In the patriotic fervor of the Kennedy years, we had asked, “What can we do for our country?” and our country answered, “Kill VC.”
A RUMOR OF WAR
KENNEDY HAD FORCED KHRUSHCHEV TO BACK DOWN IN CUBA BECAUSE the United States had overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and on the high seas. Following the crisis, the Russians vowed that never again would they be so humiliated. They began a crash program to modernize and strengthen their fleet and to build nuclear weapons with ICBMs to carry them. Kennedy and McNamara responded by increasing the pace of American production. The Russians then accelerated their program, and the arms race intensified.
As a presidential candidate, Kennedy had been critical of Eisenhower’s defense policy because Ike put too much faith in the big bombs. Kennedy wanted to be able to respond to Communist aggression at any level. Kennedy set out to build a counterinsurgency force that could stamp out insurrection or revolution in the jungles of Asia or the mountains of South America. With his counter-insurgency force, Kennedy would prove to the world that the so-called wars of national liberation did not work. Through the Green Berets, as the force came to be called, the West would win the battle for the Third World.
Kennedy relied heavily on technology to overcome America’s inherent manpower shortages, giving the Green Berets first call on all the Army’s latest equipment. The whole concept appealed strongly to the elitist strain in Kennedy, for the Berets consisted of the best young officers and enlisted men in the Army. They received extra training, better equipment, and special privileges. As the military equivalent to the Peace Corps, the Berets would apply American techniques and know-how in guerrilla warfare situations and solve the problems that had baffled the French. As Kennedy told a West Point commencement, he would apply “a wholly new kind of strategy.” One of the great appeals of counterinsurgency, especially after the Cuban crisis, was that it avoided direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. The risks of an escalation to nuclear war were small.
In Kennedy’s view, and in that of his advisers, and in the view of millions of American citizens, the United States would be able to do what other white men had failed to do in Vietnam and elsewhere partly because America’s motives were pure, partly because America had mastered the lessons of guerrilla warfare. The United States would not try to overwhelm the enemy or fight a strictly conventional war, as the French had done in Vietnam. Instead the Berets would give advice to local troops while American civil agencies would help the governments to institute political reforms that would separate the guerrillas from the people. Kennedy’s counterinsurgency would show the people that there was a liberal middle ground between colonialism and Communism.
The great opportunity came in South Vietnam. It had numerous advantages. Diem was more a low-grade despot than a ruthless dictator. He was relatively honest and a sincere nationalist. He had introduced a land-reform program that, on paper at least, was a model for others to follow. The Americans were already in Vietnam, with military and economic advisers. Finally, Vietnam was an ideal battleground for the Green Berets. Small-unit actions in the jungle or rice paddies suited them perfectly, as did the emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of the people through medical and technical aid. From Kennedy’s point of view Vietnam was an almost perfect place to get involved. There he could show his interest in the Third World, demonstrate conclusively that America lived up to her commitments (the 1954 SEATO Treaty had extended protection to South Vietnam if it were attacked from without), and play the exciting new game of counterinsurgency.
The difficulty was the fuzzy legal situation. South Vietnam was a sovereign nation only because Diem said it was. Under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Agreements, which the United States had not signed but which it promised not to upset by force, South Vietnam was not a nation but a territory, to be administered by the French until elections were held. The 1954 agreements had also stipulated that neither Ho in North Vietnam nor Diem in South Vietnam should allow the introduction of foreign troops into their territories. The United States redefined the Geneva Agreements, deliberately creating the fiction that Geneva had set up two Vietnams, North and South. The Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, made the redefinition complete in 1963 when he claimed that “the other side was fully committed—fully committed—in the original Geneva settlement of 1954 to the arrangements which provided for South Vietnam as an independent entity.”
The second major problem was the nature of the struggle. After Dulles wrote the SEATO Treaty and extended protection to South Vietnam, he assured the Senate that under no circumstances would the United States be required to put down an internal uprising or get involved in a civil war. Assuming that South Vietnam was a sovereign nation, the question then became one of ascertaining whether the opposition to the government came from within or without. The question was almost impossible to answer. After 1956 the North Vietnamese had concentrated on reconstruction in their own territory, and on building socialism there. After Diem refused to hold the elections in 1956, meanwhile, the Viet Minh in the South grew restive. Beginning in 1957, they carried on a systematic campaign to assassinate village chiefs and thus destroy Diem’s hold on the countryside. They suffered from political persecution, as did all Diem’s opponents, for Diem was incapable of distinguishing between Communist and anti-Communist resistance to his government. In early 1960 eighteen national figures, including ten former ministers in the Diem government, issued a public manifesto protesting Diem’s nepotism and the “continuous arrests that fill the jails and prisons to the rafters.” They called for free elections. Diem threw them all into jail.
In March 1960 full-scale revolt began. Diem labeled his opponents Viet Cong, or Vietnamese Communists. The VC established the National Liberation Front (NLF) as its political arm. The bulk of the VC were recruited in South Vietnam and captured most of their arms and equipment from Diem’s army. In September 1960, the Communist Party of North Vietnam finally bestowed its formal blessing on the NLF and called for the liberation of South Vietnam from American imperialism.
Under the circumstances, it was exceedingly difficult to prove that South Vietnam was the victim of “outside” aggression. The American Secretary of State, however, had no doubts. Rusk’s views had changed not at all since 1950, when he decided that the Chinese Communists were “not Chinese.” As he saw it, the war in Vietnam was sponsored by Hanoi, which in turn was acting as the agent of Peking. If the United States allowed the Viet Cong to win in South Vietnam, the Chinese would quickly gobble up the rest of Asia. Rusk warned his countrymen of the dangers of a Far Eastern Munich, thereby equating Ho Chi Minh with Hitler and raising the dreaded specter of appeasement.
Rusk was hardly alone in recommending the American involvement in Vietnam. Everything in the Kennedy record pointed to increased aid to Diem, and nearly everyone in the Kennedy administration supported the decision. The Joint Chiefs went along, but they did not push Kennedy into Vietnam, nor did American corporations with Asian interests, nor did the Asia-firsters in the Republican Party.
General William Westmoreland, who commanded the American military effort in South Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, later said that before he left for Vietnam he discussed the situation there with every top official in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon. All agreed that the United States had to stand up to the aggressors from the north, using whatever means were necessary. He could not recall a single dissenter. There was also universal agreement on the need to prove to the Chinese that wars of national liberation did not work and to show the Third World that America stood by her commitments. These views were held most strongly by Kennedy’s personal advisers, led by Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy. Westmoreland emphasized that America did not get into Vietnam, or stay there, because of a military conspiracy, or a military-industrial complex conspiracy, or any other conspiracy. America fought in Vietnam as a direct result of a world view from which no one in power dissented and as a logical culmination of the policy of containment.
