LBJ Goes to War 7

Raising many of the same doubts that Taylor had expressed earlier, and observing that “our own security seems at first glance to be very weak,” Johnson was worried that reprisals might spark a Communist response that the U.S. advisory force of twenty-three thousand then in Vietnam could not withstand. The political disarray in Saigon also troubled him, and he peevishly chided Taylor for failing to com¬municate “sensitively and persuasively” to the South Vietnamese gen¬erals the importance of unity and efficiency. To Taylor’s surprise, Johnson’s cable went on to state more explicitly than ever before that he was contemplating a U.S. combat troop commitment: I have never felt that this war will be won from the air, and it seems to me that what is much more needed and would be more effective is a larger and stronger use of rangers and special forces and marines, or other appropriate military strength on the ground and on the scene … I know that it might involve the acceptance of larger American sacrifices [but] I myself am ready to substantially increase the number of Amer¬icans in Vietnam if it is necessary to provide this kind of fighting force against the Vietcong.”
Taylor replied in early January 1965 in a series of despondent mes¬sages. “We are presently on a losing track,” he said. “To take no positive action now is to accept defeat in the fairly near future.” But what could be done? First, it was hopeless to expect the South Viet¬namese regime to improve. He could see nothing ahead but continued “political turmoil, irresponsibility and division . . . lethargy [and] deepening loss of morale and discouragement,” and an eventual move by some Saigon faction to make a deal with the Communists. So the United States had a choice, either to consider “ultimate withdrawal” or to introduce a “new element or elements.” Rejecting the first, Taylor proffered two options: either put in American combat troops or step up the bombing of North Vietnam.
To send over U.S. soldiers would be a mistake, he argued. With Americans there to “carry the ball,” the South Vietnamese would lapse into inactivity. A large American presence might evoke mem-ories of colonialism and encourage Vietnamese hostility to Americans. As for using U.S. military units simply to protect American instal¬lations, Taylor figured that seventy-five thousand men would be needed—and even that number might not prevent a repetition of the Vietcong attacks against Bienhoa and the Brinks hotel. By default, then, an air offensive against the north was the only alternative. It would not win “this guerrilla war,” Taylor agreed, but nothing else seemed plausible.
Johnson appeared to feel that doom awaited him whatever he did. Chatting privately with a few reporters, he portrayed himself almost surrealistically as a man standing on a newspaper in the middle of the ocean. David Wise, then a New York Herald Tribune correspondent, recalled Johnson’s tormented mood: “ ‘If I go this way,’ he said, tilting his hand to the right, ‘I’ll topple over, and if I go this way’—he tilted his hand to the left—‘I’ll topple over, and if I stay where I am, the paper will be soaked up and I’ll sink slowly to the bottom of the sea.’ As he said this, he lowered his hand slowly to the floor.”
A politician with keen antennae, Johnson sensed the uneasiness then creeping into congressional, press and public attitudes toward Viet¬nam. He was distressed that a figure he deeply respected, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, now argued that the time had come to “reevaluate our position” in Vietnam. The influential columnist Walter Lippmann irked him by asserting that the president was transgressing “our own vital interests” and stretching “the limitations of our power” in trying to defend Southeast Asia. And he was disturbed by public opinion surveys, which showed growing dissatisfaction among Amer¬icans with his handling of the Vietnam predicament. The polls also indicated, as they frequently did throughout the war, that it was un¬certainty that unsettled people; they consistently rallied behind the president, the commander in chief, when he acted decisively. Johnson edged toward such action. He refrained for the moment from de¬ploying U.S. combat forces in Vietnam. But he approved retaliatory bombings of North Vietnam “immediately following the occurrence of a spectacular enemy action”—even though he was unsure that any tactic would “produce the necessary turnaround in South Vietnam in the coming months.” He and his aides, poised to escalate the war, looked forward to a pretext to strike. It was, McGeorge Bundy said, like waiting for a “streetcar.”
In pressing the president to make a decision, Taylor had recommended that Mac Bundy visit Vietnam to appraise the situation. Bundy had never been there and was “physically detached from the local scene,” and he might assure Johnson that “we are missing no real bets in the political field.” Bundy scheduled a trip for the beginning of February 1965. But he was scarcely going with an open mind.
Late in January, after conferring with McNamara, he addressed a memorandum to Johnson stressing that “both of us are now pretty well convinced that our present policy can lead only to disastrous defeat.” To expect the emergence of a stable regime in Saigon was futile. The Vietcong, encouraged by America’s “unwillingness to take serious risks,” was “gaining in the countryside.” The worst course was to continue “this essentially passive role. ” The United States could either negotiate and “salvage what little can be preserved,” or resort to armed power to “force a change” of Communist strategy. He and McNamara favored the military alternative, though, they added, other plans ought to be “carefully studied.” Either way, Bundy wrote, “the time has come for hard choices.”
He departed for Saigon, coincidentally, just as the new Soviet prime minister, Aleksei Kosygin, left Moscow for Hanoi. Kosygin had em¬barked on his journey at the invitation of the North Vietnamese lead¬ers, who were then angling for more Soviet military aid. He was prepared to fulfill their request—but on the condition that they follow Soviet rather than Chinese guidance. Fearing that a wider war might jeopardize the Soviet policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the United States, he also hoped to persuade them to consider a compromise solution. His talks in Hanoi, ironically, turned out to be as stormy as Taylor’s wrangles in Saigon. One Soviet participant in the meetings later described the North Vietnamese to me as a “bunch of stubborn bastards.”

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