How did the United States Escalate the Vietnam War?
After the clash of US forces and North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin and the North Vietnamese' subsequent phantom attacks on the USS Maddox and USS XXX, the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions. The Resolutions gave the president far greater latitude to coordinate and carry out military strikes without an official declaration of war. The United States and the Johnson administration put those new powers to use in 1965.
Troop Build Up and Early Dissent
If not the major theme, one of the themes throughout 1965 was the build-up of American troops in South Vietnam. At the beginning of the year, there was just over 23,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam. This number grew steadily over the year until 1968, but with each increase in troops, each strategic decision was often debated in the Johnson Administration. There was a decided tension between civilian leaders, military commanders in Washington, and the military commanders in the country.
As early as January of 1965, the ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, did not advocate US ground troops' deployment into the country. Instead, he supported actions to disrupt the supply chain from North Vietnam, commonly referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Taylor believed that if the United States did not stop the aid streaming from the north, South Vietnam would fall to the communists.
Taylor was not the only government official who thought Vietnam's situation was dire, though they took a different tack. Senator Forrester Church from Montana spoke from the Senate floor, calling on the United States to begin negotiation with North Vietnam and declare the South a neutral country. Several fellow senators and world leaders supported the Church’s ideas, though the White House did not.
Later in 1965, Undersecretary of State George Ball privately spoke out against US troop buildup. He saw it as a poor strategy because, in essence, the war in Vietnam was a civil war. He theorized that the Viet Cong were not outside agitators from the north (though supported by Hanoi) but organic to South Vietnam. Like Church, his ideas were not enough to sway the administration.
Also, voices outside of the government were becoming weary of the war. Walter Lippman, a very influential newspaper writer in Washington, DC, saw nothing but a failure if the United States continued to escalate their involvement in Vietnam. Though it was not the first civilian group to speak out against the war, the first formal “teach-in” was organized at the University of Michigan, critiquing US involvement in Southeast Asia. Over 3,000 people attended. By April, 20,000 people gathered in Washington DC to protest US involvement in Vietnam.
In April of 1965, President Johnson delivered a pivotal speech at Johns Hopkins University. The president outlined for the first time a possible path to peace by negotiating with the North Vietnamese. In essence, Johnson declared that the US was open to discussions of a peaceful solution but did not offer any real specifics. In addition to continued military assistance to the south, he did propose a program in the Mekong River area, in both the north and south, of rigorous modernization of the region. He compared it to the Tennessee Valley Authority of a generation before the New Deal. The North Vietnamese bluntly stated that no negotiations would occur as long as the US military was still in the south.
That same month, some divisions within the US high command began to show. While Ambassador Taylor wanted more airstrikes, he was wary of a greater amount of offensive operations. General Westmoreland, however, believed the US needed to become more aggressive. In a meeting that the ambassador did not attend, Westmoreland recommended two army brigades be brought into South Vietnam to secure more airfields and prepare an area near Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, for the entire US Army division. On April 20, 1965, the US presence had grown to 33,000 troops, with 20,000 more expected. The increase of resources for the Vietnam War was not restricted to military personnel numbers. President Johnson requested an additional $700 million for the war effort. Congress approved this request in only two days, demonstrating that US commitment to South Vietnam and the war was still quite strong.
Operation Rolling Thunder and Deepening Commitment
Before Johnson’s Johns Hopkins speech, the United States forces increased bombing of North Vietnamese targets, code-named Operation Rolling Thunder. The campaign had been in the planning stages before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, but Johnson delayed such aggressive action. The 1964 presidential election was still being decided, and Johnson did not want to commit too much to a distant war. Widening the conflict was a gamble on many fronts, and it was not a chance that Johnson was willing to take. In addition to the effects escalating the war would have on the election, Johnson was also concerned with how China and the Soviet Union would react to more US involvement.
By 1965, with the election won and, however tenuous, a justification for increased military activity, Johnson approved Rolling Thunder. It was a massive display of US firepower. Over the next three and a half years, the United States would drop over 100K pounds of explosives on North Vietnam, devastating much of the country's infrastructure. The preliminary targets were the factories manufacturing war materiel and other resources, like refineries, that allowed the North Vietnamese to make war on their southern neighbor. The other, the more psychological aim of the operation was to crush the North Vietnamese's morale. This effort was a failure.
Though the destruction brought on by Rolling Thunder was costly, it made much of the population more resilient. The North Vietnamese knew they were no match for US airpower, so they didn’t commit many resources to oppose it. Instead, the communist government devoted its energies to moving troops and supplies to the south and defended against the bombers as best they could. It was clear that the airstrikes were almost unstoppable. However, when a bomber was shot down, what seemed to be against all odds, it provided the North Vietnamese skies' defenders with a boost to their morale. They were never expected to stop the bombings, so even the smallest challenger was seen as a victory.
At least at first, of Operation Rolling Thunder, General William Westmoreland, the US commander of US forces, called for a greater presence in South Vietnam. In March of 1965, the United States Marine Corps took up positions in and around Da Nang Air Base. This was the first full-scale deployment of US ground forces in South Vietnam. The original, limited objective was to secure the region's airfield, making it available as a launching spot for the north. The area soon became one of the main strongholds of the USMC. Throughout 1965, multiple Marine air squadrons were positioned in Da Nang. As the US presence grew, it also attracted the attention of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. In July of 1965, the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong attacked Da Nang Air Base, destroying multiple aircraft.
