The United States deliberately did not declare war in Vietnam, in fear of drawing either China or the Soviet Union into the conflict. This however, led to a “credibility gap” within the United States, as the Administration failed to explain the costs and benefits of the war to the American people. Operation Rolling Thunder, for example, carried out between 1965 and 1968, dropped one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, 800 tons each day during the three-and-a-half year period. Each time a B-52 was sent over North Vietnam on a bombing run, it cost $30,000. The cost of just the air war had spiraled to $1.7 billion by 1966.
Troops commitments also escalated under the Johnson Administration, to a peak of 536,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Vietnam by 1968. It seemed that the more troops that were sent to Vietnam, the more the American public (especially the young) turned against the war. The United States measured its “victory” in body counts. It would be a war of attrition as more and more North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas were killed.
In the United States, deeper troop commitments on the part of the Johnson Administration meant wider and wider use of the draft. However, college deferments kept many upper and middle class young men out of Vietnam, while the poor and working classes formed up to 80 percent of the fighting force. Draftees were assigned to one year tours; their motive was “stay alive for 365” and go back home in one piece.
The tide of the war turned against the U.S. in January 1968. In December 1967, North Vietnamese troops surrounded the Marines at Ke Sanh, causing American commanders there to request some 50,000 additional troops. Sending these additional troops to Ke Sanh weakened American military presence in other areas of South Vietnam, which is what the North Vietnamese wanted. The following month, at the start of the Vietnamese New Year (Tet), over 85,000 North Vietnamese soldiers attacked every major city in South Vietnam, inflicting heavy damage and even managing to take the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. It took American troops three weeks to dislodge the enemy from Saigon. CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite, on national television, openly questioned the war. “What’s going on there?” he asked, “I thought we were winning.”