History of the United States: Continued
The Civil Rights Movement Begins
In the 1940s and 1950s the NAACP attacked race discrimination in the courts. It
chipped away at Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a Supreme Court
decision upholding segregationist laws. The NAACP lawyers' greatest success was
the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, in
which the Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools. The decision struck a
Chicago newspaper as a "second emancipation proclamation."
The Supreme Court’s implementation order of
1955, designed to hasten compliance, ordered desegregation of schools "with all
deliberate speed," but compliance was slow. When the governor of Arkansas, Orval
Faubus, tried to block the enrollment of nine black students into Little Rock
High School in 1957, television showed the entire nation the confrontation
between National Guard troops and segregationists. Television news helped make
Little Rock’s problem a national one, and television crews continued to cover
civil rights protests.
In December 1955 the black community in Montgomery, Alabama, organized a bus
boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a
white man. A local minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize the
boycott. In 1957 ministers and civil rights leaders formed the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC, which adopted a policy of
nonviolent civil disobedience, formed the backbone of the civil rights movement
in the United States.
The civil rights movement expanded on February 1, 1960, when four black college
students at North Carolina A&T University began protesting racial segregation in
restaurants by sitting at whites-only lunch counters and waiting to be served.
Within days the sit-ins spread throughout North Carolina, and within weeks they
reached cities across the South. To continue students’ efforts and to give them
an independent voice in the movement, college students in 1960 formed another
civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Students and activists soon adopted other methods of protesting segregation,
such as freedom rides—bus trips throughout the South in order to desegregate
buses and bus stations.. A powerful civil rights movement was underway.
Postwar prosperity brought comfort and social
mobility to many Americans. Those who had grown up during the Great Depression
especially appreciated the good life of the postwar years. Prosperity, however,
eluded many citizens. The era, moreover, was hardly placid and complacent, but
eventful and divisive. Signs of change around 1960 included the growing role of
youth, the civil rights protests, and the simmering of dissent.
THE LIBERAL AGENDA AND DOMESTIC POLICY: THE
In the 1960s, presidential initiatives, judicial rulings, and social protest
movements generated reform. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the
youth movement, and the environmental movement changed people’s lives. They also
created a climate of rebellion, confrontation, and upheaval. For more
information, see Protests in the 1960s.
Handsome, dynamic, and articulate, John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the
presidential election of 1960—the first election in which televised debates
between presidential candidates played a major role. When he accepted the
Democratic nomination, Kennedy urged Americans to meet the challenges of a "New
Frontier." The term "New Frontier" evoked the spirit of exploration that Kennedy
wanted to bring to his presidency. His youth and vigor raised expectations. In
practice, however, his actions were cautious and pragmatic.
In his brief tenure, Kennedy continued Cold War policies by broadening U.S.
involvement in Southeast Asia, overseeing an arms buildup, and hiking the
defense budget. He also inaugurated a long era of economic expansion, based
largely on additional spending for missiles, defense, and the space race. In
1961 he began the Peace Corps, an innovative federal program that sent American
volunteers to assist needy nations by providing educational programs and helping
communities build basic infrastructures. After first evading civil rights
issues, Kennedy responded to the calls of civil rights advocates and proposed a
comprehensive civil rights bill. Congress, however, had not passed the bill when
Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
At Kennedy’s death, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, became president. A
Texas politician since the New Deal and a majority leader of the Senate, Johnson
seemed less likely than Kennedy to be an innovative leader. But, as president,
Johnson plunged ahead with domestic reform. In July 1964 he proposed the
landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted in memory of Kennedy. The law
prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in education
and employment. Johnson then declared a "War on Poverty" in the United States.
He promoted a billion-dollar campaign to end poverty and racial injustice. In
August 1964 Congress established an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to
direct the Johnson administration's War-on-Poverty program, and a Job Corps to
train young people for the employment market. Johnson also supported a volunteer
program, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic version of the
Peace Corps; Project Head Start, to educate preschoolers from disadvantaged
families; and several other public works and job-training programs.
