The Conflict Deepens

Buoyed by American weapons and supported by confident and aggressive American advisers, the South Vietnamese army managed to take the offensive against the Viet Cong. Meanwhile, the Diem government initiated an extensive security campaign called the Strategic Hamlet Program aimed to concentrate rural populations into positions where they could be more easily defended and segregated from the Viet Cong. Because of popular discontent with the compulsory labor and frequent dislocations involved in establishing the villages, a lot of strategic hamlets soon had as many VC recruits inside their walls as outside.

At the same time, the Viet Cong learned to cope with the ARVN’s new array of American weapons. In January 1963, a Viet Cong battalion surrounded by outnumbered ARVN forces successfully fought its way out of its encirclement. By the summer of 1963, there were growing doubts about the ability of the Diem government to prosecute the war. Diem’s brother Nhu was suspected by U.S. intelligence of secretly negotiating with the North.

Diem’s death was followed by Kennedy’s in less than three weeks later. Killed President left his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, a legacy of indecision, half-measures, and gradually increasing involvement. Kennedy had relished Cold War challenges while Johnson did not. He had an ambitious plan that he was determined to fight through Congress. Johnson and most of his advisers believed that Vietnam was a critical test of U.S. credibility and the ability to keep its commitments to its allies. Johnson was ready to do everything necessary to carry on the American commitment to South Vietnam. He replaced Harkins with Gen. He increased the number of U.S. military personnel still further—from 16,000 in 1963 to 23,000 by the end of 1964.

The United States Enters The War

In September, the Khanh government was replaced by a bewildering array of coalitions and cliques. In the countryside, ARVN units seemed incapable of defeating the main forces of the Viet Cong. The communists were now targeting U.S. military bases and personnel.

Many of Johnson’s advisers started to argue for some retaliation against the North. Air attacks against North Vietnam, some believed, would boost the morale of the shaky South Vietnamese and reassure them of continuing American commitment. The majority of the President’s civilian aides and advisers believed in the efficacy of a bombing campaign; they differed only in the conduction of the plan.

Vice Pres. Hubert H. Humphrey and Ball warned the President that a bombing campaign would likely lead to further American commitment and domestic political problems. But Johnson was concerned with the immediate necessity of halting the slide in Saigon. In mid-February, without public declaration, the United States started a campaign of sustained airstrikes against the North that was code-named Rolling Thunder.

The bombing campaign followed the path outlined by Bundy but was firmly expanded to include more targets and more frequent attacks. It was directed from the White House to avoid provoking the Chinese or Soviets. However, the bombing would have a little direct impact on the struggle in South Vietnam, where the communists were gaining ground inexorably. In attempts to forestalling a communist victory. Johnson and his predecessors had to send soldiers to fight in Asia. In late July, Johnson took the last steps that would commit the United States to full-scale war in Vietnam. The President authorized the immediate dispatch of 100,000 troops and an additional 100,000 in 1966. Johnson announced his decisions at a news conference at the end of July. The National Guard, as well as military reserves, was not called to active service.

Firepower Comes To Naught

The political instability in Saigon seemed to have decreased with the installation of a government in February 1965. The government was commanded by Nguyen Van Thieu, who was head of state and air force and general Nguyen Cao Ky as prime minister. This arrangement, backed by the majority of the top military commanders, lasted until 1968, when Ky was released out of power, leaving Thieu in a single control. The regular forces of the Viet Cong, as well as the NVA, would continue to experience tremendous casualties at the controls of massive U.S. firepower. Eventually, the communists would reach the point where they would no longer be capable of replacing their losses on the battlefield. Ground down on the battlefield, they would likely agree to a peace settlement. Along the DMZ separating South and North Vietnam, the Americans set a string of fortified bases that were part of a system that included minefields, electronic warning devices, and infrared detectors intended to check infiltration and outright invasion from the North. As the ground war in the South, the air campaign against the North continued to grow in scope and destructiveness but remained indecisive. However, the bombing seemed to have a slight influence on the communists’ ability to continue the war. North Vietnam was principally an agricultural country with only a few industries to destroy and mostly supported by China and the Soviet Union. While the air raids continued, North Vietnam strengthened its air defenses. By the end of 1966, the U.S. had already lost nearly 500 aircraft, and hundreds of aircrewmen killed or held as prisoners of war.

North Vietnamese attacks

In Hanoi, impatient with the progress of the war, the communist leadership was aware that the U.S. showed no hint of giving up its faiths of victory and had continued to pour more troops into Vietnam. In 1967, the communists determined to cripple the Saigon government and destroy all American expectations of success. They planned to launch simultaneous military attacks at cities, towns, and military installations.

In 1968, two North Vietnamese divisions started a continued attack against the Marine base at Khe Sanh. Like other bases, Khe Sanh was within reach of artillery in North Vietnam, and, beginning on January 21, the North Vietnamese unleashed a massive barrage against it.

Meantime, the communists launched an attack throughout South Vietnam. They invaded 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six major cities, 64 district capitals, and more than two dozen bases and airfields. In Hue, the former Vietnamese capital, communist troops took control of more than half the town and held it for almost three weeks.

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