Vietnam was the liberals’ war. It was based on the same premises that Truman and Acheson had used. The United States, as Sorensen put it, “could supply better training, support and direction, better communications, transportation and intelligence, better weapons, equipment and logistics” to halt Communist aggression. With American skills and Vietnamese soldiers (“South Vietnam will supply the necessary men,” Kennedy said), freedom would prevail.
In early 1961, Kennedy began sending his advisers to South Vietnam to report to him on what was needed and to teach Diem how to get the job done. The first to head a mission was the dynamic Texas politician Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He returned in May 1961, determined to save the Alamo from the encircling enemy. “The basic decision in Southeast Asia is here,” he declared. “We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a ‘Fortress America’concept.” Johnson never explained how the fall of Diem could drive the United
States from its major Asian bases in the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa, and Japan, not to mention Guam, Midway, and Hawaii.
The Kennedy team felt that America could not afford to back down anywhere. As Johnson put it in his report, if America did not stand behind Diem, “we would say to the world that we don’t live up to our treaties and don’t stand by our friends,” which were almost the same words Kennedy was using with respect to the concurrent Berlin crisis. The Kennedy administration also assumed that if America set her mind to it there was no limit to what the nation could do, which made Johnson’s conclusions inevitable: “I recommend that we move forward promptly with a major effort to help these countries defend themselves.” American combat troops would not be needed and indeed it would be a mistake to send them because it would revive anti-colonial emotions throughout Asia. Johnson thought the South Vietnamese themselves could do the fighting, aided by American training and equipment.
Shortly after Johnson’s trip Professor Eugene Staley, an economist from Stanford University, went to Saigon to advise Diem. Staley made a number of suggestions, the most important of which was that Diem institute a strategic hamlet program. The idea was that by bringing the peasants together it would be easier to protect them from the VC and prevent the VC from recruiting, raising taxes, or hiding in the villages among them. In practice, however, the strategic hamlets amounted to concentration camps. Diem’s troops forced villagers to leave land their families had lived on for generations and thereby turned thousands of Vietnamese against the government. The war continued to go badly. Although the VC were concentrated in the least populated districts, they controlled nearly half the countryside.
In October 1961, Kennedy sent another mission to Saigon, headed by Rostow and Maxwell Taylor. Rostow was a Rhodes scholar, an M.I.T. professor, and an internationally famous economic historian. Taylor was a war hero, former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, and one of the leading critics of Eisenhower’s reliance on massive deterrence. Between them, the professor and the soldier made a team that presumably represented the best and the brightest in America.
The Rostow-Taylor mission reported that South Vietnam had enough vitality to justify a major United States effort. Taylor said the major difficulty was that the South Vietnamese doubted that the Americans really would help them and he therefore recommended an increased American intervention. He wanted the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) to go on the offensive, with American troops supplying the airlift and reconnaissance. Taylor also urged Kennedy to send a combat unit of ten thousand men to South Vietnam. Rostow thought that Diem, if pressed by the United States to reform, would be satisfactory. Both Rostow and Taylor agreed that the key to victory was stopping infiltration from the north. If it continued, they could see no end to the war. Rostow argued forcibly for a policy of retaliation against the north by bombing, graduated to match Hanoi’s support for the VC. Kennedy accepted the main conclusions (although he refused to bomb North Vietnam) and increased the shipment of troops and equipment to Diem. When Eisenhower left office, there had been a few hundred American advisers in South Vietnam; at the time of the Rostow-Taylor mission, there were 1,364; by the end of the following year, 1962, there were nearly 10,000; and by November 1963, there were 15,000. Equipment, especially helicopters, came in at a faster rate.
The American commitment to Diem was so strong, as David Halberstam reported in the New York Times, that Saigon “became more convinced than ever that it had its ally in a corner, that it could do anything it wanted, that continued support would be guaranteed because of the Communist threat and that after the commitment was made, the United States could not suddenly admit it had made a vast mistake.” The entire emphasis of the Rostow-Taylor report had been on a military response, and Kennedy concentrated on sending military hardware to Saigon. The American ambassador did try to put pressure on Diem to institute political and economic reforms, but Diem ignored him.
Still, the war seemed to be going well. McNamara visited Vietnam in June 1962 and reported, “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” In March of 1963, Rusk declared that the struggle against the VC had “turned an important corner” and was nearly over. A month later he said there was “a steady movement in South Vietnam toward a constitutional system resting upon popular consent.” The American generals on the spot made similar statements. The Buddhist uprisings against Diem in May of 1963, brought on by religious persecution, dampened the official optimism, but even the Buddhist display of dissatisfaction with Diem only caused embarrassment, not a re-evaluation of policy. Kennedy continued to increase the size of the American military contingent and in one of his last press conferences declared, “Our goal is a stable government there, carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence. We believe strongly in that.... In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.”
But not necessarily with Diem. The CIA was soon involved in plots in Saigon to overthrow Diem and bring an efficient, honest government to power. Diem was a Catholic aristocrat, who had little support in his own army and no real ties with the non-Catholic majority of his people. His repressions were too blatant, his strategic hamlet and land-reform programs had too obviously failed. He had to go. In November 1963, ARVN, acting with the knowledge and approval of the CIA, although not at its prompting, overthrew and then killed Diem and his brother. A military regime that could hope to fight the war somewhat more efficiently, but that otherwise had neither program nor policy, took over. Three weeks after Diem’s death, Kennedy himself was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson became President.
In Vietnam, as elsewhere, Johnson continued Kennedy’s policies. In a 1964 New Year’s Day message to South Vietnam, Johnson declared that “neutralization of South Vietnam would only be another name for a Communist take-over. The United States will continue to furnish you and your people with the fullest measure of support in this bitter fight. We shall maintain in Vietnam American personnel and material as needed to assist you in achieving victory.” In July 1964 Moscow, Hanoi, and Paris joined together to issue a call for an international conference in Geneva to deal with an outbreak of fighting in Laos and with the war in Vietnam. China, the NLF, and Cambodia supported the call for a conference, as did the UN Secretary General, U Thant of Burma. Johnson replied, “We do not believe in conferences called to ratify terror,” and the next day announced that the American military advisers in South Vietnam would be increased by 30 percent, from 16,000 to 21,000.
