Path to War (2002) starts with LBJ's election victory in 1964 and shows him making somewhat irrational decisions, against the well-argued advice of some of his advisers, leading to the War in Vietnam.

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In particular, he was told early on that the North could commit enough soldiers to make the war unwinnable for the U.S. He still persisted with bombing the North, and sending ever more Americans to Vietnam.

The president's decision to escalate America's involvement in Vietnam is therefore portrayed as resulting from miscalculation rather than corruption.

Is there any evidence showing that the military industrial complex swayed LBJ's decisions?

Update: As @BenCrowell points out, JFK seemed to know that war would be unwinnable and wasn't interested in a pull-out either. Whether LBJ's policy views were different from JFK's is important, of course, but is secondary to whether the MIC was pulling the strings during LBJ's term. I'd like to know the answer to that as definitively as public records allow us to know.

  • 2
    No, given that there had been armed Americans in Viet Nam for at least 5 years before that. Suggest you read Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie and Karnow's Vietnam before you believe the tripe that Hollywood issues for mass consumption. See Also McMaster, Dereliction of Duty Max, that film is not a documentary, it is at best historical fiction with a bit of editorial license thrown in. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 17:56
  • 2
    This question has little or no meaning unless "the industrial-military complex" is defined. Of course, The Military always wants newer and better tools and a chance to test and use them. Of course, the manufacturers of military equipment, like any other business, are always lobbying to increase their sales. Beyond those obvious things, what is the OP expecting for an answer?
    – user18963
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 11:56
  • 2
    Voted to close as unclear per @mickeyf A question whose answer depends entirely on an undefined theoretical term is unclear. Moreover, any answer even if the military industrial complex were defined would solely be reliant on the definition not on the past as it happened Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 12:40
  • Isn't the term Military–industrial complex defined as 'An informal alliance between a nation's military and the defence industry that supplies it'.? Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 13:47
  • “Dictionary definitions” are radically insufficient for history, they’re even worse than the “lies for children” of “electron shells” which have some explanatory power. People’s use of “military-industrial complex” vary from conspiracy theories that Boeing started “the Vietnam war” to sell dud helicopters through to “discipline and punish” games around MacNamara’s language. This isn’t “the revolt of the admirals,” where we’ve got a clear agent and example of military policy formation. Compare using Lenin’s “Imperialism” regarding the Malaya crisis: scopes don’t match. Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 1:10

4 Answers 4


There is no such evidence.

Most American politicians were actually pro-war against communism. They feared the fall of Vietnam to communist influence.

But we can't deny the industrial-military complex had some influence (Eisenhower 1961) :

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.

Also Johnson was tied to military commissions in the Senate

Russell not only placed Johnson on the Armed Services Committee but made him chairman of its Preparedness Subcommittee.

Kroutchev believed JF Kennedy was killed by the pro-war elements (tied to the military industrial complex) inside the US government. If he was right, which we do not know, it would imply that Johnson was known to be pro-war by the people who wished to kill Kennedy.

We can safely assume that Johnson was not swayed or corrupted by the industrial military complex in order to launch this war. But there is a very real possibility he was tied or a member of the political part of the industrial complex years before the beginning of the war. His mentor was Richard Russel who proved to be a fervent supporter of a strong national defense. I think, but it is only my personal opinion, that he believed in an American hegemony over the world, and that it would be good. Rather than increasing profits from the military industrial complex.

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    Welcome to History:SE. Sources to support your assertions would improve this answer. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 9:57

If you're looking for the reasons the US fought in Vietnam, I think LBJ is too late. Kennedy in 1963: "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. These people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to reelect me." There is a great deal more material of this type in the Pentagon Papers.

It seems fairly straightforward to me, and I don't think there's any need to invoke a shadowy role for the military-industrial complex. The war was fought for very clear political reasons. In WWII, the US made an alliance of convenience with the USSR. After the war, there was an almost instant pivot to anticommunism and the cold war. 1949, who lost China? The Hungarian uprising of 1956. Alger Hiss, McCarthy and Nixon. Domino theory. World politics viewed through the lens of WW II, with a focus on the need to stand up against tyrants. Given all of this well-established history of the overwhelming political impetus behind the cold war, it seems hard to imagine how Kennedy could not have committed the US to a fateful entanglement in Vietnam.

Although the military-industrial complex did end up involved in a huge amount of economic activity in supporting the Vietnam war, that came much later. There was nothing like that going on as early as 1963.

