Case Study: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War

By Amelia Howard '19

POLS-235: U.S. in World Affairs

This assignment calls upon students to select a president from McKinley-Obama and then decide upon what they consider to be the most significant foreign policy issue or problem of their administration. It lays out a specific agenda of issues they must research and analyze, particularly tracing who were significant providers of information and advice from the top advisors in government, such as Secretary of State. To successfully build and write these case studies they must undertake detailed primary and secondary research in order to uncover and incorporate high quality documentary evidence into the analysis. Amelia’s paper accomplishes this brilliantly, with a degree of care for organization, detail, and accuracy rarely seen in undergraduate research. All of it is then written in elegant, clear prose, a pure joy to read for novice or specialist.

-Jim Zaffiro

What exactly is foreign policy and why does it matter? How has American foreign policy been conducted in the past and what is its historical legacy? What policies define American presidents, for better or for worse? For the purpose of this case study, foreign policy will be defined as “the pursuit of a country’s vital national interests beyond its borders.”1 The case that will be examined will be that of Lyndon B. Johnson and how his Vietnam War policies aimed to protect U.S. interests. He was handcuffed by the numerous commitments the presidents that preceded him had made to contain communism and tyranny. He inherited the Vietnam quagmire from his predecessors Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. He also inherited many of JFK’s advisers after JFK’s assassination and they played a crucial role in shaping LBJ’s foreign policy. These advisers included people such as the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and the Under Secretary of State George Ball. Rusk’s role in LBJ’s inner circle was limited at best, while McNamara was incredibly involved in not only advising policy but also in executing it. He was one of the main coordinators of U.S. troops throughout the war. George Ball represented the lone dissenter within both the JFK and LBJ administrations and opposed most, if not all, of the decisions that were made by those two presidents in regards to Vietnam. He argued that the U.S. should not have increased its military commitment in Vietnam and by and large, his suggestions were ultimately ignored. In the end, LBJ’s decision to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the defining foreign policy issue of his presidency. It was the culmination of decades’ worth underlying American political philosophy. It was also the issue that ended LBJ’s political career and led him to decide that he would not seek reelection in 1968.

The U.S. practiced policies of containment and global intervention long before the Johnson presidency and even longer before the commencement of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It began with the Monroe Doctrine, a policy President James Monroe outlined in his eighth annual address to Congress on December 2, 1823. He stated in that speech that “we owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those [European] powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”2 By declaring so, Monroe made a commitment that the U.S. would intervene if any outside powers made attempts to take over territory in the Western Hemisphere. Thus, in a seemingly insignificant speech, Monroe initiated a pact of U.S. military protectionism. The scope of this pact has been continuously expanded since its declaration. Indeed, the Monroe Doctrine itself was enlarged by President Theodore Roosevelt during his fourth annual message to Congress on December 6, 1904. He stated in that speech that “in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”3 This assertion added the explicit threat of military force towards any nation that attempted to interfere in the Americas.

Even after Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged to be a “good neighbor” to those nations in his inaugural address in 1933, he too succumbed to the pressure of expansive interventionism as WWII came to a close in 1945. On August 14, 1941, he issued a joint declaration with the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In which, both countries pledged to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and [sic] wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”4 Despite denouncing the use of force later in the document, this clause is relevant to the topic at hand in numerous ways. One, it expanded the U.S.’s commitment of interventionism from the Western Hemisphere to the entire world. Two, it established the philosophical precedent of “self-determination.” While this seems noble and just in theory, in practice, it was not. It was later used as a thinly veiled commitment to oppose communism on a global scale. This was because many Americans believed that communism was a tyrannical monolith whose governments were taking away people’s rights and freedoms.