The American government continued to believe that it could win the war by applying a limited amount of force, primarily through ARVN. Throughout the summer of 1964 American officials continued to issue optimistic statements. Faith in the Kennedy-McNamara program of flexible response, counterinsurgency techniques, and the new theories of limited war remained high. Years later, when almost everyone was unhappy with the war, the American military and their supporters would charge that the failure in South Vietnam resulted from an inadequate application of force. America could have won the war, some generals and admirals claimed, had it put in more men sooner.
But at the time, at each step of escalation, the White House, the American military, the intelligence community, and the State Department, all believed that enough was being done. Ten thousand more troops, or a hundred thousand more, or five hundred more helicopters, or three more bombing targets would do the trick. The restraints on American action in Vietnam were self-imposed, and such factors as the public’s unwillingness to pay a high cost for the war or fear of Chinese intervention played a role in limiting the use of force. But by far the most important reason for the gradualism was the deep belief within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that enough was being done. There was a consistent underestimation of the enemy.
Barry Goldwater, Republican candidate for the presidency in 1964, was one of the few politicians who disagreed. He thought that more had to be done, and soon. Goldwater said he was prepared to go to the Joint Chiefs and tell them to win, using whatever measures were necessary, including nuclear weapons. He also wanted to carry the war to North Vietnam, starting with bombing raids.
Johnson gleefully took up the challenge. In the 1964 campaign he ran on a platform promising major social reforms at home and peace abroad. He presented himself as the reasonable, prudent man who could be trusted to win in Vietnam while keeping the war limited. Johnson scornfully rejected Goldwater’s bellicose suggestions. Bombing North Vietnam, the President said, would widen the war and lead to committing American troops to battle. He was especially insistent about the last point: “We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
In the by now familiar pattern of American presidential campaigns in the Cold War, Goldwater was accusing Johnson of not being tough enough with the Communists. Johnson had to show that he could be firm as well as patient, hard as well as reasonable. He therefore seized the opportunity that came on August 2 and 3, 1964, when he received reports that American destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. At the time few doubted that the attacks had actually taken place, although the New York Times and others suggested that the U.S. Navy had provoked the attacks by escorting South Vietnamese commando raids into North Vietnam. Later, in 1968, Senator Fulbright’s Senate hearings convinced millions that the entire Tonkin Gulf affair was a fraud. In any case, Johnson, without an investigation, charged North Vietnam with commiting “open aggression on the high seas.”
The result was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Like Eisenhower in the Middle East, Johnson wanted and got a blank check that would allow him to expand the war as he saw fit without consulting Congress. The President asked Congress for authority to use “all necessary measures” to “repel any armed attack” against American forces. In addition, Congress gave the President the power to “prevent further aggression” and take “all necessary steps” to protect any nation covered by SEATO that might request aid “in defense of its freedom.” The resolution sailed through the House on August 7, 1964, by a vote of 416 to 0. In the Senate, Fulbright steered the resolution through. He insisted that the Congress had to trust the President and turned back an amendment to the resolution that would have explicitly denied to the President authority to widen the war. The election was only three months away and Fulbright did not want to embarrass Johnson. The Senate then voted 88 to 2 in favor of the resolution (Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening were the dissenters).
Hanoi, meanwhile, had sent out peace feelers. Perhaps encouraged by Johnson’s charges that Goldwater was reckless, perhaps frightened by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Ho Chi Minh secretly offered to negotiate. Neither Johnson nor his advisers nor the ARVN generals in Saigon were remotely prepared to accept a compromise solution to the war, however, for it would have meant a coalition government in South Vietnam with close ties to Hanoi. Elections almost surely would have eliminated the ARVN generals altogether. The new Saigon government would then reunite with the north and order the American troops out of Vietnam. These prospects were much too painful to contemplate and Johnson certainly did not want to make it possible for Goldwater to charge him with appeasement, or the loss of Vietnam. Johnson refused to negotiate, the war went on, and the American voters overwhelmingly voted for Johnson over Goldwater.
The key to victory remained hidden. The American military advisers before 1960 had trained ARVN to fight a conventional war, under the theory that if Hanoi decided to move against Saigon it would launch a North Korean-type assault. This was subsequently cited as a major factor in ARVN’s difficulties, but it only hid the deeper malaise. The officer corps had no real connection with the troops. Half were Catholics, many from North Vietnam. Corruption was rampant. The desertion rate was the highest in the world. The truth was that in the face of a conventional assault, ARVN probably would have scattered even more than it did when faced with guerrilla warfare. There was simply no will to fight, for there was nothing to fight for.
ARVN’s failure made Johnson’s problem acute. He had to either negotiate or introduce American combat troops to retrieve the situation. If he continued Kennedy’s policy of all-out material support plus Green Beret advisers, the Saigon government would collapse and the VC would take control of all South Vietnam.
The main debate in Washington after the Gulf of Tonkin and the election, then, was whether to escalate American involvement in the war or to negotiate. Either option was open. Hanoi had indicated in various ways its willingness to talk, but few American officials were interested. Johnson, Rusk, and the Kennedy aides who had stayed with Johnson consistently refused to negotiate. In the words of David Kraslow and Stuart Loory, “In 1964 the dominant view in official Washington was that the United States could not entertain the idea of talks or negotiations until after it applied more military pressure on the enemy.” As a former White House aide later described the mood of that period, “The very word ‘negotiations’ was anathema in the administration.” Rostow, Taylor, and others argued that the military imbalance would have to be redressed before negotiations could be considered, which really meant that they wanted and expected victory. As Rostow explained the policy, “It is on this spot that we have to break the liberation war—Chinese type. If we don’t break it here we shall have to face it again in Thailand, Venezuela, elsewhere. Vietnam is a clear testing ground for our policy in the world.”
Johnson’s great problem, after he rejected negotiation, was how to win the war without sending in American ground troops. The Air Force had the answer. Undaunted by the failure of interdiction bombing in North Korea, strategic—air-power advocates told the President they could stop Hanoi’s aggression in a month. When a civilian aide asked the generals what would happen if Hanoi did not quit in a month, they answered that then another two weeks would do the trick. More specifically, Secretary of Defense McNamara, who also advocated taking the air war to North Vietnam, believed it would improve the morale of the South Vietnamese forces, reduce the flow and increase the, cost of infiltration of men and equipment from North to South Vietnam, and hurt morale in North Vietnam. The net result would be to “affect their will in such a way as to move Hanoi to a satisfactory settlement.” The third point was sometimes described as “ouch warfare.” Sooner or later Ho Chi Minh would decide that his potential gain was not worth the cost, say “ouch,” and quit. Another advantage to bombing was its peculiarly American flavor—the United States would win the war by expending money and material, of which it had an abundance, and avoid manpower losses.
