Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 3

Real or contrived, the diplomatic endeavor went nowhere, and Johnson resumed the bombing of North Vietnam at the end of Jan¬uary. Hanoi’s man in Rangoon broke off contact with Ambassador Byroade, and eleven months passed before another U.S. official was to meet with a North Vietnamese representative. Johnson’s critics blamed him for the failure, but the Communist leaders shared re¬sponsibility. Like him, they were reluctant to negotiate seriously until they had improved their military position in South Vietnam. They spelled out this “very complicated” problem of war and diplomacy in an internal document that strangely resembled a White House mem¬orandum. They could sit down at the conference table with their enemies, it concluded, only after they had destroyed “as much of their potential as possible” and could “force them into submission.” But in contrast to the president, they did not have to cope with the vagaries of congressional, media and public opinion.
On a trip back from Asia to Washington in early 1966, I queried several members of Congress for their views on the war. Most of them seemed to be unsure; one of them expressed the prevailing sen¬timent when he confided to me that he would probably make up his mind “when the casualties in my constituency become significant.” But a few concerned senators and representatives were beginning to perceive Vietnam as a potentially major issue. One group, troubled by the danger of a costlier conflict, leaned toward restraint. Another favored tougher action. Both factions vexed Johnson, who detested even the faintest hint of dissent. His reactions varied, however, ac¬cording to his perception of their power.
He was chronically alarmed by hard-liners such as Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, a key member of the armed services committee, who maintained close ties to the Pentagon. Stennis had originally had grave reservations about an American commitment to Southeast Asia, but he had come to believe that, once involved, the United States ought to mobilize its full military might to win. Johnson believed that Stennis reflected a significant segment of public opinion, which wor¬ried about an expanded conflict yet recoiled from the thought of an American setback. So he repeatedly sought to placate Stennis and his ilk, sometimes by capitulating to their demands and sometimes by conceding enough to the generals and admirals to assure them of his intention to push on to victory.
Increasingly, too, Johnson surrounded himself with congressional loyalists like Senators Gale McGee of Wyoming and Fred Harris of Oklahoma, rewarding them with pledges of patronage and invitations to his informal White House suppers. He patched up an old quarrel with Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, whose staunch anti-Commu- nism would be an asset, promising to help Douglas’s campaign for reelection. By contrast, Johnson did not hesitate to bring the immense weight of the presidency to bear against liberal dissidents. One victim of his wrath was Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, an ardent Johnson enthusiast who had begun to have misgivings about the war.
Late in January 1966, Hartke signaled his doubts to Johnson in a letter cosigned by fourteen of his Senate colleagues—among them Eugene McCarthy, the junior senator from Minnesota. The mild mes¬sage proposed only that the president refrain from resuming air strikes against North Vietnam and continue to explore a possible diplomatic settlement. To Johnson it was a case of lèse majesté. He excoriated Hartke publicly as “obstreperous” and privately as a “prick”; going even further, he saw to it that several of the senator’s proteges were dismissed from their federal jobs. Punishing Hartke, he figured, would serve as a warning to others. But soon he had to cope with a far more formidable adversary, Robert Kennedy, now the junior senator from New York.
McNamara, an intimate friend and godfather to one of his sons, had confided to Kennedy his own sense of foreboding about the war in the hope that Kennedy could encourage Johnson to stonewall the joint chiefs of staff, who were then clamoring for renewed bombing. Kennedy sent Johnson a copy of Never Call Retreat, one of the volumes in a history of the Civil War by Bruce Catton, with a handwritten note suggesting that Johnson might derive “some comfort” from the marked passages—which showed that Abraham Lincoln had faced “identical problems and situations.” Kennedy sought to indicate that Lincoln had resisted pressure from his generals and Johnson ought to do the same. But Johnson, who may have only glanced at the title, misinterpreted it to mean that Kennedy supported his stand in Viet¬nam. On January 31, he resumed the bombing of North Vietnam— and Kennedy openly broke with him over the war. The president’s decision, Kennedy said in a florid speech, “may become the first in a series of steps on a road from which there is no turning back—a road that leads to catastrophe for all mankind.” The issue soon exacerbated Johnson’s obsessive hatred of the Kennedy clan. If he had “lost” Viet¬nam, he told Doris Kearns years later, “there would be Robert Ken¬nedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the Communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. Oh, I could see it coming all right. Every night when I fell asleep I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long, open space. In the distance I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting at me and running toward me: ‘Coward! Traitor! Weak- ling!’ ”
Senator Fulbright was another annoyance, relentlessly heckling and needling Johnson, his Rhodes scholar’s eloquence couched in an Ar¬kansas drawl. He was a friend turned foe, which to Johnson made him more reprehensible than someone like Wayne Morse, who had at least been a consistent, predictable critic. Johnson was especially troubled by Fulbright’s forum, the Senate foreign relations committee, which began nationally televised hearings on the war policy in early 1966. The hearings so disturbed Johnson that, on February 4, he tried to upstage them by suddenly announcing his departure next day for Honolulu to confer with the South Vietnamese leaders. Further to divert public attention away from the unpalatable military side of the war, Johnson directed the participants at the Honolulu meeting to concentrate on economic, social and political projects for South Viet¬nam—the “pacification” programs that had by then become largely subordinated to the fighting. Back in Washington, though, he au¬thorized such aides as Dean Rusk and Maxwell Taylor to appear before Fulbright, whose interrogations of administration supporters and op¬ponents continued throughout February, a political theater in peculiar contrast to the battle scenes flashing across the nation’s television screens every evening.

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