In the 1964 presidential election, Johnson won a landslide victory over
conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. He then pressed legislators to add
to his reform program, which he labeled the "Great Society." In 1965 Congress
enlarged the War on Poverty by enacting Medicare (a program of medical insurance
for the elderly) and Medicaid (a program of medical care for the needy), and
funding urban development, housing, and transit. Congress also passed the Voting
Rights Act, which protected the rights of minorities to register and vote. In
addition it established the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities
to provide funding for the arts, provided funds to school districts with
children from low-income families, passed the Clean Air Act, and enacted
legislation to protect endangered species and wilderness areas.
Finally, Johnson supported two policy changes with unexpected future impact. The
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed quotas based on race or
nationality that had been in force since the 1920s, and it paved the way for
massive immigration from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. Also in 1965,
Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required groups that did business
with the federal government to take "affirmative action" to remedy past
discrimination against African Americans. As Johnson told black leaders, his
goals for racial progress meant "not just equality as a right and a theory but
equality as a fact and equality as a result." Over the next three decades, the
federal government implemented affirmative action policies to promote the hiring
of women and minorities.
Stunning in its scope, Johnson's ambitious
domestic agenda soon ran into problems. Within three years, the United States
was deeply involved in the Vietnam War; its expense and controversy undercut
many Great Society goals. But the civil rights revolution that Johnson endorsed
made unprecedented gains.
The Civil Rights Movement
African Americans had been struggling to gain equal rights for many decades. As
the 1960s began, the civil rights movement gained momentum. Individuals and
civil rights organizations assailed segregation in the South and discrimination
everywhere. They protested with marches, boycotts, and refusals to tolerate
segregation. Many organizations conducted their protests with nonviolent
resistance. Civil rights protesters often faced harsh confrontations with their
opponents. These confrontations, which appeared on network television, exposed
the struggle for civil rights to a large national audience.
In the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) started Freedom
Rides to the South to desegregate bus terminals and protest segregation in
interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders, black and white, challenged white
supremacy and drew angry attacks.
In the fall of 1962, a federal court ordered the University of Mississippi to
enroll a black air force veteran, James Meredith. To prevent his enrollment,
white protesters rioted, and President Kennedy sent federal troops to restore
order. In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC
led a campaign of marches, sit-ins, and prayer meetings to challenge segregation
and racism. Clashes arose between black protesters and city police, armed with
dogs and cattle prods. News coverage exposed the violence in Birmingham to
people all over the world. Television news next covered the University of
Alabama, where Governor George Wallace in June 1963 barred two black students
Responding to African American calls for action, Kennedy in June 1963 declared
civil rights "a moral issue" and proposed a comprehensive civil rights measure.
Congress did not act on the bill, but the civil rights movement intensified. In
August 1963 more than 200,000 Americans marched on Washington, D.C., to demand
equal rights. The audience heard Martin Luther King, Jr., explain his dream of
brotherhood, freedom, justice, and nonviolence. In July 1964, at Johnson's
prompting, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in
public accommodations; gave the federal government new power to integrate
schools and enfranchise blacks; and created the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission to stop job discrimination based on race, religion, national origin,
or gender. The law heralded a new phase of activism.
Since 1961 civil rights activists had worked on voter registration in Alabama,
Georgia, and Mississippi. In the summer of 1964, CORE and the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project.
The project recruited over 1,000 Northern college students, teachers, artists,
and clergy—both black and white—to work in Mississippi. These volunteers, who
helped blacks register to vote and ran freedom schools, met harassment,
firebombs, arrests, beatings, and even murder. In August 1964 civil rights
workers sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention to demand (in
vain) the seating of delegates from the newly-formed Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party. Mass protests in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 again brought
segments of violent confrontations to television news.
The voting rights campaign of the mid-1960s had results. In 1965 Johnson signed
the Voting Rights Act, which authorized federal examiners to register voters and
expanded black suffrage by suspending literacy tests for voting. The 24th
Amendment, ratified in 1964, outlawed the poll tax in federal elections. A 1966
Supreme Court decision struck down the poll tax in all elections. These measures
more than tripled the number of registered black voters in the South. Just as
the federal government responded—after almost a century of inaction—to civil
rights demands, waves of violence and disorder signaled a change in the civil
In August 1965 frustrations with high unemployment and poverty led to riots in
the Watts section of Los Angeles, a primarily black neighborhood. For six days,
rioters looted, firebombed, and sniped at police and National Guard troops. When
the riots ended, 34 people were dead and hundreds were injured. In the summers
of 1966 and 1967, urban riots occurred in the poorer neighborhoods of several
Northern cities. The summer of 1967 saw 150 racial confrontations and 40 riots.
