LBJ Goes to War 10

The marine deployment was one of the crucial decisions of the war, yet it hardly stirred a ripple, either in Congress or in the American press—largely because Johnson had skillfully presented it as simply a short-term expedient. He even deceived the Communist strategists in Hanoi. They feared that an American troop buildup in Vietnam would cause them “new difficulties” but, as one of them later recalled to me, they doubted that Johnson would authorize such “enormous expen¬ditures in money and materiel” without being “certain of victory.” They miscalculated.
Disappointed by the lack of results from the air strikes against the north, Johnson vented his frustrations on his military staff. He wanted fresh “ideas and solutions,” he said, not merely proposals for more bombing, and over breakfast in the White House family quarters, he ordered General Harold K. Johnson, army chief of staff, to go to Vietnam and come back with the answers. As they descended in the elevator following the meeting, the president leaned close to him and thrust an index finger into his chest, saying: “You get things bubbling, general.”
The president meanwhile sent Westmoreland a blank check, telling him to “assume no limitation on funds, equipment or personnel” for any requests that he and General Johnson might recommend. West¬moreland wanted more manpower, and, at his behest, General Johnson returned to Washington a week later with a proposal for a division of American troops to be deployed to protect U.S. bases in South Viet¬nam. Predictably, Ambassador Taylor disagreed; again he stressed that a big American commitment would encourage the South Vietnamese army to “let the United States do it,” and he repeated his warning that it would look as if Americans had inherited “the old French role of alien colonizer and conqueror.” This time the president sided with Taylor—but only briefly. He deferred approval of a U.S. division and instead authorized more intensive bombing of North Vietnam.
Back in Washington for consultations in late March, however, Tay¬lor sensed that the administration was edging toward a decision to put more American troops into Vietnam. Mac Bundy, for example, had advised the president that additional U.S. units would improve Amer¬ica’s “eventual bargaining position” in negotiations. John Mc- Naughton asserted that only American combat forces could prevent a “humiliating U.S. defeat.” The joint chiefs of staff, outdoing General Johnson, called for three divisions, including one from South Korea— and Westmoreland, now pessimistic about the usefulness of air strikes against the north, endorsed the suggestion. At the Pentagon, where the nostrils of military planners flare at the scent of a buildup, rival services were competing furiously for a piece of the action.
At a high-level White House meeting on April 1, 1965, President Johnson decided to give Westmoreland two more marine battalions as well as eighteen to twenty thousand logistical troops—since Amer¬icans never fight abroad without ample supplies of arms and am¬munition, and vast quantities of beer, chocolate bars, shaving cream and their favorite brands of cigarettes. The president also dictated an important tactical change. Taylor, now resigned to having the marines in Vietnam, had insisted that they be restricted to defending U.S. bases and other installations along the coast. But Westmoreland, ar¬guing that “a good offense is the best defense,” wanted them out patrolling the countryside. Johnson backed Westmoreland. And the marines, as one of their commanders put it, would henceforth “start killing the Vietcong instead of just sitting on their ditty box.”
Johnson concealed the momentous step from the public. He told reporters that “no far-reaching strategy … is being suggested or pro¬mulgated. ” He also instructed his staff to avoid “premature public¬ity … by all possible precautions” in order to “minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy.” Not until June was the decision to send U.S. troops into offensive operations in Vietnam officially revealed—and then almost casually at the State Department. The lack of candor was later criticized by many of Johnson’s wartime associates, among them Westmoreland: “It was a masterpiece of ob¬liquity, and I was unhappy about it. To my mind the American people had a right to know forthrightly, within the actual limits of military security, what we were calling on their sons to do, and to presume that it could be concealed despite the open eyes of press and television was folly.”
Even so, rising concern in Congress about the war worried Johnson. The list of opponents to the war, though still short, had grown to include Senators Frank Church of Idaho and George McGovern of South Dakota. And William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to be shifting. In late March, he was sufficiently troubled to caution Johnson that a “massive ground and air war in Southeast Asia” would be a “disaster” for the United States. Johnson ignored the warning but directed his aides to draft a major speech to assuage his domestic doubters.
Written by Richard Goodwin, the most talented wordsmith in Washington at the time, the speech was both stick and carrot. The United States, said the president, “will not be defeated” or “withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement”; but he appealed to the North Vietnamese to concede to “unconditional dis¬cussions” and offered them a share of a huge Mekong development project to be financed with American funds. Once again he was im¬puting his own values to the Communists, figuring he could buy their cooperation with a bit of old-fashioned pork-barrel patronage.
McGeorge Bundy had counseled Johnson to show an advance text of the speech to Walter Lippmann in the hope that it would “plug his guns.” Johnson did better. He invited Lippmann to the White House on April 6, the day before the speech was scheduled for delivery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and assured him that he was “going to hold out that carrot you keep talking to me about.” But soon Johnson was bellowing, “I’m not just going to pull up my pants and run out on Vietnam. Don’t you know the church is on fire over there, and we’ve got to find a way out? . . .You say to negotiate, but there’s nobody over there to negotiate with. So the only thing there is to do is to hang on. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *