At the beginning, Eisenhower had solidly refused to put U.S. combat troops into action. He’d further warned Kennedy against any direct U.S. engagement in the fighting in Vietnam.
At the end of Ike’s time in office, America had 900 military observers in Vietnam, in January 1961. JFK sent combat troops in large numbers. By November 1963, there were 16,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground, and casualties began.
The transition from Eisenhower to Kennedy was a transition from a United States policy of strictly avoiding the presence of any combat troops in Vietnam, and strictly avoiding any direct military engagement in the conflict there, to JFK’s policy of direct military involvement with large number of soldiers.
If the Kennedy administration represented a decision to plunge America into the war, then the Johnson administration represented a decision to escalate massively the war effort.
President Johnson increased troop levels. By 1968, there were 536,100 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
More forces on the ground meant more fighting, more wounded, more POWs, more MIAs, and more deaths. The majority of the 58,307 fatalities in Vietnam took place during the Johnson administration - 16,899 in 1968 alone.
President Johnson also notoriously micro-managed the military. Normally, trained and experienced military officers make strategic and tactical decisions. Johnson, however, began to schedule Air Force missions and select their targets. The result was both frustration on the part of the officers and inefficacy of the missions and of the military presence generally.
LBJ’s enlarged war effort provoked a domestic social crisis.
While some Americans were supported the continued military efforts, and while others were rabidly anti-war, many were internally torn. Rarely, if ever, in the nation’s history had a military endeavor been so criticized.
While most voters saw and recognized the socialist communist threat posed by North Vietnam, and the shredding of human rights which its victory would mean, they also saw on daily TV the brutality of combat, and questioned whether the deaths of young American soldiers was the best way to counter North Vietnam.
The reader will be aware of the significant social upheaval which resulted from concerns about the war in Vietnam, but which also resulted from, and synergized with, other societal concerns, ranging from drug use to efforts to undermine cultural frameworks.
Large public demonstrations and other protests put pressure on both political parties to offer some solution to the public.
The Democrats were divided amongst themselves. Some, the ‘hawks,’ wanted to maintain the patterns of Kennedy and Johnson, and to keep large-scale military commitments in Vietnam.
Others, the ‘doves,’ wanted an immediate end to the U.S. presence and to the draft.
With two extreme factions, the Democratic Party was at war with itself, and the few moderate voices were drowned out. Each of the two sides seemed oblivious to the disadvantages of their hardline stances: either stubbornly continuing the massive war effort, or abruptly creating a power vacuum by eliminating the American presence.
As his party disintegrated, Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not seek reelection.
The Republicans took a more nuanced approach. In their 1968 platform document, they sought “a coherent program for peace,” and to develop that program in “the cause of long-range world peace.”
Critics alleged that the Republicans were too ambiguous in their wording, but the voters were tired of the extremism in other party. In August 1968, William F. Buckley said, during a TV commentary,
Yes, it is an ambiguous plank. And there is no question but that the war in Vietnam having been so badly fought, not as the result of any failure in our military but as a result of a failure in our policy, has led to a great confusion. The war in Vietnam is not justifiable in the opinion of Mr. Nixon unless it in fact represents a salient, which is armed by the communist world, however loosely spoken of, which is directed against our best interests. It was because Mr. Kennedy and subsequently Mr. Johnson believed that it was, in which point of view every single one of the people who are professionally charged with evaluating America’s interests concurred that it was that we went to war there. But we failed to win it.
In early August 1968, neither party had chosen its nominee for the presidential elections. The war was a central question in both the primary elections before the conventions, and later at the conventions themselves.
The Democratic Party hoped to harness the energy of the radicals who organized public protests against the Vietnam War. But Kennedy and Johnson were both identified with the core of the party.
Because Johnson’s decisions seemed to come at the cost of massive casualties while failing to achieve victory in the war, Buckley noted that “the failure to win it has caused a number of developments not the least of which is the domestic turmoil from which” some segments of the Democratic “party seek to profiteer.”
In late 1968, the political process moved quickly. Nixon received the GOP’s nomination, and was decisively elected in November.
Working to create a friendlier relationship with China, Nixon thereby reduced China’s enthusiasm for North Vietnam, and reduced the likelihood that Vietnam would become merely an extension of China.
Nixon ended both the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the draft. The North quickly conquered the South, and the two halves were united under the North’s socialist government. China, however, was not on friendly terms with the North, and so the undesirable situation of Vietnam becoming an extension of Chinese communism was avoided.