Issue E986 of 14 September 1998

President Johnson's Vietnam Policy = President Kennedy's Vietnam Policy ?

Haralampos Lemonopoulos
B.A. (Hist.)
M.A. (Int. Rel.)

Click on the Small Images
President JohnsonJohn Kennedy on VietnamNgo D. DiemJohnson & Westmoreland
Kill him !!!!!!The 'enemy' is capturedAmerican prisoners of warA quiet moment

Undoubtedly, Vietnam is one of the hottest, maybe the hottest, issues in United States foreign policy. It caused major political earthquakes in United States politics, and it dominated the scene for almost thirty years (1945-75). It really became a trauma which reveals great lessons for the future American foreign policy. The issue of individual responsibility for the failure in Vietnam has continuously been raised. The real lesson that the Vietnam experience teaches is that skilled decision makers with good intentions, bright strategic minds, and effective politicians can sometimes be wrong. The sooner the people will understand this the better possibility they have, in order not to repeat the same mistakes.

The two United States Presidents that placed the country deeply in the "morass" of Vietnam were John F. Kennedy and Lyndon A. Johnson. They were the leaders of the United States during the most crucial years of the Vietnam war (1961-68). Many of the people who have studied this period come to the conclusion that Johnson's Vietnam policy resembled, more or less, that of Kennedy.

Was Johnson's Vietnam policy simply a continuation of Kennedy's? Was Vietnam policy designed solely by the United States Presidents? What were the similarities and differences of the two administrations? In order to answer these questions, I'm not going to refer to detailed facts in this essay. I will examine the Vietnam policies of the two Presidents separately and then I will compare and contrast the two policies together, in order to make clear if Johnson's Vietnam policy was simply a continuation of Kennedy's.

From the very beginning of his Presidency, Kennedy underlined America's duty to the world. He promised not:
To permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure survival and the success of liberty (cited in Kisssenger, 1994, p. 622).
The American commitment, therefore, was not related to any national security interests, and all the regions of the world were included.

Vietnam, was one of these regions which Kennedy considered as a "crucial link" in America's overall position, since he believed that "preventing a communist victory in Vietnam was a vital American interest" (Kissinger, 1994, p. 643). He viewed Vietnam as a key to the strategy of containment, since he perceived the Communist leadership of Hanoi as being a puppet of the Kremlin. The best solution, for the Kennedy administration, in order to defend South Vietnam, was the strategy of "nation-building," meaning building South Vietnam politically, economically, and militarily, in order to be able to face the guerrilla groups without direct help from American military troops. Kennedy wanted to strengthen the South Vietnam so that he should not have to risk any American lives. A National Security Council directive at 11 May 1961 defined the prevention of Communist domination of South Vietnam as a national objective and it provided that the strategy was "to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society" (cited in Kissenger, 1994, p. 650) Even much later, in September 1963, Kennedy stated: "we can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men there as advisors, but they have to win it - the people of Viet-Nam - against the Communists" (cited in Brown, 1994, p. 183). However, little by little, the rhetoric of the White House changed, and suggested that what was really at stake in Vietnam was the American credibility. "If United States schemes and models for development could not succeed in a fertile soil like South Vietnam, where they could obtain all feasible backing from the United States, they might well be defeated everywhere else" (cited in Kattenburg, 1982, p. 109). and then again "if (Vietnam) falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence - Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest -- then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible; and our prestige in Asia will sink to a new low" (cited in Kissenger, 1994, p. 648).

In June 1956, John Kennedy (a Senator then) delivered a speech at a symposium on Vietnam. There, in his "America's stake in Vietnam" speech, he highlighted his views about the Vietnam policy. Firstly, he maintained that Vietnam represented "the cornerstone of the Free World in South East Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike" (Congressional Research Service, 1985, p.5). Secondly, he argued that Vietnam was a real ground of democracy in Asia, and therefore, it represented the alternative to the Communist regime. Thirdly, he recognized that Vietnam was a test case of American responsibility and determination. Finally, fourthly, he explained that America's stake in Vietnam was a selfish one because it could be measured "in terns of American lives and American dollars" (ibid, p. 5).

When Kennedy came into the White House, in 1961, he substituted "massive retaliation" with "assured destruction" principle as the nation's defense strategy. The difference rested on the fact that "massive retaliation" pre-supposed United States strategic superiority, which gave to the United States the right to choose the time and the place where nuclear weapons would be used for responding to Soviet aggression. On the contrary, the principle of "assured destruction" provided for devastating American retaliation nuclear strike in case of a direct Soviet nuclear attack (Kegley, 1991, p. 94). This change was important since it altered the administration's doctrine of strategic deterrence.

