The Commitments Deepen 10

To the extent that Congress was paying attention to Vietnam in those days, its mood seemed to be ambivalent. Members of the House armed services committee, grilling McNamara in late January, ex¬pressed concern at the possibility of greater U.S. involvement, yet they were also impatient at the visible lack of progress. McNamara tried to reassure them by promising that American intervention would be limited merely to “logistical and training support,” saying that it was “a Vietnamese war . . . that can only be won by the Vietnamese themselves.” And he optimistically forecast the eventual withdrawal of U.S. military advisers, explaining that by “keeping the crutch there too long we would weaken the Vietnamese rather than strengthen them.”
But McNamara’s behavior during his trip to South Vietnam, com¬bined with the decisions taken in Washington after his return, pointed the Johnson administration in a different direction. “We shall stay for as long as it takes to . . . win the battle against the Communist in¬surgents,” he pledged as he landed in Saigon on March 8. In addition to giving the usual briefings and conferences, he stepped out of char¬acter to stage a public relations act designed to put America’s impri¬matur on Khanh, and the theatrical performance dramatized the absurdity of the U.S. role in Vietnam. Here was McNamara, the quintessential American businessman, incongruously barnstorming this strange Asian land in an attempt to promote Khanh to his own people. Heavily protected by troops and helicopters, they toured the Mekong delta and flew up to Hue; McNamara, fumbling with the difficult tonal language, uttered memorized Vietnamese phrases ex¬tolling Khanh as the country’s “best possible leader.” No matter that he might be debauching Khanh’s nationalist pretensions by thus pre¬senting him as a protege of the United States. He was really talking to Lyndon Johnson, who firmly believed that the South Vietnamese would make the necessary sacrifices if only they knew that the United States stood behind them.
Back in Washington five days later, McNamara produced contrast¬ing public and private accounts—as he had after his trip in December. He issued a confident statement for public consumption, declaring that Khanh was “acting vigorously and effectively” and predicting that “the war can be won.” But to Johnson he reported that the situation had “unquestionably been growing worse” since his last trip. About 40 percent of the countryside was now under Vietcong “control or predominant influence,” the figure running as high as 90 percent in such provinces as Long An and Kien Tuong, not far from Saigon. South Vietnamese army desertions were “high and increasing,” while the Vietcong was “recruiting energetically.” Much of the population was overcome by “apathy and indifference,” and “signs of frustration” were apparent in demoralized American officials. The “greatest weak¬ness,” however, was the “uncertain viability” of Khanh’s regime, which might crumble at any moment in another coup.
McNamara urged that South Vietnam be put on a rigorous “war footing,” with the United States making “emphatically clear” its read¬iness to give Khanh an open-ended pledge of assistance. Among other things, the United States should finance an increase in the size of his army, provide him with more modem aircraft and other equipment, and underwrite the expansion of his rural administration. Johnson approved the proposals, which were formally restated in a National Security Council “action memorandum.”
The decision to furnish Khanh with additional aid, while significant, was less important than the strategic goals it redefined. Until then, the U. S. aim had been limited to helping the Saigon government defeat the Vietcong. Now the administration broadened the objective. More was involved than just South Vietnam or even Asia, the National Security Council document asserted; a Communist victory would damage the reputation of the United States throughout the world. The conflict was a “test case” of America’s capacity to Gope with a Communist “war of liberation,” and the whole of U.S. foreign policy faced a trial.
The flaw was Khanh, who was more preoccupied with protecting than exercising his authority. He spent most of his time maneuvering against internal rivals, with the result that he neglected his adminis¬trative duties, which bored him anyway. Though the United States was now pouring in aid at the rate of nearly two million dollars a day, South Vietnamese army officers and civil servants were being paid late and often not at all, projects to train soldiers and civilian officials had fallen into disarray, and funds were not reaching peasants who had been promised subsidies to relocate as part of the “pacifi¬cation” program. Nor did Khanh put the country on a “war footing,” as he assured McNamara he would. He introduced a national service law but never fully implemented it, blaming delays on “complicated bureaucratic procedures” allegedly inherited from the French. In real¬ity, he had no intention of antagonizing influential urban families by conscripting their sons—just as, ironically, Johnson generously de¬ferred U.S. college students from the draft to avoid alienating the American middle class.
To demonstrate his aggressivity, however, Khanh began to thump for an offensive against North Vietnam. His campaign rattled Johnson, who feared a clash with China or the Soviet Union. It also evoked little enthusiasm from American officials in Vietnam, who saw it as primarily a device to avoid a long and tedious war in the south. By coincidence, Ho Chi Minh reached a similar conclusion. Calling Khanh’s threat to invade the north “sheer stupidity,” Ho asked, “How can he talk about marching north when he cannot even control areas in the immediate vicinity of Saigon?”
But even as the U.S. mission in Saigon tried to restrain Khanh, planners in Washington were exploring ways to extend the hostilities beyond South Vietnam’s boundaries. In the middle of March, for example, Johnson authorized Lodge to permit Khanh to stage covert cross-border raids against Communist sanctuaries in Laos—on con¬dition that Prince Souvanna Phouma, the Laotian prime minister, endorsed the operations. He also approved additional American re¬connaissance flights over Laos and ordered studies to be made for possible incursions into Cambodia, where the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were just beginning to lengthen their web of supply routes. Meanwhile, Pentagon specialists were pinpointing targets in North Vietnam for potential American air strikes.

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