Was Johnson’s foreign war in Vietnam doomed because of his domestic war on poverty?
There were many issues of Lyndon B Johnsons presidency term from 1963 to 1969 which played a significant role in dooming his foreign war in Vietnam. The Vietnam war which unofficially began in 1955 lasted until 1972 was deemed as Johnsons war due to his immediate focus and escalation of during his time as president. Johnson’s domestic war on poverty was not the only issue which doomed his war in Vietnam. Other issues which doomed his foreign war in Vietnam include his plans of a Great Society, civil rights, tactics, and escalation of the war itself. This essay shall investigate the extent of the issues which doomed the foreign war in Vietnam and determine which was most significant. This essay shall also discuss how the Vietnam war may have doomed some domestic policies during Johnson’s term as president.
The war in Vietnam was the major foreign policy issue of Johnson’s term as president and most of the sixties. When he became president, Lyndon Johnson inherited a war in Vietnam with a fragile government which was already going badly. The main reason for Johnson’s war in Vietnam was due “largely to its symbolic status within the geo-strategic struggle to maintain the post-war liberal capitalists sphere” , The Vietnam war was part of the biggest conflict dividing the world after the Second World War, the Cold war or the struggle between the communist world led by Soviet Russia and the so-called “free” capitalist world dominated by the United States Upon becoming president, Johnson immediately had to focus on the Vietnam war. On the 24th November 1963, he said, “the battle against communism … must be joined … with strength and determination.” . Johnson, and his advisers, believed that the war in Vietnam would be short and successful. Johnson had no intentions to send American troops to fight and die in Asia. He and his advisers believed that America has the technology, money, and experience to win this war without significant causalities. The Administration did not have a real plan, years later, Johnson would admit that there was no “any plan for victory militarily or diplomatically.” . On April 7, 1965, at John Hopkins University, in a speech defined by some analysts as the most influential Johnson`s foreign policy speech, the future of the “limited war” in Vietnam was settled. On the surface, the speech is pledging for ‘unconditional negotiations,’ promising help for development and reconstruction of North Vietnam if the communists agree to compromise. This speech emphasises that talking about peace and negotiations cleared the way for further escalation. By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam and had already lost 30,000 Americans there. Vietnam was necessary for him to show in the coming elections in 1964 that he is a tough person, resolved to build a Great American Society and simultaneously to manage the communist threat. The decision of committing United States ground forces into Vietnam ultimately doomed his presidency.
The initial need for military action is questioned by historians like Logevall who argue that American policy-makers had ready access to information which not only called into doubt the necessity of military escalation, but in addition indicated its likely futility. He questions, as a result, ‘not merely the practicality of the chosen course, but also the morality of it’ , emphasising that America knew of the consequences of escalating the Vietnam war however continued. One of Johnson’s main advisors for the Vietnam war was McNamara who admitted of a collective failure throughout the escalation process ‘to analyse our assumptions critically’ and speaks of an ignorance that was more than merely the routine but inescapable condition of all officers of state. Thus, emphasising the war was dooming due to a failure to analyse the situation clearly. Johnson understood the connections between the domestic and the foreign and sought to demonstrate to his audiences how economic well-being at home and abroad were interrelated. In Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the belief that a nation’s economic development and progress were intertwined with the nation’s stability and security bordered on sacred. However, by focusing heavily on both domestic and foreign policies ultimately drove both towards their doom.
