Tet 12

It now dawned on Westmoreland that he was being obliquely or¬dered to ask for more men, and, in soldierly fashion, he obeyed. Wheeler, interposing himself as Westmoreland’s surrogate, raised the issue with Johnson at a White House meeting on February 11, a Sun¬day. Wheeler explained that Westmoreland was not expressing a “firm demand” for additional troops and could cope without them, but more forces would give him the “increased capability to regain the initiative and go on the offensive at an appropriate time.”
Wheeler then told Westmoreland what he had told Johnson—and, thus prompted, Westmoreland officially requested more men. Dis¬carding his earlier optimism, he even injected a note of panic in his message. “A setback is fully possible if I am not reinforced,” he said. “I desperately need reinforcements. Time is of the essence.”
A shrewd military bureaucrat, Wheeler was plainly promoting a clever ploy on behalf of the joint chiefs. For, in forwarding West¬moreland’s formal request to Johnson, he emphasized that dispatching additional troops to Vietnam would severely deplete America’s total armed forces—unless more than a hundred thousand U.S. army and marine reservists were simultaneously recalled to service. In sum, Wheeler had taken advantage of the Tet emergency to coax West¬moreland into asking for more men so that the joint chiefs could press Johnson to mobilize the reserves—a step he had repeatedly avoided.
Johnson, seeing through the transparent scheme, was even less in¬clined to test public opinion now than he had been before. He con¬signed the issue of the reservists to “study,” and instead approved an additional contingent of only some ten thousand troops for Vietnam. But Westmoreland, his appetite whetted, resorted to a typical military gambit.
He fashioned a fresh analysis of Communist strategy tailored to accommodate to his appeal for more men. Until now, he said, the United States had been conducting a limited war on the assumption that the Communists were waging a “protracted” struggle. But the war had become a “new ball game.” The Communists had switched to an ambitious bid to “achieve a quick victory” and were sustaining heavy losses in the attempt. Only with “adequate” reinforcements could he “capitalize” on their casualties and “materially shorten the war.”
By no coincidence, Westmoreland’s conversion suited Wheeler and his colleagues. They had long brooded about Vietnam’s effect on America’s global security obligations. For two years, Johnson had been fighting a costly war without harnessing the United States to its imperatives. And, because he had refused to call up the reserves, army units in Europe and elsewhere, their officers and noncoms sent to Vietnam, were skeletal. The only combat-ready division defending the United States, the 82nd Airborne, had been stripped to one-third its strength to provide troops for the war. The marine corps could not attract enough recruits. Draftees could be conscripted to replenish the ranks, but they lacked the experience to serve as leaders and tech¬nicians—and enlisting them in large numbers also posed domestic political problems. Ironically, Wheeler and the joint chiefs essentially concurred in General Giap’s assessment: the conflict was bleeding America.
At that stage, as Westmoreland put it later, Wheeler “conned” him into a grandiose project. On February 23, Wheeler flew to Saigon and inflated Westmoreland’s hopes. He pointed out that McNamara was due to be replaced as secretary of defense by Clark Clifford, a pro¬ponent of toughness. It seemed likely, Wheeler intimated, that Johnson would concede to mobilizing the reserves, approve U.S. ground at¬tacks against the Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and perhaps even authorize American incursions into enemy staging areas in the southern part of North Vietnam. In reality, the chances of Johnson endorsing all or any of these moves were remote, but the gullible Westmoreland took Wheeler at his word. He submitted to Wheeler’s suggestion that they draw up a huge troop request to cover the requirements of both Vietnam and America’s worldwide respon¬sibilities.
This consisted of three “force packages” totaling about two hundred and six thousand men. Approximately one hundred and eight thou¬sand, earmarked for Vietnam, would reach there by May 1. The rest would be deployed in September and December, if needed, or else assigned to strengthen the nation’s anemic armed forces in other places. The whole project hinged on Johnson’s assent. Or as Westmoreland, speaking in Pentagon jargon, later described it to me, the concept was “a contingency plan based on the assumption of a decision.”
Back in Washington to lobby for the gigantic troop increase, Wheeler omitted any mention of invading Cambodia and Laos or beefing up America’s international military presence. Instead, he por¬trayed Westmoreland as an imperiled field commander whose position might collapse unless he received reinforcements rapidly. Flatly con¬tradicting Westmoreland’s optimism, he reported to Johnson that the Tet offensive had been “a near thing,” and he cautioned that the enemy’s “major, powerful, nationwide assault has by no means run its course.” The only way to avert a catastrophe in Vietnam, he as¬serted, was to send out more men—which meant, of course, mobi¬lizing the reserves.
Clark Clifford, who listened to Wheeler deliver his report to John¬son at a White House meeting on February 28, would remember it as “so somber, so discouraging, to the point where it was really shocking.” He was especially shaken by the effect the account had on Johnson. The president, he said, was “as worried as I have ever seen him.”
Vietnam now confronted Johnson with the biggest challenge he had faced since he agonized over the decision to commit U.S. combat troops three years before. To fulfill Wheeler’s request for more men, he would have to place the nation on a virtual war footing in an election year, amid widespread disenchantment with his management of the conflict. But to rebuff Wheeler was to make a judgment without a full-scale examination of the options. He turned to Clifford. Directing him to conduct a new study, he said plaintively: “Give me the lesser of the evils.”

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