In late 1964, Johnson decided to initiate a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The Air Force and Navy made the necessary preparations. But to bomb a country with whom the United States was not at war, that had committed no aggressive actions against the United States, and against whom no one in Washington intended to declare war was a serious step. Johnson decided to make one last move to be certain the air campaign was really necessary to save the situation in the south. In late January, he sent a delegation headed by McGeorge Bundy, his special assistant for national security affairs and a Kennedy confidant, to Saigon to investigate.
On February 7, 1965, VC troops broke through the defense perimeter around the American air base at Pleiku in South Vietnam and mortared the flight line and some American military barracks. Eight American soldiers were killed, six helicopters and a transport plane were destroyed. Bundy went to the scene to inspect the damage. As a White House official later recalled, “a man from the ivory tower was suddenly confronted with the grim horror of reality. Mac got mad and immediately urged a retaliatory strike.” The ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, and the American military commander, General William Westmoreland, joined Bundy in recommending instant retaliation. Within twelve hours a retaliatory raid began. The first major escalation had started.
On his way back to Washington, Bundy prepared a memorandum urging a steady program of bombing the north. He argued that within three months of the start of the bombing Hanoi would give up and seek peace. Bombing, he asserted, was the way to avoid the unpleasant decision to send combat troops. In Washington, planning went forward for a program of regular bombing of the north.
On March 2, 1965, American bombers hit an ammunition dump ten miles inside North Vietnam and a harbor fifty-five miles north of the demilitarized zone. The raids were the first to be launched without any alleged specific provocation by the North Vietnamese. Others quickly followed. Johnson himself picked the targets at luncheon meetings every Tuesday with McNamara, Rusk, and Rostow. Representatives of the Joint Chiefs and the CIA were sometimes present. They set limits based on a checklist of four items: (1) the military advantage of striking the proposed target; (2) the risk to American aircraft; (3) the danger of widening the war by forcing other countries into the fighting; (4) the danger of heavy civilian casualties. The third point was the most important, for it was imperative to keep Russia out of the conflict, and Soviet ships were usually docked at Haiphong harbor, which was therefore not bombed.
Simultaneously with the bombing offensive in the north, American airmen drastically stepped up their activity in South Vietnam. Indeed, according to Bernard Fall, “what changed the character of the Viet-Nam war was not the decision to bomb North Viet-Nam;not the decision to use American ground troops in South Viet-Nam; but the decision to wage unlimited aerial warfare inside the country at the price of literally pounding the place to bits.” The sheer magnitude of the American effort boggled the mind. First the headlines proclaimed that America had dropped more bombs on tiny Vietnam than in the entire Pacific Theater in World War II. By 1967 it was more bombs than in the European Theater. Then more than in the whole of World War II. Finally, by 1970, more bombs had been dropped on Vietnam than on all targets in the whole of human history. Napalm poured into the villages while weed killers defoliated the countryside. Never had any nation relied so completely on industrial production and material superiority to wage a war.
Yet it did not work. Hanoi did not quit or lose its morale, the infiltration of men and supplies continued (indeed increased), the VC still fought, and the political situation in Saigon got worse. Johnson had rejected negotiation and given the Air Force its opportunity. The Air Force had failed. New decisions had to be made.
Despite the bombing offensive, the option to negotiate remained and Johnson came under heavy pressure from the NATO allies and the neutral nations to talk to Hanoi. Johnson gave his answer in a speech on April 7, 1965, at Johns Hopkins University. He promised to launch a massive economic rehabilitation program in Southeast Asia once the conflict ended, a sort of Marshall Plan for the area, and he claimed that he would go anywhere to discuss peace with anyone. But far more important than the olive branch the President waved was the sword he flourished. The central lesson of the twentieth century, he proclaimed, was that “the appetite of aggression is never satisfied.” There would be no appeasement in South Vietnam as long as he was President. “We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” The next day American bombers launched a particularly severe series of air raids on North Vietnam, and fifteen thousand additional American troops started for South Vietnam.
The Air Force continued to strike North Vietnam, without success, and two months later, on June 8, 1965, Johnson announced that he was authorizing U.S. troops, formerly confined to patrolling, to search out the enemy and engage in combat. Three days later Saigon’s last civilian government fell and Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, who had fought for the French against the Viet Minh, became Premier. Ky soon announced that “support for neutralism” would henceforth be punishable by death. Despite the hard line in Washington and Saigon, however, the war continued to go badly. The VC had destroyed the railway system in South Vietnam. Acts of terrorism increased in the cities and more territory fell into Communist hands. Hanoi, meanwhile, working from its position of increasing strength, again attempted to open discussions by explicitly stating that approval in principle of American withdrawal, rather than withdrawal itself; was all that was needed to get the negotiations started.
In a major policy speech on July 28, Johnson repeated the untenable but customary claim that “there has been no answer from the other side” to America’s search for peace. He, therefore, was compelled to send an additional 50,000 men to South Vietnam, bringing the total commitment to 125,000 men. It was clear that the American forces would actively engage in ground combat. America had decided to win in Vietnam by overwhelming the enemy. Johnson had already, on July 10, declared that there would be no limit on the number of troops sent to General Westmoreland.
From MacArthur onward, every responsible American military officer who had commented on the subject had warned against American involvement in a land war in Asia, yet the nation was now fully involved in one. Johnson had declared during the 1964 presidential campaign that he did not want American boys dying in South Vietnam, doing what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves, yet now the American boys were dying there. The State Department had repeatedly stated that the United States should never allow the Communists to claim that America was fighting a white man’s war against Asians, yet that was exactly what had happened. Kennedy and his aides had repeatedly pointed out that counterinsurgency was primarily a political task and that no guerrilla war could be won without an appropriate political response, yet 90 percent or more of the material America was sending to South Vietnam was military, and U.S. troops were the only force that stood between a dictatorship and total collapse.
Why had the Americans not heeded their own warnings? Because they were cocky, overconfident, sure of themselves, certain that they could win at a bearable cost, and that in the process they would turn back the Communist tide in Asia. They expected to accomplish in Vietnam, in short, what Johnson had pulled off in the Dominican Republic.
From 1916 to 1940 the U.S. Marines had controlled the Dominican Republic, where American corporations had large investments in plantations that provided fresh fruits and vegetables to American markets during the winter. President Roosevelt eliminated an overt American presence in 1940 when Rafael Trujillo won a rigged presidential election and established a ruthless, efficient dictatorship. Roosevelt characterized Trujillo as “an s.o.b., but our s.o.b.” In May 1961, Trujillo was assassinated.