  • I disagree on JFK setting the course to war: Several characters in the film, including McNamara, actually argued "If JFK was alive, we wouldn't be in this mess".
    – user26470
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 11:12
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    From your own quote, JFK realized that the U.S. could not win there, while LBJ [acted like he] did not.
    – user26470
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 12:14
  • @MaxB: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all lied to the public about the war, and all of them had the worst of motives, mainly personal political gain, as demonstrated by the Kennedy quote. (Nixon's conduct rose to the level of treason in the Chennault affair.) Johnson put on a brave public face and claimed that the US would win, but he knew that much of what he said publicly was false.
    – user2848
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 12:43
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    @MaxB: As a general rule, one should not refer to movies as a source of historic information. Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 17:44
  • 1
    @Moishe Cohen Respectfully, you should be more specific- documentaries are movies and many can be reliably sourced.
    – danno
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 21:15

A likely if unspoken reason for the Viet Nam war is the Theory of Containment put forth by Kennan, i.e. avoiding direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union but stressing the Soviets by opposing its expansion. The dominos were tumbling in Asia and Viet Nam appeared to be the next Soviet gain.
An argument can be made that the delayed communist success did in fact allow for changes in China and further diminishment of the Soviet Union

But even assuming arguendo that this is so, the price was very, very high.

  • According to the movie anyway, it was nuclear war with China that they were concerned about at that time. I don't get the feeling that the domino theory was "unspoken". Wasn't it the theory that was used to sell the war to the public?
    – user26470
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 5:07
  • The Containment theory was the unspoken motivator for Viet Nam. After Korea we’d had enough of direct confrontation with China –nuclear or massed hordes. But China mellowed enough from its early days to allow Nixon to establish a rather good relationship. China saw more opportunity with the U.S., which proved out for them rather well.
    – TomO
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 20:24
  • Nixon came after the events in question.
    – user26470
    Commented Oct 8, 2017 at 1:59
  • China was hostel before the Viet Nam adventure. After the U.S. withdrew from Viet Nam Nixon approached a somewhat mellowed China. Time makes a difference. Both China and Viet Nam are now capitalistic economically and nominally communist politically.
    – TomO
    Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 22:40
  • "hostel"? Anyways, I don't really see how your answer even attempts to answer the question. You are inventing "facts", like the domino theory being secret. Plus, regardless of that, the Q is about the MIC influence on LBJ, not about some theory.
    – user26470
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 5:24

Question: Did the military industrial complex play a role in LBJ's decision to increase America's involvement in Vietnam?

I would argue yes. As we saw in the second gulf war there are generally many factions which move a country such as the United States to war. A chorus of factions which each find different intermingled reasons to support the movement towards war. That's also how it was in Vietnam. Some of the primary reasons given which were used to promote that war were:

  • Creating a strong anti communist pillar in south east Assia to further secure the region from Communist expansion after the current threat was dealt with.
  • The Domino Effect, Stopping the chain reaction of destabilization and fall of countries around the world into Communism. This phrase represents both one of the biggest ideologies which moved the nation to war, and one of the countries biggest ideological mistaken beliefs. In reality North Vietnam's victory wasn't the first domino to fall as this theory predicts but exactly the kind of nation the US was fighting to put in place. In 1979 they would fight and win a war against China to stop China's expansion in the region. In the early 1980's Vietnam would fight and defeat the pro Chinese communist Khmer Rouge; and then they would withdraw and support the United Nations governing of Cambodia in the aftermath.
  • Defending Freedom of Navigation which has been a US Navy mission around the globe since Thomas Jefferson created the US Navy. For this faction N. Vietnam's attack on the USS Madox in international waters(gulf of tonkin) represented an act of war and was in and of itself justification of the war. The resolution which enabled the Johnson Administration to wage war in Vietnam on the scale he did bares the name of this attack, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; only that attack is now suspect and likely never occurred, according to then Secretary of Defense Macnamara in his book "Fog of War.
  • Unlike in Korea, in Vietnam the United States military was ready for the fight. Investments by the Eisenhower, Kennedy Administrations since Korea had created a well funded and large US military which emboldened US policy makers. When North Korea invaded South Korea in Jun 25, 1950 the US Army wasn't ready. In June of 1950, the US military was a shadow of the force which had fought Germany and Japan in 1945. Most of it's divisions had been disbanded, the once vast navy had been mothballed. It's funding had been seriously curtailed. It's post WWII mission abroad was not clearly defined in the eyes of policy makers. None of this was the case in Vietnam. Yes the Military Industrial Complex which made the US the arsenal of democracy in WWII had been recreated on a somewhat smaller scale in order to allow the Country the capability to engage and defend US interests abroad. A component of the voices which moved the country to war in Vietnam saw it as just the next battle field against communism and they were supporters and emboldened by the Military Industrial Complex which President Eisenhower had warned the country against in his farewell address.

