Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 9

In the middle of 1966, the joint chiefs of staff reckoned that they would have to boost the total American force in Vietnam to more than a half million men within the next eighteen months. A call-up of the reserves was required; otherwise, they warned, the United States could not easily maintain its international defense obligations. But Johnson once again declined to mobilize the reserves—just as he re¬jected higher taxes—a measure that would spotlight the costs of the conflict and, he feared, sour American public opinion. The cheaper alternative was to step up the U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam. The Pentagon brass also favored fiercer bombing, but Robert McNamara’s enthusiasm had cooled off as his confidence in the war effort itself eroded.
It had long been “McNamara’s war,” a cause he had promoted tirelessly since the start of President Kennedy’s tenure in office. He had viewed the struggle during the early 1960s almost exclusively in quantitative terms, calculating that the United States could win simply by committing its superior resources effectively. Now, however, his faith was slipping.
I first discerned the change in February 1966 at the Honolulu con¬ference, when he invited a few reporters into his hotel room for a rare private briefing. His face seemed to be grayer and his patent leather hair thinner, and his voice lacked the authority it had once projected when he would point briskly to graphs and flip-charts to prove his rosy appraisals. Johnson had launched the sustained U.S. air offensive against North Vietnam exactly a year before; but, McNamara told us, the raids had not succeeded—and could not. A rural society could not be blasted into submission, he said with unusual emotion: “No amount of bombing can end the war.”
By these discreet private hints to journalists, McNamara was seeking to circulate his concerns through Washington. For the joint chiefs of staff were then pressing for an ambitious bombing program. They could obliterate almost every oil installation, bridge, airfield, railroad, power plant, port facility and factory in North Vietnam, they argued, and thus hasten the end of the war. McNamara partly approved their recommendations, at least on paper—for a devious motive: he was certain that the raids would be ineffectual, and only by demonstrating the failure could he subdue the generals and admirals and their congres¬sional confederates, and persuade Johnson the struggle must be ended by diplomatic means.
As usual, Johnson procrastinated, ever fearful that China might intervene or that a Soviet ship might accidentally be hit, igniting World War III. In June 1967, he authorized air attacks against petroleum storage sites near Hanoi and Haiphong, which U.S. military spokes¬men initially hailed as devastating—“the most significant, the most important strike of the war,” one officer said. The facts indicated otherwise. Though temporarily inconvenienced, the North Vietnamese had not been deprived of fuel, much of which they had dispersed to concealed spots elsewhere; their troop and supply movements into the south continued unabated; and, as a CIA report later disclosed, they cleverly took advantage of the raids to extract larger doses of aid from China and the Soviet Union. True to McNamara’s expectations, neither their will nor their ability to carry on the fight had been shaken.
Among the factors that influenced McNamara were the changing attitudes of his civilian aides—men like John McNaughton and Adam Yarmolinsky, whose zest for the war was fast evaporating. Searching for fresh ideas, they canvassed several prominent scholars, including Jerome Wiesner of MIT and George Kistiakowsky of Harvard, both former presidential science advisers, who in turn assembled forty- seven of their academic colleagues at a school in Wellesley, Massa¬chusetts, for deliberations throughout the summer of 1966. The group emerged with what would be called the Jason study, named for a division of the Institute of Defense Analyses, the think tank that had organized the conference; and its blunt conclusions further confirmed McNamara’s mounting reservations about the direction of U.S. policy in Vietnam.
The bombing campaign, the study said, was having “no measurable direct effect” on enemy military activities—and it restated the familiar reasons for that evaluation: North Vietnam was “basically a subsis¬tence agricultural economy” that presented an “unrewarding target” for air raids; the volume of supplies sent south was too small to be stopped by air strikes and, in any case, the country had ample man¬power to keep its primitive logistical network intact; intelligence es¬timates showed that infiltration into the south had risen since the bombing began and could continue to increase; the Chinese and Soviet assistance was more than compensating for the damage being inflicted. As for the effect of the air offensive on the morale of the North Vietnamese leadership and population, the report’s observation simply underscored the testimony of nearly every foreign visitor to Hanoi within the past year. “The bombing clearly strengthened popular sup¬port of the regime by engendering patriotic and nationalistic enthu¬siasm to resist the attacks.”
The scholars, under some obligation to offer a positive alternative to their thoroughly negative assessment, endorsed an idea originally suggested by McNamara—to stretch an electronic fence for roughly a hundred miles through the area separating the two zones of Vietnam and thus block enemy traffic from the north into the south. It could be outfitted with the latest detection devices and sophisticated mines, and monitored on the ground and from the air by up-to-date acoustical and photographic equipment. Despite objections from Westmoreland and other officers, construction of the barrier began soon afterward, but the project quickly turned out to be absurd, and it was abandoned.
In October 1966, back in Vietnam for the first time in nearly a year, McNamara again lapsed into divergent public and private statements. Progress “has exceeded our expectations,” he assured the news media—but, he informed Johnson confidentially, he was only “a little less pessimistic” than he had been on his last trip because “we have by and large blunted” the enemy initiative. Still, he added grimly, he saw “no reasonable way to bring the war to an end soon.” Though they were suffering huge casualties, the North Vietnamese and Viet- cong could “more than replace” their losses through recruitment and infiltration, which had not been slowed down by the bombing. The Saigon government seemed more solid, yet the “pacification” effort had “gone backward.” The Communist presence had spread, so that its political apparatus “thrives in most of the country,” and “full security exists nowhere”—not even in areas supposedly under Amer¬ican control. Worst of all, South Vietnam’s leadership and population were apathetic, corrupt and undisciplined, and there appeared to be no prospect of stirring them out of their torpor. “This important war must be fought and won by the Vietnamese themselves. We have known this from the beginning. But the discouraging truth is that, as was the case in 1961 and 1963 and 1965, we have not found the formula, the catalyst, for training and inspiring them into effective action. ”

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