Was LBJ a reluctant warrior? “If we quit Vietnam tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to be fighting in San Francisco.” Vietnam was described by Senator Richard B Russell, as ‘the damned worst mess he ever saw.” The Vietnam war was the longest war America has ever seen. Resulting in almost 60,000 deaths of Americans, alongside two million Vietnamese deaths, it was one of the most traumatic wars America has ever seen. One of the most popular questions in America is whether Vietnam was an idealistic effort to protect South Vietnam from the totalitarian regime that was encroaching from the North, to prevent the spread of Communism, whether they fell into it my mistake and if it was necessary. From 22 November 1963 – 20 January 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson was president. The Vietnam war played a massive part in his presidency, and whether or not to de-escalate or not was an important question or not, deeming whether he was a reluctant warrior, or if he was keen to be a part of the war. The section of Johnson’s presidency that I will be assessing was undoubtedly detrimental to the Vietnam war, as Johnson’s presidency seemingly was to the war. Johnson was president for six years, throughout some of the most important years of the Vietnam War. throughout this extended period, it is more than likely Johnson’s reluctancy to Throughout his presidency Johnson made gains in many areas aside from Vietnam. He was the man who realised the worth of the ‘Black Vote’ using the issue of civil rights, putting the presidential stamp of approval on the 1964 Civil rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Johnson believed that he was an idealist who wanted to make America a ‘Great Society’. While in many aspects he was a great president, and despite his claims of the case, Johnson was not a reluctant warrior. The above quote gives the impression that if Johnson was a reluctant warrior, he would have done whatever possible to avoid being at war anywhere, and given the chance left by Kennedy to de-escalate, he would have done so. However, as explored throughout my essay, this is simply not the case as there is proof that in many cases, Johnson was the only body willing to escalate in Vietnam, proving his willingness to be involved in the conflict in Vietnam. Johnson was frequently advised by his administration that it was not necessary for him to interfere further, as it would only make things worse for the USA. Johnson was undoubtedly willing to go to war, as all of these factors contribute to it, proving him not to be a reluctant warrior. This section will explore the debate that Johnson was a reluctant warrior because Kennedy’s actions pushed Johnson into a position in Vietnam that he did not want to be in. This point is incorrect because Kennedy was planning on de-escalating the USA in Vietnam before his assassination, leading me to believe that Johnson was not a reluctant warrior, as it was possible to de-escalate and he decided against it. Lyndon B. Johnson was a reluctant warrior, only entering the war due to the assassination and policies of Kennedy. The legacy left by Kennedy was one of the most vital reasons that Lyndon B. Johnson was reluctant when entering into the Vietnam War in 1963. His presidency, from 1963 to 1969 began directly in the middle of the Vietnam War, which ranged over 20 years from 1955 to 1975. The timing of his presidency leads to the question of whether he was reluctant all the way through the presidency, or if it was exclusive to a part of his period in Vietnam.  The argument that LBJ was forced to enter into the war due to the political circumstance that had been left behind by his predecessor, John F. Kennedy,  is aptly summed up by LBJ’s own reflection on his presidency in 1971 ‘I considered myself the caretaker of both his people and his policies … I did what I believed he would have wanted me to. I never wavered from that sense of responsibility, even after I was elected in my own right, up to my last day in office.’   The source proves that LBJ saw himself as a caretaker of Kennedy’s policies. His reluctance to enter Vietnam, goes hand in hand with his reluctance to retrogress what Kennedy had left in place before his assassination in 1963. LBJ’s use of the word ‘his’ evidences how reluctant he really was, as he did not see the people of the USA as his, even though he was now president. Thus, he believe that he was merely doing a job for Kennedy, and was maintaining his people from his presidency, rather than making his own changes and doing what he believed was the right thing to do. Furthermore, Johnson believes that his presidency was menaced by Kennedy’s time in office, this is evident when he says ‘I did what I believed he would have wanted me to’. This suggests that Johnson was not making decisions for himself, instead for the assassinated