Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 12

Vietnam was already so saturated with American soldiers chasing an elusive enemy that a U.S. battalion’s “kill rate” averaged less than one Vietcong per day, Enthoven observed. Besides, Americans could not cope with pacification, which required “political and economic progress” under Saigon government sponsorship rather than “military victories.” And, he cautioned, a big U.S. buildup would ultimately weaken South Vietnam. “If we continue to add forces and to Amer-icanize the war, we will only erode whatever incentives the South Vietnamese people may now have to help themselves in this fight. Similarly, it would be a further sign to the South Vietnamese leaders that we will carry any load, regardless of their actions.”
Enhoven concluded that “we’re up against an enemy who just may have found a dangerously clever strategy for licking the United States”: to “wait us out,” keeping their losses at “a level low enough to be sustained indefinitely, but high enough to tempt us to increase our forces to the point of U.S. public rejection of the war.”
A similar mood of foreboding gripped other civilians in the Defense Department. In contrast to their military colleagues, the civilians were not fettered with a rigorous belief that firepower yielded results. Nor did they fear that their careers hinged on proving that bullets and bombs would succeed. So they could assess the situation more dis¬passionately—or at least express their misgivings more candidly. At that stage, though, they were still in what Leslie Gelb, then a young Pentagon analyst, later termed a “twilight zone”—they had not yet reconciled their private pessimism with the official policy of optimism.
In many instances, these bureaucrats would return home in the evening to face puzzled or even defiant wives and children. Gelb’s wife Judy, who often would have watched the war on the television news before his arrival, would greet him with the question: “What are you guys doing out there?” Others had college-age sons and daugh¬ters who attended “teach-ins” or participated in antiwar demonstra¬tions, and disputes now poisoned the dinner conversation. They included one of McNamara’s own sons, who had joined in the campus protests against the war. John McNaughton, a certified hard-liner a year earlier, was disturbed enough to say to McNamara that “a feeling is widely and strongly held” around the country that “ ‘the Estab¬lishment’ is out of its mind.” The pervasive opinion was, as Mc¬Naughton described it, “that we are trying to impose some U. S. image on distant peoples we cannot understand, and that we are carrying the thing to absurd lengths.” What loomed was “the worst split in our people in more than a century,” compounded by the government’s increasing isolation from the public. McNaughton noted sadly that McGeorge Bundy, George Ball and Bill Moyers, all of whom had at least had the guts to voice misgivings about the war, had resigned. And, he asked ominously, “Who next?”
McNamara would be next—but not until months later. Yet his opponents were already mobilizing against him, and they began to close ranks in May 1967, when he once again set forth his recom-mendations for a future policy in Vietnam.
The Communists were not going to negotiate until after the U.S. elections in November 1968, he now estimated—and neither mod¬eration nor escalation would change their minds. Confronted by “im¬perfect alternatives,” the United States ought to adopt what amounted to a holding operation. He proposed that the air campaign against North Vietnam be limited to bombings of enemy staging areas and infiltration routes in the southernmost provinces, and he emphasized the importance of promoting the pacification programs in South Viet¬nam more energetically. And he urged that the administration cool the domestic controversy over the war by avoiding such explosive issues as the call-up of the army reserve.
The plan enraged the joint chiefs of staff, who saw it as nothing less than “defeatism.” Reams of memos flew from their Pentagon offices across the Potomac to the White House, the Congress and various other government departments, restating and refining every earlier argument they had advanced. Their outburst inflamed the strat¬egy debate afresh, and Washington’s paper mills shattered all previous records as different bureaus responded. Johnson, caught in the cross fire, reacted as he usually did: He compromised and improsived. He rejected McNamara’s proposal to curb the air offensive but maintained most of his former restrictions on the bombing, and he also rebuffed Westmoreland’s request for a large troop increase. But the generals and admirals would not accept the setback without a fight, especially when they could deploy their big guns on Capitol Hill.
John Cornelius Stennis of Mississippi, then celebrating his twentieth year in the Senate, was a classic southern conservative Democrat of his generation. On the domestic front, he had implacably resisted civil rights and other liberal legislation, while in foreign affairs he distrusted international entanglements. Coupled with his insularity, however, was a firm conviction that, once involved in conflict abroad, the United States could consider nothing less than victory. He had been uneasy in early 1954, when the French were pressing the Eisenhower administration to rescue them from defeat in Indochina, fearing that “we will move to a point from which there will be no return.” But after Lyndon Johnson’s troop commitment in 1965, he saw the course without reservations. Despite “many regrets that we are in there,” he said, America’s present “purpose is to win”—and he demanded that Johnson’s Great Society programs be “relegated to the rear” in order to release the resources to crush the enemy and achieve “peace with honor.”
Stennis’s views endeared him to the Pentagon’s senior soldiers. They also admired him for his tangible influence. As a dynamic veteran of the Senate armed services committee, he could bargain on their behalf in the congressional marketplace, gaining them advantages through intricate legislative deals. Either directly or through leaks to the press, they would apprise him and his like-minded colleagues of their re¬quirements and grievances, certain at least of sympathy and frequently of action. So, late in the spring of 1967, they complained to him about McNamara and others, and Stennis scheduled closed hearings of the preparedness subcommittee of the armed services committee for Au¬gust in order to investigate the alleged attempts by “unskilled civilian amateurs” to shackle the “professional military experts.”

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