Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman delivered a speech advocating assistance to Greece and Turkey to resist communism as part of the early Cold War against the Soviet Union. The speech enunciated the Truman Doctrine, which led to a departure from the country’s traditional foreign policy to a more expansive direction in global affairs.

Truman said, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Protecting the free world against communist expansion became the basis for the policy of Cold War containment.

The United States fought a major war in Korea in the early 1950s to halt the expansion of communism in Asia especially after the loss of China in 1949. Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower had resisted the French appeal to intervene in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States gradually increased its commitment and sent thousands of military advisers and billions of dollars in financial assistance over the next decade.

In the summer of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was in the midst of a presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater and pushing his Great Society legislative program through Congress. He did not want to allow foreign affairs to imperil either and downplayed increased American involvement in the war.

Administration officials were quietly considering bombing North Vietnam or sending ground troops to interdict the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the United States Navy was running covert operations in the waters off North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.

On August 2, the destroyer USS Maddox and several U.S. fighter jets from a nearby carrier exchanged fire with some North Vietnamese gunboats. The U.S. warned North Vietnam that further “unprovoked” aggression would have “grave consequences.” The USS Turner Joy was dispatched to patrol with the Maddox.

On August 4, the Maddox picked up multiple enemy radar contacts in severe weather, but no solid proof confirmed the presence of the enemy. Whatever the uncertainty related to the event, the administration proceeded as if a second attack had definitely occurred. It immediately ordered a retaliatory airstrike and sought a congressional authorization of force. President Johnson delivered a national television address and said, “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met….we seek no wider war.”

On August 7, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution which authorized the president “to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” The House passed the joint resolution unanimously, and the Senate passed it with only two dissenting votes.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution became the basis for fighting the Vietnam War. World War II remained the last congressional declaration of war.

President Johnson had promised the electorate that he would not send “American boys to fight a war Asian boys should fight for themselves.” However, the administration escalated the war over the next several months.

On February 7, 1965, the Viet Cong launched an attack on the American airbase at Pleiku. Eight Americans were killed and more than one hundred wounded. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara used the incident to expand the American commitment significantly but sought a piecemeal approach that would largely avoid a contentious public debate over American intervention.

Within a month, American ground troops were introduced into Vietnam as U.S. Marines went ashore and were stationed at Da Nang to protect an airbase there. The president soon authorized deployment of thousands more troops. In April, he approved Operation Rolling Thunder which launched a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

It did not take long for the Marines to establish offensive operations against the communists. The Marines initiated search and destroy missions to engage the Viet Cong. They fought several battles with the enemy, requiring the president to send more troops.

In April 1965, the president finally explained his justification for escalating the war, which included the Cold War commitment to the free world. He told the American people, “We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure.”

As a result, Johnson progressively sent more and more troops to fight in Vietnam until there were 565,000 troops in 1968. The Tet Offensive in late January 1968 was a profound shock to the American public which had received repeated promises of progress in the war. Even though U.S. forces recovered from the initial shock and won on overwhelming military victory that effectively neutralized the Viet Cong and devastated North Vietnamese Army forces, President Johnson was ruined politically and announced he would not run for re-election. His “credibility gap” contributed to growing distrust of government and concern about an unlimited and unchecked “imperial presidency” soon made worse by Watergate.

The Vietnam War contributed to profound division on the home front. Hundreds of thousands of Americans from across the spectrum protested American involvement in Vietnam. Young people from the New Left were at the center of teach-ins and demonstrations on college campuses across the country. The Democratic Party was shaken by internal convulsions over the war, and conservatism dominated American politics for a generation culminating in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Eventually, more than 58,000 troops were lost in the war. The Cold War consensus on containment suffered a dislocation, and a Vietnam syndrome affected morale in the U.S. military and contributed to significant doubts about the projection of American power abroad. American confidence recovered in the 1980s as the United States won the Cold War, but policymakers have struggled to define the purposes of American foreign policy with the rise of new global challenges in the post-Cold War world.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence. 

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