War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1945 - 1964) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1945 - 1964)

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A soldier crying witht he peace symbol in his helmet
I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.
- President Dwight D Eisenhower

'Operation Dewey Canyon III' was the name given to one of the most powerful protests against United States military involvement in Vietnam. The action, in which nearly 1000 veterans of that war returned their medals and campaign ribbons by throwing them over a barricade erected around the United States Capital Building, was sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and lasted five days. United States military involvement in Vietnam was sponsored by the United States government, and lasted 30 years.


The Democratic Republic of Vietnam is Created

During World War II, the United States was allied with the Viet Minh, a communist-influenced Vietnamese independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh, against the French Vichy administration in Vietnam. The Vichy administration was cooperating with occupying Japanese forces. The United States provided some arms to the Viet Minh guerrilla forces, commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap. American officials and officers expressed support and admiration for Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh issued the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in September 1945. That document began with a long quotation from the United States Declaration of Independence. Regional leaders of the OSS (which evolved into the CIA) and US military leaders in Vietnam celebrated. General Philip Gallagher, chief of the US Military Advisory and Assistance Group, sang the Viet Minh's national Anthem on Hanoi radio.

Mixed Signals?

Within two months, at least eight US troopships were diverted from their mission of bringing American troops home from World War II. These ships were used to transport French troops and Foreign Legionnaires from France into Vietnam, to begin a recolonization process. These troops and Legionnaires had been armed, at least partly, by the United States. America's first casualty in Vietnam was killed in 1945. On 26 September, 1945, Lt Col A Peter Dewey, head of American OSS mission, was killed by Viet Minh troops while driving a jeep to the airport, from which he was going to leave the country. Reports later indicated that his death was due to a case of mistaken identity - he had been mistaken for a Frenchman. On the day of his death, Dewey had offered his opinion on United States involvement in Vietnam:

Cochinchina is burning, the French and British are finished here, and we [the United States] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.

The First Protest

The entire crews of four of these ships, all members of the US Merchant Marine, prepared a resolution condemning the US government for its use of US ships to transport troops 'to subjugate the native population' of Vietnam.

With the return of the French in 1945, Ho Chi Minh was forced to accept nominal autonomy for Vietnam as a member of the French Union. Vietnamese/French hostilities resumed in 1946.

1954 - 1960

Viet Minh Forces began an attack on a French military installation at Dien Bien Phu on 13 March, 1954. The French garrison surrendered on 7 May, after about 25,000 Vietnamese and more that 1500 French troops had died.

France had requested military assistance from the United States during this battle. President Dwight Eisenhower declined the request for direct military intervention in Vietnam, against the advice of Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur W Radford.

Peace talks on Indochina began in Geneva, attended by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV - later known as North Vietnam), the Associated State of Vietnam (later known as South Vietnam), Cambodia, Laos, France, Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

The cease-fire agreement reached in these talks, which was signed only by France and the DRV, resulted in the Country of Vietnam being divided in two, with all French forces to remain in the Southern portion of the country and the Viet Minh forces to stay in the North. Bao Dai was to lead the South and Ho Chi Minh was to lead the North.

The DRV, France, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union endorsed a second agreement, known as the final declaration. The final declaration provided for national elections to be held in both the North and the South, in July of 1956, to decide who would lead the unified country. This declaration stated that the military demarcation line was provisional and 'should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political territorial boundary'. Neither the United States nor the Associated State of Vietnam approved the final declaration. This refusal has been interpreted by many historians as stemming from the belief that Ho Chi Minh would have easily won such an election.

While refusing to endorse the final declaration, representatives of the United States did promise to refrain from the threat or use of force to disturb the agreements. President Eisenhower wrote to Ngo Dinh Diem, the Prime Minister of the government recognized in the southern half of Vietnam, promising United States support for a noncommunist Vietnam.

It was in 1954 that President Eisenhower related the 'domino theory', as related to the spread of Communism, to the media. US combat teams organized covert warfare to support Diem that same year.

You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

The United States began to directly aid South Vietnam in January 1955. American advisors began arriving the following month to train South Vietnamese army troops. In August 1955, Diem issued a statement formally refusing to participate in consultations with the DRV, which had been called for by the Geneva Agreement to prepare for national elections. On 26 October, 1955, he easily defeated his only opponent, Bao Dai, in an election held in the Associated State of Vietnam only, and became president of the new Republic of [South] Vietnam.

The last French troops left Vietnam in 1956. At this time, the United States sponsored Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) assumed official responsibility for training the South Vietnamese military.

MAAG continued a quiet (to the world outside of Vietnam) presence in Vietnam, in ever-increasing numbers, as the civil war there expanded.

1961 - 1963

In 1961, the United States sent in official combat advisors, at President Diem's request. American Vice President Lyndon Johnson toured Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), telling Diem that he was crucial to US objectives in Vietnam and calling him 'the Churchill of Asia'. American President John F Kennedy authorized the creation of the 'Green Berets', a Special Forces operation to specialize in counterinsurgency. On 31 December, 1961, there were about 3200 American personnel in Vietnam.

