LBJ Goes to War 13

Bill Bundy proposed a “middle way.” He ruled out withdrawal, but he also doubted that an American buildup would work. Unless the South Vietnamese army performed better, “our own intervention would appear to be turning the conflict into a white man’s war, with the United States in the shoes of the French.” He recommended that no more than a hundred thousand American troops be committed, both to hold the line and to be tested in the coming months. And after that? Perhaps the “Vietcong tide could be stemmed. ” The North Vietnamese, facing a “stalemate,” might compromise. Or maybe the Saigon regime would “throw in the sponge and make a deal” with the Communists. Bundy’s “middle way,” at least in the short term, avoided the “clear pitfalls” of either quitting or brutal escalation. He, too, was unsure.
Not so McNamara and the Pentagon brass. They pleaded with Johnson to grant Westmoreland’s troop request, and McNamara went even further. He stressed that Johnson ought to call up the reserves— the force of former servicemen—a politically explosive step tanta¬mount to an announcement of full-scale war. He also proposed a massive offensive against North Vietnam—mining its harbors’, de¬stroying its airfields, obliterating its rail and road bridges and wiping out every installation of military value, from ammunition dumps and oil storage facilities to power plants and barracks. He suggested a few token diplomatic gestures, like enlisting Soviet help in the quest for accommodation, but only to sanctify an armed approach designed to dramatize to the Communiists that “the odds are against their win¬ning.”
Mac Bundy recoiled at McNamara’s program, terming it “rash to the point of folly.” Not only was an extravagant campaign against North Vietnam preposterous, but putting a huge American force into Vietnam was “a slippery slope toward total U.S. responsibility and corresponding fecklessness on the Vietnamese side.” What, Bundy asked, was the ceiling on the American liability? Could U.S. troops wage an antiguerrilla war, the “central problem” in South Vietnam? And above all, what was “the real object of the exercise”? To get to the conference table? If so, “What results do we seek there?” Or was the investment simply intended “to cover an eventual retreat”? In that case, “Can we not do that just as well where we are?”
The younger Bundy was not being gratuitously tough on Mc¬Namara, one of his close friends. Nor was he a cut-and-run type. He shared the assumption that Vietnam was vital to America’s interests. But as chief of Johnson’s national security staff, he wanted the pres¬ident’s cabinet—and the president himself—to ponder the crucial questions. The questions were posed, but they were never deeply examined.
After screening the assorted ideas that cluttered his desk, Mac Bundy counseled Johnson to “listen hard” to Ball but to discard his proposal— and then “move to the narrower choice” between the Bill Bundy and McNamara options. Their recommendations were to be discussed toward the end of July, the deadline for a final decision. “I was not about to send additional men without the most detailed analysis,” Johnson later recalled. But he had already made up his mind—and his apparent probe of the issues was largely contrived.
Johnson ordered McNamara back to Vietnam to reassess the situ¬ation. McNamara arrived on July 16, accompanied by Wheeler and Henry Cabot Lodge, who had just agreed to return to Saigon for another tour as ambassador, succeeding Taylor. The group went to dinner that evening with Ky and Thieu, who had grabbed power a few weeks earlier. Ky showed up in a tight white jacket, tapered trousers, patent leather shoes and red socks, looking like a saxophone player in a second-rate nightclub. McNamara did a double take at the sight of the new South Vietnamese leader on whom America’s fate hung so precariously. One U.S. official in the party muttered, “At least no one could confuse him with Uncle Ho.”
McNamara was supposed to devote several days to his “fact- finding” mission. But a day after his arrival, he received an ultrasecret cable over the CIA’s “back channel” from his deputy, Cyrus Vance. President Johnson had decided to go ahead with Westmoreland’s troop request, and he wanted McNamara to return to Washington imme¬diately. As Westmoreland noted afterward, the policy debate “turned out, in a way, to be moot. ”
McNamara came back with a lengthy memorandum, and his con¬fidential comments again bore little resemblance to his public remarks. He told reporters that the U.S. forces in Vietnam were inflicting “increasingly heavy losses” on the Vietcong, but he informed Johnson privately that conditions were “worse than a year ago.” Communist infiltration into the south had not been daunted by the American bombing, and the Saigon government’s chances for survival over the next six months were “less than even.” Then he gave Johnson the bad news. By early 1966, he said, Vietnam would need not only the number of U.S. soldiers requested by Westmoreland but another hundred thousand or probably more. And that meant, McNamara again stressed, mobilizing the reserves and the national guard—in effect putting the country on a war footing. Otherwise, America could not meet its global security responsibilities.
Johnson could see even further ahead. Though he never revealed it publicly, he already sensed by July 1965 that Vietnam would require six hundred thousand American men and cost billions of dollars. But as he opened a week-long series of White House sessions on July 21, Johnson fostered the impression that he was still groping for answers. “I want this discussed in full detail,” he said, his narrow eyes darting around the table at Rusk, McNamara, Wheeler, Mac and Bill Bundy, and the others. He wanted to weigh all the options: What results can we expect? Do we have to defend the world? Who else can help? What are the alternatives?
Relentlessly, almost plaintively, he went through the motion of firing questions, particularly at Ball, his devil’s advocate. And he continued the next day with his generals and admirals. Can American boys fight Asians in the jungle? Will the North Vietnamese pour in more men? Might they call for Chinese or Russian volunteers? How much will this cost us? Are we getting into something we cannot finish? Johnson convened other meetings with only two or three aides, and he consulted outsiders like John McCloy, the distinguished New York banker who had advised presidents since the Roosevelt era. Edging closer to the deadline, he communed with Abe Fortas.
Johnson wanted to portray himself as a model of moderation— partly to reassure the American people that he was not going to war, partly to avoid a Soviet or Chinese response. He rejected McNamara’s plea to call up the reserves, and he parceled out the American troop shipments to Vietnam. He could not conceal his decision, but he could muffle it. On July 28, 1965, at midday, when the television audience is smallest, he soberly announced, “I have asked the commanding general, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. And we will meet his needs. We cannot be defeated by force of arms. We will stand in Vietnam.”

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