Military reversals for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) during May and June convinced General Westmoreland that even more American troops were needed to prevent a complete defeat of South Vietnam. Instead of the 53,000 forecasts for the rest of 1965, Westmoreland requested and received an influx that would bring the US total to 117,000 by year’s end.
By the summer of 1965, Westmoreland was convinced that even more troops were needed in Vietnam. In a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he believed 57 battalions were needed and additional helicopter and support units. Westmoreland also argued that thus far, the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had so far proven to be ineffective and needed to be increased. When McNamara returned to Washington, he briefed the president on Westmoreland’s requests and subsequently added the recommendations. McNamara proposed that the number of troops in Vietnam be increased to 175,000 and that the National Guard and Reserve be activated. He also recommended increasing the bombing of North Vietnam from 2,500 missions a month to 4,000 a month.
President Johnson, for his part, continued to try and plot a gradual build-up in the war. He authorized an increase of troop strength to 125,000, not 175,000. He decided against activating the National Guard and Reserve but doubled the number of men to be drafted per month from 17,000 to 35,000. With the build-up of troops, the United States was ready to launch its first large-scale offensive action of the war.
To further secure the region, the Marines launched Operation Starlite in August of 1965. The plan sought to target a combined air and ground forces, supported by naval artillery, an area where the Viet Cong was suspected of concentrating. The plan was to make an amphibious landing near Van Tuong and push northward. Also, three landing zones were planned further west to surrounding the Viet Cong forces. After the multiple landings were executed, the marines were meant to push the Viet Cong into an exposed position where the United States' naval firepower could be brought to bear and destroy the opposition. Two significant factors are worth mentioning about the planning of Operation Starlite. First, this was going to be an “American Only” operation. Until this point, Americans were in a supporting role, if they were present at all. Second, and dovetailing with the first factor, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was not informed of the operation.
In the first part of the operation, the amphibious landing was met with little resistance. They were able to move into position with little difficulty. The other arm of the attack was carried out in a manner that would come to define the Vietnam War, helicopter deployment. Three marines were delivered to three landing zones (LZ) code-named Red, White, and Blue. Before the Marines were deployed, artillery and aircraft pounded the LZ’s to ensure as little opposition as possible.
The aerial bombardment seemed to have worked as the first helicopters dropped off their passengers with no incident. However, subsequent landings were met with much stiffer resistance. In a tactic already practiced, the Viet Cong allowed the first wave to land, only to open fire as more soldiers arrived, thus attacking a larger target. To blunt this approach, American air support was called in to further bombard the Viet Cong positions, the most notable atop a hill, code-named Hill 43, just south of LZ Blue. Though the airstrikes were effective, they did not wholly dislodge the Viet Cong. The marines attacked the hill and eventually took it, reducing a substantial Viet Cong stronghold.
The relative ease of the amphibious landing gave way to some of the heaviest fightings of the battle. As the Marines were moving northward, they took fire from the village of An Cuong. The company commander was killed in the initial engagement, but the second in command coordinated a successful attack on the Viet Cong position. During the battle, Corporal Robert E. O’Malley distinguished himself in the fighting and became the first marine to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
Perhaps the operation's heaviest fighting occurred when a support column got lost trying to find the company it was meant to aid. Instead, the resupply column was ambushed by the Viet Cong. Eventually, the company that was the intended destination instead went to rescue their surprised compatriots. The marines took several losses, and while they claimed significant damage to the enemy, it was hard to determine because of the system of bunkers and tunnels the Viet Cong used. The underground fortifications used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were a constant difficulty for American forces to deal with throughout the entire war.
In addition to learning more about the Viet Cong's combat methods, several other lessons were taken from Operation Starlite. First, it was determined after the operation was over that the standard allotment of water, two gallons per day per soldier, was not enough in the oppressive Vietnamese heat. Second, the standard field rifle, the M-14, was not conducive to fast deployment, specifically helicopter insertions. The soldiers on the ground found them too bulky. The search and development for a lighter, streamlined weapon became an important concern for the United States military. Finally, for the Viet Cong, it was an important battle as well. Though the overall tactical philosophy of surprise and mobility was still paramount to the Viet Cong, they learned that even that was limited when fighting the American military. The amount of firepower the United States brought to any battlefield could make any ambush, like the one during Starlite, into a shooting gallery once American artillery gained its bearings.
The United States military considered Operation Starlite a success. A Viet Cong stronghold was reduced, many of the enemies were killed, and US losses were limited. However, as one US general noted, much of the Viet Cong force was able to retreat, did not lose any major weapons, and maintained the tactical advantage of surprise throughout the battle. In what would become a common refrain of the war, the US claimed victory, but the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese could fight another day.
Anderson, David L., Editor. The Columbia History of the Vietnam War. New York, Columbia University Press, 2011.
Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise History. New York: Oxford Press, 2008.
Updated December 7. 2020