From the moment he took over the presidency, according to one who knew him well, Lyndon Johnson made up his mind that he was not going to “lose” South Vietnam. Given his forward-march proposals as Vice-President in 1961, this attitude could have been expected, and while stemming from cold war credos it had even more to do with the demands of his own self-image—as became overt at once. Within 48 hours of Kennedy’s death, Ambassador Lodge, who had come home to report on post-Diem developments, met with Johnson to brief him on the discouraging situation. Political prospects under Diem’s successor, he reported, held no promise of improvement but more likely of further strife; militarily, the army was shaky and in danger of being overwhelmed. Unless the United States took a much more active role in the fighting the South might be lost. Hard decisions, Lodge told the President squarely, had to be faced. Johnson’s reaction was instant and personal: “I am not going to be the first President of the United States to lose a war,” alternatively reported as “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went.”
In the nervous tension of his sudden accession, Johnson felt he had to be “strong,” to show himself in command, especially to overshadow the aura of the Kennedys, both the dead and the living. He did not feel a comparable impulse to be wise; to examine options before he spoke. He lacked Kennedy’s ambivalence, born of a certain historical sense and at least some capacity for reflective thinking. Forceful and domineering, a man infatuated with himself, Johnson was affected in his conduct of Vietnam policy by three elements in his character: an ego that was insatiable and never secure; a bottomless capacity to use and impose the powers of office without inhibition; a profound aversion, once fixed upon a course of action, to any contra-indications.
Speculations about a neutralist solution were floating in South Vietnam after Diem’s assassination, and it is possible that Saigon might have come to terms with the insurgents at this point but for the American presence. A broadcast by the clandestine Viet-Cong radio was heard suggesting negotiations for a cease-fire. A second broadcast suggesting accommodation with the new President in Saigon, General Duong Van Minh, leader of the coup against Diem, if he were to detach himself from the United States was picked up and reported in Washington by the Foreign Broadcasting Intelligence Service. These were not hard offers and probably intended merely to probe Saigon’s political chaos. Saigon was listening if Washington was not. The six-foot President, General “Big” Minh, a former Buddhist peasant, who though well-meaning and popular had no control over a nest of rivals, was rumored to be considering contact with the Viet-Cong. After three months in office he in turn became the victim of a coup. The same rumor clung to successors who followed each other through coups and ousters during the next months. American opposition to any such feelers was actively exerted by the Embassy and its agents.
During this time U Thant, the Burmese Secretary General of the UN, was testing receptivity to a neutralist coalition government. Though coalition between fundamental enemies is an illusion, it can be used for temporary settlement. It did not interest Washington. Nor did Senator Mansfield’s rather desperate proposal in January to open the way for American withdrawal by dividing South Vietnam itself between Saigon and the Viet-Cong. Although Johnson was demanding “solutions” from his advisers, these compromises with Communism were not what he had in mind.
The hard decisions were already forming. On return from a fact-finding mission in December, McNamara reported that unless current trends were reversed within “the next two or three months,” they would “lead to neutralization at best and more likely to a Communist-controlled state.” The stakes in preserving a non-Communist South were so high, he told the President, “that in my judgment we must go on bending every effort to win.”
Enormity of the stakes was the new self-hypnosis. To let North Vietnam win would give incalculable encouragement to Communism everywhere, erode confidence everywhere in the United States and arouse the right at home to political slaughter. The New York Times affirmed it in an editorial of fearful portent: the roll of Southeast Asian nations, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, would be endangered if South Vietnam fell; the “entire Allied position in the Western Pacific would be in severe jeopardy”; India would be “outflanked,” Red China’s drive for hegemony “enormously enhanced”; doubts of United States ability to defend other nations against Communist pressure would spread around the world; the impact on revolutionary movements would be profound; neutralism would spread and with it a sense that Communism might be the wave of the future. As of 1983, Vietnam has, unhappily, been under Communist control for eight years and except for Laos and Cambodia, none of these terrors has been realized.
By 1964, ten years had passed since America undertook to save South Vietnam after Geneva. Circumstances had changed. The Soviet Union had been faced down in the Berlin and Cuban missile crises; Soviet influence over the European Communist parties was much less; NATO was firmly established. Why then were stakes still considered so high in remote unimportant Vietnam? Communism had made European advances without engendering the hysteria that seemed to infect us out of Asia. If Communist advance anywhere was so to be feared, why did we fling a harebrained strike at Cuba and make our stand in Vietnam? Perhaps, perversely, because it was Asia, where Americans took it for granted they could impose their will and the might of their resources on what a United States Senator, Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, referred to in his wisdom as “a few thousand primitive guerrillas.” To be frustrated in Asia seemed unacceptable. The stake had become America’s exercise of power and its manifestation called “credibility.” Despite old counsel that a land war in Asia was unwinnable, despite disillusioning experience in China and Korea, despite French experience on the very spot where Americans now stood, this perception of what was at stake was overriding.
Reminiscent of British visions of ruin if they lost the American colonies, prophecies of exaggerated catastrophe if we lost Vietnam served to increase the stakes. Johnson voiced this over-reaction in his initial scenario of pulling back to San Francisco; Rusk voiced it in 1965 in his advice to the President that withdrawal “would lead to our ruin and almost certainly to catastrophic war,” and again in 1967 when he drew a picture at a press conference of “a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons.” The New York Times’military correspondent, Hanson Baldwin, voiced it in 1966, writing that withdrawal from Vietnam would result in “political, psychological and military catastrophe” and would mean that the United States “had decided to abdicate as a great power” and be “reconciled to withdrawal from Asia and the Western Pacific.” Fear too conjured visions: “I am scared to death,” said Senator Joseph Clark in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that “we are on our way to nuclear World War Three.”
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North Vietnam was now sending units of its regular army across the line to exploit the disintegration of the South. To prevent collapse of America’s client, President Johnson and his circle of advisers and the Joint Chiefs came to the conclusion that the moment had come when they must enter upon coercive war. It would be war from the air though it was understood that this would inevitably draw in ground forces. Civilian and military agencies began drawing operational plans, but though Saigon’s situation was growing daily more precarious, action could not be initiated yet because Johnson faced the presidential election of 1964. Since his opponent was the bellicose Senator Barry Goldwater, he had to appear as the peace candidate. He took up the chant about “their” war: “We are going … to try to get them to save their own freedom with their own men.” “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.” “We don’t want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys.” When, six months later, American boys were sent into combat with no dramatic change of circumstances, these phrases were easily recalled, beginning the erosion of Johnson’s own credibility. Long accustomed to normal political lying, he forgot that his office made a difference, and that when lies came to light, as under the greater spotlight on the White House they were bound to, it was the presidency and public faith that suffered.
Public response to the campaign of Goldwater the hawk denouncing a “no win” policy versus Johnson the peacemaker flowed steadily one way. After World War II and Korea, and in the shadow of the atomic bomb, Americans, however anti-Communist, wanted no war. Women especially were to vote disproportionately for Johnson, testifying to the reservoir of antiwar sentiment. The Administration might have taken heed but did not, because it never stopped believing its troubles would come from the right.
While giving one signal to voters, Johnson had to give another of fiercer intent to Hanoi in the hope of holding back a challenge, at least until after the election. Naval units in the Gulf of Tonkin, including the destroyer Maddox, soon so notorious, went beyond intelligence gathering to “destructive” action against the coast, which was supposed to convey a message to Hanoi to “desist from aggressive policies.” The real message, which by now virtually everyone believed necessary, was to be American bombing.
Johnson, Rusk, McNamara and General Taylor flew to Honolulu in June for a meeting with Ambassador Lodge and CINCPAC to consider a program of American air action and the probable next step of ground combat. The rationale for the bombing was two-thirds political: to bolster the sinking morale in South Vietnam, strongly urged by Lodge, and to break the will to fight of the North Vietnamese and cause them to cease supporting the Viet-Cong insurgency and ultimately to negotiate. The military aim was to stop infiltration and supply. Recommendations and caveats were tossed and turned and argued, for the planners were not eager for belligerency in a civil conflict in Asia, even while pretending it was “external aggression.” The underlying need, given the rapid failing of the South, was to redress the military balance so that the United States should not negotiate from weakness. Until that could be achieved, any move toward negotiations “would have been an admission that the game was up.”
As it was bound to, the uncomfortable question of nuclear weapons came up without arousing anyone’s advocacy. The only case in which their use was even theoretically contemplated was against the vast peril, as it was seen, of the Communist Chinese if they should be provoked into entering the war. Secretary Rusk, whose adrenaline always rose on that subject, believed that in view of China’s enormous population, “we could not allow ourselves to be bled white fighting them with conventional weapons.” This meant that if escalation brought about a major Chinese attack, “it would also involve use of nuclear arms.” He was nevertheless aware that Asian leaders opposed it, seeing in it an element of racial discrimination, “something we would do to Asians but not to Westerners.” Possible circumstances of tactical use were briefly discussed. General Earle Wheeler, new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was unenthusiastic; Secretary McNamara said he “could not imagine a case where they would be considered,” and the matter was dropped.
Operational plans for the bombing were drawn, but the order for action postponed, for while the election still lay ahead, Johnson’s peace image had to be protected. The graver question of ground combat was left in abeyance until a dependable government could be installed in the political shambles of Saigon. Further, as General Taylor pointed out, the American public would have to be educated to appreciate the United States interest in Southeast Asia. Secretary McNamara, with his usual precision, thought this “would require at least thirty days,” as if it were a matter of selling the public a new model automobile.
Johnson was intensely nervous about expanding American belligerency for fear of precipitating intervention by the Chinese. Nevertheless, if escalation was inevitable, he wanted a Congressional mandate. At Honolulu the text of a draft resolution was read and discussed, and on his return home the supreme manipulator prepared to obtain it.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 7 August 1964 has been so exhaustively examined that it can afford to rest under more cursory treatment here. Its importance was that it gave the President the mandate he was seeking and left Congress suddenly staring helplessly and to some extent resentfully at its empty hands. Not a Fort Sumter or a Pearl Harbor, Tonkin Gulf was no less significant; in a cause of uncertain national interest, it was a blank check for Executive war.
The cause was the claim of the destroyer Maddox and other naval units that they had been fired upon at night by North Vietnamese torpedo patrol boats outside the three-mile limit recognized by the United States. Hanoi claimed sovereignty up to a twelve-mile limit. A second clash followed the next day under obscure conditions never fully clarified and subsequently, during re-investigation in 1967, thought to have been imagined or invented.
White House telecommunications to Saigon crackled with crisis. Johnson promptly asked for a Congressional Resolution authorizing “all necessary measures to repel armed attack,” and Senator J. William Fulbright, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, undertook to guide it through the Senate. While aware that he was not altogether upholding the constitutional authority of Congress, Fulbright believed in Johnson’s earnest assurances of having no wish to widen the war and thought the Resolution would help the President withstand Goldwater’s calls for an air offensive and also help the Democratic Party by showing it to be tough against Communists.
The personal ambition that so often shapes statecraft has also been cited in the suggestion that Fulbright had hopes of replacing Rusk as Secretary of State after the election, which depended on retaining Johnson’s goodwill. Whether true or not, Fulbright was correct in supposing that one purpose of the Resolution was to win over the right by a show of force.
Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin tried to limit the Resolution by an amendment against “any extension of the present conflict,” but this was quashed by Fulbright, who said that since the President had no such intentions, the amendment was not needed. Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, working the famous eyebrows, hinted at the lurking uneasiness among some Senators about the whole involvement when he asked, “Is there any reasonable or honorable way we can extricate ourselves without losing our face and probably our pants?” The most outspoken opponent was, as always, Senator Wayne Morse, who denounced the Resolution as a “pre-dated declaration of war,” and, having been tipped off by a telephone call from a Pentagon officer, questioned McNamara closely about suspicious naval actions in the Gulf. McNamara firmly denied any “connection with or knowledge of” any hostile actions. Morse was often right but fulminated so regularly against so many iniquities that he was discounted.
The Senate, a third of whom were also up for re-election, did not wish to embarrass the President two months before the national vote or show themselves any less protective of American lives. After a one-day hearing, the Resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” was adopted by the Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 1 and subsequently approved by both Houses. It justified the grant of war powers on the rather spongy ground that the United States regards as “vital to its international interests and to world peace, the maintenance of international peace and security.” Neither the prose nor the sense carried much conviction. By its ready acquiescence, the Senate, once so jealous of its constitutional prerogative to declare war, had signed it over to the Executive. Meanwhile, with evidence accumulating of confusion by radar and sonar technicians in the second clash, Johnson said privately, “Well, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.” So much for casus belli.
Alternatives for the United States were offered at this time by U Thant’s proposal to reconvene the Geneva Conference and by a second summons from de Gaulle for a negotiated peace. De Gaulle proposed settlement by a conference of the United States, France, Soviet Russia and China to be followed by evacuation of the entire Indochina peninsula by all foreign forces and by a big powers guarantee of the neutrality of Laos, Cambodia and the two Vietnams. It was a feasible—and probably at that time achievable—alternative, except that it would not have ensured a non-Communist South Vietnam, and for that reason it was ignored by the United States.
An American emissary, Under-Secretary of State George Ball, had been sent a few weeks previously to explain to de Gaulle that any talk of negotiations could demoralize the South in its current fragile condition, even lead to its collapse, and that the United States “did not believe in negotiating until our position on the battlefield was so strong that our adversaries might make the requisite concessions.” De Gaulle rejected this position outright. The same illusions, he told Ball, had drawn France into such trouble; Vietnam was a “hopeless place to fight”; a “rotten country,” where the United States could not win for all its great resources. Not force but negotiation was the only way.
Although he might have gloated to see the United States discomfited as France had been, de Gaulle let a larger consideration govern him. The reason why he and other Europeans in many subsequent efforts tried so earnestly to disengage the United States from Vietnam was fear of American attention and resources being diverted from Europe to an Asian backwater.
U Thant had meanwhile ascertained through Russian channels that Hanoi was interested in talks with the Americans, and he so informed the United States Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson. U Thant proposed a cease-fire across both Vietnam and Laos and offered to let the United States write the terms as it saw fit and to announce them unchanged. On conveying this message, Stevenson met only stalling in Washington, and after the election a negative response on the ground that the United States had learned through other channels that Hanoi was not really interested. Further, Rusk said, the United States would not send a representative to Rangoon, where U Thant had arranged for the talks to take place, because any hint of such a move would cause panic in Saigon—or, what the United States really feared and did not say, renewed feelers toward neutralism.
Not concealing his displeasure at this rejection, U Thant pointedly told a press conference in February that further bloodshed in Southeast Asia was unnecessary and that only negotiation could “enable the United States to withdraw gracefully from that part of the world.” By that time the American bombing campaign called ROLLING THUNDER had begun and under the crashing and killing of American air raids the opportunity for graceful exit would never come again.
Johnson had already let pass a greater opportunity for disengagement—his own election. He defeated Goldwater by the largest popular majority in American history and gained unassailable majorities in Congress of 68–32 in the Senate and 294–130 in the House. The vote was largely owed to the split among Republicans between the Rockefeller moderates and the Goldwater extremists and to the widespread fear of Goldwater’s warlike intentions, and the result put Johnson in a position to do anything he wanted. His heart was in the welfare programs and civil rights legislation that were to create the Great Society, free of poverty and oppression. He wanted to go down in history as the great benefactor, greater than FDR, equal to Lincoln. Failure to seize his chance at this moment to extricate his Administration from an unpromising foreign entanglement was the irreparable folly, though not his alone. His chief advisers in government believed with him that they would take greater punishment from the right by withdrawing than from the left by pursuing the fight. Confident in his own power, Johnson believed he could achieve both his aims, domestic and foreign, at once.
Reports from Saigon told of progressive crumbling, riots, corruption, anti-American sentiment, neutralist movement by the Buddhists. “I feel,” declared one American official in Saigon, “as though I were on the deck of the Titanic.” These signals did not suggest to Washington a useless effort and a time to cut losses, but rather a need for greater effort to redress the balance and gain the advantage. Officials, civilian and military, agreed on the necessity of intervention in the form of air war to convince the North to give up its attempted conquest. That the United States could accomplish its aim by superior might no one doubted.
Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would “shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy.” The loss of China, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was “chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam.” Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that “I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine.” Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to “expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us … and so would begin World War III.” He was as sure of this “as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything.” No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.
A feasible alternative, on the strength of the electoral mandate, might have been to pursue U Thant’s overtures to Hanoi and even use his influence to install a government in Saigon (as Kennedy had suggested) that would invite the United States to depart, leaving Vietnam to work out its own settlement. Since this would inevitably lead to a Communist take-over, it was a course the United States refused to contemplate, although it would have cast off a devouring incubus.
A good look would have revealed that the raison d’être for American intervention had slipped considerably. When the CIA was asked by the President for its estimate of the crucial question whether, if Laos and South Vietnam fell to Communist control, all Southeast Asia would necessarily follow, the answer was in the negative; that except for Cambodia, “It is likely that no other nation in the area would quickly succumb to Communism as a result of the fall of Laos and Vietnam.” The spread of Communism in Southeast Asia “would not be inexorable” and America’s island bases in the Pacific “would still enable us to employ enough military power in the area to deter Hanoi and Peking.” We would not, after all, have to pull back to San Francisco.
Another advice came from the inter-agency Working Group on Vietnam, composed of representatives from State, Defense, Joint Chiefs and CIA, who bravely undertook after the election in November to “consider realistically what our overall objectives and stakes are.” This unprecedented endeavor led the group, after long and careful review, to deliver a serious warning: that the United States could not guarantee a non-Communist South Vietnam “short of committing ourselves to whatever degree of military action would be required to defeat North Vietnam and possibly Communist China.” Such action could lead to a major conflict and “possibly even the use of nuclear weapons at some point.”
At the same time, Under-Secretary of State George Ball, who as a believer in the primacy of Europe and a specialist in economic problems took a sour view of the whole Vietnam affair, exerted a major effort to deter the decision for combat. In a long memorandum he made the point that bombing, rather than persuading the North to abandon its aims, was likely to provoke Hanoi to send in more ground forces, its largest resource, which would in turn require larger United States forces to meet them. Already, Ball said, our allies believed the United States was “engaged in a fruitless struggle in Vietnam, and if expanded to a land war would divert America from concern with Europe. What we had most to fear was a general loss of confidence in American judgment.” His recommendation was to warn Saigon of possible disengagement on the basis of its failing war effort. This would probably precipitate a deal with the insurgents, which he privately thought was the best result attainable.
In discussion, Ball found the three chief officers of the Administration, McGeorge Bundy, McNamara and Rusk, “dead set” against his views and interested only in one problem: “how to escalate the war until the North Vietnamese were ready to quit.” When his memorandum was submitted to the President, the result was the same. Johnson looked it over, asked Ball to go through it with him point by point and handed it back without comment.
Why did these advisory voices of the CIA, the Working Group, the Under-Secretary of State, have so little impact? Advice on the basis of collected information was the business of the first two, of the Working Group specifically on Vietnam. If Johnson read its report—and one would like to think that government agencies write reports for more than wallpaper—he refused the message. Ball could be tolerated as an “in-house devil’s advocate,” and was in fact useful in that role as showing the White House open to dissenters. But minds at the top were locked in the vise of 1954—that Ho was an agent of world Communism, that the lesson of appeasement precluded yielding at any point, that the United States’ undertaking to frustrate North Vietnam’s drive to control the country was right and must be carried out. How could it not succeed against what Johnson called “that raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country”? Despite the Working Group’s warning, the President, his Secretaries and the Joint Chiefs were sure that American power could force North Vietnam to quit while the United States carefully avoided a clash with China.
Hanoi too could be ill-advised. Two days before the American election, as if to provoke belligerency, the Viet-Cong took the first offensive action against a specifically American facility—a mortar attack on the Bien Hoa airfield. This was an American training base where a squadron of old B-57s had recently been moved in from the Philippines for training purposes, making it a tempting target. Six of the planes were demolished, five Americans killed, and 76 other casualties sustained. Certain that the attack was instigated by Hanoi, General Taylor, then Ambassador in Saigon, telephoned Washington for authority to take immediate reprisals. All chief advisers in the capital concurred. Waiting for the election, Johnson held back, and because of his nagging worries about China and despite reports of accelerating decay in Saigon, he was to hold back for three months more.
Cautious and hesitating, he sent McGeorge Bundy and McNamara’s Assistant Secretary, John McNaughton, to find out whether air war was really necessary to save the South. While they were in South Vietnam, the Viet-Cong made another attack, this time on American barracks at Pleiku, in which eight Americans were killed and 108 injured. Inspecting the shattered field, Bundy was said to have been outraged by the deliberate challenge and to have telephoned a highly charged demand for reprisals to the President. Whether he did or not, emotion was not the deciding factor. Bundy’s memorandum, drafted on his way home in company with Taylor and General William C. Westmoreland (the commander who had replaced Harkins), was cold and hard: without “new United States action, the defeat of South Vietnam appears inevitable.… The stakes in Vietnam are extremely high.… The international prestige of the United States is at risk.… There is no way of negotiating ourselves out of Vietnam which offers any serious promise at present.” Consequently, “The policy of graduated and continuing reprisal,” as planned, was the most promising course. Negotiations of any sort should not now be accepted except on the basis of an end to Viet-Cong violence.
Here were the essentials that were to hold United States policy in their grip: that the stakes were high, that protecting United States prestige from failure was primary, that graduated escalation of bombing was to be the strategy, that negotiations were not wanted until the scale of punishment softened the resolve of North Vietnam. Explaining gradualism, Maxwell Taylor wrote later, “We wanted Ho and his advisers to have time to meditate on the prospects of a demolished homeland.” A source of trouble was detected here by John McNaughton, a former professor of law given to hard analysis. With uncomfortable foresight, he included in a list of war aims “To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.”
In response to Pleiku, an immediate reprisal had been carried out within hours of the attack, with the Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House summoned to the White House to witness the decision. After three more weeks of anxious discussion, on 2 March, the program for a three-month bombing campaign called ROLLING THUNDER was begun.
Johnson’s anxiety lest the bombing overstep some unknown line of Russian or Chinese tolerance required ROLLING THUNDER to be supervised directly from the White House. Each week CINCPAC sent the program for the next seven days, with munitions dumps, warehouses, fuel depots, repair shops and other targets described and located and the number of sorties estimated, to the Joint Chiefs, who passed them to McNamara and he to the White House. Here they were carefully examined at the highest level of government by a group consisting initially of the President, the Secretaries of Defense and State and the chief of NSC, who assembled for the task at lunch every Tuesday. Their selections, made 9000 miles from the spot by men immersed in a hundred other problems, were conveyed back to the field by the same route. Afterward, the results of each sortie, reported by each pilot to his base commander, were collated and communicated back to Washington. McNamara was always the best informed because, it was said, in driving over from the Pentagon he had eight more minutes than the others to study his target list.