In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated; in the summer race
riots broke out in over 100 cities. In the wake of the riots, the president
appointed a National Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Otto Kerner, a
former governor of Illinois. The Kerner Commission blamed white racism for the
outbreaks of violence. "Our nation is moving toward two societies," the
Commission report warned, "one black, one white—separate and unequal." The
report urged job creation, more public housing, school integration, and "a
national system of income supplementation."
As the urban riots of the mid-1960s voiced black rage, demands for Black
Power changed the tone of the civil rights movement. Stokely Carmichael, a
civil rights activist and SNCC member, led SNCC away from its commitment to
nonviolence and integration. Carmichael popularized the call for Black Power, a
controversial term. To some, Black Power called for racial dignity and
self-reliance. For others, it meant that blacks should defend themselves against
white violence, instead of relying on nonviolence. Still others believed that
the Black Power movement called for black economic and political independence.
Black Power advocates were influenced by Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam minister
who had been assassinated in early 1965. They admired Malcolm's black
nationalist philosophy, which emphasized black separatism and self-sufficiency.
They also appreciated Malcolm's emphasis on black pride and self-assertion.
Conflict soon arose between the older civil
rights organizations, such as the NAACP, and black power advocates, with their
aura of militancy and violence. Some blacks called for racial pride and
separatism instead of color-blindness and integration. Civil rights demands
shifted from color-blinded to color-consciousness.
By the end of the 1960s, the civil rights
movement had strongly influenced other groups, which adopted its protest
tactics. Native Americans had mobilized early in the decade and convened in
Washington in 1964 to press for inclusion in the War on Poverty. In 1968 Native
American leaders demanded Red Power in the form of preferential hiring
and reimbursement for lands that the government had taken from them in violation
of treaties. Mexican Americans supported César Chávez, president of the United
Farm Workers Organizing Committee. Chavez sought improved working conditions for
migrant workers and organized national consumer boycotts of grapes and other
products. The Hispanic movement also campaigned for bilingual and bicultural
education, and Chicano studies in colleges. Finally, the women's movement of the
late 1960s and 1970s, especially, derived inspiration from the civil rights
The Women’s Movement
Like the civil rights movement, the women's movement used various means to end
discrimination. Activists created pressure groups, adopted confrontation tactics
like sit-ins and marches, and tried to capture media attention. By the end of
the 1960s, feminists had created an energetic campaign that called both for
legal equity and for the restructuring of gender roles and social institutions.
In 1961, Kennedy established the first presidential Commission on the Status of
Women. In 1963 the commission issued a report citing employment discrimination,
unequal pay, legal inequality, and insufficient support services for working
women. The same year, a new book by journalist Betty Friedan, The Feminine
Mystique, challenged the notion that women could find fulfillment only as
wives and mothers. A final catalyst of the early 1960s was the Civil Rights Act
of 1964, which banned race discrimination in employment and set up the EEOC to
enforce the law. Unexpectedly, perhaps accidentally, and after heated debate,
legislators amended the bill to bar sex discrimination in employment as well.
When the EEOC ignored gender-based charges, women formed the National
Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Betty Friedan led the new civil rights
group, which urged equal opportunity and an end to sex discrimination.
Meanwhile, another wing of feminism developed. Young women who had been active
in the civil rights and other protest movements began to form small
"consciousness-raising" groups, which rapidly expanded in number. In these
groups, women met to discuss the inequity of "sexism," a counterpart to racism;
to strive for "women's liberation"; and to start feminist projects, such as
health collectives or rape crisis centers.
