Vietnam 1965: LBJ Rejects the Prospect of People’s War

Bien Hoa airbase lay a scant twelve miles northeast of Saigon, in an area of scrub brush, elephant grass, and marshland. In late 1964, it held one of the largest concentrations of U.S. military aircraft in South Vietnam, including B-57 bombers, UH-1 helicopters, and A-1H ground attack planes.

Just after midnight on November 1, 1964, a company of Vietcong guerrillas set up a battery of six U.S.-made 81-mm mortars in a meadow on the south side of the base. American investigators later concluded that the Vietcong had likely acquired the mortars from French stockpiles during the First Indochina War. The guerrillas came within a half a mile of the base’s perimeter without being detected by the South Vietnamese battalion charged with the base’s defense. Once the guerrillas attached the mortar tubes to their base plates and sighted the weapons, they started lobbing one shell after another over the airbase’s perimeter fence. The high-arching mortar rounds first fell down on the B-57s, setting several ablaze. After blasting through a row of B-57s, the mortar crews walked the explosions back toward the barracks housing U.S. personnel. As the exploding rounds came within range of the barracks, hot shrapnel tore through the building, wounding several Americans who only moments before had been in peaceful slumber. Other GIs were cut down by shell fragments as they exited the building.

In a half an hour it was all over. In that brief span of time, the Vietcong destroyed or damaged twenty B-57s, four helicopters, and three A-1Hs. Four Americans died in the attack, and seventy-two sustained wounds, including nineteen men who required hospitalization. Early the next morning, General William C. Westmoreland traveled out from MACV headquarters in Saigon to get a briefing on the attack and to see firsthand the damage inflicted on the base. Later, while speaking to reporters, the head of MACV labeled the attack “very serious.” Old hands in the Saigon press corps agreed with Westy’s assessment. They considered the attack the most damaging blow yet to befall U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

Although the mortar attack occurred close to midnight, the South Vietnamese Army took eight hours to organize a response. It wasn’t until mid-morning on November 1, that an 800-man foot patrol set out from the base in search of the Vietcong responsible for the attack. To no one’s surprise, the ARVN patrol failed to find any of the guerrillas.[1]

The Bien Hoa attack upset Westmoreland, not so much because of the U.S. deaths and the destruction of so many U.S. aircraft, both of which were the accepted wages of war, but because of what the attack revealed about the military and political standing of the South Vietnamese government and Army. Of gravest concern to Westmoreland was the fact that the ARVN had failed in its assigned military role; specifically, it had been unable to protect the base, its U.S. personnel, or its air assets. Westmoreland also understood that the attack had succeeded because of the support provided to the Vietcong by the villagers living near the airbase. Not a single peasant residing on the environs of the base had forewarned the Americans, the ARVN or the South Vietnamese police of the impending attack. Westmoreland knew that some of the local villagers, and probably a few of the South Vietnamese working on the base, had provided the Vietcong with information on the base’s structural defenses, the daily routine of its ARVN guards, and the exact location of both the U.S. barracks complex and the parked U.S. aircraft. Local support for the Vietcong attackers explained two things: why the base’s defenders neither saw nor heard the Vietcong’s approach to the base and why the Communist mortar fire had been so accurate. And to add insult to injury, Westy recognized that local peasants likely helped the guerrillas flee the scene, either by hiding them in their homes or by guiding them along the region’s trail network.

Since the Bien Hoa attack occurred only days before the 1964 presidential election, President Johnson, who was running as the “peace” candidate against the hawkish Barry Goldwater, decided not to order a reprisal bombing raid against North Vietnam – the country Johnson and his advisers believed ultimately responsible for the insurgency in South Vietnam. The president did not want anything to upend his predicted landslide electoral victory. Johnson had concluded that a U.S. retaliatory air raid might quickly erode the public image he had so assiduously cultivated during the campaign, and which had paid such handsome dividends in recent polls. So rather than bomb the North, Johnson ordered the immediate replacement of the damaged and destroyed B-57s. He presumed this move would convince the Communists in Hanoi of his determination to stay the course in Vietnam. Administration officials, at the behest of the president, also publicly warned Hanoi, in a tone and manner similar to a parent chastising a disobedient child, that America’s restraint should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness or as an indication that the United States planned on pulling out of South Vietnam after the presidential election.