Kennedy. This source epitomises the idea that LBJ was a ‘reluctant warrior’, as he was pushed into the war by the situation he was in, not because he believed that the USA’s participation in the war was beneficial for the country’s foreign policy. To counter the idea that he was forced into the war by the policies of Kennedy, Chip Rolley, writing for ABC news Australia cites ‘It is because he believes that his presidency was a failure, thus trying to shift the blame onto the idea that he did it in favour of Kennedy’s policies’. Johnson saw protecting these policies as his ‘responsibility’. However, if he didn’t change his policies when he was elected in his own right, then he could not be conceived as reluctant, as if he was, he would have changed the foreign policy towards Vietnam as soon as he could without the fear of losing all popular support.  Through this source, as a reflection on his presidency, Kennedy is suggesting that he was reluctant, and furthermore hugely respectful of what Kennedy had achieved, being the ‘caretaker’ of everything he had achieved, defending his skills as a president, while simultaneously insinuating that he did not attempt to do anything original while in office, only trying to maintain a sense of cohesion through his presidency. While it is true that he escalated the war, as he believes he has multiple reasons for doing so, such as the idea of containment policy in the Truman doctrine and as a direct response to the escalation of Hanoi. To prove LBJ’s reluctance to the war, he said when speaking the Martin Luther King Jr, unaware of the kind of quagmire that he was getting the nation into, ‘I want war like I want polio’; but he didn’t have a choice. Decisions were made regarding war before he came into power, and once a decision is halfway made, he could not simply remove himself from the situation, risking the whole global reputation of the USA, as well his personal reputation, and failing the priority of many a president before him, containment. Historian Robert Dallek writing for ‘The Atlantic’ in April 1998 writes that even as he decided to escalate the war, Johnson had massive doubts about Vietnam than ever imagined. He began to believe what he was preaching to the nations about the necessity of fighting in Vietnam, yet simultaneously he saw that foreboding quagmire. In May 1964, Senator Richard Russell told Johnson that Vietnam was ‘the damn worst mess I ever saw’, to which LBJ replied ‘That’s the way I’ve been feelin’ for six months’.  The time frame of this source tells us that  LBJ was a reluctant warrior, as six months prior to the source, America were yet to enter into Vietnam. This was closely followed by LBJ telling McGeorge Bundy, his national-security adviser, “The more I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more … it looks to me like we’re gettin’ into another Korea…. I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damned mess…. What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country?”. This series of primary sources proves more than anything ever could that Johnson was a reluctant warrior, not simply a president who made a mistake and attempted to disguise it through blaming the policies of others.  It is evident from the last few weeks of Kennedy’s presidency that he wanted to de-escalate the conflict in Vietnam, in the October of his last year in office allegedly ordered a full withdrawal from Vietnam as evaluated by historian James Galbraith, writing in the Boston review in 2003. Dallek also believes that before Johnson entered America into Vietnam, he had assessed its worth, and come up with its worth of not a lot. To disprove the popular argument that he must have been for the war in Vietnam due to his escalation, the president said, after increasing the combat troops in Vietnam in July of 1965 he expressed sincere doubts of “Light at the end of the tunnel?” he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers. “We don’t even have a tunnel; we don’t even know where the tunnel is.” Kennedy pushed Johnson into a situation where he couldn’t help but go to war; the popularity; coupled with the death of Kennedy meant that Johnson could not go against the decisions of his predecessor, proving him to be a reluctant warrior. While it could be argued that Johnson was a reluctant warrior, and was only entering into Vietnam in order to upkeep Kennedy’s policies, this simply can not be the case, as when he gained popular sovereignty in 1965 he escalated the US foreign policy in Vietnam, thus rendering this argument futile. The debate that Lyndon B. Johnson was not a reluctant warrior due to the fact that he entered into and escalated the war in Vietnam despite the advice of his advisors, such as Hubert Humphrey’s advice to avoid it is correct. This argument proves my overall thesis that he was not a reluctant warrior, as it was clearly avoidable