That brings us to the U.S.’s Cold War policy of global communist containment. One of the first major step taken by the United States to lay the philosophical precedent for this policy was the Truman Doctrine. This was a speech given by President Harry Truman on March 12, 1947, to a joint session of Congress. In the speech, Truman asked Congress to extend economic aid to the countries of Greece and Turkey to secure the futures of both Europe and the Middle East. However, he then went on to echo sentiments previously highlighted in the Atlantic Charter by saying the following: “[There is a] way of life that relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”5 This pledge was solidified not only by the creation of the United Nations in 1945 but also by the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on April 4, 1949. In the language of its establishing treaty, NATO asserted that:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them […] will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.6

Essentially, through the signage of this treaty, the U.S. expanded its pledge of global military interventionism even further. It would now intervene not only in the case of a direct military attack on the United States but also in cases of military attacks against other member nations. All of this language was well and good, but there needed to be concrete domestic policy and federal funding to support the broad promises that the United States had made. To address this issue, National Security Council Paper 68 (more commonly known as NSC-68) was published on April 7, 1950. It outlined specific budgetary requests and also described the nature of the perceived threats that the U.S. was facing. The document characterized the USSR as follows:

The design, therefore, calls for the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin. To that end Soviet efforts are now directed toward the domination of the Eurasian land mass. The United States, as the principal center of power in the non-Soviet world and the bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansion, is the principal enemy whose integrity and vitality must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another if the Kremlin is to achieve its fundamental design.7

The U.S. believed that it was under direct attack by the USSR, for the USSR’s primary mission was to destroy the U.S. and take over the world. They believed that the USSR would not hesitate to use military force. Therefore, the U.S. needed to be prepared to use military force in return. It is stated in the document that “one of the most important ingredients of power is military strength. In the concept of ‘containment,’ the maintenance of a strong military posture is deemed to be essential for two reasons: (1) as an ultimate guarantee of our national security and (2) as an indispensable backdrop to the conduct of the policy of ‘containment.’”8 It was ultimately concluded that the U.S. must “develop a level of military readiness which can be maintained as long as necessary as a deterrent to Soviet aggression, as indispensable support to our political attitude toward the USSR, as a source of encouragement to nations resisting Soviet political aggression, and as an adequate basis for immediate military commitments and for rapid mobilization should war prove unavoidable.”9 This policy was put into practice through both the Korean War and also numerous covert operations during the Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK administrations. This was the philosophical framework that LBJ inherited after JFK’s assassination elevated him from Vice President to President.


Max Barkalow, acrylic on paper

The practical situation that LBJ inherited in Vietnam was a complex one that was haunted by the legacy of French colonialism. From the 1860s to the 1950s the French had held Vietnam and three other countries as a protectorate known as “Indochina.” Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communists were able to overthrow French rule. They then declared Vietnam to be an independent nation in 1954. They were able to do so even though the United States had backed the French during the Indochina War. After the French lost in 1954, Dwight Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to continue fighting against the communists. Continuation and escalation of this fighting continued throughout the JFK administration and into the LBJ administration. LBJ elected to retain almost all of JFK’s foreign policy advisers after his assassination and relied upon them heavily. This was because LBJ had spent most of his political career focusing on domestic policy, not foreign policy and was abruptly thrown into the role of the military’s commander in chief after Kennedy’s death. All of these advisers, save for George Ball, said the same thing: continue to maintain U.S. military presence in Vietnam. At the time, Vietnam was considered a crucial strategic point for communist containment in Asia. American foreign policy advisers feared that if Vietnam fell, it would lead to a “domino effect,” causing the other countries of Southeast Asia to become communist nations that would be in the pockets of the Soviets or the Chinese.

Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to avoid the Vietnam War as much as possible and focus on his domestic agenda, the Great Society. This is what he ran his 1964 presidential campaign on. When Vietnam was brought up, Johnson attempted to paint himself as a more peace-oriented candidate than his Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater had made numerous off-the-cuff comments about using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, alarming many. LBJ capitalized on these fears during the race by running anti-nuclear television ads, the most notable of which being his “ice cream” ad and his “daisy” ad. The first portrayed a small girl eating an ice cream cone, with a woman’s voice narrating in the background. She states:

Know what people used to do? They used to explode bombs in the air. You know children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium. But they shouldn’t have strontium 90 or cesium 137. These things come from atomic bombs, and they’re radioactive. They make you die. Do you know what people finally did? They got together and signed a nuclear test ban treaty. And then the radioactive poison started to go away. But now there’s a man who wants to be President of the United States, and he doesn’t like this treaty. He fought against it. He even voted against it. He wants to go on testing more bombs. His name is Barry Goldwater. If he’s elected, they might start testing all over again.10

A male voice then says “vote for President Johnson on November 3rd, the stakes are too high for you to stay home.”11 In the second ad, another small girl is shown, this time picking a daisy. A loud countdown from ten starts and the camera begins to zoom in on one of the girl’s eyes. As the countdown reaches zero and finishes zooming into her pupil, a nuclear explosion goes off. Then Johnson’s voice is heard saying “these are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”12 Then the same male voice from the ice cream ad again says “vote for President Johnson on November 3rd, the stakes are too high for you to stay home.”13 This ad was officially run only once, but TV news stations ran it over and over again on their evening broadcasts so that by the time of the election in November, almost every American had seen it.

Johnson’s 1964 peace platform was oddly juxtaposed against the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which occurred in August of 1964, three months before the election took place. Allegedly, the North Vietnamese attacked the USS Maddox on August 2 while it was moored in the Gulf of Tonkin. Retrospectively, some have come to believe that the attack did not occur the way the U.S. government said it did, or may not have even occurred at all. There were no U.S. military casualities or injuries and minimal damage was done to the Maddox itself. However, this alleged incident was interpreted by the Americans as an act of war. It opened the door for reinvigorated U.S. escalation in Vietnam. On August 4, LBJ appeared before Congress and delivered a speech in which he implored them to pass a resolution in response to the attack. In that speech, he stated that “the determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Viet-Nam will be redoubled by this outrage. Yet our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting. We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.”14 However, the resolution passed by Congress on August 10 gave Johnson the legal authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”15 This blanket authorization was later used to justify the administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam in the years that followed.

After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed, American bombings and troop deployment into Southeast Asia rapidly expanded. Operation Rolling Thunder commenced in February of 1965 and concluded in November of 1968 at the end of Johnson’s term. Operation Rolling Thunder was implemented at urging of most of LBJ’s foreign policy advisers, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. McNamara was the adviser who Johnson looked to the most for foreign policy advice. Every one of LBJ’s advisers except George Ball generally agreed with McNamara’s positions. People like Dean Rusk took a backseat to McNamara, despite their positions being historically more significant in foreign affairs than McNamara’s. Between 1964 and 1968, millions of tons of weapons were rained down upon the North Vietnamese at the urging of these advisers. George Ball wrote a memorandum to the president in July of 1965 in which he argued that there was no evidence to suggest that there was any way that the U.S. could win the war in Vietnam, especially with the tactics that were currently being utilized. He also believed that if the United States continued upon its set trajectory that the result would be “almost certainly a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, mounting U.S. casualties, no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation at the end of the road.”16

As time went on, Ball proved to be correct. As U.S. commitment increased, the war’s popularity−and Johnson’s along with it−began to decrease. Limited progress was being made, despite assertions from U.S. officials that the turning point of the war was just around the corner. The American people were growing weary of what seemed to be an elective, yet unwinnable war. The bloody Tet Offensive that was launched by the North Vietnamese in early January of 1968 seemed to only reinforce the thought that Johnson’s policies were failing. Johnson found himself in a terrible predicament. Spending on the military had rapidly derailed his Great Society programs and forced his attention to foreign policy. The country seemed to be descending into chaos as the anti-war movement gained momentum. Another ominous prediction that George Ball made came true: “Once we suffer large casualties, we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot−without national humiliation− stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Out of the two possibilities, I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives−even after we have paid terrible costs.”17

