Lyndon B. Johnson’s Policies on Vietnam

Category: Vietnam
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2021
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Table of contents

Plan of the Investigation

Both of the American presidents Kennedy and Johnson played essential roles in the Vietnam conflict. Kennedy, supporting the idea of containment, committed the U.S. to support the government of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. After his assassination in 1963, Johnson became the next president, but to what extent did he continue Kennedy’s foreign policy concerning Vietnam?

This investigation will therefore compare and contrast Johnson’s and Kennedy’s foreign policies concerning Vietnam, which will be analyzed with references to primary and secondary sources that clearly show the foreign policies of the two presidents. However, more intonation will be put on Johnson’s influence on Vietnam, and how his administration actually decided to act after Kennedy’s death.

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Additionally, emphasize will be put on how Johnson greatly deepened the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, after realizing the vast commitment it would take to win the war. This investigation will primarily examine the degree of change in foreign policies of the two presidents towards Vietnam, and not the success or failure of Johnson’s policies.

Summary of Evidence

Kennedy’s Foreign policy 1961-1963: Committed the U.S to the Vietnam conflict, due to his support for containment and the domino theory Increased U.S. military advisors from less than 700 men in January 1961 to 16,000 men by November 1963 Financed an increase in the South Vietnamese army from 150,000 to 170,000 men Launched propaganda and political activities to discredit the Viet Cong Drafted the NSAM 273, affirming to continue supporting South Vietnam Lyndon B. Johnson becomes president - 1963: Also supports containment and the domino theory Pledges to continue Kennedy’s foreign policy concerning Vietnam and to work with Kennedy’s former advisors Approves NSAM 273

Johnson in 1964: Encounters many difficulties and lack of progress partially due to a confused and ineffective government in South Vietnam Realizes the vast commitment needed to win the war. Needs an excuse to openly attack North Vietnam and not lose his elections in 1964 Is able to exploit the Tonkin incident of August 1964 and to use it as an excuse: Convinces congress to pass the Tonkin Resolution on August 7th giving him full authority and a blank check to wage war against North Vietnam Uses this resolution to Americanize the war in Vietnam.

This resolution set the difference between Johnson’s and Kennedy’s foreign policies The Tonkin Resolution in 1964 caused Johnson’s Foreign policy to change: Johnson was now able to send some 25,000 American combat troops to Vietnam by the end of 1964 Operation Rolling Thunder starting in the spring of 1965 also emerged from this resolution: It was a ongoing bombing campaign and aerial raids against North Vietnam.

This operation also demonstrated Johnson’s much greater military commitment to Vietnam than Kennedy’s, showing It was the first sustained U.S. military operation in Vietnam Johnson finally decided for an open-ended military commitment to Vietnam in 1965 Johnson was ready to provide whatever military support needed to win the war This eventually led to the United States committing more than 500,000 American troops to Vietnam.

Evaluation of Sources:

The two sources that are going to be evaluated are Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War by Gary Hess and An Album of the Vietnam War by Don Lawson, because they show different perspectives on how the American foreign policy developed towards Vietnam.

The origin of the first text Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War is a historical book and a secondary source that analyzes the U.S failure in the Vietnam War. The purpose of this text is to analyze the eight steps that deepened the American commitment to South Vietnam, starting with the Kennedy administration.

The value of this source is that it gives the readers a good overview on the foreign policies of both Johnson and Kennedy, specifically stating the important decisions of each president. It also highlights all the important events that led to any changes in the American foreign policy towards Vietnam. However, a limitation is that it does not go into great detail and it does not connect the foreign policies of the two presidents, but rather deals with them separately.

The origin of the second text An Album of the Vietnam War is a historical book and also a secondary source, attempting to explain Johnson’s foreign policy on Vietnam and how this effected the U.S. involvement. The purpose of this source is to explain how Johnson exploited his power through the Tonkin Resolution, and how this caused a much bigger involvement and commitment in Vietnam. Unlike the first source, this one focuses a lot more on the Tonkin Resolution and sets it as the turning point in the American involvement in Vietnam, stating that this event was the foundation for further involvement.

The value is that the readers can see and understand why Johnson and his advisors acted as they did, and how they justified their decisions. The main limitation is that it practically only deals with Johnson’s actions and barely connects to the previous foreign policies of Kennedy. The overview of Johnson’s foreign policy is also quite limited, since the focus is primarily placed on the Tonkin Resolution, where all the other events are stated in relation to it and not independently.


During his presidency from 1961 until 1963, John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. into the Vietnamese conflict. Being a strong supporter of the “Domino Theory”, and a strong believer in containment, he made sure to support the South Vietnamese government against the communistic North Vietnam. In his presidency Kennedy was able to greatly increase the military assistance and funding for South Vietnam. Starting with fewer than “700 men in January 1961”, he was able to increase the U.S. military personnel to “16,000 by November 1963”. His foreign policy also caused to finance an increase in the size of the South Vietnamese army from “150,000 to 17000”. Additionally, propaganda and political activities where launched with the purpose of “discrediting the Viet Cong and building support for the Saigon government”. However after his assassination in November of 1963, the situation changed.

