On this day in1965 the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. In an extract from his book, The Lowdown: A Short History of the Origins of the Vietnam War, David L. Anderson talks about that time.
The aging Ho Chi Minh and the Politburo in Hanoi would not be bullied by America’s brandishing of its power. They, in fact, accelerated military activity in the South, where tensions between Buddhists and Catholics continued and civilian and military leaders in the RVN government jockeyed for power. Having crossed the bombing threshold in August, a majority of Johnson's inner circle recommended the use of more American air power. Under-secretary of State George Ball warned Johnson that bombing the North was not effective against insurgents in the South and risked a possible military reaction from China or the USSR in defense of Hanoi. Most of the president's other aides argued, however, that bombing could invigorate southern morale, slow infiltration, and intimidate the North. Furthermore, if the RVN fell to the DRV, Moscow and Beijing might decide that their idea of national liberation could work elsewhere in the world. Consequently, Johnson approved a top secret plan in December 1964 to escalate U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.
In the first half of 1965 Johnson gradually Americanized the combat against the DRV and NLF with a phased program of air bombardment of North and South Vietnam and staged deployments of entire U.S. combat divisions to the RVN. In February he ordered a retaliatory bombing after the Vietcong attacked an American advisers’ barracks at Pleiku. Within days, U.S. Air Force bombers from bases in Thailand and U.S. Navy aircraft from carriers in the South China Sea were attacking enemy military targets on both sides of the 17th parallel and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Code named ROLLING THUNDER, this bombing campaign became a regular and expanding feature of the American war in Vietnam. The thousands of tons of high explosives dropped by U.S. aircraft on Indochina eventually exceeded the total tonnage of the entire air war by all sides during the Second World War. This massive bombing of an agricultural country with virtually no built-up infrastructure did not make the Saigon government more popular.
In the slightly more than six months after Diem’s death, five different governments rotated in and out of the presidential palace in Saigon. In June 1965, a group of military officers commonly known as the Young Turks, headed by Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, took charge. One U.S. official lamented that the RVN leadership had reached “absolutely the bottom of the barrel.” Washington had sent Westmoreland 3,500 Marines in March to protect the air base at Danang. With survival of the American-backed regime at stake, the American commander requested more, a lot more American ground forces.
During July, Johnson weighed the request in numerous meetings with his advisers. He did not consult the Young Turks in Saigon, nor did he heed isolated counsels of caution from George Ball. He accepted the overwhelming consensus of his closest advisers that U.S. military pressure would bring what Secretary of Defense McNamara described as “a favorable solution to the Vietnam problem.” Johnson remained a reluctant warrior. He confided to one aide that “I want war like I want polio, [but] what you want and what your image is are two different things.” He believed, however, that he had no choice in the matter, because he viewed any diplomatic settlement as a political victory for Hanoi and, by extension, Moscow and Beijing.
On July 28, 1965, at a White House news conference and with no fanfare, Johnson revealed that 50,000 American troops were going to South Vietnam. He described North Vietnam as waging a war of overt military aggression against South Vietnam. “We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else,” he claimed. The Vietnam War had become the American war in Vietnam, but Johnson did not declare it a war. In the weeks that followed he preferred to talk publicly about his Great Society’s “war on poverty” at home. As with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Johnson was not being candid about his actions. By the end of 1965, there were over 184,000 American in South Vietnam, and by1968 there would be over 500,000 U.S. troops fighting there. The United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam were at war. – David L. Anderson