The carrot and the stick: LBJ addresses the nation on the conflict in Vietnam

LBJ 1965

On April 7, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to the American public about the escalating conflict in Vietnam.

"We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure," he told the American people.

Through 1964, an election year, LBJ had largely succeeded in keeping Vietnam under the radar, but in the spring of 1965, pressure was building on the president to explain his Vietnam policy to the nation. 

"In early April 1965, I think he is getting it from both sides,” says Vietnam scholar Fredrik Logevall. On one side were Johnson's key advisers on the war — Robert McNamara at defense, Dean Rusk at state and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy — who all favored expanding the US commitment.

“That [made] a big impression on Lyndon Johnson. I think we also have to acknowledge his personal insecurities when it comes to foreign policy, and his belief that if he's perceived as 'tucking tail and running,' as he would put it, he'll be thought of as somehow lesser of a man, lesser of a politician, lesser of a leader than he would have otherwise,” Logevall says.

On the other side were many members of Congress, allied governments and leading voices in the American press, all of whom opposed further escalation. One of Johnson's mentors, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, had also strongly warned Johnson in mid-1964 about the perils of remaining in the conflict in Vietnam.

Listen to his comments:

A year earlier, Johnson had confided his own doubts to Bundy: "I just stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, and the more that I think of it, I don't know what in the hell — it looks like to me that we're getting into another Korea," Johnson told Bundy. "It just worries the hell out of me. … I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out, and it's just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.”

Listen to their conversation: 

In the spring of 1965, Johnson was warned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who supported a military buildup, that the war would take at least five years and 500,000 troops. “He knew from them that it was going to get worse before it gets better,” Logevall says. “This [was] going to cost a lot of lives.”

So, why did Johnson opt for continued escalation?

Logevall believes that Johnson feared more the political implications of getting out than he did the implications of going deeper in.

Harry McPherson, LBJ’s top speechwriter and aide, agreed: “The real question [was] whether you would ever have been able to get a domestic legislative program — a liberal program — through if you had let South Vietnam go down the drain. Harry Truman found out what it was like to be ‘soft on Communists’ and to try to push a domestic legislative program of a liberal stripe through the Congress: instinctive, violent reaction, "soft on Communists, social welfare legislation, socialists," et cetera. That was an old experience of Johnson’s.”

From the other direction, Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was warning Johnson that escalating the war would imperil the social and civil rights legislation Johnson so badly wanted.

So, Johnson tried to thread the needle, using an incremental, ambiguous approach to the buildup, which edged the country ever deeper into a faraway war without quite acknowledging it.

Johnson accomplished this, in part, by offering a “carrot instead of a stick,” as his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, put it in her daily White House diary. 

"I would hope to initiate as soon as possible with the countries of that area, a plan for cooperation and increased development,” he announced in his April speech. "On our part, I will ask the Congress to join in a billion-dollar American investment in this effort as soon as it is underway."

A billion dollars is still a lot of money, but back then it was worth even more — about the same as $8 billion today.

As a young congressman in the 1930s and 1940s, Johnson had first made his mark by bringing electricity to rural parts of Texas. He knew firsthand how useful the electrification projects could be for rural communities. When he visited Vietnam in 1961, he saw a parallel between rural communities in Texas and those in Vietnam. He thought he could do for the Vietnamese farm workers what he had done so many years earlier for the rural poor in Texas.

“The task," Johnson said, "is nothing less than to enrich the hopes and the existence of more than 100 million people. The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own TVA,” referencing the Tennessee Valley Authority, a Depression-era program that aimed to build infrastructure and give people jobs. 

“He really did think that a kind of ‘TVA on the Mekong’ was something that America could bring to the Vietnamese, but I don't believe that the complexities of Asian history and Asian thought ever came through to him,” said his press secretary George Reedy.

In the end, Johnson’s speech was neither the game-changer that the White House might have hoped, nor the disaster Johnson himself likely feared. Public support for the war remained where it had been, above 60 percent, and would stay there for some time to come.

As for the president's billion-dollar Mekong Delta dream, it never had a chance.

“I think the tragedy is that that side of Johnson, if you will, never won out,” Logevall says. "[He] never could overcome the sense he had, which was, 'I've got to prevail here. I've got to keep South Vietnam alive, whatever it takes, and if that means sending American troops, if that means massive aerial bombardment of not only enemy-held areas in South Vietnam and portions of North Vietnam, but also bombing in Cambodia and Laos, I'm going to do it.' That motivation won out in the end."

This article is based on the podcast LBJ's War, hosted by David Brown. 

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