LBJ Goes to War 8

A Vietcong attack against a U.S. base near Pleiku, in the central highlands of South Vietnam, was to have a shattering impact on both Kosygin’s and Bundy’s journeys—and propel the conflict into a fresh phase.
Pleiku, traditionally a market town for the region’s mountain tribes, had become the site of a South Vietnamese army headquarters that directed patrols against Communist infiltration routes threading through the jungles from Laos and Cambodia. A detachment of Amer¬ican special forces and other military advisers was billeted three miles away at Camp Holloway, whose perimeter was heavily protected by barbed wire and sandbag bunkers. A fleet of U.S. transport and ob¬servation aircraft and helicopters was parked at a nearby strip, and both South Vietnamese and American soldiers guarded the area.
Specialist Fourth Class Jesse Pyle of Morina, California, on sentry duty, sat shivering in a trench during the cold night of February 6- 7. A nearby noise jarred him at about two in the morning. Clambering out to investigate, he spotted shadows crossing the compound. He shouted, then started shooting. At that instant, a hail of mortar shells exploded, and the rattle of automatic fire could also be heard. An American screamed in the darkness: “We’re going to die. We’re all going to die.”
Eight Americans did die and more than a hundred others were wounded, and ten U.S. aircraft were destroyed. Nearly all the Viet- cong assailants escaped. The body of one, found inside the enclosure, contained a detailed map of the camp—testimony to a meticulous job of espionage.
Mac Bundy, his mission completed, was packing to leave Vietnam that February morning when news of the Pleiku attack reached him. Joining Taylor and Westmoreland at U.S. military headquarters in Saigon, he was tense and abrupt—behaving, as Westmoreland after¬ward recalled, like many civilians in authority who display a “field marshal psychosis” once they have “smelled a little gunpowder. ” They quickly agreed that the “streetcar” had arrived. Bundy telephoned the White House to urge that American air raids against North Vietnam begin promptly, in accordance with the long-standing Pentagon plan quaintly entitled “Punitive and Crippling Reprisal Actions on Targets in North Vietnam.” Contrary to most accounts, Bundy did not make his proposal under emotional stress on the spur of the moment. “That’s nonsense,” he explained to me years later. “I had already recom¬mended retaliation beforehand.”
Bundy also cabled President Johnson to make clear his conviction that a tough U.S. move was imperative. His message confirmed what he had told Johnson before going to Vietnam: the prospects there were “grim,” the Vietcong’s “energy and persistence are astonishing” and both the Vietnamese and Americans he saw were uncertain “whether a Communist victory can be prevented.” The “one grave weakness” in the U.S. posture was “a widespread belief that we do not have the will and force and patience and determination to take the necessary action and stay the course.” To negotiate an American withdrawal “would mean surrender on the installment plan.” So the only alter¬native was “continuous” bombing of North Vietnam—not merely “episodic responses geared on a one-for-one basis to ‘spectacular’ out¬rages,” which would “lack the persuasive force of sustained pressure.” The United States could anticipate “significant” losses, yet the pro¬gram “seems cheap . . . measured against the costs of defeat.” The Pleiku attack, Bundy concluded, had “produced a practicable point of departure.”
Johnson convened his national security advisers, expanding the group to include Mike Mansfield, Senate majority leader, and John McCormack, speaker of the House of Representatives. Johnson plainly announced at the outset his intention to punish the North Vietnam¬ese—as if they had struck him personally. “I’ve gone far enough,” he barked. “I’ve had enough of this.” Most of those present concurred, among them George Ball, the dissident, who felt that at this juncture discretion was the better part of valor. But Mansfield and Vice-Pres¬ident Hubert Humphrey dissented. Johnson banished Humphrey from Vietnam deliberations for the next year, quietly rehabilitating him only after Humphrey pledged to subscribe to the official administra¬tion line. Humphrey, the prototype of the unalloyed liberal, was tor¬mented by Vietnam for the rest of his life.
Within hours, Operation Flaming Dart was under way as the carrier Ranger launched its jets to bomb a North Vietnamese army camp near Dong Hoi, a coastal town sixty miles above the seventeenth parallel dividing North and South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese were brought into the first mission to boost their morale, and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky interrupted his political maneuverings in Saigon to lead their aircraft. But the initial raid fizzled because of foul weather.
A major casualty of the attack was Kosygin’s initiative to persuade the North Vietnamese leaders to consider negotiations. Now they could claim to be victims of U.S. “aggression,” worthy of total sup¬port from the communist powers. And Kosygin, compelled to defend the Soviet Union’s “anti-imperialist” image, had no choice but to fulfill their requests for unconditional military aid. They may have planned the Pleiku assault to incite an American reaction that would put him on the spot. In any case, new shipments of sophisticated Soviet surface-to-air missiles began to arrive at the port of Haiphong ten days after Kosygin’s return to Moscow.
Mac Bundy had cautioned Johnson to alert the American people to the “fundamental fact” that “the struggle in Vietnam will be long” and that “there is no shortcut to success.” Johnson disregarded the advice. He shrouded himself in silence—or, on occasion, privately told visitors to ignore the histrionic newspaper headlines and television broadcasts that, as usual, exaggerated events. Unwittingly, he was broadening the “credibility gap” that had dogged his White House years and would eventually prove politically fatal. By the middle of February, for example, James Reston of The New York Times was already denouncing his duplicity: “The time has come to call a spade a bloody shovel. This country is in an undeclared and unexplained war in Vietnam. Our masters have a lot of long and fancy names for it, like escalation and retaliation, but it is a war just the same.”

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