What were the differences between President Lyndon Johnson's and President Richard Nixon's approaches to the Vietnam conflict?

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In order to examine the differences between the strategies of President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Richard Nixon with regard to the Vietnam conflict, one must first understand the strategies employed by President Dwight Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy.

While the French and the Vietnamese continued their own bloody...

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In order to examine the differences between the strategies of President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Richard Nixon with regard to the Vietnam conflict, one must first understand the strategies employed by President Dwight Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy.

While the French and the Vietnamese continued their own bloody conflict as the Vietnamese fought to overthrow the colonists, Eisenhower provided military supplies and intelligence to the French allies. As the Vietnamese movement warped from just gaining independence into implementing a communist political system via the North Vietnamese, Kennedy countered with the policy of containment.

Following the assassination of Kennedy, Johnson assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief and was forced to manage the conflict, which was becoming massively unpopular stateside. Johnson did not want to spend more money or put more boots on the ground, but he was also terrified of pulling out completely, which would mean appearing weak and defeated in the face of communism. As such, Johnson’s strategy is best described as a continuation of containment, putting the macro forces of capitalism and communism ahead of the day-to-day quagmire.

Nixon came into office with one goal in mind: ending the conflict via treaty, similar to how the treaty between North and South Korea was created. When it became clear the Viet Cong did not want to negotiate, Nixon began a campaign of bombing and destruction, aimed at crippling the Viet Cong into submission. This campaign was successful in the sense that the Viet Cong were ready to negotiate a ceasefire, but it also caused a massive number of casualties and made the conflict even more unpopular stateside. Nixon’s strategy is best described as pursuing a ceasefire by any means necessary.

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The main difference between President Johnson's and President Nixon's approaches to the conflict in Vietnam had to do with timing and their differing agendas. Johnson knew that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, it would be a political disaster for the Democratic Party. Rightly or wrongly, the Democrats had already taken heat for the Communist takeover of China. Johnson hoped to avoid this by quickly squashing the Vietcong and the Army of North Vietnam and establishing a robust government in Saigon. To that end, he took the advice of his military advisors and sent in nearly 200,000 American troops by the end of 1965. In 1968, there were over half a million Americans serving in Vietnam.

Nixon was elected in part for his pledge to end the war in Vietnam. While he did expand the war into neighboring Laos and Cambodia and increased the bombing campaign of northern Vietnam, he also shifted the military responsibility to the South Vietnamese. This policy, known as "Vietnamization," resulted in the gradual withdrawal of over half a million US troops. The United States continued to offer supplies and support for South Vietnam, but fewer American troops meant that South Vietnam was ultimately unable to fight off the advancing Communist forces.

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After 1964, Johnson's policy toward Vietnam was to respond to escalations by sending more and more troops. Johnson's advisors, most famously Robert McNamara, frequently appeared in front of the media touting tactical victories and pointing out the high casualties in Viet Cong forces and the North Vietnamese Army.

Johnson sent more troops to fight in South Vietnam while engaging in almost-constant and deadly bombing campaigns in the North. While there is significant evidence that Johnson viewed the conflict in Vietnam as a quagmire that was ultimately unwinnable, he nevertheless felt politically compelled to take a hard line with communism in the region—a stance that guided his escalation of the war.

Richard Nixon, on the other hand, recognized that the war was unwinnable as he took office; but he also pledged that the United States would achieve "peace with honor" in the region. In order to do this, he adopted a policy which was referred to as "Vietnamization," which involved the gradual withdrawal of American troops, negotiations with North Vietnamese officials, diplomatic overtures with China, and an overall relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union—called détente. This, of course, was oppositional to Johnson's policy of escalation.

At the same time, Nixon, hoping to bargain from a position of strength, escalated the bombing campaign initiated under Johnson. He even expanded this campaign to Cambodia, which was seen as a safe haven for Viet Cong fighters. This policy reached its peak in 1972, when enormous bombing campaigns appalled even Nixon's supporters in Congress. Soon afterward, a cease-fire was agreed to, and troops were withdrawn fairly rapidly.

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There were differences between President Johnson’s approach and President Nixon’s approach to the Vietnam War. President Johnson used the alleged incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to escalate our involvement in this war. We went from having a small number of ground troops in 1963 to having over 500,000 ground troops at our maximum level in 1968. President Johnson increased our involvement and the number of our ground troops during his presidency.

President Nixon pledged to get us out of Vietnam when he ran for office. His plan was designed to gradually turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese army while gradually pulling our troops out of Vietnam. While he did expand the war into Cambodia, this was purely a strategy to cut the supply lines the North Vietnamese used to get military supplies to their soldiers fighting in South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had been using Cambodia to do this. President Nixon was eventually able to withdraw our troops from South Vietnam in 1973.

President Johnson and President Nixon had different approaches in dealing with the Vietnam War.

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