The presiding presence at the Tuesday lunches was the wallpaper of the second-floor dining room depicting scenes of Revolutionary triumphs at Saratoga and Yorktown. Ever hungering for history’s favor, Johnson invited a professor of history, Henry Graff of Columbia University, to attend several sessions of the Tuesday lunches and interview the members. The resulting account did not erect the monument he hoped for. In his own version, possibly embroidered for effect, the President lay awake at night worrying about the trigger that might activate “secret treaties” between North Vietnam and its allies, sometimes to the point of putting on his bathrobe at 3:00 a.m. and going down to the Situation Room, where air raid results were marked on a wall map.
A greater danger than China lay on the American home front. While national sentiment, insofar as it paid attention, on the whole supported the war, the bombing campaign brought explosions of dissent on the campuses. The first “teach-in” of faculty and students, at the University of Michigan in March, attracted an unexpected mass of 3000 participants and the example soon spread to universities on both coasts. A meeting held in Washington was connected to 122 campuses by telephone. The movement was less a sudden embrace of Asia than an extension of the civil rights struggle and the Free Speech and other student radical enthusiasms of the early sixties. The same groups now found a new cause and provided the organizing energy. At Berkeley 26 faculty members joined in a letter stating that “The United States government is committing a major crime in Vietnam” and expressing their shame and anger that “this blood bath is made in our name.” Though mauled by the feuds of rival factions, the protest movement lent a fierce energy, much of it mindless, to the opposition.
The need of a “convincing public information campaign” to accompany military action had been foreseen by the policy-makers, but its efforts accomplished little. Speaking teams of government officers sent to debate in the universities only supplied more occasions for protest and victims for the students to heckle. A White Paper entitled “Aggression from the North” issued by the State Department, designed to show the infiltration of men and arms by North Vietnam as “aggressive war,” was feeble. In all their public justifications, the President, the Secretary of State and other spokesmen harped on “aggression,” “militant aggression,” “armed aggression,” always in comparison with the failure to stop the aggressions that brought on World War II, always implying that Vietnam too was a case of foreign aggression. They made the point so insistently that they sometimes said it explicitly, as when McNamara in 1966 called it “the most flagrant case of outside aggression.” The ideological division in Vietnam may have been real and insuperable, just as was the division between South and North in the American Civil War, but it is not recorded in the American case that the North’s war against the South’s secession was considered “outside aggression.”
By April it was apparent that ROLLING THUNDER was having no visible effect on the enemy’s will to fight. Bombing of the supply trails in Laos had not prevented infiltration; Viet-Cong raids showed no signs of faltering. The decision to introduce American infantry seemed ineluctable and the Joint Chiefs so recommended. Fully recognized as portentous, the question was exhaustively discussed, with the confident assurances of some matched by the doubts and ambivalence of others, both military and civilian. The decisions taken in April and May were piecemeal, based on a strategy of continued bombing supplemented by ground combat with the aim of breaking the will of the North and the Viet-Cong “by effectively denying them victory and bringing about negotiations through the enemy’s impotence.” This impotence it was thought possible to achieve by attrition, that is, by killing off the Viet-Cong rather than trying to defeat them. United States troops were to be raised initially to a combat strength of 82,000.
Wanting it both ways, battle axe and olive branch, Johnson delivered a major speech at Johns Hopkins University on 7 April offering prospects of vast rural rehabilitation and a flood control program for the Mekong Valley, supported by $1 billion of United States funds, in which North Vietnam, after accepting peace, would share. The United States would “never be second in the search … for a peaceful settlement,” Johnson declared, and was ready now for “unconditional discussions.” It sounded open and generous, but what “unconditional” meant in American thinking was negotiations when the North was sufficiently battered to be prepared to concede. Matched by an equal and opposite insistence on certain preconditions by the other side, these were the fixed premises that were to nullify all overtures for the next three years.
The billion-dollar carrot attracted no bites. Rejecting Johnson’s overture, Hanoi announced its four preconditions the next day: 1) withdrawal of United States military forces; 2) no foreign alliances or admission of foreign troops by either side; 3) adoption of the NLF (National Liberation Front or Viet-Cong) program by South Vietnam; 4) reunification of the country by the Vietnamese without outside interference. Since point 3 was exactly what the South and the United States were fighting against, it was the obvious nullifier. International interest in sealing off the conflict found itself blocked. A conference of seventeen non-aligned nations convened by Marshal Tito appealed for negotiations without effect; contacts with Hanoi pursued by J. Blair Seaborn, Canadian member of the International Control Commission, went unrequited; the prime ministers of four British Commonwealth countries on a mission to urge negotiation in the capitals of the parties to the struggle were refused admission by Moscow, Peking and Hanoi. An envoy of the United Kingdom on the same mission, admitted to Hanoi a few months later, found the response still negative.
In May 1965, the United States, making its own effort, initiated a pause in the bombing which it was hoped might evoke from Hanoi a sign of willingness to talk. At the same time a note from Rusk was delivered to the North Vietnamese Embassy in Moscow suggesting reciprocity in reducing “armed action.” The note was returned without reply and American bombing resumed a few days later.
On 9 June the fateful decision to authorize “combat support” of South Vietnam by American ground forces was publicly announced by the White House, embedded in verbiage intended to show it as merely an increase in effort, not a basic change. The first “search and destroy” mission took place on 28 June. In July the President announced an increase in draft quotas along with the addition of 50,000 troops to bring strength in Vietnam to 125,000. Further additions brought the total to 200,000 by the end of 1965. The purpose of these escalations, as General Taylor later explained to the Senate, was to inflict “continued increasing loss on the Viet-Cong guerrillas so that they cannot replace their losses” and by this attrition convince the North that it could not win a military victory in the South. “Theoretically, they would virtually run out of trained troops by the end of 1966,” and at that point, rather than negotiate, they might simply give up the attempt and fade away. It was in pursuit of this process that the necrophiliac body count became such an unpleasant feature of the war. That the North, with a regular army of over 400,000, could in fact activate any number of men to replace Viet-Cong losses for some reason escaped the sophisticated statistical analyses of the Pentagon.
Belligerency was now a fact. United States soldiers were killing and being killed, United States pilots were diving through anti-aircraft fire and, when crashing, were being captured to become prisoners of war. War is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat. This was the self-laid trap into which America had walked. Only with the greatest difficulty and rarest success, as belligerents mired in futility have often discovered, can combat be terminated in favor of compromise. Because it is a final resort to destruction and death, war has traditionally been accompanied by the solemn statement of justification, in medieval times a statement of “just war,” in modern times a Declaration of War (except by the Japanese, who launch their wars by surprise attack). However false and specious the justification may be, and usually is, a legalism of this kind serves to state the case and automatically endows the government with enlarged powers.
Johnson decided to do without a Declaration, partly because neither cause nor aims were clear enough in terms of national defense to sustain one, partly because he feared a Declaration might provoke Russia or China to a response in kind, mainly because he feared it would divert attention and resources from the domestic programs which he hoped would make his reputation in history. Fear of touching off a right-wing stampede in favor of invasion and unrestricted bombing of the North if the deteriorating plight of the South were made known was a further reason for concealing and obfuscating the extent of involvement. Johnson thought he could pursue the war without the nation noticing. He did not ask Congress for a Declaration because he was advised or worried that he might not get it, nor did he ask for a renewed vote on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution for fear of being embarrassed by reduced majorities.
It would have been wiser to face the test and require Congress to assume its constitutional responsibility for going to war. The President should likewise have asked for an increase in taxes to balance war costs and inflationary pressures. He avoided this in his hope of not arousing protest. As a result his war in Vietnam was never legitimized. By forgoing a Declaration he opened a wider door to dissent and made the error, fatal to his presidency, of not assuring the ground of public support.
By-passing a Declaration was one result of the limited-war concept developed during the Kennedy Administration. In a remarkable statement of that time* McNamara had said, “The greatest contribution Vietnam is making … is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without arousing the public ire.” He believed this to be “almost a necessity in our history, because this is the kind of war we’ll likely be facing for the next fifty years.”
Limited war is basically a war decided on by the Executive, and “without arousing the public ire”—meaning the public notice—means parting company with the people, which is to say discarding the principle of representative government. Limited war is not nicer or kinder or more just than all-out war, as its proponents would have it. It kills with the same finality. In addition, when limited on one side but total for the enemy, it is more than likely to be unsuccessful, as rulers more accustomed to the irrational have perceived. Urged by Syria and Jordan to launch a limited war against Israel in 1959, President Nasser of Egypt replied that he was willing to do so if his allies could obtain Ben-Gurion’s assurance that he too would limit it. “For a war to be limited depends on the other side.”
Johnson’s resort to war as soon as the election was over received the appropriate comment in a cartoon by Paul Conrad showing him looking into a mirror and seeing Goldwater’s face looking back at him. Dissent from this point on, though as yet confined mainly to students, extremists and pacifists, grew loud and incessant. A National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam was formed, which organized protest rallies and assembled a crowd of 40,000 to mount a picket line around the White House. Draft-card-burning spread, following the example of a young man, David Miller, who courted arrest by ceremoniously burning his card in the presence of Federal agents and who suffered two years in prison for the act. In horrible emulation of the Buddhist monks, a Quaker of Baltimore burned himself alive on the Pentagon steps on 2 November 1965, followed by a second such suicide in front of the UN a week later. The acts seemed too crazed to influence the American public, except perhaps negatively, as equating anti-war protest in the public mind with emotional misfits.
If dissent was passionate, it was far from general. Hard-hat sentiment, which so distinguishes organized labor in America from its counterpart abroad, was expressed by the AFL-CIO Council. In an unveiled warning to members of Congress in the mid-term election of 1966 the Council resolved, “Those who would deny our military forces unstinting support are in effect aiding the Communist enemy of our country.” Labor’s rank and file shared the sentiment. When an unorthodox mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, the Ford suburb, put a referendum on the municipal ballot in the 1966 election calling for a cease-fire followed by American withdrawal “so the Vietnamese people can settle their own problems,” he was answered by an overwhelming vote in the negative.
Influential voices, however, were taking up the dissent. Even Walter Lippmann sacrificed his carefully cultivated cordiality with Presidents to the demands of truth. Denying the argument of “external aggression,” he stated the obvious: that there were never two Vietnams but only “two zones of one nation.” He poured scorn on the policy of globalism that committed the United States to “unending wars of liberation” as a universal policeman. The conversion of Lippmann and of the New York Times, which now opposed deeper involvement, added respectability to the opposition, while inside the government doubts that the war could be militarily resolved were coming into the open. The President’s close and trusted press secretary, Bill Moyers, tried steadily to outflank the hawks at the government’s top by reporting the disillusions of lesser officers, agents and observers. The Moyers network, initially created at Johnson’s request for contrary views, proved too uncomfortable for the President, who did not like “dissonance” or having to face multiple options. He shared the problem if not the flash of insight of Pope Alexander VI in his one moment of remorse when he acknowledged that a ruler never hears the truth and “ends by not wanting to hear it.” Johnson wanted his policies to be ratified, not questioned, and as the issues hardened, he avoided listening to Moyers’ reports.
