Week of February 11
In the dark early morning of February 7, 1965, a team of Việt Cộng insurgents quietly breached the perimeter fence of the U.S. Army advisory facility near Pleiku, in the South Vietnamese Cao nguyên Trung phần (Central Highlands). At the same time, just a few miles away, a second team of insurgents, carrying mortars, entered the aircraft parking area of Camp Holloway, a U.S. Army helicopter base. Nearly simultaneously, the infiltrators at both locations detonated demolition charges and launched mortar rounds against barracks buildings and aircraft. These attacks, which killed eight Americans and wounded over 100 others, came at a crucial moment in the history of the United States in Vietnam.
Before the Pleiku attacks, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had been mulling whether to continue escalating the war by attacking North Vietnam, which was funding and partially directing the Việt Cộng insurgency in the South. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, on February 8, 1965, President Johnson read a report by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, in which Bundy stated he believed that “without U.S. action defeat [for South Vietnam] appears inevitable.”
In this context, Johnson decided to authorize the bombing of North Vietnam in an attempt to prop up the Sài Gòn regime and deter Hà Nội’s support for future Việt Cộng attacks in South Vietnam. In the retaliatory air strikes, codenamed Operation FLAMING DART, U.S. Navy carrier aircraft bombed North Vietnamese installations near Đồng Hới, North Vietnam. The next day, U.S. Air Force and South Vietnamese aircraft struck North Vietnamese barracks and antiaircraft sites near the DMZ. Collectively, these were the first U.S. attacks against North Vietnam.
To the United States’ dismay, FLAMING DART did not deter further Việt Cộng attacks. A few days later, guerrillas detonated a bomb at a U.S. Army barracks facility in the South Vietnamese coastal city of Qui Nhơn. The blast killed 23 Americans and seven South Vietnamese. In response, President Johnson ordered additional air attacks in North Vietnam known as FLAMING DART II. U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft hit barracks and other facilities at Chánh Hoà and Vu Con with rockets and bombs.
At the time of the Việt Cộng attacks, early in 1965, the U.S. was not yet directly involved in the war. FLAMING DART I and II, followed by the systematic bombing campaign over North Vietnam known as ROLLING THUNDER, launched the United States fully into the war, and Johnson ordered the Marines to land at Đà Nẵng, South Vietnam, in the weeks that followed—the first U.S. ground combat troops to deploy to Vietnam.
The president’s decision to escalate the war by bombing North Vietnam marked a crucial turning point in U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. One of the more historically controversial aspects of these events is Johnson’s reasoning for his decisions to escalate the war. Arguments for why he did so usually note that Johnson believed that “losing” South Vietnam to communism would hurt U.S. credibility in the Cold War, and would endanger his ambitious domestic agenda—including Great Society and civil rights legislation. Both consequences, Johnson thought, were unacceptable.
Other historians disagree sharply with this notion, arguing that Johnson had choices other than continuing the war, and that he understood those choices as late as the winter of 1965. According to these scholars, the United States’ credibility—and that of Johnson himself—was not on the line in 1964–1965, neither at home nor abroad, and the president’s domestic reforms would not have been doomed by the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. Further, they assert, it is likely that the administration understood this conclusion.1
1Carl Berger, ed., The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961–1973 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1977), 69; Robert F. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, The Advisory Years to 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1981), 265–66; Edward J. Marolda and Oscar P. Fitzgerald, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict (Washington, D.C.: Navy History and Heritage Command), 496–97; Ronald Bruce Frankum, Like Rolling Thunder: The Air War in Vietnam, 1964–1975, (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD: 2005), 15–18; Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, 214–15. Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Simon and Schuster, New York: 1989), 58–61; Robert Dallek, “Fear, Ambition, and Politics,” in McMahon, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 174–77; Fredrik Logeval, “Choosing War,” in McMahon, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 194; Robert Buzzanco, “The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam During the Johnson Years,” in Young and Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War, 174–97; Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York, Oxford University Press, 1991), 60–63, 112; Jeffrey W. Helsing, Johnson’s War/Johnson’s Great Society: The Guns and Butter Trap (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000), 9; Fredrik Logevall, “‘There Ain’t No Daylight’: Lyndon Johnson and the Politics of Escalation; in Mark Philip Bradley and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 98–99; Graham A. Cosmas, The United States Army in Vietnam: MACV, the Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962–1967 (Center of Military History, Washington, D.C.: 2006), 172–73; Edward J. Marolda, The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945–1965 (Dept. of the Navy, Washington, D.C.: 2009); 81.