The two wings of feminism often clashed. NOW focused on legal change, and
women's liberation urged revolutionary transformation. But the two factions
served complementary functions and sometimes joined forces, as in The Women's
Strike for Equality in August 1970. With parades and marches, women celebrated
the 50th anniversary of woman suffrage and pressed for new causes—equal
employment opportunity, an equal rights amendment, and more liberal state
In the early 1970s, the women's movement achieved extensive results. In 1972
Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to provide for equality of the
sexes under the law. However, the states failed to ratify the amendment. Still,
the fact that Congress passed the ERA signified feminism's new legitimacy. In
Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court legalized abortion. Finally,
women made astounding gains in education and employment.
Editors scoured elementary and high school textbooks to remove sexist elements.
In 1972 Congress passed Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which prohibits
discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal
funds, including athletic programs. At the college and university level, once
all-male colleges and military academies began to accept women students.
In employment, state and federal courts
overturned labor laws that curtailed opportunities for women, such as laws that
barred women from night work or overtime. The courts supported legal actions
against employers that discriminated against women in their hiring or promotion
policies. Women also entered new vocations. Some went into blue-collar fields,
such as construction; others found jobs in banking, finance, business, and
government. The proportions of women in the professions—as lawyers, doctors, and
engineers—increased as well.
One of the most enduring movements to emerge
in the 1960s, the women’s movement left strong institutional legacies—pressure
groups, professional organizations, and women's studies programs in colleges.
The Youth Movement
As the baby boom generation veered toward adulthood, its members began to
challenge the status quo. By the mid-1960s nearly three out of four students
finished high school, and about half of those students went on to college.
College campuses filled with young people who had the freedom to question the
moral and spiritual health of the nation.
One facet of the youth movement was a
disaffected, apolitical counterculture, made up of people who were known as
hippies. These young people decried materialism, mocked convention, spurned
authority, joined communes, enjoyed rock music, and experimented with drugs and
sex. Often hippies asserted their rebellious attitude through elements of
personal style, such as long hair and tie-dyed clothes. In August 1969 hippies
gathered at the Woodstock Festival, a music festival where young people convened
to celebrate love and peace. Woodstock represented a high point in the
counterculture, but hippie lifestyles continued into the 1970s.
Another wing of the youth movement included activists from political protest
movements, such as the civil rights movement. This wing was more visible on
college campuses and more politically conscious. In 1960 a small group of young
people formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and adopted The Port
Huron Statement, written by student leader Tom Hayden. The manifesto urged
participatory democracy, or the idea that all Americans, not just a small elite,
should decide major economic, political, and social issues that shaped the
nation. It also criticized American society for its focus on career advancement,
material possessions, military strength, and racism. By 1968 some 100,000 young
people around the nation had joined SDS.
Student protesters denounced corporate
bureaucracy and campus administrators. Universities and colleges, they believed,
were dictatorial and exercised too much control over students. Students held
rallies and sit-ins to protest restrictions of their rights. In 1964 a coalition
of student groups at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed the right
to conduct political activities on campus; the coalition became known as the
Free Speech Movement. Political activism and protests spread to other campuses
in the 1960s.
The youth movement’s demonstrations soon merged with the protests of students
who opposed the Vietnam War. By the spring of 1968, student protests had reached
hundreds of campuses. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago,
antiwar demonstrators clashed with the police, and the images of police beating
students shocked television audiences (see Chicago Convention of 1968).
Violence peaked at an antiwar protest at Ohio’s Kent State University in May
1970, when National Guard troops gunned down four student protesters.
The political activities of the youth movement
had enduring effects. Colleges became less authoritarian, ending dress codes and
curfews and recruiting more minority students. Students also contributed
mightily to the movement against the war in Vietnam. Both the counterculture and
student activism, finally, fueled a backlash that blossomed in the 1970s and
The Environmental Movement
A movement to preserve the environment took root with the best-selling book
Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson. The book attacked toxic pesticides
like DDT. Carson described how DDT threatened both animals and human beings. Her
book raised Americans’ awareness of threats to the environment and moved many to
take action. Students and teachers at over 1,500 colleges and universities and
at over 10,000 schools held teach-ins on the environment. Hundreds of thousands
of other Americans staged protests and rallies around the nation. These
activists formed a number of environmental groups, including the Environmental
Defense Fund in 1967, Friends of the Earth in 1968, Greenpeace in 1970, and the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971. In 1970 some 20 million Americans
gathered for what organizers called Earth Day to protest abuse of the
In response to growing citizen protests, Congress in 1970 passed the National
Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), an independent agency responsible for protecting the environment and
maintaining it for future generations. Congress also enacted laws to curb
pollution, preserve wilderness areas, and protect endangered species. The
Supreme Court allowed conservationists to sue businesses for polluting the
environment and government agencies for failure to enforce the law.
