Lyndon B. Johnson eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Lyndon Johnson speaking at a pro-Johnson rally in 1966. As the Vietnam War dragged on throughout the 1960s, pro-Johnson sentiment grew less and less. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. Lyndon Johnson speaking at a pro-Johnson rally in 1966. As the Vietnam War dragged on throughout the 1960s, pro-Johnson sentiment grew less and less. Published by Gale Cengage Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
President Lyndon Johnson and the majority of his advisors believed that the only way to support the government of South Vietnam was to provide massive support from the United States. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission. President Lyndon Johnson and the majority of his advisors believed that the only way to support the government of South Vietnam was to provide massive support from the United States. Published by Gale Cengage AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Excerpt from "Message to Congress, August 5, 1964"
Reprinted from Department of State Bulletin, August 24, 1964

Excerpt from "House Joint Resolution 1145, August 7, 1964"
Reprinted from Department of State Bulletin, August 24, 1964

"The issue is the future of southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation in that region is a threat to all, and a threat to us."

The pressure of America's commitment to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia grew especially intense in the spring and summer of 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson had inherited from his Democratic predecessor, John F. Kennedy, the policy of providing military advisors and weapons to support the government of South Vietnam. But pressures in Vietnam and at home soon pushed Johnson to look for a different policy. In Vietnam, North Vietnamese troops, supported by their Vietcong supporters in South Vietnam, increased their attacks on South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese army was disintegrating under this pressure, especially following the assassination of brutal South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

Back in the United States, 1964 was an election year. Johnson's Republican opponents, especially Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), accused Johnson of not getting tough with the North Vietnamese and thus of encouraging the spread of communism. These combined pressures pushed Johnson to look for a way to change American policy.

Johnson and the majority of his advisors believed that the only way to support the government of South Vietnam would be to provide massive support from the United States. Johnson authorized a number of undercover operations against North Vietnam, including DeSoto missions, which were intelligence-gathering missions performed by specially equipped Navy ships called destroyers off the coast of North Vietnam. On the morning of August 2, 1964, U.S. destroyer Maddox reported that the North Vietnamese had fired torpedoes at it while the ship was patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam. Wanting to prove American strength and resolve, Johnson ordered the Maddox to resume its offshore patrol accompanied by another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy. On August 4, both destroyers reported torpedo attacks, although the commander of the Maddox later conceded that this incident might in fact have resulted from the combined effects of bad weather and nervous radar and sonar operators.

The alleged torpedo attacks gave Johnson the opening he was looking for. He immediately authorized air strikes against North Vietnamese targets, and he appeared on the three major television networks to tell the American people that North Vietnam had openly attacked the United States. On August 5, he submitted to Congress a resolution that would authorize him to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." In his message to Congress, President Johnson asked for approval of a joint resolution authorizing him to use military force in Southeast Asia; the resolution giving him that approval is also included here.

Things to remember while reading President Johnson's "Message to Congress" and the "Joint Resolution of Congress":

  • The United States Constitution specifies the rights of Congress and the president as they relate to waging war. According to the Article I, Section 8, only Congress has the power to declare war. According to Article II, Section 2, the president "shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States," an authorization that is extended to all military forces. This statement means that the president has the responsibility of determining how American military forces will be used once Congress has authorized war.
  • President Johnson refers frequently to Laos, a small country located just west of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. In 1962, several countries signed a treaty called the Geneva Convention of 1962 that guaranteed the neutrality of Laos. However, soldiers from both North and South Vietnam sometimes ventured into Laotian territory when conducting missions against their enemy. Laos and Cambodia, another country just to the south of Laos, eventually were caught up in the war in Vietnam.
  • President Johnson refers to SEATO, which stands for the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, a military alliance of eight nations—Great Britain, France, the Philippine Republic, Thailand, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—that pledged to protect each other against communist aggression. American participation in this organization was authorized in 1955 by the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty. The organization disbanded in 1977.

Excerpt from "Message to Congress, August 5, 1964"

To the Congress of the United States :

Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and I had therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action.

After consultation with the leaders of both parties in the Congress, I further announced a decision to ask the Congress for a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia.

These latest actions of the North Vietnamese regime has given a new and grave turn to the already serious situation in southeast Asia. Our commitments in that area are well known to the Congress. They were first made in 1954 by President Eisenhower. They were further defined in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty approved by the Senate in February 1955.

This treaty with its accompanying protocol obligates the United States and other members to act in accordance with their constitutional processes to meet Communist aggression against any of the parties or protocol states.

Our policy in southeast Asia has been consistent and unchanged since 1954. I summarized it on June 2 in four simple propositions:

  1. America keeps her word. Here as elsewhere, we must and shall honor our commitments.
  2. The issue is the future of southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation in that region is a threat to all, and a threat to us.
  3. Our purpose is peace. We have no military, political, or territorial ambitions in the area.
  4. This is not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity. Our military and economic assistance to South Vietnam and Laos in particular has the purpose of helping these countries to repel aggression and strengthen their independence.

The threat to the free nations of southeast Asia has long been clear. The North Vietnamese regime has constantly sought to take over South Vietnam and Laos. This Communist regime has violated the Geneva accords for Vietnam. It has systematically conducted a campaign of subversion, which includes the direction, training, and supply of personnel and arms for the conduct of guerrilla warfare in South Vietnamese territory. In Laos, the North Vietnamese regime has maintained military forces, used Laotian territory for infiltration into South Vietnam, and most recently carried out combat operations—all in direct violation of the Geneva Agreements of 1962.

In recent months, the actions of the North Vietnamese regime have become steadily more threatening.… [Johnson gives the details of incident in which North Vietnamese forces fired on an American airplane.]