The Hanoi regime paid little heed to the administration’s warning. By this point in time, almost a year since Johnson assumed the presidency in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, the leaders in Hanoi felt as though they had an accurate measure of the man from the Pedernales. Ho Chi Minh, General Nguyen Giap, General Secretary Le Duan, and Foreign Minister Pham Von Dong perceived Johnson as weak, vacillating, and reluctant to escalate American military involvement in Vietnam. For the tough old revolutionaries in Hanoi, the president’s reaction to the Bien Hoa raid only reinforced their perception of him as doubt-ridden. It also persuaded them that with a little more prodding, Johnson might pull the U.S. out of South Vietnam altogether.[2]


Downtown Saigon possessed some of the most beautiful French architecture in all of Vietnam. Only Hanoi matched it in architectural elegance. In the central business district, not far from the Saigon River, stood the famed opera house with its impressive, high front arch, modeled on the Petit Palais in Paris. To the opera house’s immediate north stood the lily-white Continental Hotel. And across the street to the south rose the modern, ten-story-tall Caravelle Hotel.[3] In a city full of attractive French structures, the simple, drab Brink Hotel hardly deserved notice. The utilitarian appearance of the Brink, and the popularity of the nearby Continental and Caravelle hotels with the expat community, explained why Westmoreland’s headquarters chose it to serve as a billet for U.S. military officers stationed in the South Vietnamese capital.

On December 24, 1964, the nondescript Brink gained notoriety. At 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, when the congested streets of Saigon bustled with motorbikes, bicycles, old French Citroens, and newer American Chevys, and while Saigon’s large and influential South Vietnamese Catholic population made last-minute holiday preparations, a Vietcong sapper detonated a powerful car bomb in the parking lot beneath the Brink. American explosive experts later estimated the size of the bomb at 200 pounds of high-grade plastic explosive. The force of the blast shattered the hotel’s windows and hurtled tiny glass shards into the hotel’s rooms. Those unlucky enough to be caught in the path of the flying glass suffered lacerations and puncture wounds. The bomb devastated the lower three floors of the hotel. Persons on those floors were battered about by a lethal concoction of glass, wood, brick, heat, and concussive force. Minutes after the explosion, U.S. and South Vietnamese military personnel began combing through the ruins for the living and the dead. Surprisingly, considering the amount of glass blown through the building, only two Americans (a military officer and a civilian) died in the bombing, but ninety-eight others suffered wounds, including thirty-four South Vietnamese, sixty-three Americans, and one Australian military attaché.[4]

The Communists achieved an important psychological and military success by bombing the Brink. In a barbaric act of terrorism, the Vietcong revealed their geographical reach, as well as their popular appeal. The hotel sat in the very center of the South Vietnamese capital. The area around the hotel was the administrative and economic hub of South Vietnam. South Vietnamese security forces ringed the capital, patrolled its downtown streets, and operated roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the city. That Vietcong operatives could move undetected through the most heavily-guarded area in South Vietnam meant the Saigon police had either been bribed by the Vietcong to allow the car bomb to pass through the city or the police had not bothered to stop the vehicle and properly inspect it. In either case, the Saigon police had not done their job. The Brink attack also demonstrated that the Vietcong had achieved a high-level of technological sophistication. No amateur bombmaker assembled the plastic bomb, packed it into the car, and successfully detonated it. The Vietcong bombmaker, or bombmakers, had probably received training from specialists from the Eastern Bloc.

The bombing of the Brink also indicated popular support for the Vietcong within Saigon itself. The guerrillas could not have succeeded with the terror attack without a safe house for the bombmakers in the city or its suburbs, a garage to assemble the car bomb, and a system of intelligence collection on police activities in the central business district – all of which depended on the cooperation of Saigonese.

How many Saigonese in 1965 sympathized with the Vietcong or were active Vietcong agents will never be known. But the number may have been quite high. In the early 1960s, National Geographic reporter Peter T. White asked a Vietnamese friend about the presence of the Vietcong in the South Vietnamese capital. His friend, who for obvious reasons wanted to remain anonymous, told White, “You’ve undoubtedly met the Viet Cong, you know. An elevator boy, or a shopkeeper, or a driver for MAAG [the predecessor  to MACV]. They are everywhere. They collect ‘taxes,’ even in Saigon….”[5]

Besides pointing to a high level of public support for the Vietcong in the capital city, the Brink raid highlighted the intelligence failures of the South Vietnamese police. Had the police had better connections with Saigon’s citizenry, they would have been able to throw a larger intelligence net across the sprawling, crowded city, which may have thwarted the attack.