Several events in the 1970s suggested the
danger of environmental threats. In 1978 residents of Love Canal in New York,
who had been experiencing high disease rates, were found to be living on a
former chemical waste dump; the area was evacuated. In 1979 an accident at the
nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania showed the potential
dangers of radioactive material in nuclear reactors.
As concern for the environment spread, more
Americans became involved in efforts to maintain forests, parks, wildlife
refuges; prevent air and water pollution; conserve energy; and dispose of
hazardous waste safely. Environmentalists persisted in their efforts into the
1980s, although often challenged by conservatives who believed that
environmental regulations restricted property rights protected by the
The Warren Court
Judicial activism (taking an active role in shaping public policy) completed the
liberal agenda of the 1960s. Ever since Earl Warren's appointment as chief
justice in 1953, the Supreme Court had enraged critics on the right, who pressed
for Warren's impeachment. In the 1950s the Warren Court had integrated public
schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In the
1960s Kennedy and Johnson appointed four Supreme Court justices, including
Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who had argued the Brown case and the
high court's first African American justice. With a liberal majority in place,
the Warren court handed down a series of landmark cases that enhanced civil
liberties and spurred or legitimized social change.
The Warren Court of the 1960s declared prayer in public schools
unconstitutional, enabled Communists to obtain passports, and limited
communities' power to censor books and movies (thus making sexually explicit
material available to adults). In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
the Court ruled that state bans on contraceptives were unconstitutional. The
Court also consistently upheld civil rights. It found local ordinances upholding
segregation in private businesses (such as lunch counters) unconstitutional;
reversed the convictions of black demonstrators who had refused to disperse;
upheld the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965; declared delays in school
desegregation intolerable; and upset a state law that forbade marriage between
persons of different races.
Warren Court decisions of the 1960s affected
electoral procedures, too. In Baker v. Carr (1962), the Court
upheld the principle of "one man, one vote," which meant that state legislatures
had to be reapportioned on the basis of population. Finally, the Court issued
controversial decisions that transformed criminal justice. In Gideon v.
Wainwright (1963), the Court held that a poor person charged with a felony
had the right to be represented by a state-appointed lawyer. In Miranda
v. Arizona (1966) the Court declared that a confession could not be
introduced as evidence unless the defendant had been informed of his or her
rights, including the right to remain silent.
The 1960s in Retrospect The climate of reform
that erupted in the 1960s continued into the 1970s, where movements for change
met different fates. Feminism and environmentalism continued and prospered. The
counterculture peaked and faded, although drug use exploded. In civil rights,
the early goals of color-blindness ceded place to race consciousness and
"identity politics," or jousting for place among contending ethnicities.
Overall, few great dreams that pervaded the fervent 1960s were achieved. Hopes
for participatory democracy and an end to racism and patriarchy eluded
Still, in domestic policy, the 1960s were an era of enduring change. Although
the Vietnam War undercut the Great Society, Johnson’s programs increased justice
and fought poverty. The Warren Court upheld individual rights. The civil rights
movement ended legal segregation, registered black voters, battled race
discrimination, engendered black pride, and vastly liberalized white attitudes.
The spread of feminism forced reexamination of gender roles. Overall, reform
movements of the 1960s expanded free expression, challenged tradition, blasted
the placidity of the 1950s, and, for better or worse, dispelled the widespread
respect for government that had prevailed since World War II. Antiwar protest
was a vital part of this process. The Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s
shattered Americans' long-held faith in both the wisdom of the state and in Cold
War policies of the 1950s.
