LBJ Goes to War 9

But Johnson knew better than Reston that Americans placed their faith in the president in difficult moments, and the opinion surveys bore him out. Almost 70 percent of the nation gave him a “positive” rating, with the same proportion supporting a bombing strategy as the “only way” to “save” Vietnam. Nearly 80 percent believed that an American withdrawal would open Southeast Asia to Communist domination, and an equal proportion favored a U.S. combat troop commitment to block that possibility. So Johnson, whose pockets always bulged with the latest polls, felt confident that the public would uphold him whatever the journalists said.
As he intensified the war in early 1965, Johnson tried to manage the nation’s perception of his policies—and his aides devoted as much attention to vocabulary as they did to strategy. To mute anxieties, his spokesmen withheld the real dimensions of the conflict from the American people, pursuing what one of them termed “a policy of minimum candor”: a deliberate tactic to disclose only the barest es¬sentials without blatantly lying. The president also wanted to warn the North Vietnamese that worse lay ahead unless they met his de¬mands, but he was wary of resorting to belligerent rhetoric that might provoke drastic Soviet or Chinese intervention. So as the war grew, so did a lexicon of special phrases contrived to convey particular signals to the enemy.
American officials said that the bombing of North Vietnam after the Pleiku attack was “appropriate and fitting,” which is how they had described the raid after the Tonkin Gulf “incident” six months earlier. On February 11, describing the next strike against the north, they referred to “air operations” designed to stop the “pattern of’ aggression”—thereby suggesting that a prolonged offensive was about to supersede individual reprisals. The labels changed as Johnson retired Flaming Dart, which had been retaliatory, and authorized Rolling Thunder, a continuous bombing program that would go on for three years, its name borrowed from the words of a hymn.
Started on March 2, as more than a hundred U.S. aircraft raided a North Vietnamese ammunition dump, Rolling Thunder was origi¬nally scheduled to last eight weeks. Johnson himself closely supervised it, boasting that “they can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.” But by April, as General Wheeler told McNamara, the strikes had “not reduced in any major way” North Vietnam’s military capabilities or seriously damaged its economy, and the Hanoi regime “continues to maintain, at least publicly, stoical determination.” The air offensive had failed.
The answer was typically American: more and bigger. Soon the operation became “sustained pressure,” and B-52s armed with napalm and cluster bombs joined the action. By the time the Nixon admin¬istration signed a cease-fire agreement in January 1973, the United States had dropped on North Vietnam, an area the size of Texas, triple the bomb tonnage dropped on Europe, Asia and Africa during World War II. Yet Vietnam was different. The dikes along the Red River, whose destruction would have flooded the valley and killed hundreds of thousands of people, were never targeted. Nor were North Viet¬nam’s cities subjected to the kind of “carpet bombing” that obliterated Dresden and Tokyo. Bombs devastated parts of North Vietnam, par¬ticularly the area above the seventeenth parallel, where troops and supplies were massed to move south, but Hanoi and Haiphong were hardly bruised.
Wars generate their own momentum, and, as the bombing of North Vietnam accelerated, a related problem arose. The U.S. carriers in the South China Sea were obviously safe from North Vietnam’s mosquito navy, but the American airfield at Danang was vulnerable to attack by some six thousand Vietcong guerrillas in the vicinity. On February 22, 1965, Westmoreland asked Johnson for two marine battalions to protect the base. Westmoreland later claimed that he had not at the time seen the request as the “first step in a growing American com¬mitment” that would swell to nearly two hundred thousand U.S. troops by the end of the year. But Taylor did, and he promptly objected.
The introduction of thirty-five hundred marines would inaugurate “ever increasing” U.S. combat involvement in “an essentially hostile foreign country,” Taylor said, warning that “it will be very difficult to hold the line” once the deployment began. Three years before, he had observed that Vietnam was “not an excessively difficult or un¬pleasant place to operate” but now, after a year there, he emphasized that “white-faced” soldiers were unsuited to “Asian forests and jun¬gles.” He doubted they “could do much better” than the French, who had “tried to adapt their forces to this mission and failed.” Moreover, there was the “ever present question” of how Americans in that alien environment “would distinguish between a Vietcong and a friendly Vietnamese farmer.” In short, he viewed Westmoreland’s proposal with “grave reservations.”
Johnson quickly overruled him. On the morning of March 8, ma¬rines in full battle regalia splashed ashore at Danang, the first American combat troops to set foot on the Asian mainland since the end of the Korean conflict. They rushed onto the beach, just as their fathers had stormed Pacific atolls during World War II—to be greeted by grinning Vietnamese girls distributing garlands of flowers and a poster pro¬claiming: “Welcome to the Gallant Marines.”
The flamboyant arrival, arranged by the U.S. navy, appalled West¬moreland, who had expected the marines to maintain a “low profile.” Two days earlier, a Pentagon press release had declared that the ma¬rines were being sent at the “request” of the South Vietnamese gov¬ernment, but the regime had been neither consulted nor informed in advance. Bui Diem, then an aide to Prime Minister Phan Huy Quat and later South Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, described it later: “That day, March 8, Dr. Quat summoned me to his office, where I found an American officer. We were supposed to draft a joint communique in Vietnamese and English to announce the marine land¬ing. I asked Dr. Quat if he had known about it beforehand. Not exactly, he replied. There had been a general understanding, but he only learned the details at the last minute.”

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