The River Styx Episode 3
The Vietnam War
Directed by Ken Burn and Lyn Novick
Last night Maori TV showed Part 3 of the Vietnam War series. The title refers to the river dead people cross in Roman mythology to reach the Underworld.
The third episode covers the period 1964-1965 under President Lyndon Johnson. The latter reversed Kennedy’s initiative to withdraw US military “advisors” from Vietnam. Within days of the assassination, the new president increased the number of forces “advising” the South Vietnamese Army to 16,000. He also began secretly bombing and shelling North Vietnam (which was supplying arms to the South Vietnamese Army of Liberation). He concealed the bombing from the US public because 1964 was an election year.
By January 1965, the South Vietnamese Army of Liberation had nearly wiped out the South Vietnamese Army, and Johnson was forced to introduce “conventional” troops. In August 1964, Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted Johnson the authority to militarily “assist any Southeast Asian country which was being threatened by Communist aggression.” The Resolution was passed in response to an alleged unprovoked North Vietnamese attack on a US spy ship that, according to declassified documents, never happened.
The introduction of US ground forces would draw the North Vietnamese Army into the war, in support of the South Vietnamese Liberation Army. It would also lead France, Vietnam’s former colonial oppressor, to call for an end to all foreign intervention in Vietnam.
By May, Johnson had sent 50,000 GIs to Vietnam and pledged another 50,00 by the end of 1965. From the outset US troops deliberately waged a “counterinsurgency” war, ie one that clearly targeted civilians. The anger this provoked among the South Vietnamese population greatly enhanced recruitment efforts by the South Vietnamese Liberation Army.
On the domestic front, the introduction of ground troops (via a compulsory draft) would fuel a growing anti-Vietnam War protest movement by mid-1965.
At the end of 1965, General Westmoreland, who commanded US forces during the Vietnam War, requested an additional 200,000 troops. Johnson would comply, even though by that point, he and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara realized the Vietnam War was unwinnable.