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1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

Chapter 34: New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s

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The Vietnam Conflict - Document Overview

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During the 1960s the United States became mired in an expanding conflict in Vietnam. It proved to be America's longest and most controversial war. Some 2.5 million men and women served in Vietnam, and over 58,000 lost their lives. American intervention, which finally ended in 1973, cost billions of dollars and cost Lyndon Johnson the presidency. It fractured the national consensus about foreign policy that had existed since 1945, eroded morale within the military, and spawned massive protests and violence at home. In the end South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Communists in 1975. Yet for all of its controversy and tragedy, the Vietnam War seemed the logical, if problematic, course of action for American policymakers.

When John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, he inherited an expanding American commitment in Indochina. His two predecessors, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, had both insisted that the United States must help prevent the spread of Communism in Vietnam. Otherwise, the rest of Asia would fall like "dominoes" to the Communist menace. So the United States provided massive amounts of weapons, food, and money to prop up the corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Diem, in power since 1954, continued to resist American demands that he reform the political and economic structure to generate public support for his regime. By mid-1963, students and Buddhists were protesting in the streets in large numbers, and some monks were immolating themselves to draw world attention to the situation. Kennedy responded by sending American military "advisors" to shore up the government and the military. But the situation continued to deteriorate.

In the fall of 1963 Kennedy's advisors decided that Diem must go, and they encouraged South Vietnamese generals to stage a coup. In November they killed Diem and his brother. Unfortunately, Diem's successors were no more effective in quelling public discontent. The Viet Cong took advantage of the political instability and stepped up their attacks. By the time Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963, there were 16,000 American military personnel in Vietnam.

Lyndon Johnson thus inherited a chaotic political and military situation in South Vietnam. His choices were daunting: either abandon the South Vietnamese to the Communist insurgency or assume responsibility for the military defense of the country. He feared that a deepening American commitment in Southeast Asia would destroy the "woman I really loved—the Great Society." But he also did not want to be accused of "losing" Southeast Asia to Communism as Truman had been accused of "losing" China. "I am not going to lose Vietnam," he resolved. "I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went."

In early 1965 Johnson and his advisors made the fateful decisions to initiate a major American bombing campaign against Communist North Vietnam and to send American combat forces to South Vietnam. By the end of the year there were 200,000 troops in Vietnam, and the number steadily increased thereafter, reaching a peak of 536,000 by the end of 1968. The escalating war generated intense political criticism and social protests. People questioned both the integrity of the South Vietnamese government and the credibility of American military claims that the war was going well.

In late January 1968 the war effort suffered a major setback when the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies launched the Tet Offensive, a well-coordinated series of attacks on South Vietnamese and American installations throughout the country. Even though an American counterattack eventually devastated the Communist forces, the Tet Offensive's initial successes seemed to contradict the Johnson administration's claim that there was "light at the end of the tunnel."

In early 1968 antiwar Democrats, led by Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, challenged Johnson for the Democratic nomination, and in March he announced his decision not to run for reelection. Vice President Hubert Humphrey eventually gained the nomination, but he was narrowly defeated by Republican Richard Nixon. Once in office, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, instituted the "Vietnamization" of the war. This entailed a phased withdrawal of American ground forces coupled with an intensified bombing campaign to buy time so that the South Vietnamese military could assume greater responsibility for the fighting. At the same time, American diplomats began meeting in Paris with their Viet Cong and North Vietnamese counterparts to negotiate an end to the war. But the negotiations dragged on with little sign of progress, and the fighting continued unabated.

In January 1973, only days after Nixon unleashed a furious bombardment of North Vietnamese cities, the negotiators in Paris reached an agreement to end the fighting and exchange prisoners. By March of that year the last remaining American forces left Vietnam. Nixon announced that the South Vietnamese would be able to defend themselves and maintain their independence as long as the American government continued to provide military supplies and financial assistance. Yet in April 1975 North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, and the Communists took complete control of the country. In the midst of defeat and the onset of totalitarian rule, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese "boat people" fled the country, seeking asylum wherever they could find it, with many of them eventually settling in the United States. America's longest and costliest war (over $150 billion) was over, but the wounds persisted for years.


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