Despite a folksy manner and intonation, which some Americans took as proof that he was only a regional man, Johnson knew that there was beyond the Pedernales a vastly different world full of treacherous risks. He sensed, too, that his place in history might ultimately depend on how he managed foreign affairs. He was no reader of history, but he had watched intently the doings of his predecessors and had an elephant's memory for their mistakes, particularly those that were politically expensive. He had seen how Truman's experience in "losing" China had hounded the Missourian to the end of his administration. He had pondered the frustration that Castro's coming to power had caused the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Moreover, Johnson could vividly recall—and the details were constantly at the tip of his tongue—the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt and his people to buck the isolationist tide in the late 1930s and early 1940s. For Johnson that experience was like a remembered time of terror he did not wish to relive. Forthright steps like those he had taken in the Dominican Republic would help prevent it. They became linked with the war in Vietnam when he called upon Congress on 4 May 1965 for the sum of $700 million in additional military appropriations for both undertakings.
The Vietnam situation was a time bomb in the administration. Inherited from Kennedy and Eisenhower, like most of the problems Johnson faced, it gradually became an overwhelming force. During the campaign of 1964, it was beginning to move to the center of public attention. It had been creeping up slowly for years. At the time of Kennedy's assassination more than sixteen thousand Americans were stationed in Vietnam, and the danger of deeper involvement enlarged as the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem began to cause widespread unrest.
Johnson himself had visited South Vietnam as vice president and had seen at first hand how heavily American prestige was already committed there. Scarcely become president, though, he was privately telling confidants (which we now know from his telephone taping), "I don't think it's worth fighting for." Johnson, nevertheless, was about to become "the Vietnam president," unable to win the war the way he understood it had to be fought and unable to extricate the United States on terms he believed acceptable. Still, he was determined: "I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went."
Hardly settled into his own term of office in 1965, Johnson confronted on 6 February a Vietcong attack on the American barracks at Pleiku. Two days before the election a costly attack on the American installation at Bien Hoa had gone unanswered. Now American B-52 bombers assaulted North Vietnam, the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, the program of gradually intensified air attacks. Johnson ordered that American dependents be evacuated from Saigon. At the same time, the American military presence in Vietnam was beefed up.
At a news conference on 27 April, Johnson stated the issue as he saw it. The United States, he declared, is "engaged in a crucial issue in Vietnam.. . . Defeat in South Vietnam would deliver a friendly nation to terror and repression. It would encourage and spur on those who seek to conquer all free nations that are within their reach." The "domino theory" of the Eisenhower era received new reinforcement. If North Vietnam succeeded in taking over South Vietnam, said the president, "our own welfare, our own freedom would be in danger." He added: "This is the clearest lesson of our time. From Munich until today we have learned that to yield to aggression brings only greater threats and brings even more destructive war." He was certain that "this is the same battle which we [have] fought for a generation." He stood ready, he declared, to enter into unconditional discussions with the North Vietnamese. Even as he spoke so resolutely, the process was under way that would erode the Johnson administration and gradually turn the nation against him in scenes of fitful violence unprecedented in the history of the presidency. From the beginning of his presidency he was anguished over his plight, musing privately that "when I land troops they call me an interventionist [referring to his move in the Dominican Republic], and if I do nothing I'll be impeached." So, the troubling buildup in Vietnam continued. There were 33,500 American soldiers and marines in Vietnam in April 1965; there were 75,000 by the end of June. And the mission of the troops was gradually broadened from static defense to permit patrolling of the countryside.
Even as the American troop commitment was growing, Johnson had grave doubts about the course he had set the country on. Anxiously, he asked former President Eisenhower: "[Do] you think that we can really get beat out there?" And he was saying to Lady Bird Johnson, his most trusted confidante: "Vietnam is getting worse every day. I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It's like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing with the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute."
In June, American forces took on an active role against the Vietcong in a zone northwest of Saigon. Nevertheless, the troops were instructed not to initiate offensive action. The air strikes, furthermore, were confined to nonindustrial targets some distance removed from Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, and Haiphong, its principal port.
In July the military situation in South Vietnam worsened noticeably. The government was shakier than ever, and the Vietcong were pressing the attack. On 28 July the president announced that 50,000 more Americans would be sent to the war zone immediately. And he was looking further down the road: "Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested." Johnson talked once again of the stakes: "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." By the end of 1965, there were almost 185,000 uniformed Americans in Vietnam, and the end was not in sight.
The war, moreover, was spreading beyond Vietnam. The United States felt free to take action in Cambodia if necessary to protect American troops in South Vietnam. The bombing of infiltration routes in Laos was being intensified. And the bombardment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail leading from North Vietnam was raising the specter of possible Chinese intervention in the war. Johnson and his intimates were unable to define what a victory would be, and they were terrified of "another Korea"—a war with an indecisive outcome. Instead of victory, they preferred the phrase favorable settlement —defined by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara as coming about when the North Vietnamese ceased feeding "the fires of subversion and aggression in South Vietnam" so that South Vietnam could gradually "expand its control and shape the outcome." The president continued to use the words winning and losing . Until early 1968 he believed what he had been saying in mid-1965: "I know the other side is winning; so they do, too. No man wants to trade when he's winning." So he concluded that the United States would have to "apply the maximum deterrent until [the enemy] sobers up and unloads his pistol." Johnson persisted in a mistaken conviction that Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, was, like most other politicians, ready sooner or later to make a deal.
At Christmastime 1965 the president conducted a worldwide effort—the "Johnson peace offensive"—aimed at commencing negotiations. Vice President Hubert Humphrey sped off to meet with Soviet Premier Kosygin in New Delhi; Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg visited with Pope Paul VI, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk conferred in Saigon with South Vietnamese officials. The veteran diplomatic troubleshooter Averell Harriman went behind the Iron Curtain to present the position of the administration to ranking officials in Warsaw and Belgrade. The good offices of U Thant, the secretary general of the United Nations, were also earnestly enlisted. The peace offensive, launched with a dramatic and well-publicized halt in the bombing of the North, ended after thirty-seven days on 31 January 1966—an unmitigated failure.