Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 14

Johnson, always in quest of a consensus, circulated McNamara’s memo in some instances without identifying the author. The reactions were overwhelmingly negative. General Maxwell Taylor, now a spe¬cial consultant, warned that the proposed “pullback” would “probably degenerate into a pullout.” Westmoreland and Ellsworth Bunker, who had replaced Lodge as ambassador in Saigon, were equally hostile, while Rusk, though receptive to the idea that the South Vietnamese should do more, opposed a bombing pause that would eliminate the “incentive for peace.” Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford, invited to com¬ment, were also unfavorable. The “duty” of the administration, said Fortas, was to fulfill what he believed to be the desire of the American people—“namely, to prevent North Vietnamese domination of South Vietnam by military force or subversion.” Clifford, whose attitude was to change sharply only a few months later, reacted even more strongly. McNamara’s plan, he wrote to Johnson, would “retard the possibility of concluding the conflict rather than accelerating it”—and, in his flamboyant courtroom manner, he imagined North Vietnam’s response to the “stabilization” of America’s strategy: “The chortles of unholy glee issuing from Hanoi would be audible in every capital of the world. Is this evidence of our zeal and courage to stay the course? Of course not! It would be interpreted to be exactly what it is. A resigned and discouraged effort to find a way out of a conflict for which we had lost our will and dedication.”
Typically, Johnson had sought a consensus in order to confirm his own inclination, which was to reject McNamara’s proposals. An “un¬requited” bombing halt, he said in December, would “be read in both Hanoi and the United States as a sign of weakening will”—as would the “so-called policy of stabilization” on the ground in South Vietnam. So, given a vote of no-confidence, McNamara had to go. But the disagreement over Vietnam had been complicated by another, related factor that may have been more crucial for Johnson. The other element was Robert Kennedy.
Johnson feared and loathed the Kennedys. Now, Bobby had become a strident critic of the war—and, worse yet, his switch was paying off. A poll of presidential potentialities conducted in July 1967 showed Kennedy trailing Johnson by 39 percent to 45 percent; a survey in October showed Kennedy ahead by a margin of 20 percent. In John¬son’s eyes, the logic of the situation was crystal clear: Kennedy had persuaded his intimate friend McNamara to turn against the war— which meant, quite plainly, that McNamara had been persuaded to double-cross Johnson. “Every day,” Johnson later recalled, “Bobby would call up McNamara, telling him that the war was terrible and immoral, and that he had to leave.” The pressure on McNamara grew to such a pitch, according to Johnson, that he came close to a nervous breakdown—and one consequence, the president implied, was his confrontation with the Stennis subcommittee.
McNamara’s dismissal has never been elucidated. “To this day,” McNamara told an interviewer in February 1991, “I don’t know if I quit or I was fired.” Johnson’s version, as he recounted it to Doris Kearns, was that McNamara came close to “cracking,” and it would have been “a damn unfair thing to force him to stay” in the admin¬istration. So they discussed alternatives and, Johnson said, he got McNamara the presidency of the World Bank—“the only job he really wanted then.” But Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., basing his information on a conversation between McNamara and Kennedy, has a different ac¬count: that McNamara, unaware that Johnson had procured him the World Bank post, learned of his ouster from the press. In any case, Johnson replaced him with Clark Clifford, an old crony whom he could trust—or so he thought at the time.
McNamara left the government a disillusioned man, and he made no attempt to conceal his anguish at a farewell luncheon at the State Department in late February 1968, just before his official departure. Among those present, along with Rusk, Clifford and other senior officials, was Harry McPherson, a Johnson aide, who recalled to me his own astonishment at McNamara’s display of emotion: “He reeled off the familiar statistics—how we had dropped more bombs on Viet¬nam than on all of Europe during World War II. Then his voice broke, and there were tears in his eyes as he spoke of the futility, the crushing futility, of the air war. The rest of us sat silently—I for one with my mouth open, listening to the secretary of defense talk that way about a campaign for which he had, ultimately, been responsible. I was pretty shocked.”
In Vietnam itself, Westmoreland resolutely pursued his strategy of attrition with a series of search-and-destroy operations code-named Junction City and Francis Marion and Kingfisher, and the enemy “body count” mounted astronomically. By the end of 1967, the U.S. troop presence was up to nearly a half million, an increase of a hundred thousand during the year, and American soldiers killed in action ex¬ceeded nine thousand—bringing total battlefield deaths for the past two years to more than fifteen thousand. More than a million and a half tons of bombs had been dropped since the air strikes began, on both the north and the south. But the war was deadlocked. General Fred Weyand, one of Westmoreland’s field commanders, grimly meas¬ured the progress for a visiting Washington official: “Before I came out here a year ago, I thought we were at zero. I was wrong. We were at minus fifty. Now we’re at zero.”

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