to either enter into the war so strongly, or to enter into it at all. LBJ’s entry into Vietnam may have been reluctant from his perspective, but numerous people had warned him, people both inside and outside of the government advised him not to enter, thus proving him not completely reluctant to the prospect of war, as it was avoidable. From the point of view of many historians in retrospect to the war, it is obvious that Johnson could be described as a ‘warmonger’. A warmonger is a person who encourages or advocates aggression towards other countries or groups, something which defines the actions of LBJ fairly accurately. Not only did LBJ embroil the USA in the war, he escalated it far beyond the point it needed to be, transforming it from a limited war into a full war. Many a historian, including Robert Dallek, but in particular Fred Kaplan, argue that if JFK had survived, he would not have entered into Vietnam. This is strongly evidenced by the memo issued by JFK issuing an 1,000 troop pullout shortly before his death, or the interview with Walter Cronkite in which he says the war is not the USA’s, but instead belonged to South Vietnam, reinstating his lack of confidence in the conflict, and assuring the Senator Mike Mansfield that he’d withdraw from Vietnam as soon as he won the election in 1964. Both his mentor, Senator Richard Russell, as well as his vice-president Hubert Humphrey and Undersecretary of State George Ball advised Johnson against the Americanization of conflict in Vietnam. The war, they believed could only be limited in scope, thus the job not being able to be finished, meaning an open-ended commitment for the USA, resulting in lack of certainty and an element of danger to the decisions that America made. Johnson’s advisors, rather wisely wanted to avoid the permission of an invasion of North Vietnam due to fears of provoking a fully fledged war with the Communist superpowers.  While Johnson said “I don’t think the people of the country know much about Vietnam and I think they care a hell of lot less.” In theory opposing Vietnam; he is once again defending the mistakes he made through attempting to claim that he was the most knowledgeable about Vietnam, and the opposition of the people of the country was ill-advised, thus being incorrect, frankly telling them to stop. A lot of what LBJ has said in reflection upon his presidency and his time in Vietnam appears quite defensive. This is most likely because the vast majority of people, including historian John Kirschner believed that his policy towards Vietnam was stupid and unnecessary, thus his attempt to shift the blame on to anyone possible; namely Kennedy. Historian David White believes that Johnson’s deepening involvement in Vietnam was ultimately futile, as it meant that he left a legacy of 58,200 dead soldiers, a massive drain on the finances of the country, a defined split in society and a damage to the reputation of the USA. The policy Johnson entered the war with with created a greater communist threat, as it became based on domino theory, this being enlarged when the French were beaten in South East Asia. When Kennedy was in office, he also maintained the regime of containment. However, he was continuing his predecessors containment policy, but realised that he needed to make a stand elsewhere in order to have any success in Vietnam. Johnson took a stand, which enveloped the idea that tyrannies were not to be mollified, starting in July 1965: If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise, or in American protection. An Asia so threatened by Communist domination would certainly imperil the security of the United States itself. We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else. Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueller conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.       This source sums up Johnson’s motivations behind Vietnam; the fear of public opinion of the USA and his time in office. If he was not to enter into the war in Vietnam, the USA would fall as far as possible from a state in which it could be considered a superpower, as well as losing all sense of security. His mentioning of  Hitler, the greatest evil dictator to ever live does not positively contribute to his desired image of a Reluctant Warrior, as it only serves to bring his image closer to this role. He pins the war as a learning lesson, something which neither defends his image, nor gives him strength as a leader. In conclusion to this, from the actions taken by Johnson throughout the war, it is evident from the view of the people, and most importantly from the advice of his advisors, he was not reluctant to go to war in Vietnam. Furthermore, something which may have contributed to Johnson’s reluctance to enter into Vietnam was the situation the Cold War at the time. While it can be considered viable that Johnson was