Most disturbing of all for the Americans, the Vietcong had been able to place an operative, or operatives, inside the Brink Hotel itself, directly in the midst of American military personnel. The fact that the car had been parked in the Brink parking lot – which lay inside the fifteen-foot high concrete blast wall surrounding the hotel – meant a person or persons on the Brink’s South Vietnamese staff had connections to the Vietcong. That was the only way to explain how the car and driver entered the basement garage. The Americans had been betrayed by the Vietnamese in their midst. Ultimately, by blowing up the Brink, the Vietcong made it clear that neither the South Vietnamese, nor the Americans, could safeguard downtown Saigon. And that failure raised a disturbing question. If the Allies could not secure the center of South Vietnamese and American power, how could they ever hope to secure the countryside, where the Vietcong were strongest?

With the bombing of the Brink and the attack on Bien Hoa Airbase, the Communists sought to convey to the United States their geographic influence and popular appeal. But neither Johnson, nor his key advisors, accepted the reality that the Communists had broad support in the South. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was one of those who refused to believe that large numbers of South Vietnamese had granted their loyalty to the Communist guerrillas. He convinced himself, and the president, that the Vietcong attained the loyalty of their South Vietnamese followers through coercion and manipulation. Of course, Rusk and Johnson predicated continued U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam on the belief that the majority of South Vietnamese were anti-Communist and pro-Western. Hanoi, through the Brink and Bien Hoa strikes, tried to communicate to Johnson’s team that their perception of the political and military situation in the South was dangerously off-the-mark and that unless the U.S. worked to extradite itself from the South, it would be confronted and defeated by a popular uprising or “People’s War.” But LBJ either failed to recognize the deeper meaning of the twin attacks (which was that large numbers of South Vietnamese in both urban and rural areas sided with the guerrillas) or if he did recognize the import of the attacks for the U.S.’s long-term prospects for success in South Vietnam, he decided that the war must still go on. For Johnson there were larger issues at stake in South Vietnam than the Communist loyalties of the South Vietnamese people, including his effectiveness as president, his re-election odds in 1968, the U.S.’s standing atop the international order, and the viability of the U.S.’s containment policy.

Because the attack on the Brink Hotel happened on Christmas Eve, Johnson decided not to order retaliatory air raids against North Vietnam. The president worried that airstrikes, and the likelihood of losing American planes and pilots to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire, would mar the holiday season. He determined it better to keep the American people safely cocooned from the horrors of war until the end of the holidays. But like the earlier response to the Bien Hoa attack, Johnson’s decision not to act persuaded the North Vietnamese that Johnson was reluctant to escalate the war. Ho and his colleagues surmised that further military pressure might persuade the U.S. to withdraw from the South.


A little over a month after the Brink bombing, the Vietcong struck again. This time at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. On February 7, 1965, in the most daring set of raids against U.S. forces in South Vietnam to date, the guerrillas simultaneously hit an ARVN headquarters complex, as well as the base at Camp Holloway. In the headquarters attack, the Vietcong killed one American and wounded fourteen others. The assault on Camp Holloway was far deadlier, resulting in the death of seven Americans and the wounding of 112 others.

The strike against Camp Holloway occurred in the middle of the night. Under cover of darkness, a 100-man company of guerrillas first breached the base’s defensive perimeter. Once inside the wire, the Vietcong company split up. An estimated fifty guerrillas set up mortars and began lobbing shells onto the base’s airfield, where the Americans had parked their helicopters and airplanes. The other contingent of fifty Vietcong dashed toward the area housing U.S. personnel. This second guerrilla assault force attempted to detonate satchel charges inside one of the barracks buildings, which housed 180 men. Luckily for the Americans, a GI spotted the Vietcong sappers before they reached the barracks and opened fire on them. The pop, pop, pop of gunfire alerted the men inside the barracks, who hurriedly loaded their weapons and began firing upon the Vietcong from the barracks’ windows. The ensuing firefight kept the sappers from getting close enough to blow-up the building. Nevertheless, seven GIs died in the barracks attack, including the guard who first alerted his fellow soldiers and airmen to the presence of the Vietcong. Had it not been for the actions of that guard, the number of U.S. dead and wounded would have been far higher.

