Despite President Johnson’s famous claim of “seeking no wider war”, The Pentagon Papers, were leaked to the press in 1971, and showed that “within forty eight hours of assuming the presidency in November 1963, Johnson signed National Security Action Memo 273 (NSAM 273) implementing a secret plan for a full-scale U.S. war to be covered by the “plausibility of denial.” A year later, President Johnson successfully pursued his election as the “peace candidate”, against the perceived “hawkish” intentions of his competitor, Barry Goldwater. In reality, the Johnson administration had been planning military escalation in Vietnam for months. Daniel Ellsberg, working in the office of the Secretary of Defense, recalled “On the day the electorate was voting in unfrequented numbers against the bombing in North Vietnam, or otherwise escalating the war, we were working to set such a policy in motion.”
The decision to escalate the war with bombing and ground troops came on the back of U.S. fears of a political settlement between opposition groups in Vietnam. The CIA backed assassination of Diem and his brother was preceded by Nhu’s comments that the American presence in his country was becoming too great and that “half the Americans in Vietnam should leave.” Around this time, there was also a revelation that the two had begun informal negotiations with the NLF. This greatly disturbed Washington, which viewed the settlement as a communist takeover. Such a settlement was viewed as a political liability for President Kennedy, who knew his opposition would claim that, “he lost Vietnam because he let it go neutral.” This in turn meant, “You had to get rid of Diem”.
Johnson would follow suit in his presidency, also fearing political backlash, instructing his Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, to “knock down the idea of neutralization wherever it rears its ugly head." With the South Vietnamese government in shambles, the Johnson administration would “compensate for their political weakness”, by continually escalating the war by military means. The decision to escalate the conflict and the turmoil that followed, would define both the careers of Defense Secretary McNamara and President Johnson.
PHOTO: Following President Kennedy’s death, Lyndon Johnson inherited the president’s team of advisors, famously referred to as the “best and brightest”, among them, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The relationship between McNamara and Johnson was often tenuous and over time, McNamara began to question the ability to win the war. Before leaving his post, McNamara issued a secret memo to Johnson recommending a halt to bombing and proposed negotiations with the NLF and North Vietnamese. Despite McNamara’s recommendation, bombing would only escalate during the Nixon administration and a negotiated settlement would not be reached for another five years. The image seen here was taken just months before McNamara officially resigned in February 1968’, his departure was followed one month later by President Johnson.