Tet 11

Art Buchwald satirically deflated the news-management campaign from the start. His syndicated column of February 6 portrayed a con¬fident General George Armstrong Custer boasting that “the battle of Little Big Horn had just turned the corner,” and the Sioux were “on the run.” Other press comments were more somber. An unusually blunt editorial in the usually subdued Wall Street Journal warned that “the American people should be getting ready to accept, if they haven’t already, the prospect that the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.” But the news media were yet to strike an even worse blow against Johnson.
Walter Cronkite was the nation’s most reliable journalistic person¬ality—a figure who “by a mere inflection of his deep baritone voice or by a lifting of his well-known bushy eyebrows . . . might well change the vote of thousands of people,” as one politician had ex¬travagantly put it. Moreover, Cronkite was apple-pie American, a Missouri boy who expressed the mood of the heartland as much as he presumably influenced its pulsebeat. His views on the war had mostly been balanced, nearly bland. Now, on the evening of February 27, he delivered a fresh verdict. Just back from Saigon, he rejected the official forecasts of victory, predicting instead that it seemed “more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” The broadcast shocked and depressed Johnson, who assumed that Cronkite’s despondent comment would steer public opinion even further away from support for the war. But Cronkite, like all other journalists, was lagging behind the American public— reflecting rather than shaping its attitudes.
Not only Vietnam was nagging the Johnson administration. The North Koreans had recently seized the Pueblo, a U.S. intelligence ship, and there were hints of growing tensions over Berlin and in the Middle East. The strain even began to affect Rusk, the personification of southern courtesy. At one briefing, pressed by newsmen to explain the American failure to detect the Tet offensive in advance, he flared up with unaccustomed fury: “Whose side are you on? Now, I’m secretary of state of the United States, and I’m on our side! None of your papers or your broadcasting apparatuses are worth a damn unless the United States succeeds. They are trivial compared to that question. So I don’t know why people have to be probing for the things that one can bitch about, when there are two thousand stories on the same day about things that are more constructive.”
Yet not even Rusk, one of the hardest of the hard-liners, was im¬pervious to doubt. Years afterward, when we talked about the impact of the Tet events on the American public, he remembered having sympathized with his chagrined kinfolk in Cherokee County, Georgia. “Dean,” they had pleaded at the time, “if you can’t tell us when this war is going to end, well then maybe we just ought to chuck it. ” And, recalling their words to me, he added: “The fact was that we could not, in any good faith, tell them.”
How could Johnson continue to kindle the nation’s enthusiasm for the war when, even to many of his own aides, it had become an outrage? Harry McPherson, a fellow Texan, and one of his speech writers and confidants—a sensitive young lawyer whom Johnson, with only daughters, had almost adopted as a son—sat at a desk in the White House only steps away from the radios and teletypes re¬ceiving Westmoreland’s assurances of a decisive Communist setback. He could consult Rostow, forever upbeat. Still, McPherson recalled, he saw the truth on the television screen: “I watched the invasion of the American embassy compound, and the terrible sight of General Loan killing the Vietcong captive. You got a sense of the awfulness, the endlessness, of the war—and, though it sounds naive, the unethical quality of a war in which a prisoner is shot at point-blank range. I put aside the confidential cables. I was more persuaded by the tube and by the newspapers. I was fed up with the optimism that seemed to flow without stopping from Saigon. ”
Much of the optimism that flowed from Saigon was confected—a deliberate attempt by Westmoreland to justify his earlier expressions of confidence. Richard Holbrooke, then a young U.S. official and later to be a senior State Department figure, was sent to Vietnam at the time in a group assigned to appraise the situation. Years afterward, Holbrooke recalled his impressions of the mood then pervading the American mission. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, a laconic Ver¬monter, was characteristically calm. But Westmoreland was “dispir¬ited, deeply shaken, almost a broken man”—a person totally different from his upbeat messages to Washington. In subsequent years, West¬moreland would assert that he had never wavered, that the press had betrayed him. As Holbrooke observed him, however, he was “stunned that the Communists had been able to coordinate so many attacks in such secrecy. ”
Johnson meanwhile fixed his gaze on the battlefield. Especially preoccupied by the plight of Khesanh, he offered to send Westmore¬land reinforcements. But Westmoreland, aware that fresh troop ar¬rivals would contradict his optimistic assertions, demurred. What followed was an intricate dialogue between Washington and Saigon that mirrored the situation in the two capitals. Johnson was primarily concerned with domestic opinion, while Westmoreland was trying to protect his reputation as a soldier. The exchange also revealed the machinations of the U.S. military bureaucracy—and it would, in the weeks ahead, lead to decisions that were to reverse the course of the war.
General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, cabled Westmoreland on February 8 to warn him that the president was “not prepared to accept a defeat”—adding: “If you need more troops, ask for them.” Westmoreland, still sanguine, responded that he might need a division and a half in April if conditions in South Vietnam’s northern areas worsened. Wheeler prodded him, pointing out that Johnson, for “psychological and political” reasons, could not afford to allow the Communists to hoist their flag over any part of South Vietnam. “Please understand that I am not trying to sell you on the deployment of additional forces,” Wheeler explained—but he was doing exactly that. He cautioned Westmoreland that the conflict had entered a “critical phase,” and he urged him to request “what you believe is required under the circumstances.”

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