The domestic war on poverty and the Great society was Johnson’s main goal within his domestic agenda. Johnson had plans for a Great Society which could have been the dooming factor of the Vietnam war. Johnson had more important domestic goal, to build the Great Society. Johnson metaphorically declared war on poverty in 1964, which set in motion an important period in the history of reform in United States, with it still affecting the American people decades later. Harrington states that there were “50,000,000 poor in this country” Johnson adopted the issue of poverty from Kennedy and under the tragic circumstances it gave Johnson a chance to establish his own authority, identity and constituency and show the nation that continuity was key after the assassination of Kennedy. Johnson believed that for social change to occur in the United States he reflected, “three conditions had to be met: a recognition of need, a willingness to act and someone to lead the effort” , as he felt the need, he lead the nation into the vision of the Great Society. Johnson committed himself unequivocally to passage of President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation. He believed this was only possible with improved coordination of existing federal programs and new efforts organized and carried out locally, with the government and people working together, America could win the war on poverty. Johnson forced through forty programs intended to eliminate poverty by improving living conditions and enabling people to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty, programs including the Food Stamp Act of August 1964 and the Economic Opportunity Act of March 1964. His attention and determination to eliminate poverty could have doomed the Vietnam war before it begun. The war on poverty and all the programs cost a lot of money which would soon be forced to halt due to the Vietnam war. Beyond his anti-poverty program, Johnson also legislated for society to be improved, through better schools, better health, and better homes. He wanted to help Americans lift themselves out of the misery and unemployment. He had a vision of a Great Society, Johnson wanted to transform three sectors of America society, the “cities…countryside…classrooms” , by transforming these sectors he could expand on education and eradicate poverty. Johnson’s vision of a Great Society show that there was a turning point in American politics, from a foreign vision to more of a domestic one. Johnson also had a fear of social upheaval so wanted to keep the population happy. Johnson introduced sixty separate bills that provided for new and better-equipped classrooms, minority scholarships and low interest student loans. Guaranteed health care to every American over sixty-five through Medicare and Medicaid. He introduced measures to reclaim the heritage of clear air and water and even created measures with the philosophy that artists, performers, and writers were an important part of American heritage and deserved support. Johnson managed to provide America with policies and programs to help create his Great Society. However, his Great Society may have doomed the Vietnam war as Johnson was more devoted to his domestic policies rather than his foreign policy. Carl Brauer argues that “Poverty was the right issue for the right man at the right time” , and that the Vietnam war was not his priority or core issue as a president. The domestic issue on poverty and Johnsons attention to detail in legislating it was the downfall in the failure of the Vietnam war. Johnson, of course, did not remain president for long. He pushed through most of his Great Society reforms in his first two years in office, when he had large Democratic majorities in Congress. By 1968, the war in Vietnam had led to considerable criticism of the president’s record and a major drop in his popularity, and Johnson decided not to run for re-election. Johnson was initially cautious of the Vietnam war due to his fear of that it might “distract domestic attention from Great Society reforms” , he believed the Vietnam war would be a trap that would frustrate his domestic policies. His known fear and caution of the Vietnam war shows it may have been doomed before it even begun and his domestic policies were priorities. The domestic war on poverty was an important issue for Johnson and one he gave much of his attention to, which makes it a factor as of why his war in Vietnam was a failure.
Many historians argue the Vietnam war to have been the dooming factor of Johnson’s vision of a Great Society. Nobody expected that Vietnam would kill the Great Society. As Johnson struggled to articulate a message of peace and prosperity, the growing rhythm of war drums threatened his ambitious domestic reforms. The resulting expenses from the escalation of the Vietnam war was a major cause of the failure of Johnson’s vision of a Great Society. Lyndon Johnson was fearful of a conservative backlash, which he felt would doom his Great Society, he became an unsure and troubled leader grappling with the unwanted burden of Vietnam. A Johnson administration perceived as not allocating sufficient resources to defeat communism in Vietnam would provide opponents of the Great Society the perfect argument against proceeding with costly social and economic reforms at home. As Johnson struggled to articulate a message of peace and prosperity, the growing rhythm of war drums threatened his ambitious domestic reforms. As Irving Bernstein writes in his probing study of the era, “One may speculate over what might have been if the country had remained at peace. Economic policy was working superbly in 1965 and it is likely that prosperity would have continued into 1968” emphasising what might have been for American poverty and prosperity if they weren’t involved in the Vietnam war. As president, however, Johnson did exactly that: committing U.S. ground forces to Vietnam in 1965. This decision ultimately doomed his presidency and the Great Society. Johnson’s deepest fears were “that revealing the wars full costs spelled doom for his great society” , he perceived his dilemma acutely. On the one hand, he recognized the dangers a larger war posed to the Great Society. On the other hand, he judged a lost war ruinous to his political standing and legislative effectiveness’ , Johnson didn’t want to be involved in the war and was more a domestic president, his fears were made reality when it was seen as no longer achievable and his vision of a Great Society died.
Other problems within the United States also dealt a major blow to the war in Vietnam being doomed. The battle of Civil rights was a major issue throughout the sixties. Lyndon Johnson has been credited for being one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights movement. Johnson fought on several fronts for African Americans to became equal in the United States. Many believe that Johnson launched the War on Poverty in order to attract a high percentage of black votes in the 1964 election. Johnson believed that the nations “racial problems were essentially economic in nature” and was determined to help sort the issue. The war on poverty and civil rights are quietly linked and show that the problems and home were a dooming factor in the war in Vietnam. The biggest act of the civil rights movement in American history was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which became one of the main priorities for Johnson, continuing Kennedy’s civil rights policy. The Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, is considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement. Acts like this show the importance of Johnson’s domestic policies which would have doomed his war in Vietnam. By the summer of 1964, the civil rights act was the “focus of Johnson’s political life” , this exemplifying the domestic policy Johnson had and the lack of focus on his war in Vietnam could have doomed it. With Johnson’s political life now fully focused on the civil rights act, Johnson also saw “civil rights reform as essential to the well-being of the nation” , Johnson was fearful of upheaval of his own people so saw this as a excellent opportunity to piece together no only the separated blacks and whites but also the south from the rest of America. However, the many civil right groups did protest against the Vietnam War. In a speech in April 1967, Martin Luther King stated the War was the “Greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” , In January 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “formally opposed the war, and they were soon followed by the Congress of Racial Equality” (CORE), with also superstars like Muhammad Ali and militant groups like the Black Panthers against it. As the cost of the war diminished the great society and the war on poverty Johnson had to see how he continue his civil rights policies. After the riots of the summer of 1966, he saw it sill as an important issue which would have doomed the Vietnam war. The civil rights movement and Johnsons attention to it have had many argue that he was one of the key figures in the movement, this shows how with the problems with civil rights at home, his war in Vietnam was always on the path of being a failure.
