LBJ Goes to War 11

Characteristically, though, Johnson was nagged by doubts. As he flew back to Washington following the Johns Hopkins speech, he told Bill Moyers that “old Ho can’t turn me down.” But he grudgingly respected North Vietnam’s stubborn courage, and he would also con¬fide to members of his staff: “If I were Ho Chi Minh, I would never negotiate.”
The North Vietnamese prime minister, Pham Van Dong, insisted that discussions, unconditional or otherwise, could not be held unless the U.S. bombing ended; any settlement would also require the cre¬ation in Saigon of a neutral coalition government that included Viet- cong representatives. Linking the military and political issues was characteristic of the Communists, and they stuck to that position until late 1972. They may have erred, though, in spurning Johnson’s offer to talk. For one thing, they might have deterred the U.S. military buildup and strengthened themselves in the interval. And, by appearing receptive, they would have certainly demoralized the Saigon regime. But, like Johnson, they were prisoners of their experience— as Pham Van Dong plainly disclosed during the summer of 1965: “We entered into negotiations with the French colonialists on many oc-casions and concluded with them several agreements in an effort to preserve peace,” he said. “To them, however, the signing of agree¬ments was only designed to gain time to prepare their military forces for further aggression. . . . This is a clear lesson of history, a lesson on relations with the imperialists, which our people will never forget.”
The Vietcong was relatively subdued during the early spring of 1965 as its forces regrouped in central Vietnam and in the region around Saigon, stiffened by four North Vietnamese regiments that had trekked into the south since the start of the year despite air strikes against their infiltration routes. President Johnson, anticipating an enemy offensive, cabled Ambassador Taylor on April 15. Besides bombing the north, he said, “something new must be added in the south.” He, was ready to Americanize the war. He proposed sending out a U.S. brigade to protect the Bienhoa air base, lacing South Viet¬namese army units with regular U.S. troops and, among other in¬novations, introducing U.S. officials into South Vietnam’s provincial administration to manage its machinery.
Taylor again objected, sarcastically attributing the initiatives to “a new level of creativity by a president determined to get prompt re¬sults.” He termed the idea of Americans running the South Vietnamese administration “disastrous,” since it would erode the regime’s already ragged nationalist credentials. He again protested against committing more U.S. troops until they were absolutely necessary. But he detected a different Johnson, now racing into an American ground war, and he later summoned up a classical allusion to describe the moment: having “crossed the Rubicon” by starting his bombing campaign, he said, Johnson “was now off to Rome on the double.”
The unflappable Mac Bundy advised Johnson to be patient, sug¬gesting that Taylor could be persuaded to “come aboard.” Bundy was correct. Peer pressure works wonders inside the government, and at a hastily convened gathering in Honolulu on April 20, McNamara, Wheeler, Westmoreland and Bill Bundy brought Taylor into the fold. He upheld their plan to send an additional forty thousand U.S. troops to Vietnam by June—double the number already there. But even that force might not do the trick, and they left the door ajar to “possible later deployments.”
Johnson endorsed the proposal—his instinct for action encouraged by one trusted intimate, Abe Fortas, a Washington lawyer whom he was soon to appoint to the Supreme Court. Fortas, a friend of John¬son’s from the New Deal, was a hard-line Jewish progressive—a man with an unsurpassed record of struggle for social justice and civil liberties who still retained the foreign policy outlook of the 1940s, when liberals abhorred “appeasement.” He has not been mentioned earlier in these pages because he played only a shadowy role; he rarely gave interviews, and he put his imprint on few formal documents. Yet he talked on the telephone almost daily with Johnson and influ¬enced him perhaps more than any other person on a range of topics, including Vietnam. Or perhaps, as courtiers do, he simply confirmed Johnson’s own intuition. Once, over lunch in Washington in 1966, a senior State Department official challenged me to identify the single individual who exerted the most influence on Johnson’s policies to¬ward Vietnam. McNamara? Rusk? Mac Bundy? None of them. Abe Fortas. “But Fortas doesn’t know anything about Vietnam,” I re¬monstrated. “True,” the official replied, “but he knows a lot about Lyndon Johnson. ”
Yet Johnson demanded approval from everyone, and dissidents ir¬ritated him even if they were numerically inconsequential. They now included Clark Clifford, the powerful Washington attorney and a close friend, who privately warned him that a “substantial” U.S. troop commitment to Vietnam “could be a quagmire . . . without realistic hope of ultimate victory.” Capitol Hill also buzzed with murmurs of concern from senators like Jacob Javits of New York and George Aiken of Vermont, who until then had displayed few misgivings about the war. Johnson was especially annoyed when Frank Church publicly urged negotiations with North Vietnam. Singling out Church one evening at a crowded White House dinner, Johnson asked him whom he had consulted in preparing his speech. Church mentioned Walter Lippmann, and Johnson snapped: “All right, Frank, next time you want a dam for Idaho, you go talk to Walter Lippmann.”
Despite his reservations, Church fell into line with nearly the entire Senate to grant Johnson’s request for $700 million in appropriations to conduct the war; the House went along with only seven nays. Johnson had not needed the funds, but he wanted a reaffirmation of congressional assent for his Vietnam policy, and he lobbied stren¬uously—even prevailing upon former President Eisenhower to issue a statement declaring that “none of us should try to divide the support that citizens owe their head of state in critical international situations.”

Leave a Reply

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