So humiliated and defeated was Johnson, that he famously declared that he would not be seeking reelection in 1968. He was only the third president in U.S. history to decide not to pursue reelection when constitutionally authorized to do so. The toll Vietnam took on him personally and publicly was the main factor that led to this decision. The political giant who had thirsted for the presidency his entire political life stepped down and opened the Democratic primary to a host of other candidates. Eventually, the party settled on Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their gubernatorial candidate. Humphrey went on to lose the 1968 election to Richard Nixon, overshadowed by his deep attachments to the Johnson administration. Nixon, on the other hand, seemed to offer an alternative to the Democrat’s strategy. He believed that the policies of “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization” would allow the United States to withdraw from the war with minimal casualities. His promises swayed the American people to vote for him during the election, but in reality, more U.S. soldiers died during the Nixon administrations than during the rest of the wartime administrations combined. When a peace agreement was finally met and the U.S. fully withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, South Vietnam quickly fell to the communists. The country was reunified under the communist government that has remained in power to this day.

Even after their defeat in Vietnam, the United States firmly adhered to its ideological philosophy of containment and universal opposition to communism. The U.S. continued to engage in anti-communist interventions throughout the rest of the twentieth century until a deep economic recession caused the USSR to collapse in December of 1991. It could be argued that the previously cited charters, doctrines, and reports show that the United States would have continued down the path of containment indefinitely until the USSR was defeated. Even after the fall of the USSR, the U.S. has continued to practice military interventionism across the globe. There have been numerous military conflicts across the world that have been either fought by or funded by the United States government. The U.S. continues to actively deploy combat troops to the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan initiated by George W. Bush in 2001 continues to this day, with no real end in sight. Interventionism has been strongly rooted in American political affairs since the 19th century; it does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon. Vietnam was a painful manifestation of these policies that defined–and ultimately ended–Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.

1 Jim Zaffiro, “POLS-235-A: U.S. in World Affairs” (lecture, Roe Center, Pella, IA, August 24, 2018).

2 James Monroe, “Seventh Annual Message to Congress” (address, Joint Session of Congress, U.S. Congress, Washington D.C., December 2, 1823), accessed December 3, 2018,

3 Theodore Roosevelt, “Fourth Annual Message to Congress” (address, Joint Session of Congress, U.S. Congress, Washington D.C., December 6, 1904), accessed December 3, 2018,

4 United States & United Kingdom, Atlantic Charter, by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Newfoundland, Canada: NATO, 1941), accessed December 3, 2018,

5 Harry Truman, “Third Annual Address to Congress” (address, Joint Session of Congress, U.S. Congress, Washington D.C., March 12, 1947), accessed December 3, 2018,

6 NATO, The North Atlantic Treaty, by NATO (Washington D.C.: NATO, 1949), accessed December 3, 2018,

7 United States, National Security Council, NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (Washington D.C., 1950), accessed December 3, 2018,, 3-4.

8 Ibid., 15

9 Ibid., 44

10 Democratic Party, “Girl With Ice Cream Cone,” advertisement, 1964,

11 Ibid.

12 Democratic Party, “Daisy,” advertisement, 1964,

13 Ibid.

14 Lyndon B. Johnson, “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident” (address, Joint Session of Congress, U.S. Congress, Washington D.C., August 4, 1964), accessed December 3, 2018,

15 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 88th Cong., Second Session (1964) (enacted).

16 United States, Department of Defense, The Pentagon, Memorandum for the President from George Ball, “A Compromise Solution in South Vietnam,” 1 July 1965, by George Ball (Washington D.C., 1965), accessed December 3, 2018,

17 Ibid.

Works Cited

Democratic Party. “Daisy.” Advertisement. 1964.

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VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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Zaffiro, Jim. “POLS-235-A: U.S. in World Affairs.” Lecture, Roe Center, Pella, IA, August 24, 2018.