Soon after the attacks at Pleiku, MACV learned that the ARVN Corps commander (who was ultimately responsible for the defense of U.S. and ARVN facilities at Pleiku) wasn’t even at his post when the Vietcong launched their twin assaults. He was in Dalat, conspiring with a group of military officers to overthrow the government in Saigon. Without the supervision of their Corps commander, subordinate officers and common soldiers shirked their duties. Consequently, on the night of the raids, only forty-four of the one hundred South Vietnamese soldiers assigned to guard the base actually reported for duty. Yet, it wasn’t just the absence of the officers that explained why less than half the guards showed up for work that night; friends and family with connections to the Vietcong had apparently forewarned some of the ARVN troops of the pending attack. Knowing that the base was about to be attacked, and not wanting to die defending it, those troops stayed home.

The ARVN soldiers who did report for duty that night might as well have not shown up. The soldiers assigned to guard the perimeter sector where the Vietcong eventually entered the base had suspiciously withdrawn from their positions an hour before the Vietcong began their attack. And when the Vietcong started coming through the wire, the ARVN guards in the nearest pillboxes did not even open fire on them. Inexplicably, the South Vietnamese troopers let the guerrillas pass unopposed through their lines. In another batch of troubling news, U.S. officials learned that moments before the Vietcong entered Camp Holloway, the guerrillas had marched through a village located adjacent to the base. Not a single person in that village forewarned the ARVN or the Americans of the approaching enemy soldiers.

In subsequent days, American officials were conspicuously silent about the failings of the ARVN at Pleiku. Rather than admit that the ARVN had again failed to secure a U.S.-manned facility, and that the ARVN might be infiltrated with Vietcong sympathizers, and that South Vietnamese civilians had likely aided and abetted the Vietcong attackers, U.S. officials took a completely different tack. The Americans ignored the Vietcong’s obvious strength and popularity in the South and instead emphasized North Vietnam’s supposed dominant role in the insurgency. Both Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy stated publicly that Pleiku provided further evidence of North Vietnamese aggression in South Vietnam. McNamara alleged the airfield attack had been “…ordered and directed and masterminded from Hanoi.”[6] No one in President Johnson’s inner circle of advisers publicly acknowledged that the Pleiku attacks may have been conducted independently of Hanoi or that the Vietcong succeeded because ARVN soldiers and civilians had either directly or indirectly aided the guerrillas.

Nevertheless, a former U.S. government official with years of experience in South Vietnam considered the Pleiku attacks a sign that the majority of South Vietnamese opposed the U.S. presence in South Vietnam. Robert S. Browne had served in South Vietnam as an economic advisor from 1958 to 1961. As a result, Brown had more direct experience, and knowledge, of Vietnam and the Vietnamese than any of President Johnson’s top advisers, including McNamara, Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. On February 9, 1965, the New York Times published an op-ed by Browne, which argued that that the Pleiku raids provided clear evidence that the majority of South Vietnamese either actively sided with the Vietcong or at least sympathized with the Communist cause. Browne also asserted that the South Vietnamese public did not want U.S. military forces in their country.[7]

Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), who had an advanced degree in Asian Studies and who as a Catholic had once been a strong supporter of fellow Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, agreed with Browne’s interpretation of the meaning of the Pleiku attacks. One day after the raids, Mansfield wrote President Johnson, “I have no doubt but that the great majority of the population of South Vietnam are tired of the war and will give us no significant assistance.” He continued, “…in a larger sense, not only can we not depend on the South Vietnamese population, but we can also place very little reliability on the Laotians and the Thais and none whatever on Cambodia.”[8] Mansfield warned the president that if the United States went into South Vietnam in a big way – with ground troops and air power – it would do so without significant South Vietnamese support. And without popular support, the U.S. would fail.