reluctant to enter into Vietnam, this is incorrect. because of the actual situation in Vietnam at the time, as well as LBJ’s actions when he was in Vietnam. Historian Fredrik Logevall argues that US Vietnamese relations date back to World War II. The decisions that were made by Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, alongside those of their counterparts in Vietnam laid the groundwork for the break out of a full war. The context of the Cold War contributed to Johnson’s involvement in Vietnam. Although this context meant that it was two years previous to Johnson becoming president the United States had promised to support South Vietnam against Communist aggression, highlighting the terror they felt towards the spread of Communism, as it was suddenly a major threat. Subsequently, on 11th December 1961, the first American troops arrived in South Vietnam, and North Vietnam had set up The National Liberation Army (Vietcong). Johnson could be argued to be a reluctant warrior as he couldn’t have left the war alone as Vietnam was vital for the protection of the USA in the Cold War. If they were to let Vietnam go, the threat of the spread of Communism would be so rife that it would be more than likely that the US would be attacked, and even more countries would be taken over by Communism.In the larger public opinion, no Cold War agreement existed that demanded such strong commitment to South Vietnam, thus deeming the context of the Cold War irrelevant to Johnson’s decision making. It could be argued that due to the context of the Cold War at the time, Johnson was a reluctant warrior as he was forced into entrance and escalation in Vietnam due to what he was about to enter into. However, this is wrong because the USA had just begun in Vietnam, and they were yet to make any vast movements which would have left them embroiled in Vietnam, giving Johnson plenty of opportunity to get out or decrease any actions within Vietnam at the beginning of his reign.The state of the Cold War when Johnson entered into it was as such: American troops had just arrived in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem had just been assassinated and the Vietcong were up and running in North Vietnam. While it is true that Vietnam was vital to the protection of the USA, Johnson actually increased the risk that the USA was under by engaging them in the war, as they became more of a target for Communists, as the threat grew and the war heated up. “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country? … It’s damn easy to get in a war, but it’s going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.” In this source, Johnson is trying to claim that Vietnam is worthless to him, and that he was reluctant to be involved in Vietnam, as he did not see the worth in it for the country, once again attempting to blame other people for his failures in the war. Furthermore, as an act of self defence, he suggests that it is so easy to get involved in a war, which is what Kennedy did, but much harder to extricate yourself from it. This is completely incorrect as their are no examples of Johnson attempting to extricate the USA from Vietnam at any point, such as in 1964, when he requested that Congress would increase involvement in Indochina. In conclusion to my argument in this section of my essay, it is evident that the impact of what was going on at this time in the Cold War had absolutely nothing to do with Johnson’s decision to go to Vietnam, as proven by the numerous voices inside and outside the government rejecting the administration’s claim that maintaining an independent, non-communist South Vietnam was imperative to the USA’s survival in the Cold War. This section will explore that Johnson’s advisers informed him about the realities of the threat of Communism.  Johnson genuinely believed in the threat of communism and the implications that came with this. Further to this, the realities of the Cold War and the context which led to Johnson embroiling the USA in Vietnam. The reality of the Cold War was that the West was increasingly being threatened by the East, and there was a growing threat of invasion in America. At the time Johnson came to power, the Soviet Union, United States and Britain sign a nuclear test-ban treaty and China had exploded its first atomic bomb. While post-revisionist theorists have argued that the USA had an anti-Soviet policy before the beginning of the Cold War and Marshall Plan in 1947 as a method of attempting to play the emotions of the world to install Communist regimes throughout the world. As aforementioned, LBJ’s advisors played a huge part in his administration and the actions he took. However, evidence suggests that they failed to inform him of the realities of the threat of communism, and how seriously he needed to take the war in order for the USA to combat this threat.  