From the Spring of 1961 on, the mood in the White House became one of activism, and "Counterinsurgency" dominated the scene. As Gallucci wrote: "Counterinsurgency became the fashion... The military, diplomats, and aid administrators were all required to take a Counterinsurgency course before they took up assignments in developing countries" (Gallucci,1975, pp.l4-15). In May, Kennedy decided to increase American involvement. This happened under significant pressures, and after a State Department's Report, which asked for an increase in American involvement (3 May). The second important step was a report drafted from Taylor-Rostow's mission in Saigon, which called for the introduction of an American military force that "would conduct such combat operations as are necessary for self-defense and for the security of the area in which they are stationed" (cited in Gallucci, 1975, p. 22). Finally, after several memorandums, it was decided to increase aid, but not to send combat troops to Vietnam. The final and decisive step was made from the Summer of 1963 on, when Kennedy's administration started to encourage a coup for overthrowing the South Vietnamese President: Diem. By encouraging Diem's overthrow America makes its involvement in Vietnam concrete. Kattenburg characterizes the decision to back ARUN against the Diem Regime as a fateful one, because before this there was, in theory, the possibility of American refusal to any direct involvement in military terms. After the coup, any possibility of withdrawal disappeared, since the coup was justified as facilitating a more effective prosecution of the war. The new regime, lacking Diem's prestige, had not any other choice but to turn the war over to the Americans (Kattenburg, 1982, p. 116 and Kissenger, 1994, p. 656). Now, "the question was not going to be how to encourage a regime in South Vietnam that America could support, but of finding one that would support her in keeping up the struggle against the jubilant Communists" (cited in Kissinger, 1994, p. 656).

When Kennedy became President, the number of military advisers in Vietnam was near 750. At the time of his assassination the number was nearly 20,000 (Congressional Research Service, 1985, p. 4). Some believed that no matter how far the involvement had gone, Kennedy was always in a position to work out a disengagement. However, because of the adoption of the proposals of the Taylor-Rostow mission, leading to break the armistice provisions of the Geneva accords (1954) and because of his counterinsurgency operations, Kennedy's administration, according to Kattenburg, "bears the principal responsibility for involving the United States in what would become the nightmare of the sixties" (Kattenburg, 1982, p. 116).

Thomas Schelling, in his book: Arms and Influence (1966), wrote that one must use force in order to exploit "the bargaining power that comes from the capacity to hurt," to cause "sheer pain and damage," because the are "the primary instruments of coercive warfare" (cited in Kaplan, 1983, p. 332). When in 1964 the administration laid plans to take military action against North Vietnam, it was this concept of coercive warfare that shaped this strategy.

Up to the Spring of 1965, the idea was that there was nothing to negotiate. By the summer of 1965, United States military involvement in Vietnam was shaped, and its basic premises were: first, United States had to prevent the Communists from taking over South Vietnam, because global balance of power considerations demanded it; second, White House considered Vietnam a test case for the Communists in their strategy of "expanding through wars of national liberation;" third, the objective should be to increase enemy's costs, in order not to be successful; and finally, fourth, to increase United States aid in human and material costs (Brown, 1994, p. 195). As Gaddis claims: "by 1965 (Johnson) was relying almost exclusively on the use of military force in a theater chosen by adversaries" (Gaddis, 1982, p. 239).

After his election in 1964, Johnson established a policy which viewed Vietnam conflict as the "flash point" of the struggle between Communist and non-Communist world, and of course United States, as a leader of the latter side, had to make sure that the Communists will not win. It was a matter of prestige. "To leave Viet-Nam to its fate would shake... confidence... in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America's word" (cited in Gaddis, 1982, p. 241) Johnson had proclaimed in April 1965. And then again, in May: "There are a hundred other little nations... watching what happens... if South Vietnam can be gobbled up, the same thing can happen to them" (ibid, p. 241). And finally, in July: "If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in... American protection" (ibid, p. 241).

From April 1965 on, the White House had started to change its attitude, and began to seek peace negotiations by making "a series of flamboyant moves" (Brown, 1994, p. 191). Conciliation and compromise started to become characteristics of the Johnson's administrations. He used to say that "the only path for reasonable men is the path of peaceful settlement" (cited in Brown, 1994, p. 192). However, this mood lasted only for a while. The unsatisfactory response of the North Vietnamese was underlined by President Johnson in his "this is really war" speech (28 July 1965), when he announced an increase of 75% to United States fighting strength in Vietnam. He stressed the fact that forty nations made fifteen different efforts to start "the unconditional discussion." But "there has been no answer" (ibid, p. 194).