Advisers who worried about the inevitable escalation of combat were proposing alternatives. The Embassy in Saigon under Maxwell Taylor, who despite responsibility for the first combat initiative was not an advocate of expanded belligerency, proposed early in 1965 a plan for “terminating our involvement.” It advocated a return to Geneva, using as bargaining chips the progressive reduction of American forces plus “amnesty and civil rights” for the Viet-Cong and an American-sponsored program for the economic development of all Indochina. The plan was drafted by Taylor’s deputy, U. Alexis Johnson, a career foreign service officer, and a hint of it entered the Johns Hopkins speech and ended there. George Ball followed with repeated memoranda urging disengagement of our interests from those of Saigon before some major disaster cut off choices. Of communications to a President, Galbraith has written that “the overwhelming odds are that he will never read them.”
Two men deeply respected by the President, Senator Richard. Russell of Georgia and Clark Clifford, former White House counsel to Truman, tried to divert him from the course he was taking. Russell, as chairman until 1969 of both the all-powerful Approrpiations Committee and the Armed Services Committee and a colleague throughout Johnson’s senatorial years, was expected by many to become the first Southern President, if chance had not inserted Johnson ahead of him. Though publicly a hawk, in 1964 he had privately exhorted Johnson to keep out of war in Asia and now proposed, in a rare example of creative thinking, that a public opinion poll be taken in Vietnamese cities on whether American help was wanted and that if the results were negative, the United States should withdraw. The ascertaining of Vietnamese opinion on American appropriation of “their” war was an original idea that had not previously occurred to anyone and was, of course, despite its eminent source, not adopted.
A clue to the answer might have been seen in the eyes of Vietnamese villagers. A journalist who had covered the war in Europe recalled the smiles and hugs and joyous offers of wine when GIs came through liberated areas of Italy. In Vietnam, the rural people, when American units passed them on the streets or in the villages, kept their eyes down or looked the other way and offered no greetings. “They just wanted us to go home.” Here was a sign of the vanity of “nation-building.” What nation has ever been built from outside?
Clifford, an important Washington lawyer and intimate of the President, warned in a private letter that on the basis of CIA assessments, further build-up of ground forces could become an “open-end commitment … without realistic hope of ultimate victory.” Rather, he advised, the President should probe every avenue leading to possible settlement. “It won’t be what we want but we can learn to live with it.” The gist of his and the other counsels was confirmed by a foreign observer, the distinguished Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote in the New York Times in July 1965 that “The conviction that this policy will end in failure is commonly held in all countries outside the United States.”
None of the American advisers’ doubts was stated publicly, and none except Ball’s proposed outright withdrawal. Rather they advised holding on without escalating while seeking a negotiated settlement. Negotiation, however, faced a rigid impasse. Quite apart from preconditions, Hanoi would accept no settlement short of coalition or some other form of compromise leading to its absorption of the South; for the United States any such compromise would represent acknowledgment of American failure, and this the Administration, all the more now for having made itself hostage to its own military, could not accept. It was chained to the aim of ensuring a non-Communist South Vietnam in order to make its exit with credibility intact. The goal had subtly changed from blocking Communism to saving face. McNaughton, one official who did not allow himself self-deception, put it caustically when he placed first on his list of United States war aims, “70 percent to avoid a humiliating defeat to our reputation as guarantor.”
The Administration at this stage began to study the chances of “winning.” Given a military task, the military had to believe they could accomplish it if they were to believe in themselves and quite naturally demanded more and more men for the purpose. Their statements were positive and the requisitions large. Facing escalation, McNamara asked General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, what assurance the United States could have “of winning in South Vietnam if we do everything we can.” If “winning” meant suppressing all insurgency and eliminating Communists from South Vietnam, Wheeler said, it would take 750,000 to a million men and up to seven years. If “winning” meant demonstrating to the Viet-Cong that they could not win, a lesser force would be enough. What national interest warranted the investment of such forces, lesser or larger, did not enter the discussion; the Administration simply went forward because it did not know what else to do. When all options are unpromising, policymakers fall back on “working the levers” in preference to thinking.
Johnson’s idea was to fight and negotiate simultaneously. The difficulty was that the limited war aim of causing North Vietnam to leave South Vietnam alone was unachievable by limited war. The North had no intention of ever conceding a non-Communist South, and since such a concession could have been forced upon them only by military victory, and since such a victory was unattainable by the United States short of total war and invasion, which it was unwilling to undertake, the American war aim was therefore foreclosed. If this was recognized by some, it was not acted upon because no one was prepared to admit American failure. Activists could believe the bombing might succeed; doubters could vaguely hope some solution would turn up.
Unpleasantly for the President, Adlai Stevenson’s sudden death in London brought to light the circumstances of the rebuff to U Thant’s mediation. Eric Sevareid, reporting what Stevenson had told him just before his death, revealed for the first time that Hanoi had in fact agreed to the meeting proposed by U Thant, whereas Johnson had recently told a press conference that there had not been the “slightest indication” of interest on the other side. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch thereupon recalled that in the year prior to America’s entering active belligerency, Johnson or his White House spokesman had stated no less than seven times that the United States was seeking no wider war. The President’s personal credibility suffered accordingly.
On top of the Stevenson story, another failed peace overture became known. At the request of the United States, the Italian Foreign Minister, Amintore Fanfani, then a delegate to the UN, arranged for two Italian professors, one a former acquaintance of Ho Chi Minh, to go to Hanoi. While encountering “a strong desire to find a peaceful solution,” they also reported, as Fanfani wrote to Johnson, that Ho’s conditions included a cease-fire throughout North and South, in addition to the Four Points previously announced. He had, however, agreed to begin talks without requiring withdrawal of American forces. Since a cease-fire in place would have left North Vietnamese units inside the South, it was not acceptable to the United States, but Rusk conveyed the American rejection on the grounds of finding “no real willingness for unconditional negotiations” in Hanoi. The episode leaked to the press as such things do when someone wants them known.
Disconcerted at being exposed as uninterested in peace, the President ordered a bombing halt at Christmas time and launched a spectacular flying peace circus. Officials were despatched like carrier pigeons to capitals east and west, ostensibly to seek paths to negotiation—Harriman on a round-the-world tour to Warsaw, Delhi, Teheran, Cairo, Bangkok, Australia, Laos and Saigon; Arthur Goldberg, Stevenson’s successor at the UN, to Rome, Paris and London; McGeorge Bundy to Ottawa; Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to Tokyo and two Assistant Secretaries of State to Mexico City and the African states, respectively. Nothing came of this display except stimulation of heavy public pressure on Johnson to extend the bombing halt. It was extended for 37 days with the announced purpose of testing Hanoi’s willingness to talk, in vain. Looking toward its ultimate goal, Hanoi had little to expect from negotiations.
While bombing resumed and the war grew harsher, the search for settlement continued. Talks in Warsaw with Polish intermediaries in mid-1966 seemed to be making progress until, at a delicate point, American air strikes, directed for the first time at targets in and around Hanoi, caused North Vietnam to cancel the contacts. The episode showed that neither side basically wanted negotiations to succeed. In his unsparing way, McNaughton stated the dilemma for the United States: aiming for victory could end in compromise but aiming for compromise could end only in defeat, because to reveal “a lowering of sights from victory to compromise … will give the DRV [North Vietnam] the smell of blood.”
The war was turning nasty with napalm-burned bodies, defoliated and devastated croplands, tortured prisoners and rising body counts. It was also becoming expensive, now costing $2 billion a month. Progressive escalation bringing troop strength to 245,000 in April 1966 required a request to Congress for $12 billion in supplemental war costs. In the field, the entry of American combat forces had stopped the Viet-Cong in its progress toward gaining control. The insurgents were reportedly losing their sanctuaries, forced to keep moving, finding it harder to re-group, with consequent demoralization and desertions. Their casualties and those of North Vietnamese units, according to American counts, were satisfactorily rising; prisoners’ interrogation was said to show loss of morale; success of the American aim seemed within reach.
The price was a confirmation of the French view of a “rotten war.” In pursuit of attrition, Westmoreland deployed combat units as lures to provoke attack so that American artillery and air force could close in for a kill and a gratifying body count. “Search and destroy” missions using tanks, artillery strafing and defoliation from the air left ruined villages and ruined crops and destitute refugees living in festering camps along the coast in growing resentment of the Americans. Bombing strategy too was directed toward attrition by famine through the destruction of dikes, irrigation ditches and the means of agriculture. Defoliation missions could destroy 300 acres of rice within three to five days and strip an equal area of jungle within five to six weeks. Napalm amounted to official terrorism, corrupting the users, who needed only to press the firing button to watch “huts go up in a boil of orange flame.” Reports of American fighting methods written by correspondents in chronic antagonism to the military were reaching home. Americans who had never before seen war now saw the wounded and homeless and the melted flesh of burned children afflicted thus by their own countrymen. When even the Ladies Home Journal published an account with pictures of napalm victims, McNaughton’s hope of emerging “without taint” vanished.
Reciprocal violence added to the spiral. Viet-Cong terrorism by means of rockets, shelling of villages, booby traps, kidnappings and massacres was indiscriminate and deliberate, designed to instill insecurity and demonstrate the lack of protection by the Saigon authorities. While American armed intervention had prevented the insurgents’ victory, it had not brought closer their defeat. Progress was deceptive. When the balance wavered, Russia and China sent in more supplies to the North, refreshing its strength. The low morale deduced from prisoners was a misinterpretation of the stoicism and fatalism of the East. In the American forces, short-term one-year tours of duty, intended to avoid discontent, prevented adaptation to irregular jungle warfare, thereby increasing casualties since the rate was always highest in the early months of duty. Adaptation never matched circumstances. American fighting tactics were designed in terms of large troop formations making use of mobility, and in terms of industrial targets for the exercise of air power. Once in motion the American military machine could not readjust to a warfare in which these elements did not exist. The American mentality counted on superior might, but a tank cannot disperse wasps.
Needs other than military absorbed equal concern. The “pacification” program was a strenuous American effort to strengthen the social and political fabric of South Vietnam in the interests of democracy. It was supposed to build confidence in Saigon and stabilize its footing. But the successive governments of Generals Khanh, Ky and Thieu, all of whom resented the patronage they depended upon, were not helpful collaborators. Nor were the white men’s forces in their massive material presence the agents to “win hearts and minds.” That program, known as WHAM to Americans in the field, failed of its object despite all the energy Washington invested in it and in some sectors turned sentiment against Saigon and the United States. Opposition to the generals’ regime grew overt, with demands being made for civilian rule and a constitution. The Buddhist anti-government movement revived and again clashed in open struggle with Saigon’s troops. At Hue, the ancient capital, demonstrators sacked and burned the American consulate and the cultural center.
Sentiment in the United States was also turning, with a noticeable rise in anti-war feeling when bombing resumed after the Christmas halt. Members of Congress, whom Maxwell Taylor had found, when briefing them on his return as Ambassador, “surprisingly patient and uncritical,” were forming pockets of dissent. During the bombing pause, 77 members of the House, mostly Democrats, urged the President to extend the pause and submit the conflict to the UN. When the bombing resumed, fifteen Senators, all Democrats, made public a letter to the President, opposing the renewal. When Senator Morse proposed repeal of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as an amendment to an appropriations bill for Vietnam, three Senators—Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Stephen Young of Ohio—joined the un-deviating Morse and Gruening in its favor. It was defeated 92 to 5.
While not very bold, these were signals of opposition to the President from within his own party. They were the beginnings of a peace bloc that would split the Democratic Party over Vietnam, but they had no convinced and determined leadership in either House or Senate that was ready to oppose the majority.
