CHAPTER 16:  Gulliver’s Troubles: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Limits of Power, 1961-1968

“Vietnam was symptomatic of the larger foreign policy conundrum of an embattled presidency.  Following long-established Cold War dictates, LBJ was committed to upholding a worldview status quo in a time of sweeping change and as U.S. power operated under growing constraints.  When Thieu blocked the administration’s last-minute peace ploy in late 1968, Harry McPherson moaned that the ‘American Gulliver is tied down by the South Vietnamese Lilliputians.’  In fact, during the Johnson years, ‘the American Gulliver’ faced upstart Lilliputians all over the world.” (Herring, 759)


Robert McNamara (1916-2009)

“The [Vietnam] war’s mounting costs were more important than the anti-war movement in generating public concern.  Growing casualties, indications that more troops might be required, and LBJ’s belated request for a tax increase combined in late 1967 to produce unmistakable signs of war-weariness.  Polls showed a sharp decline in support for the war and the president’s handling of it.  The press increasingly questioned U.S. goals and methods.  Members of Congress from both parties began to challenge LBJ’s policies.  Doubts even arose among his inner circle.  The secretary of defense had been so closely identified with Vietnam that it had once been called ‘McNamara’s War.” In 1967, a tormented McNamara unsuccessfully urged the president to stop the bombing of North Vietnam, put a ceiling on U.S. ground troops, scale back war aims, and seek a negotiated settlement.  By the end of the year, for many observers, the war become the most visible symbol of a malaise that afflicted American society.” (Herring, chap. 16, p. 741)

KEY TERMS:  Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964)

Vietnam Timeline

  • 1963 // Assassination of Diem
  • 1964 // Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
  • 1965-68 // Escalation (A / B / C)
  • 1968 // Tet Offensive
  • 1970 // Invasion of Cambodia and Kent State protests (A / B)
  • 1971 // Pentagon Papers & trial of Lt. William Calley (My Lai)
  • 1972 // China opening, Easter offensive, Detente (SALT / ABM)
  • 1973 // Paris peace accords  (Vietnam agreement)
  • 1975 // Fall of Saigon


Recalling the Turning Point:  Tet Offensive (1968)

Here are video clips of Walter Cronkite’s original February 27, 1968 CBS Evening News Broadcast on the Tet Offensive, illustrating a turning point in the “living room war.”