Operation Hades, which allowed the use of Agent Orange to defoliate trees and shrubbery where an 'enemy' could hide, was authorized by the President in 1961. The first actual use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was in 1962. There were about 11,500 American personnel in Vietnam by 31 December, 1962.

On 1 November, 1963, President Diem of South Vietnam was deposed by General Duong Van Minh and other military officers. Diem and his security chief were killed as the government of South Vietnam changed hands. About three weeks later, on 22 November, 1963, President Kennedy of the United States was assassinated and former Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidency and became the new Commander-in Chief of the United States military forces. On 31 December, 1963, American personnel in Vietnam totalled about 16,300.


The government of South Vietnam changed hands again on 30 January, 1964, when General Nguyen Khanh seized power from General Minh in a bloodless coup.

US military presence in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia continued to increase in early 1964, as secret bombing raids began in Laos, conducted by mercenaries backed by the United States Government. On a 6 March, 1964, visit to South Vietnam, United States Defense Secretary Robert McNamara stated the United States would:

... stay for as long as it takes. We shall provide whatever help is required to win the battle against the Communist insurgents.

Two Telephone Calls

President Johnson had some doubts about the usefulness of US involvement in Vietnam, as shown in the following excerpts from a taped telephone conversation1 he had with Senator Richard Russell on 27 May, 1964.

Johnson - What do you think of the Vietnam thing? I'd like to hear you talk a little bit.

Russell - It's the damn worst mess I ever saw.... I knew we were going to get into this sort of mess when we went in there. And I don't see how we're ever going to get out of it without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in the rice paddies and jungles.... I just don't know what to do.

Johnson - That's the way I've been feeling for six months.

Russell - It appears that our position is deteriorating. And it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they're willing to do for themselves.... If it got down to... just pulling out, I'd get out. But then I don't know. There's undoubtedly some middle ground somewhere. If I was going to get out, I'd get the same crowd that got rid of Diem to get rid of these people and get some fellow in there that said he wished we would get out. That would give us a good excuse for getting out....

Johnson - How important is it to us?

Russell - It isn't important a damn bit, with all these new missile systems.

Johnson - Well, I guess its important to us -

Russell - From a psychological standpoint.

Johnson - I mean, yes, from the standpoint that we are party to a treaty. And if we don't pay attention to this treaty, why, I don't guess they think we pay attention to any of them.

Russell - Yeah, but we're the only ones paying any attention to it!

Later in that conversation

Johnson - I spend all my days with Rusk and McNamara and Bundy and Harriman and Vance and all those folks that are dealing with it and I would say that it pretty well adds up to them now that we've got to show some power and some force, that they do not believe - they're kinda like MacArthur in Korea - they don't believe that the Chinese Communists will come into this thing. But they don't know and nobody can really be sure. But their feeling is that they won't. And in any event, that we haven't got much choice, that we are treaty bound, that we are there, that this will be a domino that will kick off a whole list of others, that we've just got to prepare for the worst. Now I have avoided that for a few days. I don't think the American people are for it. I don't agree with Morse and all he says, but -

Russell - No, neither do I, but he's voicing the sentiment of a hell of a lot of people.

Johnson - I'm afraid that's right. I don't think the people of the country know much about Vietnam and I think they care a hell of a lot less.

Russell - It's a tragic situation. It's just one of those places where you can't win. Anything you do is wrong.... I have thought about it. I have worried about it. I have prayed about it.

Johnson - I don't believe we can do anything -

Russell - It frightens me 'cause it's my country involved over there and if we get into any considerable scale, there's no doubt in my mind but that the Chinese will be in there....

Johnson - You don't have any doubt but what if we go in there and get 'em up against the wall, the Chinese Communists are gonna come into it?

Russell - No sir, no doubt about it.

Johnson - That's my judgment, and our people don't think so....

Later in that conversation

Johnson - ... All the Senators, Nixon, Rockefeller and Goldwater all saying let's move, let's go into the North.... Lodge, Nixon, Rockefeller, Goldwater all say move. Eisenhower -

Russell - Bomb the North and kill old men, women, and children?

Johnson - No, they say pick out an oil plant or pick out a refinery or something like that. Take selected targets. Watch this trail they're coming down. Try to bomb them out of them, when they're coming in.

Russell - Oh hell! That ain't worth a hoot. That's just impossible....

Johnson - Well, they'd impeach a President though, that would run out, wouldn't they? I just don't believe that - outside of Morse - everybody I talk to says you got to go in, including Hickenlooper including all the Republicans.... And I don't know how in the hell you're gonna get out unless they tell you to.

[The conversation ends soon thereafter.]

Later that day, Johnson had a telephone conversation with his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, which was also taped.