Kattenburg, in his book: The Vietnam Trauma in American Foreign Policy, claims that the two most fateful decisions of the Johnson's administration were: the bombing operation of "Rolling Thunder" (February 1965), and the decision to send United States combat forces to Vietnam (Spring-Summer 1965). President Johnson thought, at the first stage, that the bombing was a necessary course to be taken. The school of "Graduated Escalation," led by Walt Whitman Rostow (the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council of State), recommended the start of a systematic and carefully organized program of bombing against the North Vietnamese. "Graduated Escalation" was a crude national security concept of policy resulting from the study of Schelling's work, and meaning exactly what it named: graduated escalation. The second decision (sending combat forces) was characterized by Kattenburg as fateful, because ended the long-lasting fiction of United States intervention in Vietnam as being only in the nature of assistance ("nation-building" concept) (Kattenburg, 1982, pp. 122-3 & p. 136).

However, someone has to point out that Johnson took these decisions not only for obtaining political and military objectives, but also for domestic reasons. He could not be another President who was going to be "defeated" by Communism. The various gallops strengthened his position even more. The percentage of the Americans who wanted a "harder line" of policy rose between July-December 1967 from 45% to 58%, while the percentage of those who wanted a soft policy dropped from 42% to 24%. In addition, President Johnson was increasing his personal appeal as long as people came to identify him with a "harder line" of policy. Therefore, in a poll referring to the candidates for the Presidential nomination, no one rivaled him as a "hawk." This is how Americans voted the four most "hawkish" nominees: Johnson 66% "hawk," Nixon 46%, Reagan 39%, Wallace 37%. As a consequence of his increasing approval as being a "hawk," President Johnson continued this "harder line" of policy (Halper, 1971, pp. 109-110).

In his first State of the Union Address (31 January 1961), President Kennedy made clear his belief that the Soviet Union and China were ambitious for "world domination." President Johnson, four years later (September 1965), continued this misunderstanding of the Communist pronouncements, by interpreting the Piao's (Chinese Defense Minister) Manifesto on "People's War" as a warning of China's intervention in Hanoi (Kissenger, 1994, p. 645). These interpretations of Communist intentions made Vietnam a special case in both administrations, since they started to weigh more the credibility of their commitment than the nature of their response. They believed that if they failed in Vietnam the worldwide credibility of the United States was in serious danger. That's why both administrations approached the Vietnam problem in a hard, even militaristic way. During Kennedy's administration the United States established a clear military presence in Vietnam. During Johnson's, the United States went even further, they went to war. This increase in the level of involvement does not necessarily mean a different kind of policy. As Gallucci correctly argues: "what was required to continue the policy had changed," (Gallucci, 1975, p. 12) because the threat increased during Johnson's administration, and therefore, a harder response was needed. Here, someone must point out that both administrations placed a great emphasis on military strength. Kennedy, in his Policy Pronouncements of 1961, maintained that: "Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they shall never be employed," (cited in Kegley, 1991, p. 75) while Johnsons, in 1964, argued: "United States military strength now exceeds the combined military might of all nations in history, stronger than any adversary or combination of adversaries... Against such force the combined destructive power of every battle ever fought by man is like a firecracker thrown against the sun" (ibid, p. 75).

One of the most important, maybe the most important, thing to study, in order to compare and contrast the two administrations, is the role of the principal decision makers. They came to the Vietnam problem "carrying similar intellectual baggage," but when someone studies carefully their theories and calculations, it is possible to extract some differences. Between 1961-63, the State Department made an important contribution in the formulation of Viet-Nam policy, and as a consequence the policy of this period reflects elements of State's influence. Certain officials of the State Department, during this period, were "masters" in policy-making. The two worth mentioning were Walt Rostow, and Dean Rusk. Rostow was, from the December of 1961, the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council of State, and he had absolutely great abilities in synthesizing rapidly complex information: "Walt can write faster than I can read" (cited in Gaddis, 1982, p. 200). Kennedy once joked. These qualities made him the most suitable person for planning a policy. Rusk, on the other hand, was the Secretary of State, and a key "to understanding why the Department was not even more active during Kennedy's administration and completely faded to the periphery in Johnson's" (Gallucci, 1975, p. 32). Kennedy's staff played a great role in the policy formulation. "What distinguished the Kennedy Administration was not its policy assumptions or its worldview, but its approach to problem solving" (Congressional Research Service, 1985, p. 7). "The style, personality, and mood of the Kennedy team," Thomas Paterson wrote, "joined the historical imperatives to compel a vigorous, even belligerent foreign policy... Bustle, zeal, energy, and optimism became the bywords" (cited in Congressional Research Service, 1985, p. 7). During Johnson's administration the role of the State Department changed and a shift took place by focusing the decision making to the White House. Therefore, the policy-making process, in 1964 and 1965, was becoming less open, and it would close even more in 1966-67 (Tuesday lunch meetings). In addition, until the Gulf of Tonkin crisis (August 1964) Johnson had left a large part of the Viet-Nam policy in the hands of the Secretary of Defence: McNamara, and he approved most of his recommendations.

