Lyndon Johnson wanted to fight the war on poverty, not the war in Vietnam. But LBJ, who took office in November of 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, felt he needed to show his willingness to get tough against the Vietnamese communists to win the 1964 election against Sen. Barry Goldwater, a Vietnam War hawk.
But months after his landslide win, Johnson wound up rapidly escalating the war for another reason: As the other side stepped up things militarily, he didn’t want to be the president who presided over an American military defeat in South Vietnam.
From “the beginning of his presidency he made it clear to top advisers that he would not be the president to ‘lose’ Vietnam, ” the eminent historian James T. Patterson writes in The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (Basic Books, 310 pp., $28.99), a well-researched, well-written examination of the pivotal year of 1965. “In 1964, he raised America’s troop strength in South Vietnam from sixteen thousand to twenty-three thousand. From [the February 7, 1965, VC attack on] Pleiku onward, he chose to escalate, and in July 1965 he put in his ‘stack.’ From then on, it was Johnson’s war.”
The big buildup that LBJ announced on July 28, 1965, Patterson says, signaled a moment in time “when some of the most divisive characteristics of that turbulent era—social fragmentation and political polarization—became all but inevitable.”
Patterson, an emeritus history professor at Brown University, also covers other important aspects of the time, including the Civil Rights movement, and Johnson’s Great Society programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. But the Vietnam War remains a central issue of 1965, a year that Patterson persuasively argues, saw the birth of what we now refer to as “The Sixties.”