Disaffection was deeper than the meager votes indicated. Congress continued to vote obediently for appropriations because most members could not bring themselves to reject Administration policy when the alternative meant admission of American failure. Further, they were in large part willing captives of the giant identified by Eisenhower as the military-industrial complex. Defense contracts were its currency, manipulated by more than 300 lobbyists maintained by the Pentagon on the Hill. The military provided V.I.P. tours, dinners, films, speakers, planes, sporting weekends and other perquisites, especially to senior committee chairmen in both Houses. A quarter of the membership of Congress held reserve commissions. Criticism of military procurements made a Congressman vulnerable to the charge of undermining national security. At the convening of the 89th Congress in 1965, that bold leader Vice-President Hubert Humphrey advised new members, “If you feel an urge to stand up and make a speech attacking Vietnamese policy, don’t make it.” After a second or third term, he said, they could afford to be independent, “but if you want to come back in ’67 don’t do it now.”
Fulbright’s vote on the Morse amendment signified an open break with Johnson. He felt betrayed by the move into active combat, contrary to Johnson’s assurances, and was one day to confess that he regretted his role in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution more than anything else he had ever done. He now organized, in January-February 1966, in six days of televised hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first serious public discussion at an official level of the American intervention in Vietnam. More than was appreciated at the time, basic issues emerged—alleged “commitment,” national interest, disproportion of effort to interest and the nascent recognition of American self-betrayal. Secretary Rusk and General Taylor made the case for the Administration; Ambassador George Kennan, General James M. Gavin, Fulbright himself and several colleagues spoke for the dissent.
Secretary Rusk insisted as always that the United States had “a clear and direct commitment” to secure South Vietnam against “external attack” deriving from the SEATO Treaty and Eisenhower’s letter to Diem, and that this imposed an “obligation” to intervene. With the inventive rhetoric characteristic of true believers, he asserted that “the integrity of our commitments is absolutely essential to the preservation of peace right around the globe.” When the supposed commitment was punctured by Senator Morse, who cited a recent denial by Eisenhower that he had “ever given a unilateral commitment to the government of South Vietnam,” Rusk retreated to the position that the United States was “entitled” by the SEATO Treaty to intervene and that the commitment derived from policy statements by successive Presidents and from the appropriations voted by Congress itself. General Taylor acknowledged under questioning that insofar as the use of our combat ground forces was concerned, the commitment “took place of course only in the spring of 1965.”
With regard to national interest, Taylor claimed that the United States had a “vital stake” in the war without defining what it was. He said that Communist leaders, in their drive to conquer South Vietnam, expected to undermine the position of the United States in Asia and prove the efficacy of wars of national liberation, which it was incumbent on the United States to show were “doomed to failure.” Senator Fulbright was moved to ask if the American Revolution was not a “war of national liberation.”
General Gavin questioned whether Vietnam was worth the investment in view of all other American commitments abroad. He believed we were being “mesmerized” by the endeavor, and that the contemplated troop strength of half a million, reducing our capacity everywhere else, suggested that the Administration had lost all sense of proportion. South Vietnam was simply not that important.
The charge that public opposition to the war represented “weakness” and failure of will (today being revived by the revisionists of the 1980s) was briefly touched by General Taylor in describing the French public’s repudiation of the war as demonstrating “weakness.” Senator Morse replied that it would not be “too long before the American people repudiate our war in Southeast Asia,” as the French had theirs, and when they did, would that be “weakness”?
In sober words Ambassador Kennan brought out the question of self-betrayal. Success in the war would be hollow even if achievable, he said, because of the harm being done by the spectacle of America inflicting “grievous damage on the lives of a poor and helpless people, particularly on a people of different race and color.… This spectacle produces reactions among millions of people throughout the world profoundly detrimental to the image we would like them to hold of this country.” More respect could be won by “a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions” than by their stubborn pursuit. He quoted John Quincy Adams’ dictum that wherever the standard of liberty was unfurled in the world, “there will be America’s heart … but she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Pursuing monsters meant endless wars in which “the fundamental maxim of [American] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” No harder truth was spoken at the hearings.
For all their truths, the Fulbright hearings were not a prelude to action in the only way that could count, a vote against appropriations, so much as an intellectual exercise in examination of American policy. The issue of longest consequence, Executive war, was not formulated until after the hearings, in Fulbright’s preface to a published version. Acquiescence in Executive war, he wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge “whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve their overall interests as a nation.”
Though he could bring out the major issues, Fulbright was a teacher, not a leader, unready himself to put his vote where it counted. When a month after the hearings the Senate authorized $4.8 billion in emergency funds for the war in Vietnam, the bill passed against only the two faithful negatives of Morse and Gruening. Fulbright voted with the majority.
The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought all to support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. “Foreign policy decisions,” concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, “are in general much more influenced by irrational motives” than are domestic ones.
After World War II a Strategic Bombing Survey by scientists, economists and other specialists had concluded that strategic bombing in the European theater (as distinct from tactical bombing in conjunction with ground action) had not achieved the desired or expected results. It had not significantly reduced Germany’s physical fighting capacity or induced an earlier readiness to come to terms. The survey discovered extraordinary rapidity of repairs and no diminution of morale; in fact, bombing could raise morale. In March 1966, when the three allotted months of ROLLING THUNDER had extended to more than a year without noticeable “will-breaking,” a group of prominent scientists at MIT and Harvard, including some who had served on the earlier survey, proposed a similar hard look at bombing results in Vietnam. Commissioned by the Institute of Defense Analysis under the code name JASON, a body of 47 specialists in various disciplines went through ten days of briefings by Defense, State, CIA and White House, followed by two months of technical studies. The group concluded that effects on North Vietnam’s will to fight and on Hanoi’s appraisal of the cost of continuing to fight “have not shown themselves in any tangible way.” Bombing had not created serious difficulties in transportation, the economy or morale. The surveyors found no basis for concluding that “indirect punitive effects of the bombing will prove decisive in these respects.”
The main reason, JASON stated, for the relative ineffectiveness of the air offensive was “unrewarding targets.” The study concluded that a “direct frontal attack on a society” tended to strengthen the fabric, increase popular determination- and stimulate protective devices and capacity for repair. This social effect was not unpredictable; it was the same as had been found in Germany, and indeed in Britain, where heightening of morale and hardening of determination as a result of the German terror bombing of 1940–41 was well known.
As an alternative to bombing, JASON recommended construction of an “anti-infiltration” barrier across Vietnam and Laos for a distance of about 160 miles. Fully presented in the study with detailed technical plans, it was to consist of minefields, walls, ditches and strong points strung with electronic barbed wire and flanked by defoliated strips on either side, at an estimated cost of $800 million. Whether it might have worked cannot be known. Ridiculed by Air Force commanders at CINCPAC who could not allow an alternative to their function, it was never tried.
Like every other “dissonant” advice, JASON bumped against a stone wall. Strategy remained unchanged because the Air Force, in concern for its own future role, could not admit that air power could be ineffective. CINCPAC continued to raise the punitive level of the bombing on a basis of calculated pain according to a calculated “stress theory” of human 'margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-align: justify;text-indent:12.0pt;line-height:14.4pt'>Overtures continued through Chester Ronning of Canada and other intermediaries, because by now all parties would have welcomed an end to the war, each on its own terms, which remained irreconcilable. When Washington learned from visitors to Hanoi of finding readiness to talk if the bombing was stopped, the conclusion derived by the United States was that the bombing was hurting and should therefore be augmented to achieve the desired result. The result of course was a hardening of Hanoi’s intransigence.
JASON penetrated one significant spot in the stone wall. It confirmed doubts beginning to concern Secretary McNamara. His own Systems Analysis at the Department of Defense concluded that military benefits were not worth the economic cost. Though he gave no public indication, he seemed in private remarks to show a dawning recognition of futility. Believing, as he wrote to the President, that the prognosis for a “satisfactory solution” was not good, he declared in favor of the anti-infiltration barrier as a substitute for bombing and for further increase of ground forces. He failed to carry his point.
Elsewhere in government the sense of futility had spread, causing departures. Few resigned; most were eased out by skillful maneuvers of the President, who whatever his own misgivings did not welcome those of others, outspoken or even unspoken. Hilsman was eased out of the State Department in 1964, Forrestal from the White House staff in 1965, McGeorge Bundy from the NSC early in 1966, followed by the voluntary departures of George Ball and Bill Moyers in September and December 1966. Without exception, all went quietly, silent Laocoons who did not voice, much less shout, their warnings or disagreements at the time.
Silent departure of its members is an important property of government. To speak out even after leaving is to go into the wilderness; by exhibiting disloyalty to bar return within the circle. The same reasons account for reluctance to resign. The official can always convince himself that he can exercise more restraining influence inside, and he then remains acquiescent lest his connection with power be terminated. The effect of the American Presidency with its power of appointment in the Executive branch is overbearing. Advisers find it hard to say no to the President or to dispute policy because they know that their status, their invitation to the next White House meeting, depends on staying in line. If they are Cabinet officers, they have in the American system no parliamentary seat to return to from which they may retain a voice in government.
Rusk remained the rock. If he had doubts, he was able as the classic civil servant to convince himself that American policy was right and to reiterate that regardless of all other considerations the original goal of preserving a non-Communist South Vietnam must be maintained. In tribute to his steadfastness, someone in his own department scrawled inside a telephone booth, “Dean Rusk is a recorded announcement.” Replacing Bundy, Walt Rostow, who had been predicting the imminent collapse of Viet-Cong insurgency since 1965, remained an enthusiast. At the top, Johnson was less so. Asked once how long the war might last, he answered, “Who knows how long, how much? The important thing is, are we right or wrong?” To pursue the killing and devastation of war with that question in doubt was unwise in relation to the public, to his own presidency and to history.
Through the draft, required by repeated escalations, the war was now affecting the general public directly. In mid-1966, the Pentagon announced that the troop level in Vietnam would reach 375,000 by the end of the year, with 50,000 more to follow in the next six months. By mid-1967, the level reached 463,000, with Westmoreland asking for 70,000 more for a total over 525,000 as a “minimum essential force” and Johnson announcing that the Commander’s needs and requests “will be supplied.” To the young answerable to the draft, this war made no appeal, especially not to those who saw it as mean and inglorious. Everyone who could took advantage of the draft extension allowed during the pursuit of higher education, while the less advantaged classes entered uniform. The inequitable draft, first sin of the Vietnam war on the home front, and intended to reduce cause for disaffection in the social sector, dug a cleavage in American society in addition to the cleavage in opinion.
Public protest meetings gathered members, campus demonstrations and anti-war marches swelled in stridency and violence, with waving of Hanoi’s flag and slogans shouted in favor of Ho Chi Minh. A huge rally clashed against soldiers in battle dress on the steps of the Pentagon with protesters arrested and women beaten. Because protest was associated in the public mind with drugs and long hair and the counterculture of the decade, it may have slowed rather than stimulated general dissent. By the public on the whole, anti-war demonstrations were seen, according to a poll, as “encouraging the Communists to fight all the harder.” Draft evasion and flag-burning outraged the patriots. Nevertheless, a sense of discomfort, animated by a perception of the war as cruel and immoral, was spreading. Bombing of a small rural Asian country, Communist or not, could not be seen as imperative necessity. Eyewitness reports to the New York Times by Harrison Salisbury of hits on the civilian areas of Hanoi—first denied, then admitted by the Air Force—raised an uproar. Johnson’s rating in the polls for handling of the war slid over into the negative and would never again regain a majority of support. Accounts of prisoners casually tossed from helicopters and other incidents of callous brutality showed Americans that their country too could be guilty of atrocity. Opprobrium abroad, the mistrust of our closest allies, Britain, Canada and France, made themselves felt.