With Trujillo gone, Kennedy saw three possibilities. In “descending order of preference,” they were: “A decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.” This typified Kennedy’s—and America’s—approach to the Third World. Kennedy wanted a democracy, but if the revolutionary government had socialistic elements in it or there was a threat that the country would go Communist, he would accept a dictator and see what could be done later on about restoring civil liberties. Above all he was determined to keep the Soviets out and retain American economic and political influence.
Kennedy did not have to make a choice between a Castro and a Trujillo, for on December 20, 1962, following a series of transitory provisional governments, the Dominican people elected Juan Bosch as their President. Bosch was a leftist, non-Communist visionary and writer who had spent years as an anti-Trujillo exile and who seemed to represent the liberal alternative Kennedy was searching for. But Bosch was no match for the Dominican military and their conservative partners. Ten months after his election, the military overthrew him in a coup. Donald Reid Cabral took over, but he had almost no following among the masses. By early April 1965, the Republic was ready to explode again, even though the United States had sent $5 million to Reid Cabral.
On April 24, young Boschist officers in the army launched a coup that drove Reid Cabral from office, but they were unable to restore order. Angry masses poured into the streets of Santo Domingo. A junta of the regular military, described in Washington as the Loyalists, decided to take power for themselves. The rebels armed thousands of civilians and fighting began. The American ambassador, W. Tapley Bennett, warned that a sudden Communist takeover was one likely result of the civil war.
Johnson immediately decided that the revolt was part of a larger conspiracy, probably masterminded by Castro, and that the challenge to American interests in the Dominican Republic was a challenge to American interests throughout Latin America. He decided to intervene. On April 28, Johnson sent in the Marines, to be followed by the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. His initial rationale was to protect the lives of American citizens in Santo Domingo, but on April 30 he announced a quite different reason: “People trained outside the Dominican Republic are seeking to gain control.” The American Embassy in Santo Domingo issued a documented list of fifty-eight “identified and prominent Communist and Castroite leaders” in the rebel forces, a list that was obviously, even outrageously, false—it came from one initially prepared years earlier by Trujillo himself. Bosch’s assessment was more widely accepted: “This was a democratic revolution smashed by the leading democracy in the world.”
Johnson had acted unilaterally, partly because of the need for speed, partly because of his opinion of his partners in the Alliance for Progress. “The OAS,” he remarked, “couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.” Once the Marines had restored some order and prevented Bosch from taking office, however, it was necessary to deal with the OAS. Johnson was able to persuade the Latin Americans to join him in the Dominican Republic and by May 28 an OAS peacekeeping force had reinforced and taken control from the U.S. troops. The search for a middle ground in the government went on. Eventually, in September, a government was formed and in June 1966 moderate rightist Joaquin Balaguer defeated Bosch in a presidential election.
Johnson had won. The intervention had been limited in time, number of troops involved, cost, and lives lost. American Marines and paratroopers had prevented the rise of either a Castro or a Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and the OAS had been mollified.
At the height of the crisis, Johnson had been besieged by liberal critics. The New York Times editorialized: “Little awareness has been shown by the United States that the Dominican people—not just a handful of Communists—were fighting and dying for social justice and constitutionalism.” Robert Kennedy protested that Johnson had failed to notify the OAS before acting. Johnson ignored the critics and his eventual success proved justification enough. He may have concluded that he could do the same in Vietnam and that success there would also silence the critics.
Meanwhile, Johnson had problems in the Middle East, brought on by the intensity of nationalism in the region, and its possession of the lion’s share of the world’s oil reserves. In the 1960s, the Arab states, one by one, took control of their oil, owned by the British before World War II. During and after the war, American oil companies had forced the British to share the riches with them. But the postwar Arab governments, along with Iran, began demanding more for their precious, limited, and only important natural resource. Premier Mossadegh in Iran was the first to attempt a full-scale nationalization of the oil fields (1951), and he was toppled (1953) by the CIA. In 1959 the producing states—Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq—together formed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). OPEC’s first objective was to have a worldwide slump in the price of crude oil. The United States was still an exporter of oil in 1959, and there was such a glut on the market that it took ten years to raise the price of oil back to its pre-1959 levels. In the meantime, each of the producing states had nationalized its oil fields, whether by agreement with the British and American oil companies or by the simple exercise of their sovereign power.
As other Arabs got rich, Nasser was unable to bring about any miracles in Egypt. Despite his commitment to socialism and Arab unity, neither really existed as the Egyptian people remained mired in nearly the worst poverty in the world, despite Soviet aid. His United Arab Republic was falling apart. By 1967 Nasser needed a dramatic victory to restore his sagging fortunes. He had an opportunity because ever since the 1956 war the Russians had been supplying Egypt, Syria, and Iraq with advanced weapons, while following a strongly anti-Israel policy. The Arabs greatly outnumbered the Israelis and were now better armed. By 1967 the Russians were encouraging the Arabs to attack Israel, although they made it clear there would be no open Soviet backing for the Arabs, who could not expect help if their military adventure failed. Still, with thousands of Russian technicians and their families in Egypt, working on the Aswan High Dam or with the Egyptian military, Nasser may have assumed the Russians had to support him.
In May 1967, goaded by the Russians and by Arab extremists, Nasser demanded the removal of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), which had stood between the Egyptians and Israelis since 1957. Secretary General U Thant, noting that he could hardly keep UN troops in place in opposition to the host government, promptly pulled the UNEF out of the Sinai. This seems to have surprised both Nasser and the Russians. The Soviets now changed their position, urging caution on Nasser, as they feared the outbreak of a war that they could not control and that might lead to a United States—U.S.S.R. confrontation. But Nasser could not back down at this juncture; Egyptian troops took possession of Sharm al-Shaikh, overlooking the Strait of Tiran, and closed Israel’s access to the Gulf of Aqaba and thus to the port of Elath.
The United States was preoccupied with Vietnam at this time, becoming more dependent on Arab oil, and above all anxious to avoid another war, particularly one in the Middle East, with possible repercussions too frightening to think about. But it could not simply abandon Israel to Nasser and the Russians. President Johnson tried to organize international attempts to run the Egyptian blockade, but the Western European nations, fearing Arab oil embargoes, would not cooperate. Israel believed the American efforts were half-hearted at best and decided to take matters into her own hands, before she was slowly strangled.
At this juncture General de Gaulle gave Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban, some perceptive advice. “Don’t make war,” de Gaulle declared. “You will be considered the aggressor by the world and by me. You will cause the Soviet Union to penetrate more deeply into the Middle East, and Israel will suffer the consequences. You will create a Palestinian nationalism, and you will never get rid of it.” De Gaulle’s last prophecy proved to be especially accurate. The Russians and Americans were meanwhile urging Egypt and Israel, respectively, not to strike the first blow.