But neither Browne nor Mansfield persuaded Johnson. The president and all of his principal advisers rejected the informed opinions of the two Asian experts. Johnson, Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, and Taylor continued to argue that a majority of South Vietnamese wanted the U.S. to remain in South Vietnam. Johnson and his principals adopted this position because it went to the heart of the U.S. effort in South Vietnam. A key premise for U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam was that the majority of South Vietnamese wanted the U.S. to defend them against the Vietcong insurgency. If it was true, as Browne and Mansfield claimed, that the majority of South Vietnamese sided with the Vietcong, or just wanted the U.S. out of their country, then the administration’s primary public justification for U.S. involvement in the conflict fell apart.

Aware of Mansfield’s influence in the Senate and of his deep knowledge of Asian affairs, and fearful that Mansfield might become a public critic of the war, Johnson decided that the senator’s challenge to his Vietnam policy could not go unanswered. After reading Mansfield’s memo, the president tasked Bundy with writing a response to the senator. On February 9, Bundy wrote Mansfield, “…it remains our best judgment that the vast majority of the people of South Vietnam do not wish to fall under Communist domination…We recognize the danger of war weariness among the population of South Vietnam, but it seems to me wrong to conclude that the great majority of the population will give us no significant assistance.”[9] Bundy offered no evidence, such as polling data, academic analysis, or CIA documentation, to support his contention. It was this sort of assumption, articulated in Bundy’s memo, that served as the basis for the subsequent U.S. military build-up. And yet, less than two months after Bundy had written Mansfield, and after the administration had committed U.S. ground troops to the war in the South, Bundy admitted to the president in a Top-Secret memo that, “…the reaction of…the South Vietnamese people to any major US combat deployment is uncertain….[10]

At the time of the Camp Holloway raid, Bundy happened to be in South Vietnam on a four-day fact-finding mission. He incorrectly concluded that the assault had been planned for his visit. Not only did Bundy overemphasize his own importance in Communist military calculations, he misread the reason behind the raids. The Communists were not trying to make a show of force while the president’s national security adviser visited South Vietnam. As a matter of fact, the attacks had been planned long before Bundy’s visit. Dang Vu Hiep, one of the Communist military commanders in the Pleiku area at the time, stated, “I have never understood why the U.S. government regarded this attack as provocative. It was just a normal battle, part of a long-term dry-season offensive in the Highlands…Pleiku was the headquarters for Saigon’s 23rd Division so it was an obvious target.”[11] The guerrillas at Pleiku had no idea McGeorge Bundy was even in South Vietnam – and most did not even know of him. Instead, the attack on Pleiku’s ARVN headquarters and Camp Holloway were messages from the Communists to the GVN and United States. The Vietcong sought to communicate, like the earlier strikes at Bien Hoa and Saigon, the geographical reach and popular appeal of the guerrillas.[12]

Bundy saw the attack as one more example of Communist perfidy, rather than a mark of geographical influence and popularity. The national security adviser decided the two Pleiku attacks denoted a watershed moment in the war. On the morning after the raids, he canceled his planned trip to the Mekong Delta and flew with Westmoreland to Pleiku, where he and the general personally assessed the damage to the air base and its helicopters. Later, on the long flight from Saigon to Washington, Bundy wrote a memorandum to the president, urging him to abandon the previous policy of tit-for-tat retaliatory air raids against North Vietnam. In lieu of airstrikes carried out after each Vietcong military transgression in South Vietnam, Bundy proposed that the U.S. initiate a continuous, intensive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. He wrote, “…the best available way of increasing our chance of success in Vietnam is the development and execution of a policy of sustained reprisal against North Vietnam….”[13]

According to Bundy, the Pleiku attacks revealed that the U.S.’s revenge air raids had failed to convince North Vietnam to end its support of the war of national liberation in South Vietnam. Only a sustained bombing campaign held out any hope of breaking Hanoi’s will to continue the war. Bundy wanted this new air campaign to gradually increase in intensity, destroying an ever-larger amount of the North’s military capacity and economy, until the Communists buckled under the pressure. He stated, “This reprisal policy should begin at a low level. Its level of force and pressure should be increased only gradually….”[14] The bombing would act like a set of thumbscrews, with the U.S. gradually tightening down on the North Vietnamese people until the Hanoi leadership cried “uncle.” The advantage of this military gradualism was that it would use only enough force to achieve the U.S.’s limited objectives; and its slow, methodical character would guarantee against rash U.S. military action, action that might bring the Soviets or Chinese into the conflict. The proposed air campaign rested on the American belief that the Communists in North Vietnam had a breaking point short of their complete annihilation.