Just two hours after Kennedy’s death in 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson was inaugurated as the U.S. President. However, many of Kennedy’s advisors strongly supported the idea of “emphasizing continuity with Kennedy’s policies”1. Johnson suddenly becoming the American President “asked the Kennedy team to remain with him”2. Johnson, like Kennedy, was a strong supporter of containment and believed that the U.S. main foreign policy should be to stop communist expansion. Several days after Kennedy’s death, Johnson approved “NSAM 273”3, a document drafted during Kennedy’s presidency, which affirmed the American commitment to assist South Vietnam.

Just like Kennedy, who was determined to pursue the fight against Communism around the globe and promising to “pay any price, bear any burden”4, so was Johnson determined to accomplish his predecessor’s objectives stating: “let us continue”5 in Vietnam. Therefore, it is no surprise that “Johnson pledged to carry out the policies of the Kennedy administration” However Johnson soon realized that the new government of South Vietnam7 seemed confused and ineffective and that bold actions have to be taken in Vietnam since the conflict has reached a stage of “definitive crisis” However, Johnson did not want to risk his success in the upcoming elections in 1964, and needed a good reason to openly attack North Vietnam.

The Tonkin Incident “of August 1964” offered him this opportunity. This “murky crisis”, where an attack on an American destroyer war reported, provided Johnson with the opportunity of convincing congress to pass the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7”, giving Johnson full authority to take all necessary measures, including the “use of armed force to assist South Vietnam”  This resolution carried the basis of America’s deeper involvement during Johnson’s Presidency. This also set the difference between Johnson’s and Kennedy’s foreign policies, since with this resolution Johnson was able to “Americanize” the war in Vietnam. Up until this event Johnson’s foreign policy was quite similar to Kennedy’s, whereas after the resolution his new foreign policies deepened the U.S. involvement in Vietnam to a much larger extent. Already shortly after this resolution the effects could be seen, since immediate increases in military assistance were ordered, causing: “some 25,000 American combat troops in Vietnam by 1964”

Additionally, by the “spring of 1965”11 there were constant American aerial raids on North Vietnam, which was a part of an operation called “Rolling Thunder”  Johnson and his advisors greatly supported this operation in the hope of damaging “North Vietnam’s war-making infrastructure and its lines of supply” This operation which emerged from the Tonkin resolution also set Johnson’s foreign policy apart from Kennedy’s. It was the “first sustained U.S. military operation in Vietnam”, which demonstrated Johnson’s much greater military commitment to Vietnam then Kennedy’s, whose foreign policy at the time did not include or plan such an operation. This trend of continuously sending more and more American troops continued, which can be clearly seen when Johnson finally decided “in July of 1965 for an open-ended military commitment”

Johnson was able to completely “Americanize”15 this war and rush thousands of ground troops into Vietnam, which was a huge difference to Kennedy’s foreign policy. This can be especially seen when comparing the maximum number of Kennedy’s military advisors of “16,000 by November 1963”16 with Johnson’s “500,000 American troops in Vietnam by 1968”. Although Johnson started with a similar foreign policy as Kennedy, he soon realized that this wouldn’t work for winning the war effectively. Through the Tonkin Resolution Johnson was able to greatly increase the U.S. involvement, leading to events such as Operation Rolling Thunder. After deciding for an open-ended military commitment to Vietnam in 1965, Johnson eventually sent more than half a million American troops to Vietnam by 1968, which was the end of his presidency and clearly showing that his foreign policy was different from Kennedy’s.


Kennedy’s foreign policy committed the U.S in supporting the government of South Vietnam in the early 1960s, since was a strong believer of containment and the domino theory. His foreign policy involved increasing the number of military advisors and the funding for South Vietnam, as well as propaganda against North Vietnam. However after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson inherits the responsibility for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

At first, Johnson does continue Kennedy’s foreign policies concerning Vietnam, similarly supporting the idea of containment just as Kennedy did. However, after realizing the vast commitment it is going to take to win the war and being encountered by numerous difficulties and lack of progress, he eventually causes the U.S. involvement to become much deeper. Johnson was able to achieve this through the Tonkin Resolution, which gave him the power for operations such as “Rolling Thunder” and eventually an open-ended military commitment towards this conflict.

This change in foreign policy where Johnson completely “Americanized” the war was different from Kennedy’s foreign policy. In conclusion, Johnson’s foreign policy has caused a much larger U.S. involvement in Vietnam than Kennedy’s foreign policy.

Cite this Page

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Policies on Vietnam. (2016, Jul 17). Retrieved from

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