From the Question: In particular, he was told early on that the North could commit enough soldiers to make the war unwinnable for the U.S. He still persisted with bombing the North, and sending ever more Americans to Vietnam.

The Vietnam war wasn't lost on the battlefield. North Vietnam could never have committed enough soldiers to make the war unwindable for the U.S. When North Vietnam at times tried to fight a conventional war against the United States, it was when the United States forces were most effective and N. Vietnamese forces lost their largest forces in the field (Tete Offensive, Khe Sanh). N. Vietnam won the war on five primary points.

  • The United States and South Vietnam never invaded North Vietnam for fear of inviting direct Soviet involvement and potentially nuclear war and war in Europe. This war policy removed any possibility of a victory due to military action for the United States. The US had the men and capabilities to invade the N but would not do it. This seeded the initiative to the North, and committed the US military to a strategy which would require prolonged domestic popular and political support measured in decades for a war in which no vital American interests were present.
  • North Vietnam benefited greatly from the Johnson and Nixon administrations policy of running the war from 9000 miles away. Objectives, ground campaigns, strategies and even bombing targets on a daily basis were decided on, not in theatre but in Washington. This was a significant handicap for the U.S. war effort.
  • Recognizing the United States was recycling it's strategy from the Korean War. Playing for a stalemate and not a win, North Vietnam adopted their own strategies to make such a cost and commitment unsupportable.
  • Using asynchronous warfare to harass and bleed the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces was to North Vietnam's great advantage. When North Vietnam tried to fight a conventional war several times during the conflict and the results were disastrous for them. They were most effective and ultimately owed their overall success in the decision to fight a gorilla war, one with smaller units acting less predictably to harass their enemy.
  • N. Vietnam recognizing and engaging in the political war brewing in the US over the war. This was a war where propaganda, imagery and public perception played an oversized role. N. Vietnam engaged in this growing unrest and was successful at it.

Question: Update: As @BenCrowell points out, JFK seemed to know that war would be unwinnable and wasn't interested in a pull-out either. Whether LBJ's policy views were different from JFK's is important, of course, but is secondary to whether the MIC was pulling the strings during LBJ's term. I'd like to know the answer to that as definitively as public records allow us to know.

Kennedy was a very young man when he became president compared to his predecessors. He was the first American President born in the 20th century. He was the first American President not in leadership during WWII. He supported many progressive actions at home namely civil rights, civil liberties, overhauling immigration, space policy, and generally a bold and exciting vision for the country. All these things made him popular with the countries progressives and young people which in later years would form the backbone of the anti Vietnamese war movement.

After Kennedy's death, these Kennedy supporters would argue that Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam and not have made the same mistakes in judgement and hubris as the Johnson administration. Perhaps, but I would also note that Kennedy was a foreign policy hawk. The advisors who moved Johnson to war in Vietnam:

  • Maxwell Taylor,
  • Dean Rusk,
  • Robert McNamara,
  • the National Security Council

Were put in place by Kennedy. Johnson inherited them. McNamara was recruited by Kennedy out of the auto industry. It's much more likely that Kennedy would have taken the same path recommended by these men which Johnson took, after all they were Kennedy's team.

Is there any evidence showing that the military industrial complex swayed LBJ's decisions?

It's really a chicken or the egg discussion. The MIC was created to give the country a better more creditable military option in confronting Soviet expansion. It was created with significant bi-partisan political support by American policy makers, and it was ultimately used for that purpose. Yes hundreds of billions of dollars were in the mix, and yes corruption and self interest is present in any governmental effort which see's that kind of financial and political commitment. Ultimately what fueled the creation of the MIC was a real and broad bipartisan palpable fear of soviet expansion and what was believed to be an existential need to confront that expansion. Did the MIC fuel and support these feelings in a creditable and substantive way. Yes. Military leaders were in the news nightly espousing the need for American involvement. Corporate spokesmen would right and expose support for hawkish policy by advisors and government policy.

The fear of the Soviet Union dominated America's foreign policy from the fall of China in 1947 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in June of 1990. It's ultimately that fear which drove everything including the expansion of the Military Industrial Complex.

Path to War (2002) starts with LBJ's election victory in 1964 and shows him making somewhat irrational decisions, against the well-argued advice of some of his advisers, leading to the War in Vietnam.

The best documentaries I've seen on the Vietnam war were

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Vietnam War With Walter Cronkite


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The Vietnam War with Ken Burns

And if you don't have a week to view these half a day's comprehensive documentaries on the subject. then this latest documentary by one of the nation's most famous hawks of that time, I found thought provoking and excellent. Also a best seller in Vietnam where McNamara travels to decades after the war was over to meet with and interview his counterparts in the war.

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Fog of War, by Robert McNamara

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