LBJ Goes to War 12

Then, on May 13, Johnson floated Operation Mayflower, the first of several ill-fated diplomatic overtures, all code-named for flora. He announced a “pause” in the bombing of North Vietnam, having instructed Foy Kohler, his ambassador in Moscow, to inform the North Vietnamese legation there that the United States expected “equally constructive” gestures in exchange. The North Vietnamese not only refused to receive Kohler but returned his message unopened. Nor would Soviet officials intercede on his behalf. Two days later, Hanoi Radio denounced the bombing halt as a “worn-out trick,” and Johnson ordered the air strikes resumed.
The purpose of his maneuver, Johnson explained to aides, had been “to clear a path either toward the restoration of peace or toward increased military action, depending upon the reaction of the Com¬munists.” He should have expected a rebuff from the North Viet¬namese. They, like Johnson himself, could conceive of negotiations only on their own terms. Besides, they had just launched their biggest offensive to date in the south in hopes of improving their bargaining position.
Countrywide attacks erupted on May 11 as more than a thousand Vietcong troops overran Songbe, the Phuoc Long province capital, about fifty miles north of Saigon and not far from the Cambodian border. Soon afterward, the Vietcong destroyed two South Vietnam¬ese battalions near the city of Quangngai, in central Vietnam. Then two Vietcong regiments struck again in Phuoc Long, raiding the gov¬ernment military headquarters inside the town of Dong Xoai and hitting a U.S. special forces camp a mile away. Exceeding their man¬date, American advisers often took command of shattered South Vietnamese units whose officers had fled in panic. At Dong Xoai, for example, Second Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams single-handedly knocked out a Vietcong machine gun and guided helicopters into the area to evacuate the wounded. Himself wounded four times in the engagement, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
By the middle of June, the South Vietnamese army had lost its best mobile battalions. At the same time, the government crumbled. Cath¬olic militants engineered the ouster of Prime Minister Quat, and a faction of young officers named General Nguyen Van Thieu chief of state and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky prime minister.
Westmoreland, appalled by the disintegration, confronted Johnson with an urgent appeal. “The South Vietnamese armed forces,” he reported, “cannot stand up to this pressure without substantial U.S. combat support on the ground.” To prevent South Vietnam’s “col¬lapse” he needed more than double the number of U.S. troops already in the pipeline. He wanted a total of one hundred and eighty thousand men—thirty-four U.S. battalions and ten battalions to be provided, at American expense, by South Korea. Even then, they would only serve as a “stopgap” to avert imminent catastrophe. Another hundred thousand Americans, perhaps more, would be required in 1966—and maybe even more afterward, “to seize the initiative from the enemy.” Westmoreland was steeped in gloom. “We are in for the long pull,” he bluntly told Johnson. “I see no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war.”
For Johnson, the choices were simple: either the United States plunged into war or faced defeat. Once again, he canvassed opinions and received a predictable range of views. No outsider unfamiliar with the governmental process could even faintly imagine the mountains of memorandums and hours of dialogue consumed in the tortured deliberations.
Senator Fulbright went to the White House at Johnson’s invitation. He sat silently, trying to stay attentive as Johnson droned on, ex¬plaining how he had offered peace to the Communists but had been spurned, had been spit in the eye. Now, with the Vietcong attacking and the South Vietnamese about to cave in, his only choice was to send American boys out there. He hoped that Bill Fulbright would stand up and tell the Senate how patient he had been. Fulbright’s eventual Senate speech disappointed Johnson. Though he opposed America’s “unconditional” withdrawal from Vietnam, he also op¬posed “further escalation” that threatened to drag the nation into “a bloody and protracted jungle war in which the strategic advantages would be with the other side.” The Communists should be offered a “reasonable and attractive alternative to military victory” through negotiations. Johnson never forgot or forgave this “betrayal,” and the two southern Democrats, colleagues for years, thereafter ceased to speak to each other.
George Ball, keeping his misgivings private, handed Johnson an¬other set of dire premonitions. An “investment trap” loomed: Amer¬ican soldiers would “begin to take heavy casualties in a war they are ill-equipped to fight in a noncooperative if not downright hostile countryside”; to compensate for the losses, more troops would be sent out, and eventually the involvement would be “so great that we cannot—without national humiliation—stop.” Still, Ball predicted, “humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our ob¬jectives—even after we have paid terrible costs.” So, he urged, main¬tain the U.S. force pledged at its current level but start an active search for a “compromise settlement.”
Other Johnson aides were also uncertain. Rusk, always sensitive to global consequences, linked America’s presence in Vietnam to “the integrity of the U.S. commitment” throughout the world, yet he wondered whether Westmoreland was not exaggerating the danger. Taylor continued to vacillate—a hint, perhaps, that a year in chaotic Saigon was unhinging him. In early June, he conceded that American combat troops “will probably be necessary,” but now, at the end of the month, he questioned the need for them, saying that the best they could do was to hold a few enclaves. The CIA echoed his sentiment; its latest study concluded that a large U.S. force would fail to halt the Communists, who clung to the conviction that “their staying power is inherently superior” to that of the Americans and South Vietnamese. The Communists would thus intensify “their present strategy of at¬trition and subversion,” aiming to undermine the Saigon government “through exhaustion and internal collapse.”

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