Johnson - I'll tell you the more that I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more I think of it, I don't know what in the hell - it looks like to me we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of there with, once we're committed. I believe that the Chinese Communists are coming into it. I don't think we can fight them ten thousand miles from home.... I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. It's just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.

Bundy - It is. It's an awful mess.

Johnson - And we just got to think about - I was looking at this sergeant of mine this morning... and I just thought about ordering his kids in there and what in the hell am I ordering him out there for? What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is Laos worth to me? What is it worth to this country? Now we've got a treaty but, hell, everybody else's got a treaty out there and they're not doing anything about it. Of course if you start running from the Communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.

Bundy - Yeah, that's the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this thing comes apart on us. That's the dilemma.

Political Developments

On 1 July, 1964, President Johnson appointed General Maxwell D Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the new US Ambassador to South Vietnam. During the one year in which Taylor held this position, the government of South Vietnam changed hands four times.

On 17 July, 1964, the Republican Party selected ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater as their nominee for President. During his acceptance speech Goldwater said:

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Johnson, who intended to win the November election, now found that he had to act in a way that would not allow Goldwater to charge him with being 'soft on Communism.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

On 2 August, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was on a reconnaissance patrol, when three North Vietnamese torpedo boats came out from Hon Me2 and attacked the Maddox. The attack was unsuccessful, though one bullet from a heavy machine gun on one of the torpedo boats did hit the destroyer. This is often referred to as the 'first attack'.

On 4 August, 1964, in what is referred to as the 'second attack', the USS Maddox and the USS C Turner Joy, another destroyer, were in the Gulf of Tonkin. At 9.40pm, the Maddox locked on to a radar contact and immediately asked for air support from the nearby aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. Both the Turner Joy and the Maddox opened fire on the target. Within minutes, sonar operators reported torpedoes in the water. Both ships made sharp turns to evade the torpedoes. Suddenly sonar operators reported six torpedoes in the water. No torpedoes hit either ship. At 10.25pm another ship was spotted by the Turner Joy's radar. Both ships opened fire again. Soon after, the captain of the Turner Joy saw, '... a column of black smoke rising from the water'. But when the Turner Joy investigated the area where the ship was supposedly sunk, nothing was found. Meanwhile, planes from the Ticonderoga saw no enemy aircraft. A pilot of an A-4 attack plane said:

The destroyers were calling out where they thought the torpedo boats were but could never find the damn torpedo boats.

Within two hours of the 'attack', the captains of both destroyers began doubt whether they had actually been attacked. The sonar operators reported that 26 torpedoes had been fired at the two ships, although they had 'identified' only two North Vietnamese PT boats, which were known to carry only two torpedoes each. Torpedoes were reported by the Maddox only. The Turner Joy never detected any torpedoes. The captains hypothesized that the torpedo sightings were false. The captains speculated that, while performing high speed turns, the sonar operator on the Maddox heard the reflections of the sonar beam on the Maddox's rudder, not torpedoes.

James B Stockdale was the pilot of a Crusader jet who undertook a reconnaissance flight over the waters that evening. When asked if he had seen any North Vietnamese attack vessels, Stockdale replied:

Not one. No boats, no wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat impacts, no torpedo wakes - nothing but black sea and American firepower.

On 5 August, 1964, the captain of the Maddox sent a message to Washington. It read:

Review of action makes any reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful... Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.

In 1965, President Johnson himself joked to reporters that 'For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there'.

President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese naval targets and oil facilities in retaliation for the 'attack' in the Gulf of Tonkin, saying 'our response for the present will be limited and fitting'. He made a special appearance on television, at midnight, telling the American public that:

We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risk of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.

Two Navy jets were shot down during these bombing raids, and Lt Everett Alvarez became the first American prisoner of war.

On 7 August, 1964, 'Joint Resolution of Congress HJ RES 1145', known as the 'Gulf of Tonkin Resolution' was introduced to the United States Congress. This resolution gave the President authority:

... to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression [and] ... to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed in the House of Representatives unanimously, 416-0, and passed in the Senate by a vote of 98-2. The only Senators voting against the Resolution were Wayne Morse of Oregon, and Ernest Gruening of Alaska . During debate, Gruening said 'all Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy'.

More Politics

On 26 August, 1964, President Johnson was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States. During his campaign he promised that:

We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.

That November, Johnson won the election by what was the widest margin to date in United State politics, defeating the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, by 16 million votes.

In December 1964, an obscure organization, called Students for a Democratic Society, issued a call for people to go to Washington DC on 17 April, 1965, to march against the war in Vietnam.

On 31 December, 1964, there were 23,300 Americans in Vietnam.

Other Entries in the Series

1Source: US, Department of State, Office of the Historian, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964 - 1968, Volume XXVII, Mainland Southeast Asia; Regional Affairs, Washington, DC, Document Number 52.2An island in the Gulf of Tonkin, about seven miles off the northern coast.

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