In this video segment adapted from American Experience, view archival photos, newsreel footage, and interviews to examine the decision-making process that led Lyndon Johnson ...
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After France was defeated at the battle of Dienbienphu in 1954, it negotiated a settlement in Geneva with the Vietminh, the Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh who resisted France's return to Vietnam after Japan's defeat in World War II. The treaty provisionally divided the country into two parts—a Communist North controlled by the Vietminh and a non-Communist South—until elections were held in 1956.
Neither the United States nor the newly created South Vietnamese government, led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, accepted this result. President Eisenhower supported South Vietnam's refusal to hold the elections on the grounds that no fair election could be held under a Communist government. South Vietnam's subsequent refusal to negotiate with the North led to a civil war there between supporters of President Diem and Ho Chi Minh, beginning at the end of the 1950s. This violence, and the assassination of Diem in 1963, suggested to U.S. analysts that the North would prevail throughout all of Vietnam unless the United States intervened.
President Johnson felt both that World War II and its aftermath had taught us to never give in to tyrants, and that Communist governments must always be opposed. At the same time, he could not see the value of putting American lives at risk, confiding to his friend Senator Richard Russell that his conscience argued against sending a sergeant and father of six whom he knew into combat. Johnson's military advisers predicted that a commitment of at least five years and 500,000 troops would be required, and they were unable to provide a strategy to allow America to both withdraw and still save face, particularly in light of commitments from prior U.S. presidents.
The only dissenter was Undersecretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs George Ball, who felt that the proper course was withdrawal, even if it meant the fall of the South Vietnamese government. Yet Johnson feared being seen as appeasing the North Vietnamese, as Britain had appeased Nazi Germany at Munich in 1938. He also erroneously assumed that North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union formed a monolithic Communist force. With assurance from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that victory could be won in two and a half years, Johnson chose to expand the war, a decision that led to 58,000 U.S. fatalities and added significantly to the total fatalities of over two million Vietnamese between 1961 and the war's conclusion in 1975.
For a reference collection of archival videos and interviews about the Vietnam War, see the Vietnam Collection in WGBH's Open Vault.
- What did Johnson see as the lessons of the World War II era that led to his decision to escalate the Vietnam War?
- What were the options that Johnson considered? What were their advantages and disadvantages?
- Why was George Ball labeled a "troublemaker"?
American Experience: "LBJ"
This media asset was adapted from American Experience: "LBJ".
Adapted from American Experience: "LBJ". Third party materials courtesy of George Ball, Contemporary Films, LBJ Library, MacDonald & Associates, NBC News Archives, Norton AFB/Department of Defense, and David L. Wolper Productions.