But on the morning of June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force struck. By flying over the Mediterranean rather than over the Sinai, the planes avoided Egyptian radar and consequently achieved complete tactical surprise. They demolished most of Egypt’s planes and left its airfields inoperative, then turned and repeated the operation against the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi air forces. It was a dazzling demonstration of the superiority of the Israeli fliers and gave them control of the air. Nasser sank ships to block the Suez Canal. Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin got on the Hot Line that morning to inform President Johnson that the Soviet Union would not intervene unless the United States did. Israeli tanks and infantry columns were already marching into the Sinai, seizing the Golan Heights, and capturing from Jordan the West Bank and Jerusalem. Johnson told Kosygin that America was ready to demand a cease-fire, which the UN Security Council did the next day, June 6. Meanwhile, Johnson had put the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean on full alert and had sent two aircraft carriers toward Egypt.
Inadvertently, Johnson had given Nasser a perfect excuse for the miserable showing of the Egyptian armed forces. Although the Soviets had the American Sixth Fleet under tight surveillance, and thus knew perfectly well that no American combat aircraft had been launched on either June 5 or 6, Nasser falsely charged that American planes from the Sixth Fleet and British planes from Cyprus had participated in the initial waves of attack. He was widely believed in the Arab world. By the morning of June 7, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen had broken relations with the United States and Britain. But Nasser was unable to bring the moderate Arab states along with him—relations were preserved between the United States and Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Kuwait, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. The Arab petroleum ministers did proclaim an embargo of oil shipments to Israel’s backers, especially Britain and the United States, but it had little effect.
Israel, meanwhile, had won a stunning victory. When she accepted a cease-fire on June 10 (giving the conflict its name, the Six Day War), Israel had conquered all of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, driven twelve miles into Syria, seizing the Golan Heights, and taken all of Jerusalem plus the West Bank of the Jordan River.
For both Russia and the United States the results of the Six Day War were melancholy. Russian arms had been blasted by French arms (the French Mirage was the backbone of the Israeli Air Force), and the huge buildup of Russian tanks in the Arab world had come to naught—indeed, those tanks not destroyed were now part of Israel’s captured booty. The Arabs, generally, were furious with the Russians for not helping them more directly during their time of troubles. The Americans had tried to deter war and had failed. Now Suez was blocked, the Arabs had placed an embargo on oil, the Soviet Union was more entrenched than ever in the Middle East (because, much as they hated it, the Arabs were more dependent than ever on Russia for rebuilding their armed forces), and half the Arab states had broken diplomatic relations with the United States.
Worst of all, Israel now occupied territory that was indisputably Arab14 (Sinai has been an integral part of Egypt for more than five thousand years), and the Palestinian refugee problem had grown from an irritant to a cancer. There were tens of thousands of new refugees, who spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria, and other thousands of Palestinians now living under armed Israeli occupation. The immediate consequence was the expansion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a dramatic increase in the scope and number of terrorist acts carried out by the desperate Palestinians. Israel had won, but in the process it had added enormously to its problems and put off into the indefinite future the day when it could live at peace with its Arab neighbors. Nevertheless, the Israelis believed that territory was security, and they refused to pull back to the June 4, 1967, borders.
France, meanwhile, acceding to demands by the oil-holding Arabs, announced that it was imposing an embargo on all arms sales to the Middle East. DeGaulle even blocked delivery to Israel of fifty Mirages on order and already paid for. The Russians rushed new aircraft to Syria and Egypt. Under the circumstances, Johnson was under intense pressure, because for the first time an American President had to choose between supplying Israel with weapons on a large scale15 or taking the domestic political consequences of seeing Israel lose her military superiority. Johnson decided he had to support Israel, and the United States became her chief supplier of sophisticated weaponry with the 1968 sale of fifty Phantom F-4S (supersonic jet fighter-bombers).
The Arabs, badly defeated, began a slow retreat. In July 1967 they rejected a draft resolution prepared by the United States and the Soviet Union for the UN General Assembly that called upon Israel to withdraw from all territories occupied after June 4 and urged all parties to acknowledge the right of each to maintain, in peace and security, an independent national state. The Arabs refused to recognize Israel’s status as a sovereign state, but they did tacitly abandon the call for the extinction of the Zionists and committed themselves to diplomatic efforts to solve the problem. In August they lifted the embargo on oil shipments to America and Britain. In October Egyptian missiles sank an Israeli destroyer and Israeli artillery fire destroyed Egypt’s two principal oil refineries. Both sides by then had had enough and requested action by the UN Security Council to bring about a meaningful cease-fire.
The result was the famous Security Council Resolution 242, drafted by Lord Caradon of Great Britain and adopted on November 22, 1967. An evenhanded document, 242 attempted to reconcile the vital interests of the opposing sides. For Israel it promised peace with her neighbors, secure and recognized boundaries, and free navigation of regional waterways. For the Arabs it promised Jewish evacuation of the conquered territories and a national homeland for the Palestinians. Both the Arabs and the Israelis accepted 242, but Israel with the understanding that firm, guaranteed peace treaties must be signed before there would be any withdrawal, while the Arabs insisted that 242 meant full Israeli withdrawal must precede any other diplomatic move.
Thus the two main results of the Six Day War, which most Israelis and Americans interpreted as a great victory for Israel, were Israeli occupation of Arab national territory and the creation of a fully developed, and fanatic, Palestinian nationalism. The Arabs could not rest until they had their territory back, and the Palestinians would not rest until they had their own national state.
A third result of the war—military overconfidence—allowed the Israelis to feel that they could safely ignore these threats. They began to think of themselves as invincible. So did other observers, including the CIA. These impressions were strengthened in 1970 when President Richard Nixon began selling arms to Israel on a wholly unprecedented scale. A fourth result was to drive the most moderate of the Arab states solidly into the anti-Israel column, because of the occupied territory, the Palestinian problem, and because Israel now had possession of the old city of Jerusalem, as holy to the Muslims as to the Jews and Christians. Most Arabs agreed that the Israelis could have peace, or they could have territory, but they could not have both.
For Americans it was Vietnam that provided the setting for Lyndon Johnson’s agony, indeed for the agony of an entire nation. From 1965 on, Vietnam brought up the old questions about America’s position in the world, questions that had lain dormant since Senator Taft had first raised them in response to the Truman Doctrine. America had been called upon to pay up on an insurance policy written in 1947 for Europe and extended from 1950 to 1954 to Asia. The price proved to be far higher than anyone had expected. Eventually the almost universal commitment within the United States to the policy of containment began to give way. Senators, intellectuals, businessmen, and millions of citizens launched a massive attack on some of the fundamental premises of American foreign policy during the Cold War, especially the definition of America’s vital interests and the domino theory. The tendency had been to define the nation’s vital interests as any area in which the United States had political, economic, or military influence, which meant that America’s vital interests were always moving outward. There had been little serious opposition to this trend until Vietnam. But by 1968, for the first time since the late forties, the State Department had to defend the definition of vital interests.
