LBJ Goes to War 5

A liberal New Deal lawyer, Ball had served on a mission to survey the effects of the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II. The raids, he learned, had barely dented German industry, and he could not imagine that bombing rural North Vietnam would be any more effective. He had also conversed frequently with Charles de Gaulle, who had warned him that the United States was courting the risk of repeating France’s tragic experience in Indochina—“ce pays pourri,” as de Gaulle called it. Now, in the fall of 1964, Ball was acutely worried, and in early October he dictated a sixty-seven-page memorandum—a “challenge to the assumptions of our current Viet¬nam policy.”
“Once on the tiger’s back, we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount,” he wrote, arguing that a U.S. air offensive against North Vietnam would induce escalation on both sides. The Com-munists would step up their attacks on the flimsy Saigon regime, which could be rescued only by the introduction of American forces. But the United States “cannot substitute its presence for an effective South Vietnamese government . . . over a sustained period of time.” The spreading conflict would threaten to “set in train a series of events leading, at the end of the road, to the direct intervention of China and nuclear war.” The sanest approach, Ball asserted, was “an immediate political solution that would avoid deeper U.S. involvement.” Re¬futing the notion that America’s global credibility stood to suffer as a consequence, he added: “What we might gain by establishing the steadfastness of our commitments, we could lose by an erosion of confidence in our judgments.”
Johnson did not see the memo until February 1965. But Ball had addressed personal copies to “Dean, Bob and Mac”—Rusk, Mc¬Namara and McGeorge Bundy. McNamara was shocked by the doc¬ument, less by Ball’s apostasy than by his rashness in putting such heretical thoughts, which might be leaked to the press, on paper. The others, as Ball recalled, dismissed the critique as “merely an idiosyn¬cratic diversion” from the basic problem of “how to win the war.”
Walt Rostow, at the other extreme, urged audacity. Send American troops to Vietnam promptly, he asserted, and the Communists would understand that “we are prepared to face down any form of escalation” they might mount. “Massive” U.S. air and naval forces should be deployed in the Pacific to strike at North Vietnam and even China, should either or both react. Only a stupendous display of American muscle would drive the Communists into submission. “They will not actually accept a setback until they are sure that we mean it,” Rostow affirmed, and they had to be told bluntly that “they now confront an LBJ who has made up his mind.”
Not even the joint chiefs of staff were ready to go so far—though General Wheeler repeated Johnson’s ambiguous suggestion that Amer¬ican combat units be sent to Vietnam to guard U.S. installations there, an idea to which McNamara and McGeorge Bundy were cool. So was Taylor, once again in Washington. If the administration hoped to compel the Hanoi leaders to abandon the insurgency in the south, Taylor reasoned, “too much” coercion could be dangerous. Again he recommended “measured military pressures,” among them the bomb¬ing of Communist infiltration routes in Laos and selective air raids against North Vietnam in retaliation for specific incidents like the Bienhoa attack. But short of a complete American takeover, an un¬appealing alternative, Taylor could not promise that moderation would succeed. The key, he said, was a solid regime in Saigon, without which American aid was only a “spinning wheel unable to transmit impulsion” to the effort to beat the Communists. No such regime was visible. “It is impossible to foresee a stable and effective govern¬ment under any name in anything like the near future . . . We sense the mounting feeling of war weariness and hopelessness that pervade South Vietnam . . . There is chronic discouragement.”
By contrast, Taylor could not conceal a sneaking admiration for the enemy: “The ability of the Vietcong continuously to rebuild their units and to make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war . . . Not only do the Vietcong units have the recuper¬ative powers of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale.”
Rusk, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and the other advisers knew that Johnson was virtually resigned to the direct use of American force, but they also knew that he was reluctant to act drastically. When they conferred with him at the White House on December 1, they rec¬ommended a diluted version of Bill Bundy’s “just right” option—a program to escalate the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in gradual phases.
A first step would be Barrel Roll, a secret bombing campaign against the Communist infiltration routes in southern Laos from aircraft car¬riers in the South China Sea. Johnson, relieved that it was being conducted from outside Vietnam, where it would not attract media attention and raise questions at home about his intentions, approved the plan to begin promptly. He also agreed to additional covert South Vietnamese commando raids against the North Vietnamese coast.
At the same time, Johnson fretted over the shakiness of the Saigon regime, remarking on the hazards of extending the conflict if the South Vietnamese could not cope with a vigorous enemy response. He told a visitor: “If one little general in shirt sleeves can take Saigon, think about two hundred million Chinese coming down those trails. No sir! I don’t want to fight them.” He sent Taylor back to Saigon with a proposal for the obstreperous South Vietnamese generals: if they stopped bickering among themselves, the United States would accel¬erate a series of air attacks against North Vietnam. But the endeavor was futile. The Saigon generals, Taylor discovered, were more frac¬tious than ever.
The Communists, meanwhile, were gambling that Johnson would not intervene in strength. He had refrained from reacting to their assault against Bienhoa, and he had procrastinated since then. Perhaps they could step up their offensives without provoking him into en¬larging the American commitment. Beginning in December, they launched coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam—the largest against Binh Gia, a Catholic village only forty miles southeast of Saigon in coastal Phuoc Tuy province.
Never before in the war had the Vietcong been deployed in such size. Two battalions and ancillary units comprising more than a thou¬sand men had started out weeks earlier from a sanctuary in Tayninh province, northwest of Saigon. The troops, divided into small groups to avoid detection, trekked across rice fields and through jungles, relying on an elaborate network of friendly hamlets for food and shelter. By late November, having silently completed an arc around the capital, they reached Phuoc Tuy, presumably a “pacified” area. There, after picking up fresh weapons brought in by sea from North Vietnam, they retired to hidden encampments to plan the operation with meticulous care. What followed was not a set-piece confrontation but an array of dazzling movements devised to ensnare and destroy the South Vietnamese forces.

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