War is supposed to unite a people, but a war that excites disapproval, like that in the Philippines in 1900 or Britain’s Boer War, divides a country more deeply than its normal divisions. As the New Left and other radicals became more offensive and unkempt, they deepened the rift with the respectable middle class and excited the hatred and reciprocal violence of the unions and hard hats. How long could we stand the “spiritual confusion,” asked Reischauer in 1967 in a book called Beyond Vietnam. For some, perception of their country turned negative. The National Council of Churches claimed that America “was seen as a predominantly white nation using our overwhelming strength to kill more Asians.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said he could no longer reprove acts of violence by his own people without speaking out against “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
His was a terrible recognition. To see ourselves newly and suddenly as the “bad guys” in the world’s polarity and to know the agent was “my own government” was a development with serious consequences. Distrust for and even disgust with government were the most serious, beginning with alienation from the vote. “You voted in ’64 and got Johnson—why bother?” read a banner at an anti-war rally in New York. Vice-President Humphrey was unmercifully heckled at Stanford University. “The deterioration of every government,” Montesquieu wrote in the 18th century in his Spirit of the Laws, “begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded.”
The Administration’s war reports eroded its credibility at home, for which much of the blame rested with the military. Indoctrinated in deception for purposes of misleading the enemy, the military misleads from habit. Each of the services and major commands manipulated the news in the interests of “national security,” or to make itself look good, or to win a round in the ongoing interservice contest, or to cover up mistakes or glamorize a commander. With an angry press eager to expose, the public was not left in the usual ignorance of the often shabby deceptions lying beneath the hocus-pocus of communiqués.
Dissent spread to the establishment. Walter Lippmann spent an evening in 1966 persuading Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, hitherto firmly among the hawks, that “decent people could no longer support the war.” The alarming cost, reaching into the billions, mortgaging the future to deficit spending, causing inflation and unfavorable balance of payments, worried many in the business world. Some businessmen formed opposition groups, small in relation to the business community as a whole, but encouraged when the imposing figure of Marriner Eccles, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, spoke publicly for a group called Negotiation Now, organized by Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. An occasional ex-government voice broke silence. James Thomson, one of the internal dissenters who had left the Far East staff of the State Department in 1966, stated in a letter to the New York Times that there had always been “constructive alternatives” and, in an echo of Burke, that the United States as the greatest power on earth had “the power to lose face, the power to admit error, and the power to act with magnanimity.”
General Ridgway’s dislike of the war was well known. Reaching the independence of retirement, another of his stature, General David M. Shoup, recently retired Commandant of the Marine Corps and a hero of the Pacific war, joined him. The government’s contention that Vietnam was “vital” to United States interests was, he said, “poppycock”; the whole of Southeast Asia was not “worth a single American life.… Why can’t we let people actually determine their own lives?” Senator Robert Kennedy, the President’s nemesis, or so perceived, called for a halt to the bombing as futile and in another speech infuriating to the White House proposed that the NLF should have a voice in any negotiations. A milestone was passed when a single Senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, joined the lonely pair of Morse and Gruening to vote against a new appropriation bill of $12 billion for the war. In the House, Representative George Brown of California offered a Resolution to be added to this bill stating that it be the “sense of the Congress” that none of the funds authorized should be used for “military operations in or over North Vietnam.” Though only a Resolution and not obligatory upon the Executive, it was nevertheless overwhelmingly defeated by 372 to 18.
Despite twenty years of pronouncements ever since Truman about the “vital” interest of Southeast Asia to the United States and the dire necessity of stopping Communism, the purpose of the war to the general public remained unclear. In May 1967, when a Gallup poll asked respondents if they knew why the United States was fighting in Vietnam, 48 percent answered yes and 48 percent answered no. The absent Declaration of War might have made a difference.
The purpose of the war was not gain or national defense. It would have been a simpler matter had it been either, for it is easier to finish a war by conquest of territory or by destruction of the enemy’s forces and resources than it is to establish a principle by superior force and call it victory. America’s purpose was to demonstrate her intent and her capacity to stop Communism in a framework of preserving an artificially created, inadequately motivated and not very viable state. The nature of the society we were upholding was an inherent flaw in the case, and despite all the efforts at “nation-building,” it did not essentially change.
How then to terminate the squandering of American power in this unpromising, unprofitable, potentially dangerous conflict? Confident that North Vietnam must be hurting and could be brought to bend to the American purpose, the Administration attempted repeatedly in 1966–67 to bring Hanoi to the point of talks, always on American terms. The terms were a seemingly open-minded “unconditional,” ignoring the fact that Hanoi insisted on a condition: cessation of the bombing. United States overtures carried various pledges to end the bombing, to stop the increase of United States forces “as soon as possible and not later than six months” after North Vietnam pulled back its forces from the South and ceased the use of violence. All the offers depended on reciprocal reduction of combat by Hanoi. Hanoi offered no reciprocity unless the bombing stopped first.
Foreign powers added their efforts. Pope Paul appealed to both sides for an armistice leading to negotiations. U Thant, asked by Washington to exercise his good offices, urged the United States and both Vietnams to meet on British territory for negotiations. To all the overtures from whatever quarter, through public statements by Ho Chi Minh and other officials and interviews with visiting journalists, Hanoi reiterated its insistence as prerequisite to negotiation upon an “unconditional” end to the bombing, cessation of all other acts of war by the United States, withdrawal of United States forces and acceptance of the Four Points. While modification of the other conditions was made from time to time, the demand to cease bombing was basic and never varied.
When the Premier, Pham Van Dong, referred to the Four Points as a “basis for settlement” rather than a prerequisite condition, Americans thought they detected a signal, and again in a statement that Hanoi would “examine and study proposals” for negotiation if the United States stopped the bombing. On this occasion, American and North Vietnamese representatives from their respective embassies in Moscow actually conferred, but since no bombing pause accompanied the meeting to indicate serious American intent, it had no result.
On another occasion, two Americans acquainted with Hanoi personally carried a message drafted by the State Department which proposed secret discussions on the basis of “some reciprocal restraint.” The wording was milder, and airplanes, though not grounded, were for a time held away from the Hanoi area. Failing a response, they returned, hitting Haiphong for the first time and railroad yards and other targets in the capital. U Thant suggested the obvious test to cut through all the maneuvers. He urged the United States to “take a calculated risk” in a bombing halt, which, he believed, would lead to peace talks in “a few weeks’ time.” America did not make the test.
For domestic consumption, President Johnson described his country as ready to do “more than our part in meeting North Vietnam halfway in any possible cease-fire, truce or peace conference negotiations,” but “more than our part” did not include grounding the B-52s. A letter from Johnson addressed directly to Ho Chi Minh repeated the formula of reciprocity: bombing and augmentation of United States forces would cease “as soon as I am assured that infiltration into South Vietnam by land and sea has stopped.” Ho’s reply repeated his formula as before.
Analysis of North Vietnam’s responses indicated to Washington “a deep conviction in Hanoi that our resolves will falter because of the cost of the struggle.” The analysts were correct. Hanoi’s intransigence was indeed tied to a belief that the United States, whether from cost or from rising dissent, would tire first. When Secretary Rusk indignantly added up 28 American proposals of peace, he was half right; they did not want it until they could get it on their own terms. Since the American overtures not only met none of their required conditions but never indicated the extent and nature of the ultimate political settlement, Hanoi was not’ interested.
At one moment real movement seemed to take place when the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, visited Prime Minister Harold Wilson in Britain. Acting as intermediaries in communication with the principals, they came close to arranging an agreed basis for talks. It was shattered when Johnson, at the last moment, as Kosygin was already leaving London, unaccountably altered the wording of the final communiqué, too late for consultation. “Peace was almost in our grasp,” Wilson ruefully said. That is doubtful. The impression is hard to avoid that Johnson was indulging in all these maneuvers in order to placate criticism at home and abroad, but that he and the advisers he listened to still aimed at negotiations imposed by superior strength.
A cloud was rising on the domestic horizon. Progressive escalation, growing like the appetite that increases by what it feeds on, with no stated limits, was not accepted without question for a war only vaguely understood. Westmoreland’s method of calling for increments of 70,000 to 80,000 at a time postponed the issue of calling up the Reserves but, as McNaughton warned his chief, only postponed it “with all its horrible baggage” to a worse time, the election year of 1968. McNaughton drew attention to mounting public dissent, fed by American casualties (there were to be 9000 killed and 60,000 wounded in 1967), by popular fear that the war might widen and by “distress at the amount of suffering being visited” on the people of both Vietnams. “A feeling is widely and strongly held that ‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind … that we are carrying the thing to absurd lengths.… Most Americans do not know how we got where we are.… All want the war ended and expect their President to end it. Successfully, or else.”
If the “or else” meant “or out he goes,” that alternative was not unimaginable. It was slowly becoming clear to Johnson that there was no way the Vietnam entanglement could end to his advantage. Military success could not end the war within the eighteen months left of his present term, and with an election ahead, he could not disengage and “lose” Vietnam. The Reserves, the casualties, the public protest would have to be faced. He was caught and, in Moyers’ judgment, “He knew it. He sensed that the war would destroy him politically and wreck his presidency. He was a miserable man.”
Johnson was under pressure too from the right and from the growing resentment of the military and their spokesmen at the restraints holding them back. The Armed Services Committee gave the resentment a public forum in August 1967 in subcommittee hearings under the chairmanship of Senator John Stennis. Even before taking testimony, Stennis stated his opinion that it was a “fatal mistake” to suspend or restrict the bombing.
Admiral Ulysses Grant Sharp, Air Force Commander at CINCPAC, carried the point further in a passionate argument for air power. He proclaimed a splendid record for the B-52s of damage inflicted on barracks, ammunition depots, power plants, railroad yards, iron, steel and cement plants, airfields, naval bases, bridges and in general a “widespread disruption of economic activity” and transportation, damaged harvests and increased food shortages. Without the bombing, he said, the North could have doubled its forces in the South, requiring the United States to bring in as many as 800,000 additional troops at a cost of $75 billion just to stay even. He condemned all suggestion of bombing pauses on the ground that they allowed the enemy to repair his supply lines, re-supply his forces in the South and build up his formidable anti-aircraft defenses. Sharp’s scorn for civilian selection of targets as slow and too far removed was outspoken. If civilian authorities, he asserted in recognizable reference to the Tuesday lunch system, heeded the advice of the military, lifted restraints on “lucrative” targets in the vital Hanoi and Haiphong areas, eliminated long delays in approving targets, the bombing would be far more effective. Its cessation would be a “disaster,” indefinitely prolonging the war.
Secretary McNamara’s testimony brought all this into question. In an impressive presentation, he cited evidence to show that the bombing program had not significantly reduced the flow of men and supplies, and he disputed the military advice to lift restraints and allow a greater target range. “We have no reason to believe that it would break the will of the North Vietnamese people or sway the purpose of their leaders … or provide any confidence that they can be bombed to the negotiating table.” Thus the whole purpose of American strategy was admitted to be futile by the Secretary of Defense. By revealing the open rift between civilian and military, the testimony created a sensation.
Senator Stennis’ report on the hearings was an unrestrained assault on civilian interference. He said the overruling of military by civilian judgment has “shackled the true potential of air power.” What was needed now was a hard decision “to take the risks that have to be taken, and apply the force that is required to see the job through.”