FOREIGN POLICY, VIETNAM WAR, AND WATERGATE In
the 1960s the United States remained committed to Cold War goals and sought to
stem the spread of Communism around the globe. Continuing the policy of
containment, the United States sent more and more troops to Vietnam. There,
bogged down in jungle-fighting and bombing campaigns, the United States became
enmeshed in a long and costly war. When the United States finally left the
Vietnamese to determine their own fate in the early 1970s, a near-impeachment
crisis increased Americans' mood of skepticism and distrust of government.
Kennedy Administration and the Cold War
In the early 1960s, President Kennedy vigorously pursued the Cold War policy of
containment. He expanded U.S. aid to other nations, boosted the size of the
armed forces, stockpiled missiles, and strove to end Soviet influence in Cuba,
just 90 miles off the tip of Florida. In 1959 a revolution in Cuba brought Fidel
Castro, a leftist, to power. When Castro took control, he implemented policies
designed to eliminate differences between social classes in Cuba. These policies
included confiscating large land holdings and the seizing businesses that
belonged to wealthy Cubans and U.S. firms. Concerned about Communist influence,
U.S. officials were wary of Castro. In 1961 a force of Cuban exiles, trained and
supplied by the United States, invaded Cuba in an attempt to topple Castro. They
failed, and the Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco.
Tensions increased between the United States and Cuba. To deter further U.S.
interference in Cuba, Castro sought economic and military assistance from the
USSR. In 1962 the United States discovered that Khrushchev had set up nuclear
missile bases in Cuba from which rocket-powered missiles could be launched.
Kennedy faced a crisis: To destroy the bases might lead to world war; to ignore
them risked an attack on the United States. In October 1962 Kennedy demanded
that the USSR remove the missiles, and after a few days of suspense, the Soviets
agreed to do so.
The Cuban missile crisis was a close call.
Teetering on the brink of nuclear war, both superpowers leaped back in alarm.
Afterward, Kennedy and Khrushchev established a telephone hot line, and in 1963
they signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that banned nuclear tests in the
air and in the water. But the Cold War rivalry continued. The United States and
the USSR now vied for control in Asia.
Cold War warriors in the United States believed that Communist aggression posed
a threat in Asia. They especially feared a Communist takeover of Vietnam. If
Vietnam fell, they believed, Communism would engulf all of Southeast Asia. Even
in the 1940s, President Truman provided economic and military aid to prevent the
growth of Communist power in what was then French Indochina. When France
withdrew from the area in 1954, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into two
segments: North Vietnam, ruled by the Communist Viet Minh; and South Vietnam,
controlled by non-Communist allies of the French.
The United States supported non-Communist South Vietnam and in subsequent
decades increased its commitment to the region. Under Eisenhower, from 1955 to
1961, America sent economic aid to South Vietnam. In 1960 Communists and
nationalists in South Vietnam formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), often
referred to as the Viet Cong (a label attached by its foes). The NLF was
organized to challenge South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled from
1955 to 1963, and to foster unification.
Kennedy continued Eisenhower's efforts in
Vietnam by tripling American aid to South Vietnam and by expanding the number of
military advisers from about 700 to more than 16,000. In 1963 the United States
approved a coup led by South Vietnamese military officers to overthrow Diem, who
was killed. A few weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson
became president. Johnson inherited the problem of U.S. commitment to South
Vietnam, where Communist insurgents were gaining strength.
Johnson and Vietnam
Johnson was in a dilemma. If he increased American military aid to Vietnam, he
would have to divert funds from his Great Society programs, and he might prod
China into war. If he withdrew American aid, however, he risked the politically
damaging charge that he was "soft" on Communism. Most important, Johnson did not
want to be the first American president to lose a war. He enlarged the war in
After an allegedly unprovoked attack on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off
North Vietnam in August 1964, Johnson authorized limited bombing raids on North
Vietnam. At the administration’s request, Congress then offered an almost
unanimous resolution, known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, that enabled the
president to use military force in Vietnam. In 1965, after a landslide victory
in the 1964 election—when voters endorsed his platform of domestic reform and
peace abroad—Johnson again escalated American involvement. By 1968 more than
500,000 troops were in Vietnam, and the United States had begun heavy bombing of
The United States never declared war on North
TO BE CONTINUED