In terms of strategic perceptions, and national security issues, the two Presidents and their administrations were, more or less, alike. Both played a "zero-sum game" with Communism, since they believed that a victory for Communism anywhere was a loss for the United States, and this was a "humiliation." Both considered Viet-Nam a test case for the strategy of "flexible response." What was really distinctive about their strategic thinking was their commitment to "symmetrical response." They failed to define their specific interests in South East Asia, and they did not keep ends and means in balance. It may seem that Johnson altered Viet-Nam policy by sending combat forces, but even this was not "an all-out application" of force, since the principle of "calibration" would still apply (Gaddis, 1982, pp. 211-212, pp. 237-240, pp. 245-47, p. 273). It is very important to point out that before Johnson, Kennedy had decided against the sending of combat forces, but this "was not," as Gaddis notes, "a rejection of calibration - just the opposite... Kennedy's action's reflected doubts only about the appropriate level of response necessary to demonstrate American resolve, not about the importance of making that demonstration in the first place" (ibid, pp. 245-6).

Was there any change of policy from Kennedy to Johnson? Was Johnson's policy simply a continuation of Kennedy's? What Kennedy would have done? Such questions dominated all the interpretations given on the Viet-Nam issue. One interpretation rests on the hypothesis that Kennedy would have responded in a way similar to Johnson, if the later events in Viet-Nam had occurred three - four years earlier. According to this interpretation, the policy must have been already designed in 1961, and the decision taken was doing whatever necessary to protect Viet-Nam from Communism. According to the supporters of this interpretation, Kennedy knew exactly what he was saying, when he proclaimed that America would "bear any burden, pay any price... ."

On the other hand, those who wanted to remove any responsibility for the war from Kennedy argue that he intended to end any further American involvement, and that he would never allow the levels of escalation that the issue ultimately reached. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (an adviser, and a biographer of Kennedy) claimed: "Kennedy had no intention of dispatching American ground forces to save South Vietnam" (cited in Brown, 1994, p. 183).

What Kennedy would have done cannot be known, and therefore it can't be a real question with possible answers. However, a question with possible answers could be if Johnson's policy was a continuation of Kennedy's.

As we have already seen, by examining both policies, there were similarities and differences in the way that policy was conducted. They had, both, the same, more or less, strategic perceptions, by "turning containment into panacea" (Hoffmann, 1978, p. 25). Both feared "humiliation" by Communism, and they saw American credibility at stake. However, "what was required to continue the policy had changed" (Gallucci, 1975, p. 12). Increased threat brought "different" military response. Moreover, the policy-making process had changed. The structure of this process during Kennedy's years was an open one, and the State Department played a great role in policy formulation, while in Johnson's years the process was becoming closer and closer, and there was a shift of powers from the State Department to the White House. These significant changes along with personal elements and characteristics, which are always included in the policy-making process, bring me to conclude that: a continuation existed but, undoubtedly, it was not a simple one.


Brown, S. (1994) The Faces of Power, New York: Columbia University

Congressional Research Service (1985) The U. S. Government and the Vietnam War - Part II, Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office

Gaddis, J. L. (1982) Strategies of Containment, New York: Oxford University Press

Gallucci, L. R. ( 1975) Neither Peace Nor Honor: The Politics of American Military Policy in VietNam, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Goodman, A. E. ( 1978) The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War, California: Hoover Institution Press

Goodwin, N. R. (1966) Triumph or Tradegy: Reflections on Vietnam, New York: Random House

Halper, T. (1971) Foreign Policy Crises: Appearance and Reality in Decision Making, Ohio: Charles E. Merill Publishing Company

Herring, G. C. (1979) America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-75, New York: Wiley

Hoffmann, S. (1978) Primacy or World Order: American Foreign Policy Since the Cold War, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company

Kahin, G. and Lewis, J. W. (1969) The United States in Vietnam, New York: Dell

Kaplan, F. (1983) The Wizards of Armageddon, New York: Simon and Schuster

Kattenburg, P. M. (1982) The Vietnam Trauma in American Foreign Policy 1945-75, New BnInswick: Transaction Books

Kegley, C. W. JR. and Wittkopf E. R. (1991) American Foreign Policy: Pattern and Process, New York: St. Martin's Press

Kissenger, H. (1994) Diplomacy, London: Simon and Schuster

Kolko, G. (1985) Anatomy of War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience, New York: Pantheon Books

McNamara, S. R. and Van De Mark, A. (1995) In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, New York: Time Books

Thompson, R. (1970) No Exit From Vietnam, New York: David McKay


Gelb, Leslie H., "Vietnam: The System Worked", Foreign Policy, Summer 1971

Warner, Geoffrey, "The U. S. and Vietnam II", International Affairs, October 1972

Back to Cover

This page hosted by Get your own Free Home Page