Lyndon Johnson, a promising leader who established revolutionary civil-rights progress, environmental regulation, and New-Deal style government work programs, showed himself to be an immensely popular domestic reformer. With his steady continuance and upscale of US intervention in South Vietnam, though, he ended his political leadership with large segments of the population and many of his own advisors opposed to his policies of upgrading and continuing the US military effort to aid South Vietnam against North Vietnam. Johnson was resolved that South Vietnam, a country
in which France had already fought and lost many battles helping the South against the North, must not fall under communism, and he often ignored pointed advice to discontinue the military action because he, ironically, did not want to become unpopular with the American people. Johnson was primarily afraid, it seems, of being labeled a coward by discontinuing the policies of former presidents in Vietnam. “Nearly every Johnson-watcher, from the president’s wife to his arch enemies, believed him to be out of his element in foreign relations” (Schulman 125).
Though one can see how Johnson felt the weight of history in deciding to keep up US intervention in Vietnam, this does not completely explain why he chose to broaden and magnify the scope of the conflict. Johnson, it seems, often adrift and reliant upon the opinions of others regarding foreign policy, used his own broad theoretical models and reactionary instincts to form his plans in Vietnam without really stopping to understand the increasingly complex intricacies of their actual application. Executive branch decisions
Politically, Lyndon Johnson was concerned that many of the conservatives in his government, some of whom were put off by his revolutionary democratic domestic reforms, would drift far from his influence and gain ground in attacks against him, and he wanted to prevent any possible loss of face to conservative agenda-makers. Having applied successfully a liberal series of programs on the home-front, Johnson initially expanded the war in Vietnam in the hopes that a display of might would allow the North Vietnamese no other choice than to begin negotiations for a settlement. What Johnson
did not perhaps fully recognize was that the depth of commitment of the North Vietnamese had existed even before initial American intervention in the area during the late 1940s, and was not likely to be shocked into stopping a decades-long conflict by a brief show of thunder. “…the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese calculated that they could gain more by outlasting the United States than by negotiating. So the war ground on…” (Boyer et al 399). Domestically challenged by conservative politicians who were looking for a sign of weakness on which to challenge him, Johnson
decided to step up action against North Vietnam, using a dubious (counter)attack in the Gulf of Tonkin as a lever to force Congress to allow him practically free reign in the continuance of “aggression prevention” with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. When picturing the sustained bombing subsequently ordered against North Vietnam, I am unintentionally reminded of a scene in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which a European gunboat, anchored far from shore, is portrayed as firing unceasingly and utterly blindly into the invisible interior of Africa.