In Vietnam the American people had been forced to face up to the true cost of containment. In 1965 most Americans agreed that it was necessary to hem in China and Russia militarily, that America had vital interests in Western Europe, Japan, Latin America, and certain sections of the Middle East, that the United States would have to do whatever was required to prevent any of these areas from going Communist, and that to protect these areas it was necessary to defend the regions around them. This was the original escalation—the escalation of what America considered its vital interests. It was also assumed that America’s needs included worldwide stability and order, which too often meant the preservation of the status quo. These had been the broad general aims of all the Cold War presidents, and although there had been differences in degree, Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy had been prepared to take the risks and pay the cost involved in maintaining them. It was Johnson’s bad luck that he got stuck with Vietnam.
At bottom, Vietnam differed from the Dominican Republic intervention only in the cost. The Vietnamese intervention was not, in Johnson’s view, the misapplication of an otherwise sound policy but rather one possible outcome that had always been implicit in the policy of containment. On every possible occasion, the President emphasized that he was only following in the foot-steps of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and he never saw any good reason to question the basic assumptions.
Others did. As the American commitment mounted, from $10 billion to $20 billion to $30 billion a year, from 150,000 to 300,000 to 500,000 and more men, as the casualties mounted, as the bombs rained down on the people of both North and South Vietnam, Johnson’s critics began to wonder not just about Vietnam but about containment itself. Riots in America’s cities, air and water pollution, the persistence of racism, the revolt of young people against the draft all added to the force of the questioning. The college students of the fifties had not questioned the policy of containment for many reasons, but the most important was probably that, after the Korean War, containment did not entail the death of thousands of young American men, the squandering of billions of dollars. In the late sixties, as the war in Vietnam went on and on and on, students and others began not only to ask about the war in Vietnam, but more significantly, to ask what kind of a society could support such a war. This led to an examination of all aspects of American life. As a result some students came to believe that they lived in an evil, repressive society that exploited not only foreigners but Americans as well.
The campus revolt, however, was not as immediately significant as the broader questions raised by older men who had a stake in the society and a commitment to preserving it. Many came to believe that containment, and the specific expression of that policy in Vietnam, was not saving America but destroying it. They returned to an older vision of America, best expressed by Lincoln at Gettysburg, which saw America’s mission as one of setting an example for the world. “America can exert its greatest influence in the outer world by demonstrating at home that the largest and most complex modern society can solve the problems of modernity,” Walter Lippmann wrote. “Then, what all the world is struggling with will be shown to be soluble. Example, and not intervention and firepower, has been the historic instrument of American influence on mankind, and never has it been more necessary and more urgent to realize this truth once more.” Senator Fulbright added, “The world has no need, in this age of nationalism and nuclear weapons, for a new imperial power, but there is a great need of moral leadership—by which I mean the leadership of decent example.” But for Johnson it was in America’s self-interest—and it was her duty—to use military force to stop the spread of Communism, whether in the Dominican Republic or in Vietnam.
Johnson’s foreign-policy advisers, almost to a man Kennedy appointees, agreed. Secretary Rusk took the lead. In private as well as in public, Rusk argued that China was actively promoting and supporting the war in Vietnam, which in his view did not differ in any significant way from Hitler’s aggression in Europe. “In, his always articulate, sometimes eloquent, formulations,” as Townsend Hoopes, Under Secretary of the Air Force, put it, “Asia seemed to be Europe, China was either Stalinist Russia or Hitler Germany, and SEATO was either NATO or the Grand Alliance of World War II.” Johnson echoed Rusk’s theme. “The backstage Johnson,” Philip Geyelin reported, “was quite capable of telling one of the Senate’s more serious students of foreign affairs that ‘if we don’t stop the Reds in South Vietnam, tomorrow they will be in Hawaii, and next week they will be in San Francisco.’”
There was an obvious difficulty with the approach, a difficulty inherent in the policy of containment. If the threat were really as pervasive as Johnson and Rusk said it was, if the stakes were actually as cosmic as they claimed, it made little sense to fight the tip of the spear and leave the spear chucker alone. The only possible justification for the death of fifty thousand American soldiers and twenty times or more that many Vietnamese was to win, which meant defeating the spear maker in Peking. But no one dared risk taking the war to China, or even to Hanoi (except in the air). The Vietnam War differed from the Korean War in many ways, but one of the most important was that the administration never attempted to liberate North Vietnam. Yet unless Hanoi itself were occupied by American troops, the North Vietnamese and the VC could carry on the war for a very long time. Bombing could not harm their source of strategic materials, since the, source was in China and even more in Russia, and the U.S. Air Force could not seriously disrupt a line of communications that depended in large part on trails and men on bicycles. Nor could the United States impose an unacceptable toll on the enemy’s manpower or material resources on the battlefield, for whenever the VC wished to cut their losses they could withdraw into the jungle or across the Cambodian or Laotian borders and avoid further combat.
The war could not be won without expanding it. The influx of American combat troops meant that it would not be lost. Hanoi would not negotiate until the bombing ended, nor until America promised to withdraw her troops, nor on the basis of elections held under the auspices of the Saigon government. America would not negotiate until Hanoi “stopped her aggression” by withdrawing her troops and material support for the VC, nor would America withdraw until she was assured that the Saigon government would remain in power. Since who ruled in Saigon was what the war was all about, and since neither side would surrender, America was committed to a long war in the East.
The Kennedy liberals, meanwhile, turned against Johnson, although as much because they were offended by his style as because they disagreed with the policy. The Senate doves began holding frequent meetings to complain about the President. At the meetings, as in their public statements, they tended to personalize the issues. At one of the private sessions, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota was reported to have said, “We’ve got a wild man in the White House, and we are going to have to treat him as such,” and Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee (father of current Vice President Al Gore) called Johnson “a desperate man who was likely to get us into war with China, and we have got to prevent it.”
Much of the criticism missed the point. Johnson was flamboyant, he did overreact to events, and he was at least as guilty of personalizing everything as the doves were, but his policies were simply a logical outgrowth of those pursued by his predecessors, as he himself pointed out on every possible occasion.
