Johnson Wins a Full Term in 1964, Defends Vietnam Policies

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This is Doug Johnson. And this is Phil Murray with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we continue the story of America's thirty-sixth president, Lyndon Johnson.

After John Kennedy was murdered, Vice President Lyndon Johnson served the last 14 months of Kennedy's term. He then was elected to his own full term. It began in January, 1965. Much of his time and energy would be taken up by the war in Vietnam.

By early 1964, America had about seventeen thousand troops in Vietnam. The troops were there to advise and train the South Vietnamese military.

Vietnam had gained its independence from France in 1954. The country was divided into North and South. The North had a Communist government led by Ho Chi Minh. The South had an anti-Communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

In 1957, Communist rebels -- Vietcong -- began a campaign of terrorism in South Vietnam. They were supported by the government of North Vietnam and later by North Vietnamese troops. Their goal was to overthrow the anti-Communist government in the South.

President Johnson believed that the United States had to support South Vietnam. Many other Americans agreed. They believed that without American help, South Vietnam would become Communist. Then, all of Southeast Asia would become Communist, too.

As Johnson's term began, his military advisers told him the Communists were losing the war. They told him that North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong forces would soon stop fighting.

On February sixth, however, the Vietcong attacked American camps at Pleiku and Qui Phon. The Johnson administration immediately ordered air attacks against military targets in the North.

Some observers in the United States questioned the administration's policy. For example, a leading newspaper writer, James Reston, said President Johnson was carrying out an undeclared and unexplained war in Vietnam.

Johnson defended his policies. He said withdrawal would not bring an end to the conflict. He said the battle would continue in one country, and then another.

In March, 1965, the first American ground troops arrived in South Vietnam. Congress supported the president's actions at that time. However, the number of Americans who opposed the war began to grow. These people said the war was a civil war. They said the United States had no right, or reason, to intervene.

For six days in May, the United States halted air attacks on North Vietnam. The administration hoped this would help get the North Vietnamese government to begin negotiations.

The North refused. And the United States began to build up its forces in the South. By July, one hundred twenty-five thousand Americans were fighting in Vietnam.

Some Americans became angry. Anti-war demonstrations took place in the cities of San Francisco and Chicago. More and more students began to protest. They wanted the war to end quickly.

Writer James Reston commented that the anti-war demonstrations were not helping to bring peace to Vietnam. He said they were postponing it. He believed the demonstrations would make Ho Chi Minh think America did not support its troops. And that, he said, would make president Ho continue the war.

In December, 1965, the United States again halted air attacks against North Vietnam. Again, it invited the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the fighting. And again, the North refused.

Ho Chi Minh's conditions for peace were firm. He demanded an end to the bombing and a complete American withdrawal.

Withdrawal would mean defeat for the South. It would mean that all of Vietnam would become Communist. President Johnson would not accept these terms. So he offered his own proposals. The most important was an immediate ceasefire. Neither side would compromise, however. And the fighting went on.

In 1966, President Johnson renewed the bombing attacks in North Vietnam. He also increased the number of American troops in South Vietnam. He condemned those who opposed his policies. He said: "The American people will stand united until every soldier is brought home safely. They will stand united until the people of South Vietnam can choose their own government."

Local and state elections were held in the United States that year. The war in Vietnam had an effect on those elections. The opposition Republican Party generally supported the president's war efforts. Yet it criticized him and other Democrats for economic problems linked to the war.

The war cost 2,000 million dollars every month. The price of many goods in the United States began to rise. The value of the dollar began to drop. The result was inflation. Then economic activity slowed, and the result was recession.

To answer the criticism, administration officials said progress was being made in Vietnam. But some Americans began to suspect that the government was not telling the truth about the war.

Several news writers, for example, said the number of enemy soldiers killed was much lower than the government reported. Opposition to the war and to the administration's war policies led to bigger and bigger anti-war demonstrations.

Studies were done to measure Americans' opinion on the issue. In a study in July, 1967, a little more than half the people questioned said they did not approve of the president's policies. Yet most Americans believed he would run again for president the next year.

Johnson strongly defended the use of American soldiers in Vietnam. In a speech to a group of lawmakers he said: "Since World War Two, this nation has met and has mastered many challenges -- challenges in Greece and Turkey, in Berlin, in Korea, in Cuba. We met them because brave men were willing to risk their lives for their nation's security. And braver men have never lived than those who carry our colors in Vietnam this very hour."

Then came Tet -- the Vietnamese lunar new year -- in January 1968. The Communists launched a major military campaign. They attacked thirty-one of the 44 provinces of South Vietnam. They even struck at the American embassy in the capital, Saigon.

Fifty thousand Communist soldiers were killed during the Tet offensive. 14,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed. And 2,000 American soldiers were killed. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians were killed, too.

Many Americans were surprised, even shocked, that the Communists could launch such a major attack against South Vietnam. For several years, they had been told that Communist forces were small and were losing badly. As a result, popular support for the administration fell even more.

Democrats who opposed President Johnson seized this chance. Several ran against him in the primary elections held before the party's presidential nominating convention. These included Senator Robert Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Kennedy and McCarthy did well in the early primary elections. Johnson did poorly.

At the end of March, 1968, the president spoke to the American people on television. He told of his proposal to end American bombing of North Vietnam. He told of the appointment of a special ambassador to start peace negotiations. And he told of his decision about his own future:

LYNDON JOHNSON: "I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office -- the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Phil Murray. And this is Doug Johnson. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.