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When Lyndon Johnson determined that America would have to raise her stakes significantly to prevent a communist takeover in South Vietnam, he proceeded reactively and incrementally. In the final months of 1964, the Viet Cong launched a brief campaign of terrorist attacks in Saigon, bombing U.S. officers' billets in the Brink Hotel in Saigon on Christmas Eve. By the year's end, the Viet Cong were mounting attacks in divisional strength and there was evidence that regular PAVN units were operating in the Central Highlands. On 29 December, in a particularly threatening incident, the 9th Viet Cong Division seized the village of Binh Gia within forty miles of Saigon, destroying two elite ARVN battalions; then, rather than fading away into the jungle as in the past, the communists stayed in the village for several days.


When a pre-dawn mortar attack on the American base at Pleiku on 7 February, 1965, killed eight Americans and wounded 106, Lyndon Johnson's patience was at an end. TF-77 (Task Force 77), the Navy attack carrier force in Vietnamese waters, received orders to launch retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. Under the code name FLAMING DART, the first of these was delivered against barracks and port facilities around Dong Hoi the same day; the second was delivered on 11 February. FLAMING DART was both a prelude to major American escalation and a foretaste of things to come: the exact targets to be struck, the numbers and types of aircraft to be used, the kinds of ordnance dropped and the precise timing of the attacks were all dictated from Washington. The attacks were launched beneath low-lying monsoon clouds and part of the first had to be aborted because of the weather; the second was timed to coincide with a public statement by the President.


As the FLAMING DART raids were being planned and executed, debate within the Johnson Administration over the nature and scale of the American response in Vietnam was approaching resolution: the national strategy would be guns and butter, the military strategy would combine graduated escalation with a war of attrition against communist forces in the south. Inherent in these complementary strategies was the idea that the internal political impact of the war should - and could - be minimized. There would be no call-up of reserves; instead, draft calls would be increased and the burden of combat would fall mainly on a group with no discernible political constituency, young men lacking occupational or educational draft deferments. In practice, that meant the poor, the patriotic and the poorly educated: categories that were by no means mutually exclusive. Young men from economically depressed rural areas, particularly Appalachia, the deep south and urban ghettos - the latter two with a high black representation - were to sustain a disproportionate share of the casualties. Those casualties were to be higher than they might otherwise have been since reliance on the draft implied one-year tours of duty, and a soldier requires the better part of a year to acquire basic combat/survival skills in a largelyguerrilla war fought in difficult jungle, swamp and mountainous terrain. To Johnson and his advisors, it seemed that the requirements of the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty might even be complementary; by relaxing the physical and mental requirements for military service, hard-core unemployed could be taken off the rolls. Efforts to put this theory into practice wreaked havoc on the lives of the young men involved - called McNamara's 100,000 - and on the organizations to which they were assigned, but the idea that the war in Vietnam and Johnson's domestic agenda could be pursued in tandem died hard.




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