By 1967, however, style seemed to be the issue. The doves called Johnson a monster. He called them “chickenshit.” “I’m the only President you have,” he was fond of declaring, with the implication that any criticism was unpatriotic. “Why don’t you get on the team?” he would demand of the few critics who got into the White House to see him. In November of 1966, Johnson told assembled officers at the Officers’ Club in Camranh Bay, “Come home with the coonskin on the wall.” Dean Rusk kept on talking about Munich and appeasement, a theme Johnson picked up, thereby linking the doves with Chamberlain and the administration with Churchill. Fulbright’s private rejoinder was, “We go ahead treating this little piss-ant country as though we were up against Russia and China put together.”
The opposition mounted, but Johnson was probably right in asserting that its strength was overstated. America had never fought a war without some internal dissension and it would be impossible to prove that the doves’ dissatisfaction with Vietnam was deeper or more vocal than the Whig dissatisfaction with the Mexican War or the Copperheads’ opposition to Lincoln, or even than the opposition FDR had faced before Pearl Harbor. There was not, in any case, a straightforward dove position. All Johnson’s critics on the left agreed on the need to halt the bombing of the north, but beyond that they could not rally behind a program. Some wanted to get out of Vietnam altogether, admitting defeat, but continuing the general policy of containment. Their criticism was tactical—America had overextended herself. Other doves wanted to struggle on in South Vietnam—they remained wedded to an all-out containment and objected only to the bombing of the north. A growing number wanted not only to get out of Vietnam but to go further and reexamine the entire containment policy. The deep divisions within the opposition allowed Johnson to hold to his course.
As the public criticism mounted, Johnson fought back with predictions that victory was just around the corner. Rostow was in the vanguard of the effort. He fed the press carefully selected figures from the American computers in Vietnam that proved the administration was on the high road to victory. The “weapons loss ratio” was 4.7 to 1 in favor of the Americans, as opposed to the unfavorable 1 to 2 ratio in 1963. Enemy desertions were up from 20,000 in 1966 to 35,000 in 1967. ARVN desertions were down from 160,000 to 75,000. The VC were incapable of mounting any large-scale attacks. The number of people under Saigon’s control had jumped from 8 million to 12 million, or nearly 75 percent of the south’s population.
The overwhelming application of American power, the Johnson administration insisted, was having a cumulative effect that would, in time, bring Hanoi and the VC to their knees. The enemy’s losses in the south were little short of catastrophic, yet Hanoi was not sending more troops from North Vietnam to the south to make up the losses because the bombing campaign in the north tied down enormous numbers of workers and troops. Captured documents indicated that VC morale was low. There was light at the end of the tunnel. America was winning the war of attrition.
When Rostow’s brave analysis failed to silence the critics, Johnson tried a harder sell. He brought General Westmoreland back to the States to explain how and when the victory would be won. At the National Press Club, Westy declared, “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” On national television, the general predicted victory within two years; Johnson, meanwhile, to give the one last shove needed to force Ho Chi Minh to surrender, again expanded the bombing. In mid-November 1967, the heaviest attacks yet against the Hanoi-Haiphong complex began.
Through it all ran a single thread—military victory was possible and necessary. Although the administration presented the war as limited in scope and purpose, in fact the only satisfactory outcome for America was the maintenance in power of the Saigon regime, which meant the total frustration of Hanoi and the VC. America was committed, as Townsend Hoopes put it, “to the preservation and anchoring of a narrowly based government in the South, which could not survive without a large-scale U.S. military presence, whose constitution ruled out all political participation by the main adversary, and which was diligently throwing in jail even those non-Communists who advocated opening a dialogue with the National Liberation Front.”
It could not have been otherwise. Containment meant containment. Any compromise solution would have led to an NLF participation in the politics of South Vietnam, which would have carried with it the very great risk of an eventual Communist victory, which would have meant that the Communists had not been contained, which would have meant that all the sacrifices had been made in vain. Hoopes sums it up nicely: “In short, President Johnson and his close advisers had so defined our national purposes and so conducted the war that a compromise political settlement would be tantamount to a resounding defeat for U.S. policy and prestige. Accordingly, it could not be faced. Military victory was the only way out.” Throughout 1967, and into 1968, the administration insisted that victory was possible.
Then came Tet. The Communist offensive in late January 1968, launched with brutal swiftness and surprise on the religious holiday of Tet, showed in a direct if painful fashion that everything Rostow and Westmoreland had said and everything the computers had reported was wrong. The VC drove the Americans and ARVN out of parts of the countryside and into the cities, thereby making a shambles out of the pacification program, and even took some of the cities. In Saigon a VC suicide squad actually took temporary possession of the American Embassy grounds. The Americans, it turned out, did not control the situation. They were not winning. The enemy retained enormous strength and vitality.
The American response to Tet illustrated much about the American view of the war and of the American attitude toward the people of Vietnam. As one example, the VC took control of the ancient cultural capital of Hue. David Douglas Duncan, a famous combat photographer with long experience in war, was appalled by the American method of freeing the city. “The Americans pounded the Citadel and surrounding city almost to dust with air strikes, napalm runs, artillery and naval gunfire, and the direct cannon fire from tanks and recoilless rifles—a total effort to root out and kill every enemy soldier. The mind reels at the carnage, cost, and ruthlessness of it all.” An artillery officer explained, “We had to destroy the city to save it.”
The administration claimed that Tet represented a last-gasp effort by the enemy, but the interpretation found few adherents. Senator Eugene McCarthy, meanwhile, challenged the President in the presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire and almost defeated him. The junior Senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, then announced that he was entering the campaign. McNamara had left the Cabinet after failing to persuade Johnson to stop the bombing, but to Johnson’s great surprise the new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, widely considered to be a hawk, also wanted to stop the bombing. Faced by the crisis in confidence in his administration, informed by the polls that he faced almost certain defeat in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, deserted by all but a small handful of the most extreme hawks within his own administration, shocked by a request from Westmoreland for 200,000 additional troops for Vietnam (which would have required calling up the reserves and expanding the draft), Johnson finally decided to change his military policy. On Sunday evening, March 31, 1968, Johnson announced on national television that he was stopping the bombing in North Vietnam, except for the area immediately north of the demilitarized zone. To everyone’s astonishment, he then withdrew from the presidential race.
It was a humiliating end. Certainly Johnson had been the most powerful man in the world, and quite possibly he had the strongest will, yet a relative handful of VC had resisted and overcome his power and broken his will. The man who had done more for black Americans than any President since Lincoln found himself accused of fighting a racist war with racist methods. A truly tragic figure, Johnson had overreached himself. He had wanted to bring democracy and prosperity to Southeast Asia but he had brought only death and destruction. By early 1968 he had learned the painful lessons that the power to destroy is not the power to control, and that he had reached and passed the limits to his own power.