The Vietnam War Expands
The United States Sends Troops
Eisenhower was the first U.S. president to send troops to Vietnam, although the number was limited to several hundred “military advisers” whose job was to train the official army of South Vietnam (not the Viet Cong). Sharing Eisenhower’s apprehension about the spread of communism in Asia, Kennedy com- mitted more troops to the peninsula. By 1963, there were more than 16,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and Kennedy had authorized them to respond to the fierce assaults of the Viet Cong. It was this gradual buildup of troops and the escalation into combat by slow stages that was responsible for the lack of an official declaration of war by Congress.
In 1963, Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, scheduled meetings with Diem; the United States hoped to persuade Diem to relax a brutal campaign he had launched against the Buddhist population. When Diem refused to discuss his actions with Lodge, the United States gave its sup- port to a group of South Vietnamese who intended to unseat Diem. When the plotters murdered Diem and his brother, the United States was taken aback, not having anticipated an assassination. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated. It was then up to Lyndon Johnson to deal with the American involvement in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War Expands
Early in the morning of July 30, 1964, South Vietnamese patrol boats shelled two small North Vietnamese naval bases in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox, which was stationed in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox and the nearby ,Ticonderoga fired on the torpedo boats, sinking one and damaging the other two.
At the time, President Johnson was campaigning for reelection and felt that he needed to appear aggressive in the eyes of the voters. On August 4, Johnson received a report from the navy stating that although visibility in the Gulf was not good, the North Vietnamese appeared to have attacked again. During the afternoon, someone leaked the news of this second attack to the press, erroneously saying that it was a certainty rather than a possibility. In the years since, official documents have made it clear that this apparent second attack probably never took place; foggy weather conditions and ambiguous sonar readings misled the naval commanders. The Johnson administration knew that the press announcement was wrong, but was afraid that denying or correcting it would look like either cowardice or a cover-up.
That evening, the United States launched an air attack on North Vietnamese bases and patrol boats. At midnight, Johnson spoke to the American public on television, informing them of the “unprovoked attacks” by the North Vietnamese and stating that he had asked Congress to authorize the use of military force against North Vietnam. Congress agreed to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, effectively signing away its own constitutional power of declaring war:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.
The resolution went on to state two important things: first, that it would expire as soon as the president determined that peace had been securely established, and second, that Congress could repeal it at any time by majority vote.
n November, Johnson was reelected president. Early in 1965, he ordered the Selective Service to begin sending out draft notices. Because of the system of draft deferments and exemptions, young men and boys from poor or working families served in far greater numbers than those from well-off families. For example, college students—most of whom were from upper- or middle- income families—were eligible for deferments. In 1965, almost 25 percent of all U.S. casualties in Vietnam were African Americans, although they made up only about 10 percent of the total American population. Hispanics also served in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers. More than 10,000 women served in Vietnam as field nurses and in other positions where they were in the thick of the fighting, although they did not actually carry guns in combat. More than 40,000 more women served as volunteers with organizations such as the Red Cross.
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