Whilst it is true that Johnson’s advisors suggested that he attempted to avoid war at all costs, the very nature of the Cold War suggests that there was not actually a great threat of Communism for the USA, and that the only threat they were really suffering under was that of Communist expansion. With this in consideration, there were many different options open the LBJ with regards to Vietnam, not only military action. The fact that Johnson chose to take part in options such as sending the troops in and jumping straight into it with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution suggests LBJ was not a reluctant warrior. Stabilizing the South was a way in which Johnson could have avoided total warfare in Vietnam, rather than the bombing campaign of the North, which is what Kennedy was aiming to achieve in his presidency, as a truly reluctant warrior. In March 8 1965, two battalions of marines came ashore of the beaches at Danang. These troops were the first set of Combat troops that the United States had dispatched to South Vietnam in order to support the South Korean government to deal with what historians David Coleman and Marc Selverstone argue to be ‘increasingly lethal Communist insurgency’. The bombing raids that had happened in the North at this time were the first in what became three years of sustained bombing which targeted the north of the seventeenth parallel, and these troops were the first in a three year escalation of the US military escalation fighting the counterinsurgency below the seventeenth parallel. Consequently, this Americanized the war in which the Vietnamese had been fighting for a long time. This proves that Johnson was not a reluctant warrior, as he was the first person to put troops into Vietnam.  The Gulf of Tonkin incident authorised Johnson to do whatever necessary to repel any armed attack against the forces of the USA and to prevent any further aggression coming from the Communist government of Vietnam. Due to the other options which were easily available to him, and retrospectively would have meant a better result for the people of both Vietnam and the USA, Johnson quite readily jumped into signing the Gulf of Tonkin incident, without any other attempts at maintaining the peace between the nations. Thus, the above examples show that Johnson was not a reluctant warrior as he easily jumped into full scale conflict and agreements to do so in Vietnam, where there were other options possible. My argument is conclusive in the answer that Johnson was certainly not a reluctant warrior with regards to the Vietnam war. Despite his constant claims that he did not want to be a part of the war and that he felt pressured into it, both from his advisors and from the legacy left by Kennedy. Whilst it is true that he was encouraged by his advisors to take action in Vietnam, it is completely false to state that he was ‘the caretaker of Kennedy’s policies’. Multiple pieces of evidence show that this is not the case, and in actuality, Kennedy wanted the opposite of escalation in Vietnam, before his assassination searching for ways to get out of the mess that they were about to become embroiled in. Furthermore, Johnson’s decision to sign the Gulf of Tonkin treaty, instead of choosing other, more diplomatic methods to combat the rising communist insurgency in Vietnam. The main argument stems from the question ‘What choice did he have?’; but the answer is that he did have a choice. At the beggining of the war Johnson claimed that he was, indeed, reluctant to enter into the war in Vietnam. While this argument has a lot of merit to it, he felt that following in Kennedy’s footsteps and that previous administrations had pushed him to engage in the conflict. As far as Johnson believed this, it is completely incorrect. Most importantly for my argument is the fact that Kennedy, Johnson’s predecessor before he was assassinated, did not want escalation or a fully fledged war in Vietnam; instead opting for a limited war. Not only does this demonstrate his unwillingness to go to war, but also his disillusionment towards the war and the decisions made, emphasising the importance of the opinions of his advisors. Whilst it is possible that Johnson saw that there was no choice for him but to become involved in the conflict in Vietnam, my arguments conclude that he wasn’t, as all evidence analysed in this essay prove that Lyndon B. Johnson was not a reluctant warrior when entering into the Vietnam war. Johnson’s presidency became synonymous with Vietnam, obviously naturally wanting to defend his decisions. Nonetheless, it is clear that he felt that he was backed into a corner to begin with. Although this is true, the manner in which he escalated the war suggests that he was anything but reluctant, as exemplified by operations such as Rolling Thunder and the Gulf of Tonkin agreement.

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