Johnson was determined not to take any such risks, which still so worried him that he had apologized to the Kremlin for an accidental hit on a Soviet merchant vessel in a North Vietnamese harbor. Nor could he cease or halt the bombing as a means to peace because his military advisers assured him that this was the only way to bring the North to its knees. He felt obliged to call a press conference after the Stennis hearings to deny rifts in his government and to declare his support of the bombing program, although without relinquishing authority over selection of targets. In deference to the military, General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was thereafter invited to be a regular member of the Tuesday lunch and, with McNamara overruled, the target range gradually crept north, specifically taking in Haiphong.
With McNamara’s testimony, the Johnson Administration had cracked. The strongest prop until now, the most hardheaded of the team inherited from Kennedy, the major manager of the war, had lost faith in it and from then on McNamara lost his influence with the President. When at a Cabinet meeting he said that the bombing, besides failing to prevent infiltration, was “destroying the countryside in the South; it’s making lasting enemies,” his colleagues stared at him in uncomfortable silence. The anti-war public waited, yearning for his disavowal of the war, but it did not come. Loyal to the government game, McNamara, like Bethmann-Hollweg in Germany in 1917, continued in the Pentagon to preside over a strategy he believed futile and wrong. To do otherwise, each would have said, would be to show disbelief, giving comfort to the enemy. The question remains where duty lies: to loyalty or to truth? Taking a position somewhere in between, McNamara did not last long. Three months after the Stennis hearings, Johnson announced, without consulting the person in question, McNamara’s nomination as president of the World Bank. The Secretary of Defense at his departure was discreet and well-behaved.
By this time the government’s pursuit of the war was domestically on the defensive. To shore up his political position and restore public confidence in him, Johnson brought home General Westmoreland, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Lodge’s successor, and other important personages to issue optimistic predictions and declare their firm faith in the mission “to prevail over Communist aggression.” Incoming evidence not shared with the public was less encouraging. CIA estimates concluded that Hanoi would accept no level of air or naval action as “so intolerable that the war had to be stopped.” A CIA study of bombing, unkindly calculated in terms of dollar value, brought out the fact that each $1 worth of damage inflicted on North Vietnam cost the United States $9.60. Systems Analysis at the Department of Defense found that the enemy could construct alternative supply routes “faster than we could choke them off,” and estimated that more American troops would do more harm than good, especially to the economy of South Vietnam. The Institute of Defense Analysis, in a renewal of the JASON study, could find no new evidence to modify its earlier conclusions, and contrary to the claims of the Air Force, frankly stated, “We are unable to devise a bombing campaign in the North to reduce the flow of infiltrating personnel.”
When objective evidence disproves strongly held beliefs, what occurs, according to theorists of “cognitive dissonance,” is not rejection of the beliefs but rigidifying, accompanied by attempts to rationalize the disproof. The result is “cognitive rigidity”; in lay language, the knots of folly draw tighter. So it was with the bombing. The more punitive and closer it came to Hanoi, the more it foreclosed the Administration’s own desire to negotiate itself out of the war. At the end of 1967 the Defense Department was to announce that the total tonnage of bombs dropped on North and South together was over 1.5 million, surpassing by 75,000 tons the total dropped on Europe by the Army Air Force in World War II. Slightly more than half had been dropped on North Vietnam, surpassing the total dropped in the Pacific theater.
One limit had been reached. In July, Johnson had placed a ceiling on the escalation of ground forces at 525,000, just over the figure General Leclerc, 21 years before, had declared would be required, “and even then it could not be done.” At the same time a new overture had been made by the United States with a slight relaxation of insistence on reciprocity. Two Frenchmen, Raymond Aubrac and Herbert Marcovich, the former a friend from old times of Ho Chi Minh and both eager to help end the war, had offered, through conversations with Henry Kissinger at a Pugwash conference, to act as envoys to Hanoi. After consultation with the State Department, they carried the message that the United States would stop the bombing if Hanoi gave assurance that this would lead to negotiations and on the “assumption” that the North would reciprocally reduce infiltration. The reply seemed to imply that talks might go forward on this basis, but further discussion was angrily cut off by Hanoi when Admiral Sharp launched a major bombing campaign to isolate Hanoi and Haiphong from each other and from their supply routes. The Tuesday lunch must have been napping over target selection on that day—unless the carelessness was deliberate.
A month later, with the noise of dissent rising and evidence that a political challenge to Johnson within his party was in the making, the President made a major effort of his own. In a speech at San Antonio on 29 September he publicly repeated the formula of the Aubrac-Marcovich mission, saying that “We and our South Vietnamese allies are wholly prepared to negotiate tonight.… The United States is willing to stop all … bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions.” The United States would “of course assume” that while talks were in progress the North Vietnamese would not take advantage of the bombing halt. Hanoi flatly rejected the overture as a “faked peace” and “sheer deception.” As their channel, Wilfred Burchett, a pro-Communist Australian journalist in Hanoi, reported “deep skepticism” about public or private feelers from Washington. “I know of no leader who believes that President Johnson is sincere in stating that he really wants to end the war on terms that would leave the Vietnamese free to settle their own affairs.”
The folly of missed opportunity was now Hanoi’s. By accepting Johnson’s public offer, the North Vietnamese could have held him to it and tested the results. If peace could have been plucked from the tangle, their country would have been spared much agony. But the bombing had made them paranoid, and having perceived a hint of give in their enemy’s position, they were determined to outlast him until they could negotiate from strength.
Within days the event took place in the United States that turned the anti-war movement from dissent to political challenge. A presidential candidate came forward to oppose Johnson within his own party. Without a political challenge, anti-war organizers knew the movement could make little headway, and they had been active in the search. Robert Kennedy, though prodded by his circle, would not declare himself. On 7 October Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, in the long line of political independents bred in that region, filled the void with the announcement of his candidacy. Enthusiasm of the anti-war group enveloped him. Radicals, moderates, anyone regardless of politics who wanted to be rid of the war, rallied to him. Students poured from the colleges to work in his campaign. Until the first primary, Johnson and the old pros, with scorn for McCarthy’s followers as a bunch of amateurs, did not take the challenge seriously. In fact, it was the beginning of the end. One month later the Saturday Evening Post, organ of middle America, presented the sum of American intervention in a stark editorial that said, “The war in Vietnam is Johnson’s mistake, and through the power of his office he has made it a national mistake.”
When the Tet offensive by the enemy exploded in Vietnam at the end of January 1968, the turn in American opinion against the war and against the President gathered force swiftly. Unlike the Viet-Cong’s previous war against the rural villages, this was a massive coordinated assault against more than 100 towns and cities of South Vietnam at once, where the insurgents had for the most part not been visible before. Now, in the ferocity of attack, which succeeded in penetrating the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon, American television viewers saw fighting in the streets, gunfire and death in American precincts, and gained a fearful impression. Hue, the ancient capital, was held for several weeks by the Viet-Cong, with thousands of inhabitants massacred before it was relieved. The fighting lasted a month, with many towns dangerously besieged, and it seemed unclear which side the outcome favored. But that such offensive strength could be mobilized at all by a supposedly tottering enemy blasted all confident assessments, punctured Westmoreland’s credibility and stunned both the American public and the government.
The intention of the offensive may have been to provoke an uprising or seize a major foothold or demonstrate an impressive degree of strength as a preliminary to negotiations. Although it failed to shatter the South, and cost the Viet-Cong and Northerners heavy casualties, estimated at 30,000 to 45,000, it succeeded in shock value. A sense of disaster pervaded the United States, sharpened by the most widely quoted remark of the war: “It becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” The American major meant that the town had to be razed in order to rout the Viet-Cong, but his phrase seemed to symbolize the use of American power—destroying the object of its protection in order to preserve it from Communism. As the fighting drew to a close, the sober voice of the Wall Street Journal declared, “We think the American people should be getting ready to accept, if they have not already, the prospect that the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.”
Westmoreland at once demanded an emergency airlift of 10,500 troops, and followed with a request, in which General Wheeler and the Joint Chiefs concurred, for additional forces numbering 206,000, well over the ceiling Johnson had set in July. Troop strength in Vietnam at this point was just under 500,000. An escalation of such magnitude, which was certain to raise a domestic outcry, faced the Executive with the moment when a choice had to be made between intensified combat and a non-military solution. With an election campaign about to begin, acceptance of Westmoreland’s request was daunting, yet mentally locked in the belief that superior force must prevail, Johnson was not ready to negotiate or disengage on any terms that could be construed as “losing.”
He appointed a task force under Clark Clifford, the Secretary of Defense-designate, to examine the costs and effects of mobilizing another 200,000 men. When asked if their addition would make the difference between victory and stalemate, the Joint Chiefs could offer no assurance that it would. Although the task force endeavored to keep within their assignment, “fundamental questions” kept recurring: at home, call up of Reserves, extension of the draft, lengthened and perhaps repeated tours of duty, additional billions in cost, increased taxes, wage and price control; on the military front, the inescapable fact that 90,000 Northerners had infiltrated in 1967, that the current rate was three or four times that of the previous year, that the enemy could out-escalate us every time, that the bombing evidently could not stop them, that no level of attrition of their forces had proved “unacceptable.” In the fierce, in some places suicidal, assaults of the Tet offensive, the enemy had not hesitated to spend lives prodigally, in some cases at a 50 percent casualty rate. What rate of attrition would they ever find “unacceptable”?
Among the Joint Chiefs and the inner circle of the President’s advisers, of whom Rusk, Rostow, Generals Wheeler and Taylor were members of the task force, no inference seemed to be drawn from all this. They were frozen in the posture of the last three years, determined on pursuing combat and giving Westmoreland what he wanted. They were “like men in a dream,” in George Kennan’s words, incapable of “any realistic assessment of the effects of their own acts.” Clifford and others were doubtful, arguing for limiting the war effort while negotiating a settlement. Withdrawal was not an option, for after three years of devastating war and destruction, the revenge of the North was likely to be harsh and the United States could not now walk out and leave the people of South Vietnam to be slaughtered by their enemies. With something less than consensus, the task force recommended on 4 March an increment of 13,500 to meet immediate demands, while the rest of its report, according to a member, “was an effort to get the attention of the President—to get him to focus on the wider questions.”
Clifford, chosen by Johnson to restore the support lost with McNamara, ironically absorbed McNamara’s disillusion as soon as he took his place. He had already been shaken the previous summer, when on a tour of the SEATO nations to urge a greater contribution of their forces, by the nonchalant attitude toward his mission. The allies, so called, who were the putative “dominoes,” were less than seriously engaged. Thailand, next door to the threat, had a contingent of 2500 in Vietnam out of its population of 30 million. Clifford had found esteem and encouragement for America’s effort but no disposition to enlarge forces and no serious concern. The view from within Southeast Asia of its own situation raised a serious question about what America was defending.
On entering the Pentagon, Clifford found no plan for military victory but rather a series of limitations—no invasion of the North, no pursuit into Laos and Cambodia, no mining of Haiphong harbor—that precluded it. Among his civilian Assistant and Under-Secretaries, he found disenchantment, ranging from Townsend Hoopes’ memorandum on “Infeasibility of Military Victory” to Paul Nitze’s offer to resign rather than try to defend the Administration’s war policy to the Senate. He found a report by Systems Analysis stating that “despite a massive influx of 500,000 United States troops, 1.5 million tons of bombs a year, 400,000 attack sorties a year, 200,000 enemy KIA [killed in action] in three years, 20,000 United States KIA, etc., our control of the countryside and urban areas is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels.”
