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As President Johnson was winning battles to control domestic legislation, he faced great difficulty in the battles to control Vietnam. Kennedy had limited U.S. involvement to a few thousand so-called advisers, but all the advice in the world couldn't get the corrupt South Vietnamese regime to defeat a dedicated group of South Vietnamese Communist rebels (called the Viet Cong by the U.S.) and their North Vietnamese allies.

Just before the 1964 election (which Johnson won in part by playing a peacemaker), the U.S. Navy had traded a few shots with North Vietnamese patrol boats when the U.S. ships pushed too close to the North Vietnamese shore. This Gulf of Tonkin (1964) incident led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964), authorizing the use of direct American force in Vietnam. When the Vietnamese rebels attacked an American adviser base after the elections, Johnson started a major bombing campaign and greatly increased U.S. forces in Vietnam.

By the end of 1965, almost 200,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam, and Johnson was in a major fight with the Communist rebels. During Johnson's presidency, the troop levels grew: 200,000 became 300,000, which grew to 400,000 and finally 500,000 soldiers. It always seemed like just a few more troops ought to be enough to win, but it never was.


Question: What was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution?

Answer: In response to a minor naval confrontation, LBJ got Congress to authorize the use of direct U.S. force in Vietnam.

Hard fighting in Vietnam

The battle in Vietnam was like a war between an elephant and a fly: The fly couldn't kill the elephant, but the elephant couldn't fly. American soldiers had a hard time fighting with no front line, in steaming jungles where the enemy could be anywhere. A young man in street clothes could shoot you in the back and then hide in a group of civilians.

Vietnamese farmers and their wives and kids were in the middle of the war — millions of them got killed, both by the rebels and by the U.S. Desperate to stop the Viet Cong, the U.S. dropped thousands of tons of bombs, some with chemicals to kill the trees the Vietnamese insurgents hid under.

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