As President of the United States I have concluded that I should now ask the Congress, on its part, to join in affirming the national determination that all such attacks will be met, and that the United States will continue in its basic policy of assisting the free nations of the area to defend their freedom.

As I have repeatedly made clear, the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war. We must make it clear to all that the United States is united in its determination to bring about the end of Communist subversion and aggression in the area. We seek the full and effective restoration of the international agreements signed in Geneva in 1954, with respect to South Vietnam, and again in Geneva in 1962, with respect to Laos.

I recommend a resolution expressing the support of the Congress for all necessary action to protect our Armed Forces and to assist nations covered by the SEATO treaty. At the same time, I assure Congress that we shall continue readily to explore any avenues of political solution that will effectively guarantee the removal of Communist subversion and the preservation of the independence of the nations of the area.…

The events of this week would in any event have made the passage of a congressional resolution essential. But there is an additional reason for doing so at a time when we are entering on 3 months of political campaigning. Hostile nations must understand that in such a period the United States will continue to protect its national interests, and that in these matters there is no division among us.

Excerpt of "House Joint Resolution 1145, August 7, 1964"

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.

Sec. 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

Sec. 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

What happened next…

Johnson's request for the power to wage war against North Vietnam was greeted with great enthusiasm in Congress. It was approved unanimously in the House of Representatives and passed 88-2 in the Senate. The American people also supported Johnson's strength in the face of the North Vietnamese "aggression." The results of the congressional resolution granting President Johnson the authority to "prevent further aggression" were slow in coming, however. Johnson's political advisors warned him against sending American soldiers to fight in Vietnam before the election in November, for they felt such a move would cost him votes. Instead, they hoped that the North Vietnamese, led by attention-getting leader Ho Chi Minh, would change their ways and quit their efforts to destabilize the government in South Vietnam.

North Vietnam did not cooperate with American plans. Beginning in the fall of 1964, it stepped up its efforts to defeat South Vietnam and reunite the country. Where once North Vietnam had avoided killing U.S. military advisors, now the U.S. forces became fair game. In a series of secretive strikes, the North Vietnamese and their allies in the South, the Vietcong, proved their military skills. The Americans conducted several bombing raids over North Vietnam, but Johnson's military advisors increasingly warned that the only way to protect South Vietnam was to send in a massive military force. By the spring of 1965, Johnson faced this choice: withdraw from the conflict or increase the number of troops, thus increasing the American commitment. As the following excerpts show, Johnson received advice to increase U.S. involvement.

Looking back on the Vietnam War from the perspective of the early 2000s, most people believed that getting involved in the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake on the part of the United States. So why did it seem to make so much sense at the time? First, people inside the Johnson administration truly believed that once the United States declared war, the North Vietnamese would back off and leave South Vietnam alone. These individuals anticipated that in response to U.S. strikes on North Vietnam, the war would end, leaving America the champion of freedom in Southeast Asia. Second, most Americans knew little about the politics or history of Vietnam. They accepted the Johnson administration's claims that the United States was simply protecting the interests of the legitimate South Vietnamese government. The American public and media had not yet grown to question claims made by government officials, though they would by war's end. Finally, the Cold War attitude of most American politicians assumed that communism must be kept from spreading so that it did not threaten democratic forms of government. By painting the North Vietnamese as communist aggressors, Johnson avoided any criticism. He could do almost anything he wanted under the banner of anti-communism. Sadly, none of these justifications for becoming more deeply involved in the war in Vietnam could protect the United States from the disaster that unfolded over the following several years.

Did you know…

  • One of the main arguments for going to war in Vietnam was known as the "domino theory." The domino theory held that if one small country was allowed to fall into communist hands, then all the other countries would follow—like a string of dominoes is knocked over in sequence after the first one falls. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) first explained the domino theory in 1954 when he told the press: "The loss of Indochina [the original name for Vietnam] will cause the fall of Southeast Asia like a set of dominoes."
  • The leader of the North Vietnamese government during most of the Vietnam War was Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969). Ho was born in Vietnam, but during his youth he traveled widely, spending time in Paris, London, and New York, and learning many different languages. Ho led his people in their victory over the Japanese in 1945, in their long war against French colonizers from 1945 to 1954, and in the long civil war that began in 1954 and lasted until after his death in 1969. When Vietnam was finally reunified in 1975, the nation's capital, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Consider the following…

  • In what ways was the "domino theory" a valid theory for structuring U.S. foreign policy? Can you create an argument against the validity of the theory? Try to create a better theory to guide the policies of the U.S. government during this time of conflict.
  • President Johnson wanted to avoid the criticism that he was carelessly leading the nation into war, so he gave several explanations for why war was necessary. Can you identify several of those pressing reasons that Johnson gives?
  • Knowing what you do about the way the war went in Vietnam, do you think President Johnson's reasons for going to war were valid? Do you think later U.S. actions were consistent with his stated reasons for going to war?
  • Compare President Johnson's reasons for going to war with those offered by other presidents, such as President George W. Bush (1946–) when he asked for authorization to send troops to Iraq in 2003. What are the similarities and differences between the requests?

For More Information


Barr, Roger. The Vietnam War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1991.

Department of State Bulletin, Volume LI, No. 1312. Washington, D.C., The Library of Congress, August 24, 1964.

Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Levy, Debbie. Lyndon B. Johnson. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2003.

Wormser, Richard. Three Faces of Vietnam. New York: F. Watts, 1993.

Wright, David K. Causes and Consequences of the Vietnam War. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996.

Wright, David K. War in Vietnam. 4 vols. Chicago, IL: Children's Press, 1989.

Web sites

Battlefield: Vietnam. (accessed on August 1, 2004).

"Sixties Project: Primary Document Archive," The Sixties Project. (accessed on August 1, 2004).

Vietnam Online. (accessed on August 1, 2004).