Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 2

Aware of that hazard, McNamara urged Johnson to stop the Amer¬ican air strikes against North Vietnam for three or four weeks before committing more troops to the conflict. This would give the Com¬munists a “face-saving chance” to consider a diplomatic settlement, he argued, and it would also show America and the world that the administration did not intend to escalate “without having tried, through a pause, to end the war”—or at least make it appear that “we did our best to end it.” Johnson was skeptical; a Communist rebuff would hand his generals and their right-wing supporters a pretext to demand even stronger military moves. Nevertheless, he consulted his key aides—among them Rusk, Ball and McGeorge Bundy—as well as Clark Clifford and, with dubious propriety, Abe Fortas, now a Supreme Court justice.
After a week of preliminary talks, the advisers assembled in the White House cabinet room on December 18 for two final days of debate. Johnson, hunched forward earnestly, opened the first session by announcing his readiness to “take any gamble” that might produce results. Clasping and unclasping his hands, he listened as the others spoke in turn. McNamara pressed hard for flexibility. It was the first time that he voiced doubts about the Vietnam policy—though, as Clifford later recalled, he was as crisp and precise as ever. “The military solution to the problem is not certain, one out of three or one in two, ” McNamara said. “Ultimately we must find alternative solutions. We must perforce find a diplomatic solution.”
“What you are saying,” Johnson interjected, “is that no matter what we do militarily, there is no sure victory.”
“That’s right,” McNamara replied. They had been too optimistic in believing that American power alone would work. “We need to explore other means. Our military action approach is an unacceptable way to a successful conclusion.”
Ball and Bundy concurred. So did Rusk, even though he saw only one chance in twenty that a bombing halt would lead to a negotiated settlement. But it ought to be tried, he felt, if only for propaganda purposes. “You must think about the morale of the American people if the other side keeps pushing,” he explained to Johnson. “We must be able to say that all has been done.”
Fortas disagreed. The initiative would advertise America’s “lack of certainty,” thereby causing the public to worry about the adminis¬tration’s “depth of conviction.” Besides, the venture was “ambivalent and ambiguous”; no prior arrangements had been made that signaled a positive outcome. Failure would create “renewed pressure for drastic action” and thwart future negotiating possibilities.
Clark Clifford had briefly harbored doubts a year earlier, but now he backed Fortas, arguing with the skill and precision that made him one of Washington’s highest-priced lawyers. He was worried about a U.S. troop buildup, but he opposed a bombing pause. The North Vietnamese would reject any proposed settlement until they realized that they could not win, and they were far from that stage, he said. They would interpret a bombing halt as a “sign of weakness,” un¬dertaken only in reply to public pressure, and they would estimate that they could wear down the Americans as they had the French. Also, a “clearly unproductive” peace bid would be widely viewed as a “gimmick,” demeaning to the president’s prestige.
Chatting with Valenti during a break, Johnson confessed his be¬wilderment. He tried to put himself in Ho Chi Minh’s shoes, but he was still baffled. “I don’t know him,” Johnson explained. “I don’t know his ancestry or his customs or his beliefs. It is tough, very tough.”
As the second day of conversations with his advisers wore on, Johnson abruptly reached a decision—perhaps more by intuition than by logic. He sighed, stood up, stretched, looked solemnly at the men around the table and then, almost casually, addressed McNamara. “We’ll take the pause,” he said, and strode from the room.
The bombing halt began on Christmas morning and lasted for thirty-seven days, an interval Johnson used to promote a spectacular “peace offensive.” He sent such emissaries as Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, McGeorge Bundy and Ambassador-at-Large Averell Har- riman to more than forty countries to persuade their leaders of his sincerity. He also promulgated a fourteen-point program inviting the North Vietnamese to enter into “negotiations without preconditions.”
“We have put everything into the basket of peace except the sur¬render of South Vietnam,” Dean Rusk said. But he privately advised Ambassador Lodge to see the ambitious diplomatic operation for what it really was—an exercise in public relations. His cable to Lodge on December 28 even struck an uncharacteristically cynical note: “The prospect of large-scale reinforcements in men and defense budget in¬creases for the next eighteen-month period requires solid preparation of the American public. A crucial element will be a clear demonstration that we have explored fully every alternative but that the aggressor has left us no choice.”
Rusk nevertheless directed Henry Byroade, the U.S. ambassador to Burma, to inform his North Vietnamese counterpart in Rangoon that the bombing pause might be extended if the Communists recip¬rocated “by making a serious contribution toward peace.” A Hanoi Radio broadcast denounced the American initiative as a “trick” and asserted that no political settlement was possible until the Johnson administration halted the air raids “unconditionally and for good.” But the statement did not rule out future talks, an omission that some American officials construed positively—“like the flicker of an eyelid in a Trollope novel,” one of them said.
The American commanders in Vietnam were not deterred by the diplomatic drive. After a one-day Christmas cease-fire, they intensified the ground war. Early in January, they launched the “biggest attack” to date against the Vietcong in the area near Saigon, and later in the month, as part of a thrust into Quangngai province, they staged the “largest amphibious operation” since the Inchon landing in Korea. Meanwhile, fresh American forces continued to arrive. These moves were not designed to foil the “peace” maneuvers, since Johnson mon¬itored them closely himself, but they did little to generate an atmos¬phere of conciliation. Nor did Johnson’s State of the Union message, delivered to Congress on January 12: “The days may become months and the months may become years, but we will stay as long as aggres¬sion commands us to battle.”

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