On February 10, 1965, the Vietcong carried out another bold attack against a U.S. facility, this time at the quaint seaside town of Qui Nhon, in central South Vietnam. In early 1965, Qui Nhon possessed real grace and charm – both rarities in war-torn Vietnam. A long, curving white sand beach extended the length of the town’s southern border; palm trees laden with coconuts grew just inland from the beach; and superb restaurants serving fresh seafood flanked the main avenue through town. Qui Nhon’s quiet beauty made the war seem far away. But the war was actually only a few miles distant – in the rice paddies and hamlets that dotted Binh Dinh Province west and northwest of the provincial capital.

Since at least 1950, the Communists had maintained a strong presence in Binh Dinh. In that year, British travel writer Norman Lewis, who criss-crossed Indochina during one of the peak years of the First Indochina War, wrote that the Vietminh were solidly in control of the area surrounding Qui Nhon.[15] In late 1964 and early 1965, the Vietcong were on the cusp of seizing the entire province. The GVN maintained a tenuous presence in a handful of villages near the coast and within Qui Nhon itself; but the Vietcong owned the rest of the province – collecting taxes, erecting village fortifications, operating roadblocks, and setting up liberation governments in the hamlets and villages between the South China Sea and the foothills of the Central Highlands. A South Vietnamese military commander said of Binh Dinh in early 1965, “The Vietcong are everywhere….”[16]

At Qui Nhon, the Vietcong targeted the four-story Viet Cuong Hotel, which served as a barracks for U.S. personnel. At 8:00 p.m. on the night of February 10, a ten-man Vietcong sapper unit stormed the building. The guerrillas began the attack by spraying the barracks with small arms fire. Then, under the cover of that suppressive fire, three sappers, each carrying satchels of plastic explosives, dashed into the building. Once inside, the guerrillas placed the simple explosive devices against the building’s main structural supports. Within seconds, the three bombs exploded, causing the building to pancake down, each floor falling on top of the floor beneath it. Because the raid had taken the Americans inside the barracks completely by surprise, the building remained full of GIs when the successive blasts brought it down. Twenty-one Americans died that night and another nineteen suffered wounds. An American officer on the scene expressed outrage that the Vietcong attacked non-combat personnel. He said, “These were people who fix airplanes. Now the murderous Vietcong are attacking them directly.”[17] The attack represented the single largest loss of U.S. life in South Vietnam up to that time. The Vietcong had again flexed their muscles. As in the previous attacks, the Vietcong successfully skirted South Vietnamese security forces before arriving at the U.S. barracks. A small police station sat down the street from the barracks. The South Vietnamese manning it did nothing to stop the Vietcong raiders.

Two days after the bombing, while American military teams sifted through the rubble of the barracks for victims, the Vietcong attempted an amphibious landing on the beach to the south of the barracks site. The target of the guerrillas – the U.S. search and rescue crews. Fortunately for the Americans, someone spotted the Vietcong fleet assembling off-shore. Aware of a pending attack, U.S. helicopter crews at a nearby base took to the air in their gunships and intercepted the Vietcong armada before it made landfall. The helicopters, armed with heavy machine guns and aerial rockets, blasted the estimated fifty wooden junks, killing civilian crewmen and armed guerrillas in a flurry of bullets, high explosives, and erupting water.[18]

The barracks bombing and the attempted amphibious landing on the beach at Qui Nhon illustrated the strong presence of the Vietcong along South Vietnam’s coastal plain and in the fishing villages near Binh Dinh’s provincial capital. That the Vietcong could organize and deploy a civilian junk fleet as an assault force indicated a high level of support in the coastal lowlands. But the geographical and demographic significance of the Qui Nhon attacks, like the earlier raids at Saigon, Bien Hoa, and Pleiku, failed to register with either the president or his advisors. Surprisingly, neither Johnson nor Bundy could even find Qui Nhon on a map. Hours after the bombing, the president asked his national security adviser, “…Where is Qui Nhon located?” Bundy responded, “Northern part of South Vietnam, as I understand it.”[19] Qui Nhon actually sits on the central coast of South Vietnam, hundreds of miles from the country’s northernmost provinces.

