Vietnam War: People Involved – South Vietnam

US – South Vietnam

  • Lyndon B Johnson
  • Richard M Nixon
  • Nguyen Van Thieu
  • William Westmoreland


Lyndon B Johnson
1908-1973, Born in Texas
Democratic Vice President under Kennedy 1961-63
President 1963-69

Infamous for his overbearing personality and for his behind the scenes operations which escalated the war in Vietnam without a national debate or consensus. Johnson tried to follow what he believed was Kennedy’s approach to Vietnam, even though Kennedy himself had hinted towards US disengagement in Vietnam on the recommendation of his advisors. Yet Johnson was sure that Kennedy would not have pulled out of Vietnam given the present communist threat in the region. In 1964, Johnson, absorbed in his presidential election campaign against Barry Goldwater and knowing that an escalation in Vietnam could jeopardize his election, promised the American public that he would not send troops to Vietnam. However, he secretly increased the number of US personnel to almost 24,000 men and the economic assistance to 50 million dollars.

He also appointed General William Westmoreland as commander of the US military operation in Southeast Asia. On August 4th, 1964 the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident took place where US warships were allegedly attacked off the coast of North Vietnam. Without conclusive evidence that the attack had actually taken place, Johnson ordered air strikes on North Vietnam. He then asked Congress for a resolution that would allow him to counter any further attacks with force. Johnson lied about the spying activities that the US warships were engaged in, and that no one in the US Navy could confirm the attack . The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution became the centerpiece of US policy in Vietnam.

In 1965, after a number of incidents and nine US servicemen being killed in Pleiku, Johnson initiated Operation Rolling Thunder; a high-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnam which in turn initiated the start of full scale US combat operations in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1968, Johnson would deploy some 536,000 US servicemen. As the presidential elections of 1968 approached, Johnson was disillusioned and could find no way out except to step down and not seek re-election. By the time he left office, his involvement in Vietnam had killed 30,610 US servicemen and destroyed his presidency. He is today still considered one of the most unpopular presidents in US history.


Richard M Nixon
Vice President 1958-1961
President 1969-1974

Nixon played a prominent role in Vietnam between 1954 and 1974. Even before his presidency, Nixon was actively engaged in policy making. As president, he directed attention away from the war with his program of gradually withdrawing US ground troops and turning the conflict over to the local Vietnamese governments. At the same time, he stepped up the bombing campaigns over North Vietnam and some of the heaviest fighting of the war occurred under his leadership. Nixon was secretive and insecure and feared the anti-war movement; he was also a renowned anti-Communist. Having seen what the war had done to the Johnson presidency, he tried very hard to play down the importance of the war. In 1969, he promised to begin reducing the US ground forces, but also authorized secret bombings of Cambodia, to stop the flow of supplies along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail. Nixon also ordered the secret infiltration of the anti-war groups to disrupt their activities. He used the National Guard to stop the public demonstrations and at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were shot to death. The aftermath made Nixon realize that he had to end the war before the upcoming election in 1972. The Paris peace talks had been going on for a while and Henry Kissinger was threatening the North Vietnamese with ferocious bombings and at the same time trying to negotiate a peace settlement.

As Nixon visited China in 1972, the Vietnamese launched one of their largest ever attacks (The Easter Offensive) with 120,000 men pushing within 100 kilometers (55 miles) of Saigon. There were only 100,000 US personnel remaining in Saigon and of these, only 6000 were combat soldiers. Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker, the largest bombing campaign since 1968 with B-52’s bombing Hanoi. Peace talks finally moved forward in August 1972. Kissinger negotiated intensely, and by late October he announced that peace was at hand, this helped Nixon win his re-election. In December of that year, Nixon initiated Operation Linebacker II and once again he began bombing North Vietnam with more bombs in a 12-day period, than the total dropped between 1969 and 1971. The Vietnamese and Kissinger returned to the negotiating table in Paris and finally, on January 27th, 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed, against the will of South Vietnam.

Nixon’s years in office saw some of the heaviest fighting during the war with 20,553 US soldiers, along with 107,000 ARVN and an estimated 500,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong being killed in action. The Cease-fire saw the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and lasted for two years until South Vietnam was conquered in April 1975. The Watergate scandal eventually forced Nixon to resign in 1974.


Nguyen Van Thieu
Born 1923
Graduated 1948 from Dalat Military Academy
Trained in the US 1957 and 1960.

During the coup against Diem in 1963, Thieu led one of the attacks on the presidential palace. He was promoted to brigadier but Thieu was not happy, as he had expected a higher position within the government. In January 1965, US Government officials told Prime Minister Tran Van Huong to add Thieu, among others, to his cabinet and he was therefore appointed as second deputy Prime Minister. Thieu strongly favored the expansion of the military actions against the communists in the North.

As the US escalated their bombing campaigns in the North, Thieu slowly climbed the ranks as he strongly supported any US actions. Thieu was appointed to be leader of the military and began using its power to further promote his standing within the South Vietnamese government. The military would harass people who opposed Thieu and during the elections in 1965, which Thieu won, they used many unconventional methods in order to obtain votes. The Thieu regime was a puppet state of the US and internal conflicts and competition over leadership quickly led to a split in the government, with corruption and a lack of discipline being widespread amongst all ranks. Thieu held office until April 12th, 1975; the Vietnam War ended the following day.


Gen. William Westmoreland
Born 1914.
Graduated West Point 1936
Served with distinction in WWII
Superintendent West Point in 1960
Commander US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) 1964-1968.

General Westmoreland took command in Vietnam in June 1964 replacing Gen. Paul Harkins. He was instrumental in raising the level of US forces deployed in Vietnam and in developing the strategies implemented in the region. Westmoreland continuously requested for an increase in manpower in Vietnam and President Johnson, who had his own troubles at home, refused to send more troops and finally recalled Westmoreland after he successfully stopped the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in 1968. He was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams

Upon his return to the US, Westmoreland was appointed as Chief of Staff of the US Army. His biggest challenge was to withdraw the troops from Vietnam and ready them for duty in other regions of the world. He was successful in restructuring the Army at a difficult time, but his tactics in Vietnam had become unpopular with some groups in the US. He maintained for many years that the policy in Vietnam had been the right one. General Westmoreland retired in 1972.

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