LBJ Goes to War 2

The joint chiefs of staff shared Taylor’s concern about sending U.S. troops to Vietnam, but they criticized his reluctance to bomb North Vietnam, contending that only such “significantly stronger military pressures” against the Hanoi regime would give the Saigon govern¬ment the “relief and psychological boost” it required to attain “stability and viability.” They favored immediate air strikes against the targets in the north that they had pinpointed six months earlier, and they also proposed, among other things, clandestine incursions against sus¬pected Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia.
They were seconded by John McNaughton, a former Harvard Law School professor, now a key civilian aide to McNamara. Though later skeptical, he then believed that only a more dynamic involvement could save South Vietnam. He called for a bigger American military commitment in Vietnam, including combat divisions, and the con¬struction of a U.S. naval complex, perhaps at Danang. He suggested that American ships reassigned to the Tonkin Gulf patrols deliberately provoke a Communist response, which could be met by a “cre¬scendo” of U.S. air raids and other actions against North Vietnam. Since reports of these initiatives, “distorted” by the media, might poison the election campaign at home, McNaughton advised that “we must act with special care” to assure the American public that “we are behaving with good purpose and restraint.” Still, McNaughton was as uncertain as his colleagues. At worst, South Vietnam might “disintegrate,” leaving the United States to claim that “the pa¬tient . . . died despite the extraordinary efforts of a good doctor.”
A disservice done by The Pentagon Papers, the purloined collection of secret Vietnam war documents published in 1971, was to convey the idea that plans drafted by bureaucrats all reflect official policy. In fact, Washington is always awash with proposals and projects, some incredible. But they do not become policy without the president’s personal approval. This was especially true under Johnson. Ulti¬mately, Lyndon Johnson was to endorse most of the schemes for stepping up the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia. In the late sum¬mer of 1964, however, he was in no hurry to plunge into a conflict.
On September 7, he assembled his top aides at the White House to canvass their opinions. Among those present were Secretaries Rusk and McNamara, the Bundy brothers, General Earle Wheeler of the joint chiefs and Ambassador Taylor, who had just flown in from Saigon. As the discussion started in the cabinet room, Johnson inter¬rupted to ask whether Vietnam was “worth all this effort.” His ad¬visers knew that the question was rhetorical, and Johnson knew they knew it, but typically, he wanted to hear the explicit consensus— partly because he thought of himself as a pragmatist, receptive to many ideas, but also perhaps because his inner doubts compelled him to validate his views through the concurrence of others.
Johnson later claimed that he always listened carefully to his staff, inviting each assistant to voice objections or advance alternatives. But his aides could rarely resist the sheer weight of his personality, com¬pounded as it was by the awesome power of the presidency. Johnson did not bully recalcitrant advisers into submission: on the contrary, they shared his fundamental assumption that America’s credibility was at stake in the crusade to contain Communism. Though they might differ over tactics, they came to the White House meeting in agreement that only vigorous measures could now avert catastrophe in Southeast Asia.
Most of the participants performed predictably. Wheeler suggested that North Vietnam be bombed as soon as possible, while Rusk urged that other options be explored first. Taylor, having earlier pleaded that the Saigon regime be given time to stiffen itself, now conceded that “only the emergence of an exceptional leader could improve the situation and no George Washington is in sight.” So he favored “in¬creased pressure” against the north, to begin about December 1, and dutifully recited the dogma of the domino theory: “If we leave Viet¬nam with our tail between our legs, the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America would be disastrous.”
Johnson, still hoping to delay or even avoid direct U.S. intervention, remained cool. On September 12, he ordered American vessels back into the Tonkin Gulf but withdrew them after another dubious clash with Communist patrol boats six days later—and kept them out of the area until February. And he also put the South Vietnamese com¬mando raids against the North Vietnamese coast under strict American supervision. Right after the meeting, however, he approved a contin-gency plan that then seemed ambiguous but which turned out to be a crucially important trip wire. The United States, it stated, would react “as appropriate” against North Vietnam in retaliation for “any” Communist attack against American units in Vietnam.
A year before, seeking to measure the cost of “victory,” the joint chiefs of staff had conducted a “war game” code-named Sigma I. Its outcome was discouraging: at least a half million U.S. combat troops would be necessary. Now, in September, they organized a sequel, Sigma II, to gauge the potential impact of an air offensive against North Vietman. The players, who included McGeorge Bundy, McNaughton, Wheeler and General Curtis LeMay, formed two teams, one representing the United States and the other North Vietnam. Again the results were depressing: no amount of American pressure could stop the Communists.
The conclusion should have been self-evident. North Vietnam, a predominantly rural society with an apparently inexhaustible people prepared to die for their cause, could not be blasted “back to the Stone Age,” as Curtis LeMay wanted to do. Neither Britain nor Germany had been bombed to its knees during World War II, and Japan had succumbed only to the atomic weapon—hardly an option in Vietnam. Some senior officials, McNamara among them, later recognized this reality. But in late 1964, despite the lessons of the “war game,” the Washington planners continued to refine their program for air strikes.

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