Unfamiliar with South Vietnam’s geography, the president and his national security adviser had no way of comprehending the import of the Qui Nhon bombing. Instead, the two men simply labeled the attack another act of terrorism.

Johnson and his advisors did not recognize the purposefulness behind the succession of Vietcong raids in November and December 1964 and February 1965. Communist units struck against the Americans across South Vietnam in order to make a very important point – they were militarily strong and politically popular all across South Vietnam, which meant they had the wherewithal to wage a popular uprising or People’s War against the United States. But Johnson and his principal advisers chose to reject that reality and the possibility of a major South Vietnamese popular backlash against a large U.S. military presence. Instead, in early 1965, the administration embarked on a major build-up of U.S. ground and air forces within South Vietnam.


[1] New York Times, “Vietcong Attack Major U.S. Base; Destroy 6 B-57s,” Jack Langguth, November 1, 1964; New York Times, “U.S. Rushes Jets to Replace B-57s Hit By Vietcong,” Tad Szulc, November 2, 1964; New York Times, “Tightened Guard Due in Vietnam,” Jack Langguth, November 2, 1964; New York Times, “Vietcong Who Shelled Base Elude 800 Sent in Search,” Peter Grose, November 3, 1964.

[2] Robert S. McNamara, James G. Blight, and Robert K. Brigham, with Thomas J. Biersteker and Herbert Y. Schandler, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), 92.

[3] Peter T. White and W.E. Garrett, “South Viet Nam Fights the Red Tide,” National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 120, No. 4, October 1961, pp. 445-489, 448.

[4] New York Times, “Terrorists Bomb Saigon Quarters of U.S. Officers,” Peter Gross, December 25, 1964; New York Times, “Saigon Explosive Concealed in Vehicle, U.S. Aide Says,” December 25, 1964; New York Times, “Saigon Security Tightened By U.S. After Explosion,” December 26, 1964.

[5] Peter T. White, “South Viet Nam Fights the Red Tide,” 489.

[6] New York Times, “Capital Is Tense: But President Asserts Nation Still Opposes Widening of War,” Tom Wicker, February 8, 1965.

[7] New York Times, “U.S. Aides Praise Pleiku Defenders,” February 9, 1965.

[8] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume II, Vietnam, January-June 1965, “Memorandum From Senator Mike Mansfield to President Johnson,” February 8, 1965, Document 92,” (Washington DC: GPO, 1996), 205.

[9] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume II, Vietnam, January-June 1965, “Letter from the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to Senator Mike Mansfield,” February 9, 1965, Document 94, (Washington DC: GPO, 1996), 209, 210.

[10] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume II, Vietnam, January-June 1965, “Memorandum by the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy),” April 1, 1965, Document 228, (Washington DC: GPO, 1996), 509.

[11] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 9-10.

[12] New York Times, “Seven GI’s Slain in Vietcong Raid; 80 Are Wounded,” Seymour Topping, February 7, 1965; New York Times, “Bundy Flies to Pleiku,” February 7, 1965; New York Times, “Vietnamese Guard Was Half Strength When Reds Struck,” UPI, February 8, 1965; New York Times, “Capital Is Tense: But President Asserts Nation Still Opposes Widening of War,” Tom Wicker, February 8, 1965.

[13] The Pentagon Papers, The Senator Gravel Edition, The Defense Department History of Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 687.

[14] Ibid., 688.

[15] Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, (London: Eland Publishing Limited, 2003), 144.

[16] New York Times, “U.S. Jet Bombers Attack Vietcong: First Such Strike,” Jack Langguth, February 25, 1965.

[17] New York Times, “Rubble of Barracks in Qui Nhon Sifted,” Jack Langguth, February 12, 1965.

[18] New York Times, “Johnson is Silent,” Charles Mohr, February 10, 1965; New York Times, “15 Men Wounded: American Aides Hint at a New Airstrike Against the North,” February 11, 1965; New York Times, “Rubble of Barracks in Qui Nhon Sifted,” Jack Langguth, February 12, 1965.

[19] Michael Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 176.

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