The young people of America were also a domestic issue which doomed the Vietnam war. Problems with student protests began before the Johnson era and would continue during his term. In Port Huron statement of the students for a democratic society in 1962, problems to students are introduced as their comfort has been penetrated by the events of the “struggle against racial bigotry and enclosing fact of the cold war” , these problems for the students create the problem of student protests at home and the domestic policy must continue to come before his war in Vietnam. The Quantum of suffering endured by the Vietnamese was of far greater moment to the college-based anti-war movement than it was to the public at large. Explaining why Students were “heavily involved in the early protests against the war” . Student protests against his domestic war on poverty and his war in Vietnam would have hurt Johnson and had a dooming effect on the war in Vietnam. As Johnson’s term went on, support for his agenda of domestic reforms was eroding as fiscal conservatives in both parties decried the growing cost of making America a Great Society and inner city black youth lashed at symbols of white authority and control. The protests at home mainly by the students had a dooming impact upon Johnson’s war in Vietnam.
The tactics of the war in Vietnam was a further reason Johnsons War in Vietnam was doomed. Lyndon Johnson and his advisors decided to escalate the war in hope of an ending. For Johnson, the decision to continue the war in Vietnam followed the path of his predecessors. When Johnson took office, he affirmed the Kennedy administration’s commitments. The tactics of the war in Vietnam were headed by Johnson’s advisors. On the 13th February 1965, Johnson authorized Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. On March 8th, 1965, two Marine battalions, 3,500 troops, went ashore near Da Nang to protect the airfields, with orders to shoot only if shot at. This was the first-time United States combat forces had been sent to mainland Asia since the Korean War. On April 3th, Johnson authorized two additional Marine battalions, one Marine air squadron, and an increase in logistical support units of 20,000 men. The “United States air force would be dropping bombs at a rate unequalled in history” . He also authorized troops to go on active search and destroy missions. By mid-April, Marines had moved to full-scale offensive operations. By November 1965, there were 175,000 troops and by 1966, an additional 100,000. The number would surge to 535,000 by the end of Johnson’s presidency. Oliver believes that the American decision to escalate its military commitment was made for reasons that were radically untethered from the historical conditions which actually obtained in south-east Asia had implications for much of the rest of the war’s moral history. The tactics of the war in Vietnam were that of an violent nature, “Johnson agreed to follow a more aggressive policy” towards the Vietnam war and create a tactic which would bind pressure upon the Vietnamese. The heavy bombing tactic by the United States forces was intended to destroy the will of the ordinary Vietnamese to resist, as like the bombings during the Second World War did to the Germans and Japanese. However, this never occurred. The Vietnam leaders were ready for a war and would have stood strong for twenty years and more. President Johnson wanted to resolve the crisis in Vietnam however ended by as a president who couldn’t end the war. This created a fog of uncertainty around his term and the outcome of his war in Vietnam. The tactics of the war in Vietnam were of such a violent and aggressive manner and not investigated enough that thousands of American troops needlessly died and support for Lyndon Johnson as president suffered. The tactics of the war not only doomed his war in Vietnam but also his term as president.
In conclusion, Lyndon Johnson’s War in Vietnam was not only doomed because of his domestic war on poverty but also due to problems within the United States at the time of his escalation in Vietnam and the tactics of the war itself. The story of Vietnam War as a tragedy. A tragedy for an ambitious president that could be remembered with his contribution in development of civil rights; a tragedy for a nation that was struggling to balance its ideals with its realities, and a tragedy for another, a smaller nation, that passed through the hell of the war suffering enormous casualties for nothing. The war in Vietnam was won with a decisive victory for the North Vietnamese, with it costing countless American lives and Johnson’s presidency. Johnson’s domestic war on poverty was a very important issue to him and an issue he put a lot of his time on. The domestic war on policy was a major factor on why his war in Vietnam was doomed however not the only issue. Issues at home including civil rights and protests from students also doomed his war in Vietnam as well as the tactics of the Vietnam war. The many issues of Johnson’s term seemed to doom his war in Vietnam and his presidency.