Disorder and Decision 10

And other intermediaries were getting into the act. The United Nations secretary-general, U Thant, flew to Washington with a sug¬gestion for Johnson. A former foreign minister of Burma with im-peccable neutralist credentials, he proposed to organize talks with the North Vietnamese. Johnson could not afford to rebuff him. Accord¬ingly, Thant proceeded to make arrangements for an exploratory meeting in Rangoon, the Burmese capital, relying on the Soviet Union to transmit his message to Hanoi. His initiative coincided with an attempt by Prime Minister Khrushchev to bring the North Vietnamese to the conference table. Though they distrusted Khrushchev, who had capitulated to the United States in the Cuban missile crisis and sub¬scribed to President Kennedy’s nuclear test ban treaty, and though they had shifted their sympathy to China, the North Vietnamese re¬alized that there was no firepower in Chinese rhetoric. Only the Soviet Union could supply them with the sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and other equipment they needed. Backtracking, they appealed to Khrushchev for heavier doses of aid. He agreed—on condition that they consider negotiations.
The faint glimmer of hope for a negotiated settlement faded in October 1964, when Khrushchev was ousted by his Kremlin rivals, who promptly increased Soviet assistance to the North Vietnamese. But the prospects for peace had never been strong. Even before Khrushchev’s fall, American officials had rejected diplomacy: in Sep¬tember, when U Thant received a receptive response from Hanoi, administration officials withheld the information from Johnson. To open talks with North Vietnam, explained Dean Rusk, would have signified “the acceptance or the confirmation of aggression.”
Johnson was not wedded to the idea of war. On the contrary, he exercised caution immediately after the Tonkin Gulf affair. He re¬stricted U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam to that single day, and he temporarily suspended both the DeSoto missions and the covert South Vietnamese raids. Yet he and his entourage could not concede to a diplomatic alternative, given foreign policy goals and their ap¬praisal of the situation in South Vietnam itself.
Johnson and his advisers shared the fundamental assumption, in¬herited from Eisenhower and Kennedy, that an independent South Vietnam was vital to the defense of Southeast Asia—and, more im¬portant, to America’s global credibility. In short, they clung to the domino theory, unable to contemplate negotiations that might even¬tually give the Vietcong a recognized political role in South Vietnam. They knew that the Saigon regime was too weak to survive a com¬promise settlement. The top priority must be, they concluded, to stabilize the South Vietnamese government and redress its military position in the field.
That objective was to be unattainable. Therefore, despite their awareness of the pitfalls, Johnson and his aides took over the man¬agement of the war. If the recalcitrant natives could not be prodded, they would have to be supplanted. As Rusk put it: “Somehow we must change the pace at which these people move, and I suspect that this can only be done with a pervasive intrusion of Americans into their affairs.” But unless they were to suffer the opprobium of total colonialism, Americans would have to work through a client South Vietnamese government. And throughout the latter half of 1964, Gen¬eral Maxwell Taylor bore the brunt of that task as U.S. ambassador in Saigon.
A former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Taylor had been selected by Johnson for the job primarily to placate the U.S. military establishment. But the choice had been a poor one. Taylor, though intelligent, was a conventional soldier with little patience for Vietnam’s political complexities. Nor could he understand the vendettas being waged by South Vietnam’s various factions against each other. In his view, the South Vietnamese needed leadership, discipline, cohesion and a sense of purpose—qualities they could acquire by heeding his advice. Unfortunately, they marched to their own tune, and Taylor later reflected on his frustrations at the time. “One of the facts of life about Vietnam was that it was never difficult to decide what should be done, but it was almost impossible to get it done.”
Nothing bedeviled Taylor more than trying to guide Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh. By the early summer of 1964, with his internal op¬ponents plotting against him, Khanh was heading toward collapse and thus pleading for an extension of the war into the north as a distraction from his problems. Suddenly, the American reprisal raids following the Tonkin Gulf incident infused him with fresh confidence. He de¬clared a state of emergency, reimposed censorship and announced other controls. Then he hastily drafted a new constitution for South Vietnam, promoting himself to the presidency and dismissing his principal rival, General Duong Van Minh, the nominal chief of state, whom the Americans had counseled him to include in the government. Taylor had cautioned against making “sweeping changes” that might spark disorder. But Khanh disregarded the warning, and Saigon went into spasms of protest.
Beginning on August 21, students streamed through the city de¬manding that Khanh ease his restrictive new laws. Soon they were joined by Buddhist militants, who insisted, among their other griev¬ances, that too many former Diem supporters still held official jobs. Khanh met with the Buddhist leaders Tri Quang and Tam Chau but virtually admitted his incompetence by telling them that he would discuss their complaints with Ambassador Taylor—who, in turn, urged him not to knuckle under to any minority. Caught between conflicting pressures, Khanh relented. On the morning of August 25, after four frenetic days, he promised to “revise” his constitution and introduce other liberal measures. But his adversaries, now certain that they had him on the run, continued their pursuit.
A crowd of twenty-five thousand massed outside his office, clam¬oring for his resignation. Bravely facing the mob, Khanh denied that he was trying to establish a dictatorship. But that afternoon, he quit. His stillborn constitution was scrapped and the government’s advisory body, the military revolutionary council, met the next day to choose another chief of state.
Officers at the meeting wept and confessed their shortcomings. But the political theater was only a charade contrived to conceal their maneuvers. General Tran Thien Khiem, who had helped Khanh seize power in January, now turned against him, and Minh also jockeyed for position. After lengthy haggling, the council finally created a com¬promise triumvirate of Khanh, Khiem and Minh to rule until a per¬manent government could be formed. Khanh, who still retained the rank of prime minister in the flimsy coalition, flew off- to recuperate in the mountain air of Dalat, and anarchy overtook Saigon.

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