The Commitments Deepen 4

Johnson subscribed to the adage that “wars are too serious to be entrusted to generals.” He knew, as he once put it, that armed forces “need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic,” and that they would drag him into a military conflict if they could. But he also knew that Pentagon lobbyists, among the best in the business, could persuade conservatives in Congress to sabotage his social legislation unless he satisfied their demands. As he girded himself for the 1964 presidential campaign, he was especially sensitive to the jingoists who might brand him “soft on Communism” were he to back away from the challenge in Vietnam. So, politician that he was, he assuaged the brass and the braid with promises he may have never intended to keep. At a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963, for example, he told the joint chiefs of staff: “Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war.”
At the same time, though, Johnson was loath to alienate old friends like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who had coached him during his early days in the Senate, and Mike Mansfield, his successor as Senate majority leader. He genuinely admired them, counted on their support to promote the Great Society, and he could not ignore their concerns about the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In partic¬ular, he listened to Mansfield, a former professor of Asian history who, after all, had been instrumental in pushing for the original Amer¬ican commitment to South Vietnam a decade before. Now the course of events troubled Mansfield, who voiced his anguish to Johnson in private conversations and memorandums—just as he had cautioned Kennedy a year earlier.
Mansfield agreed with the joint chiefs of staff that the war could not be confined to South Vietnam. But while they favored its extension into North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, he warned Johnson that the conflict might spread to include China, thereby saddling the United States with “massive costs.” A “deeper military plunge” neither was in the U.S. “national interest” nor would it “settle the question,” he argued; it threatened to “enlarge the morass in which we are now already on the verge of indefinite entrapment.” As an alternative, Mansfield recommended an “astute diplomatic offensive” based on President Charles de Gaulle’s recent appeals for a neutral Vietnam, and he urged Johnson to solicit French help even if this approach offered only a “faint glimmer of hope.”
On July 27, 1965, in a last-ditch attempt to change Johnson’s mind, Mansfield and Russell were to press him again to “concentrate on finding a way out” of Vietnam—“a place where we ought not to be,” and where “the situation is rapidly going out of control.” But the next day, Johnson announced his decision to add forty-four American combat battalions to the relatively small U.S. contingents already there. He had not been deaf to Mansfield’s pleas, nor had he simply swallowed the Pentagon’s plans. He had procrastinated and agonized during his nineteen months in the White House, but eventually this was his final judgment. As he would later explain: “There are many, many people who can recommend and advise, and a few of them consent. But there is only one who has been chosen by the American people to decide.”
Early in December 1963, Ho Chi Minh and his senior comrades had assembled in Hanoi to evaluate their past accomplishments and chart their future strategy. Though they shared the conviction that Vietnam must be reunited under their aegis, they were unsure how to proceed. A new group had seized power in Saigon and a new administration had taken over in Washington. They anticipated, as they couched it in their jargon, a “transitional period that entails complex forms and methods of struggle. ” True, the Vietcong insurgency had made strides within recent months, having benefited from the turmoil that con¬vulsed South Vietnam during Diem’s final days and right after his collapse. From Hanoi’s viewpoint, however, the prospects of rapid victory were still remote.
Peasants throughout South Vietnam were abandoning the hated strategic hamlets for their native villages, yet their rejection of the Saigon regime reflected weariness with war rather than a vote of confidence in the Vietcong. Similarly, the swelling numbers of South Vietnamese army deserters were not defecting to the Vietcong but merely going home. Nor did the Saigon government officials, Bud¬dhist militants, student activists and others who had opposed Diem respond to Communist suggestions for a compromise. Most were at least as anti-Communist as Diem’s family had been, having counted among their grievances with Diem his inability to cope with the Viet¬cong. And with Diem gone, the Communists could no longer focus their propaganda on the abuses of an autocratic oligarchy. Despite their flaws, the generals enjoyed a measure of popularity, especially in Saigon and other cities, where their benign if inept rule was a welcome change from Diem’s severity.
North Vietnam’s difficulties were also exacerbated by the dispute between its Communist “big brothers,” the Soviet Union and China, whose ideological, strategic, national and even racial differences had by then degenerated into a bitter quarrel. The Hanoi leaders trusted neither the Russians nor the Chinese, both of whom were essentially motivated by their own interests. But the Sino-Soviet squabble was crucial to the North Vietnamese war effort, since Russian and Chinese economic and military aid would be vital if the conflict intensified. Indeed, if later Chinese claims can be believed, China armed the Viet¬cong guerrillas in 1962 alone with more than ninety thousand rifles and machine guns. Thus the North Vietnamese alternated between trying to patch up the quarrel and shifting to the side that best suited their goals.
Considering themselves to be in the vanguard of the fight against American “imperialism,” the North Vietnamese had been disap¬pointed and dismayed by Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev’s attempts to promote “peaceful coexistence” with the United States, their principal enemy. Soviet policy was directly detrimental to their designs to the extent that, while publicly extolling “wars of national liberation,” Khrushchev had privately leaned on them to refrain from seeking to “liberate” South Vietnam out of fear that a bigger conflict might burden the Soviet Union—and poison the Kremlin’s relations with the United States. Making no secret of their sentiments, the North Vietnamese assailed Khrushchev for retreating in his clash with the Kennedy administration during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and they criticized his decision to sign the nuclear test ban treaty the following year. By late 1963, consequently, they had edged toward China, which was castigating Moscow on the same issues, and they continued to echo the Chinese line until Khrushchev’s dismissal a year later.

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