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Foreign Policy, Vietnam War, and Watergate, Johnson and Vietnam

heavy bombing of North Vietnam, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, General William Westmoreland, Great Society programs, limited war

Johnson was in a dilemma. If he increased American military aid to Vietnam, he would have to divert funds from his Great Society programs, and he might prod China into war. If he withdrew American aid, however, he risked the politically damaging charge that he was “soft” on Communism. Most important, Johnson did not want to be the first American president to lose a war. He enlarged the war in Vietnam.

After an allegedly unprovoked attack on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam in August 1964, Johnson authorized limited bombing raids on North Vietnam. At the administration’s request, Congress then offered an almost unanimous resolution, known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, that enabled the president to use military force in Vietnam. In 1965, after a landslide victory in the 1964 election—when voters endorsed his platform of domestic reform and peace abroad—Johnson again escalated American involvement. By 1968 more than 500,000 troops were in Vietnam, and the United States had begun heavy bombing of North Vietnam.

The United States never declared war on North Vietnam or made a total commitment to winning the war. Vietnam remained a limited war, one in which the United States purposely refrained from employing all its military strength. The American commander, General William Westmoreland, sought to inflict heavy losses on the North Vietnamese and to destroy their morale. But the North Vietnamese were tenacious. In January 1968 they launched a massive attack known as the Tet Offensive, which severely damaged U.S. forces and reached the American embassy compound in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. South Vietnam and the United States finally turned back the Tet Offensive, but with heavy losses. Americans could not see an end to the war, and its costs, both economic and human, rose alarmingly.

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