Further, Clifford found dire estimates of the effect on public opinion of each renewed escalation, and prognoses of budget increases of $2.5 billion in 1968 and $10 billion in 1969. He saw the national investment in Vietnam draining our disposable strength from Europe and the Middle East and the likelihood that the more we Americanized the war, the less South Vietnam would do for itself. He became convinced that the “military course we were pursuing was not only endless but hopeless.” The war had reached a dead end. Not a man to sink his high-powered talents and polished reputation in a failing cause, Clifford set himself to dislodge the President from his frozen stance. Against the “men in a dream” of the inner group, he was one against eight, but he had realities on his side.
Political forces were aiding. Anti-war sentiment had mounted against the Democrats because they were Johnson’s party. The war had become such an albatross, Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland told Johnson’s speech writer, that “Any reasonably good Republican could clobber me if the election were held today.” Tydings’ advisers told him he could save himself only by attacking the President, and though he would not do that, he would have to “speak out against the war. It’s dragging the country down and the Democrats along with it.” He named several other Senators who reported the same situation in their states. It was confirmed by the California State Democratic Committee, which sent a telegram to the President signed by 300 members saying that in their judgment “The only action which can avert major Democratic party losses in this state in 1968 is an immediate all-out effort to secure a non-military settlement of the Vietnam war.” Polls at this time showed the incumbent President trailing any one of six potential Republican opponents in the coming election.
An even stronger signal was Walter Cronkite’s broadcast of 27 February, upon his return from the “burned, blasted and weary land” still smoking from the Tet offensive. He described the new refugees, estimated at 470,000, living in “unbelievable squalor” in sheds and shanties and added to the 800,000 already officially listed as refugees. On the political front, he said, “Past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems.” He said the Tet offensive required the realization “that we should have had all along,” that negotiations had to be just that, “not the dictation of peace terms. For now it seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in stalemate.” The only “rational way out” was to negotiate our way out, but “not,” he warned again, “as victors.”
The nation’s “uncle” had rendered judgment and “the shock waves,” said George Christian, the President’s press secretary, “rolled through the Government” up to the top. “If I’ve lost Walter,” the President commented, “I’ve lost middle America.”
A week later Senator Fulbright announced that the Senate’s reinvestigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had shown it to have been obtained by “misrepresentation,” and it was therefore “null and void.” News that the President was considering Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 men and had agreed with the Joint Chiefs on a call-up of 50,000 Reserves for strategic back-up leaked to the press, evoking the expected outcry. In dissatisfaction with the war, the public, if accurately reflected by press comment, was readier than the Administration to let go in Southeast Asia, and readier to acknowledge, according to Time, “that victory in Vietnam—or even a favorable settlement—may simply be beyond the grasp of the world’s greatest power.” That thought marked a rite of passage in the era of Vietnam.
Emerging not too energetically from passivity, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened hearings at which Fulbright, in his opening speech, declared that the country was witnessing a “spiritual rebellion” among its youth against “what they regard as a betrayal of a traditional American value.” With the support of other Senators, Fulbright questioned the authority of the President to “expand the war without the consent of Congress.” Members of the Committee informed Clifford and General Wheeler privately that “We just couldn’t support a large increase in the number of troops in Vietnam—and if we wouldn’t support it, who would?” Called to testify at the hearings, Rusk maintained aims unchanged since Dulles, but admitted that the Administration was re-examining Vietnam policy “from A to Z” and considering alternatives.
The next day, in the New Hampshire primary, Senator McCarthy won an astonishing 42 percent of the vote, and worse followed. Robert Kennedy, recognizing a good thing after someone else had tested the waters, declared himself a candidate. The fiend (in Johnson’s eyes) was in the ring and, given the aura of Kennedy popularity, was a more realistic political threat than Senator McCarthy. With both of them stumping the country as peace candidates, Johnson was now Goldwater, without his sharp convictions. He faced an electoral campaign which would tear apart the Democratic Party and in which he, the incumbent, would be permanently on the defensive, trying to justify a war policy that lacked any shine of success. Where nothing else—not JASON, not McNamara’s defection, not the non-results of attrition strategy, not Tet—had caused him to re-think, where everything only stiffened “cognitive rigidity,” the political prospect penetrated.
It did not shake his resolve about the war, now too rigid to alter, but it raised the humiliating prospect of domestic defeat. At the same time that Kennedy announced, Dean Acheson, whom Johnson after Tet had asked privately for a review of the war effort, brought in his conclusion. After rejecting “canned briefings,” and consulting his own choices of sources at State, CIA and Joint Chiefs, he told Johnson that the military were going after an unachievable goal, that we could not win without an unlimited commitment of forces—just as the Working Group had said in 1964—that Johnson’s speeches were so out of touch with reality that he was no longer believed by the public and that the country no longer supported the war.
This was the judgment of someone Johnson could neither bully nor ignore, whom indeed he respected; nevertheless, he was not ready to be told he was wrong. In the same week he delivered a bellicose speech to the National Farmers Union in which, pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger at the audience, he demanded a “total national effort” to win the war and the peace. He said he was not going to change his policy in Vietnam because of Communist military successes and denounced critics who would “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.” It was a last angry echo of the original vow not to be the first President to lose a war, and it was not admired. James Rowe, the President’s longtime friend and adviser, reported to him that calls came in after the speech from people “infuriated” by his impugning their patriotism and unmoved by his “win the war” oratory. “The fact is,” was Rowe’s hard summary, “hardly anyone today is interested in winning the war. Everyone wants to get out and the only question is how.” Three days later, Johnson suddenly announced the recall of Westmoreland and summoned the deputy commander, General Creighton Abrams, home for consultations with the Joint Chiefs. In the course of the consultations, the decision was taken against sending the additional 200,000 troops, but without any definitive change of policy. The Joint Chiefs’ price was Johnson’s agreement to call up 60,000 for strategic reserve.
To convince the President once and for all of a dead end in Vietnam, Clifford proposed a conference of senior former statesmen to render a verdict. The “Wise Men,” as they were later dubbed, included three outstanding military figures, Generals Ridgway, Omar Bradley and Maxwell Taylor; former Secretary of State Acheson; former Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon; former Ambassador Lodge; John McCloy, former High Commissioner for Germany; Arthur Dean, negotiator of the Korean armistice; Robert Murphy, veteran diplomat; George Ball; Cyrus Vance; Arthur Goldberg, and his successor on the Supreme Court, Justice Abe Fortas, Johnson’s close friend. These were men of the linked power centers of law, finance and government, not dissenters or peaceniks or long-haired radicals, but persons concerned with maintaining the vested interests of the system who had wider connections in the outside world than were available to the insulated incumbent in the White House.
Their discussions gave serious attention to the increasing economic harm being done to the United States and the bitter public sentiments that were rising. Although some continued to support the bombing, most did not, and the majority agreed that insistence on military victory had trapped the United States in a position that could only get worse and that was not compatible with the national interest. Ridgway argued that if the assumption that Vietnamese leadership could be developed was valid, such development should with American support be accomplished in the space of two years and that Saigon could be given notice of this time limit, after which “We begin a phase-down of our forces.” While not a solid consensus, the argument conveyed to the President was that a change of policy was unavoidable; the unspoken advice pointed to negotiation and disengagement.
A nationwide television speech by the President to explain Tet had been scheduled for 31 March. Meeting with several of the “men in a dream”—Rusk, Rostow and William Bundy—and with the President’s speech writer Henry Macpherson, who shared his disillusionment, Clifford insisted that the speech must make a sharp departure from past policy. As approved so far, it would be a “disaster.” What the advisers still did not understand, he told them, was that among influential people there had been “a tremendous erosion of support, maybe in reaction to Tet, maybe from a feeling that we are in a hopeless bog. The idea of going deeper into the bog strikes them as mad.” Major groups in national life, he went on inexorably, “the business community, the press, the churches, professional groups, college presidents, students and most of the intellectual community have turned against the war.”
For public consumption, the speech was redirected toward a serious offer of negotiated peace and a unilateral bombing halt. The intention behind it remained unmodified. Johnson had been assured by the military that because the rainy season would enforce reduced operations, a bombing pause would not cost him anything. Moreover, the White House circle and the Joint Chiefs believed that no offer of peace talks would inhibit pursuit of the goal by force of arms because Hanoi was certain to turn it down. Their thinking was made plain in a significant cable to the American ambassadors in the SEATO nations advising them on the day before the scheduled speech of the new overture. The ambassadors were instructed that when informing their host governments they should “Make it clear that Hanoi is most likely to denounce the project and then free our hand after a short period.” Clearly, Johnson and his circle were contemplating no change in conduct of the war; the problem was domestic public opinion in the context of the coming election. In the same spirit as the ambassadors were alerted, so were the commanders at CINCPAC and in Saigon. Among the factors “pertinent to the President’s decision,” General Wheeler informed them, was the fact that the support of the public and Congress since Tet “has decreased at an accelerating rate,” and if the trend continued “public support of our objectives in Southeast Asia will be too frail to sustain the effort.” But he concluded with the hope that the President’s decision to offer the bombing halt “will reverse the growing dissent.”
As delivered, Johnson’s public address was noble and open-handed. “We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations. So tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict … and doing so unilaterally and at once.” Aircraft and naval vessels had been ordered to make no attack on North Vietnam north of the 20th parallel, but only in the critical battlefield area at the DMZ, “where the continued enemy build-up directly threatens allied forward positions.” The area to be free of bombing contained 90 percent of the Northern population and the principal populated and food-producing areas. The bombing might be completely stopped “if our restraint is matched by restraint in Hanoi.” Johnson called upon Britain and the Soviet Union, as co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference, to help move the unilateral de-escalation toward “genuine peace in Asia,” and upon President Ho Chi Minh to “respond positively and favorably.” Making no mention of an assumed rejection by Hanoi or of a return to combat by the United States thereafter, he looked forward to a peace “based on the Geneva Accords of 1954,” permitting South Vietnam to be “free of any outside domination or interference from us or anybody else.” No reference was made to the requested addition of 200,000 men; the possibility of future escalation was left open.
After a moving peroration about divisiveness and unity, Johnson came to the unexpected announcement that electrified the nation and a good part of the world: that he would not “permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year,” and accordingly, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my Party for another term as your President.”
It was abdication, not in recognition of a dead end in the war or abandoning combat but in recognition of a political reality. Johnson was a political animal to the marrow of his bones. His unpopularity was now patent, dragging down with it the Democratic Party. As the incumbent President, Johnson was not prepared to have to struggle for and quite possibly lose re-nomination; he could not suffer such humiliation. The Wisconsin primary, in a state loud with student protest, was scheduled for 2 April, two days ahead, and field agents had telephoned blunt predictions that he would run behind Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. And so with righteous words about “divisiveness among us all tonight,” and his duty to bind up wounds, heal our history, keep the American commitment and other commendable restorative tasks, he took himself grandly and in good timing out of the contest.
Three days later, on 3 April 1968, Hanoi astonished its opponents by announcing its readiness to make contacts with representatives of the United States with a view to determining “unconditional cessation” of the bombing and all other acts of war “so that talks might start.”
The 22-year folly since American troopships brought the French back to Indochina was now complete—though not finished. Five more years of American effort to disengage without losing prestige were to compound it. In paucity of cause, vain perseverance and ultimate self-damage, the belligerency that Johnson’s Administration initiated and pursued was folly of an unusual kind in that absolutely no good can be said to have come of it; all results were malign—except one, the awakening of the “public ire.” Too many Americans had come to feel that the war was wrong, out of all proportion to the national interest and unsuccessful besides. Populists like to speak of the “wisdom of the people”; the American people were not so much wise as fed up, which in certain cases is a kind of wisdom. Withdrawal of public support proved the undoing of an Executive that believed it could conduct limited war without engaging the national will of a democracy.