Tet 13

Tall, dapper, charming and eloquent, Clark Clifford was one of the most distinguished lawyers in Washington. A Kansan then in his early sixties, he had served as a young counsel to President Truman— quitting to start a private practice that now earned him a half-million dollars a year representing corporations, foreign regimes and other affluent clients. He owed his colossal success, in part, to an extraor¬dinary range of contacts. He knew everybody worth knowing—from bankers and business executives to labor leaders and journalists, dip¬lomats, bureaucrats, congressmen, cabinet officers and the president. These friends and acquaintances fed him information vital to his craft of wielding influence effectively. He also derived strength from his independence. Having already acquired wealth, prestige and power, he did not need a prominent public post to promote himself. So he was almost doing Johnson a favor by joining the administration, and he felt that he could speak out more frankly than other members of the White House entourage.
Except for a passing moment of uneasiness in 1965, Clifford had consistently championed the administration’s policy in Vietnam, and Johnson expected him to be a steadier defense secretary than Robert McNamara. But even though Clifford continued to sound tough, doubts had begun to creep into his mind in the late summer of 1967, when Johnson sent him abroad to persuade a number of America’s allies to commit more men to the war effort. The leaders of countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand—the “dominoes” supposedly threatened by Communism—refused to in¬crease their token troop contributions. Clifford returned home “puz-zled, troubled, concerned”—now beginning to think, as he wrote afterward, that perhaps “our assessment of the danger to the stability of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific was exaggerated.” His mis¬givings were heightened further after he entered the Pentagon on March 1, 1968.
Clifford’s appointment initially dismayed several of the civilian of¬ficials at the Pentagon. They regarded him as a dilettante whom John¬son had picked solely for his fidelity, and they were particularly upset by his hard-line reputation. Some, fearing that he would plunge the country deeper into the war, even contemplated resignation. But they finally figured that their best bet was to proselytize him, as they had McNamara. The man who labored hardest at that task was Paul Warnke, assistant secretary for international security affairs, whose office focused on the political aspects of defense issues. A measure of his achievement was to be apparent later, when he became Clifford’s law partner. Later, too, Westmoreland excoriated him as a “persistent rebel” whose “spell” transformed Clifford into “a dove and defeatist.”
Oddly enough, Warnke had barely known Clifford until then, even though they were both top Washington attorneys. Warnke, a partner in the prestigious firm of Covington and Burling, had been a litigator rather than a political broker and lobbyist like Clifford. Already close to fifty, he had gone into the government for the first time the year before as a respite from the law, and he quickly perceived that the struggle in Vietnam had reached a deadlock in which American sol¬diers would continue to die fruitlessly because, however many battles they won, they could not win the war. He had helped to bring McNamara around to that view. Now his job was to educate Clifford. If he failed, he would quit.
Johnson had handed Clifford a brutal schedule. He wanted rec¬ommendations on the request for troops no later than March 4. Clif¬ford convened his study group at the Pentagon on February 28, two days before he was due to be sworn into office. Its thirteen members included Rusk, Rostow, Wheeler, Warnke and Maxwell Taylor, as well as Henry Fowler, secretary of the treasury, and McNamara, in a valedictory role.
Predictably putting forth a grand geopolitical analysis, Rostow argued for firm action in Vietnam to deter “aggression … in the Mid¬dle East, elsewhere in Asia and perhaps even Europe”—and, during the weeks ahead, he also pressed Johnson to approve American forays into North Vietnam and Laos. Wheeler and Taylor seconded this dynamic approach, while McNamara contended that the only alter¬native was a negotiated settlement. Fowler meanwhile introduced a sobering thought. A force buildup, he explained, would raise the costs of waging the war and thus require cuts in domestic social programs, other military expenditures and foreign aid. Even so, a tax increase would be necessary, but its passage by Congress was improbable. Severe economic and financial difficulties menaced the nation unless the administration could inspire the population to make sacrifices— an implausible prospect in an election year.
Clifford realized immediately that the dilemma extended far beyond the narrow subject of troop deployments. He faced nothing less than a sweeping reevaluation of America’s whole policy toward Vietnam. Instead of merely appraising the need for men and materiel, he would have to propose “the most intelligent thing for the country. . . . Try though we would to stay with the assignment of devising means to meet the military’s request, fundamental questions began to recur over and over.”
Working at breakneck speed to meet the deadline, various govern¬ment departments generated memorandums to be fed into the report to Johnson. Warnke, commissioned by Clifford to draft the document, assumed that his new boss would “do what we all thought ought to be done” if guided properly. His staff, composed mostly of young civilian and military officials frustrated by the futility of the war, could not doctor the assessments sent in by other agencies. But they had considerable editorial latitude to shape the direction of the study, and they saw this as a unique opportunity to effect a major change. One of them, Morton Halperin, later recalled that “we were going to write what we thought even if that meant we all got fired”—and they completed a draft that, in his words, “really attacked the fundamental motives” of U.S. policy in Vietnam.

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