Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 10

McNamara now advocated a drastic change of approach. He urged that the U.S. air offensive against North Vietnam be “stabilized”— contending that bigger raids would not deter the enemy and might, among other dangers, raise the “serious risk of drawing us into open war with China.” He suggested limiting American troop increases— arguing that the total U.S. force in South Vietnam be kept at fewer than a half-million men, well below the seven hundred thousand in Westmoreland’s schedule. He recommended a more vigorous pacifi¬cation drive—and warned that tough reforms had to be imposed to prompt the Saigon regime to improve its performance. Above all, he proposed “credible” gestures aimed at inducing the Communists to negotiate—such as a total bombing halt, or a “realistic plan” to give the Vietcong a political voice in the south.
This was not a prescription for surrender but a scenario for restraint. Hold the line, buy time, minimize the costs and hazards of the war, McNamara was saying, and the American public will support a pro¬tracted struggle that promises neither defeat nor victory yet might, eventually, somehow finish satisfactorily.
The joint chiefs of staff reacted with predictable anger. Rebuffing McNamara’s grim assessment, they claimed that the situation had “improved substantially over the past year.” Nor would they agree to a curb on the air campaign against North Vietnam. The air attacks were America’s “trump card”—not to be bargained away except for an equivalent concession, such as an end to “aggression” in South Vietnam. Finally, pleading for stronger action, they asserted that “the American people, our allies and our enemies alike, are increasingly uncertain as to our resolution to pursue the war to a successful con¬clusion.”
From their own viewpoint, the professional soldiers had a logical case. Trained to wage a conventional conflict on the plains of central Europe, they had not originally been disposed to intervene in Vietnam. Once involved, however, they wanted to win—though their defini¬tion of victory was cloudy. Now, with McNamara’s zeal dissipating, they were alarmed lest impending high-level decisions foil a proper war effort. Transmitting their “unequivocal” sense of concern to John- son, they again pressed him to make “more effective and extensive use of our air and naval superiority”—and, as they put it, deliver North Vietnam a “sharp knock.”
Late in October 1966, Johnson journeyed to Manila for another planning conference with the South Vietnamese leaders, coupling his official sessions with prodigious feats of optimistic oratory. One day, surreptitiously absenting himself from the meetings, he flew to the vast American base at Camranh Bay—the first incumbent president to visit Vietnam. There he plunged into a crowd of stunned GIs, exhorting them to “nail the coonskin to the wall.” But despite his verbal exuberance, Johnson waffled. Gravely disappointing the joint chiefs of staff, he opted for McNamara’s modest plan to scale down the rate of escalation—yet the decision, like all his decisions, was subject to change. Meanwhile, he sought comfort in the upbeat ac¬counts handed him by aides like Walt Rostow and Robert Komer, who was soon to become head of pacification programs in Vietnam.
Komer, a former CIA analyst, was a shrewd and energetic bureau¬crat whose sensitive antennae were attuned to Johnson’s desires. Once, after producing an implausibly buoyant “progress” report on Vietnam for the White House, he was discussing its contents with a group of correspondents. “Come on, Bob,” said one of the journalists, “you know damned well that the situation isn’t that good.” Komer, un¬daunted, replied in his nasal twang: “Listen, the president didn’t ask for a ‘situation’ report, he asked for a ‘progress’ report. And that’s what I’ve given him—not a report on the situation, but a report on the progress we’ve made.”
Thus, in a “prognosis” for the future, Komer concluded in late 1966 that “slow, painful and incredibly expensive though it may be—we’re beginning to ‘win’ the war.” This did not mean, he added prudently, that “we’re going to win.” But, he asserted, “we are successfully countering” North Vietnamese infiltration, and Vietcong strength in the south “has probably already peaked out.” The “trend line” showed, therefore, that the Communists might conceivably “find it wiser to negotiate” than to continue defying U.S. might. Like all hopeful forecasts, however, this one hedged. Could the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies “mount a maximum effort” in the year ahead? Was the United States “prepared to stick it out as long as necessary”? Or would the American public tire of the war? Komer left those questions unanswered, but Lyndon Johnson had a positive response. By the beginning of 1967, more than six thousand U.S. soldiers had already been killed in Vietnam. Yet, Johnson proclaimed in his State of the Union address to Congress, he would still “stand firm.”
A nagging debate over strategy divided the Johnson administration during the first half of 1967, and though observers identified the squab¬bling factions as “hawks” and “doves,” the distinction was an over¬simplification. Nobody of any stature within the president’s circle at the time said openly or even privately that the U.S. bombing should stop and American forces be withdrawn if there were parallel conces¬sions on the Communist side. Partisans of such an approach would only begin to emerge after the Tet offensive of 1968, when the do¬mestic political price of the war had apparently become unbearable. So the quarrel that poisoned the Johnson administration was between those who advocated an extremely tough campaign against the enemy and those who were less belligerent—with many straddling the two positions.
Nor could the dispute be portrayed as a straightforward rivalry between soldiers and civilians. The most pugnacious hard-liners were naturally the top soldiers, whose business it was to wage war—the joint chiefs of staff and the top operational officers, notably West¬moreland and Admiral Sharp, the commander for the Pacific. But their key supporter in the executive branch was a civilian, Walt Ros- tow, the sound of whose saber rattled throughout Washington. This group also included Dean Rusk, who equated flexibility with capit¬ulation, as well as several CIA officials. The skeptics, on the other hand, mainly comprised McNamara and his civilian aides at the Pen¬tagon, who were backed at the State Department by Averell Harriman and his “peace shop.” A number of CIA analysts shared their misgivings, and among their cautious sympathizers were some lower- ranking generals in Vietnam who had learned the futility of the conflict from direct experience. In between, meanwhile, were middle-level bureaucrats such as William Bundy. And there was Lyndon Johnson himself, who swung from depths of doubt to peaks of ferocity. When¬ever possible, however, he deferred decisions.

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