Tet 18

“Somebody poisoned the well,” Johnson growled after his prom¬inent advisers had left. Infuriated, he ordered a search for the culprit. He called in two of the government specialists who had briefed the group, and instructed them to replay their comments to him. But he could not locate Habib, who had shrewdly left town. In his memoirs, however, Johnson conceded that the elder statesmen had swayed him profoundly. “If they had been so deeply influenced by the reports of the Tet offensive,” he wrote, “what must the average citizen in the country be thinking?” America had collapsed on the home front rather than on the battlefield, he felt. “I remained convinced that the blow to morale was more of our own doing than anything the enemy had accomplished with its army. We were defeating ourselves.”
Clifford was elated. But he still had to steer Johnson toward an actual decision to “de-escalate” the war. For weeks, Clifford had been recruiting confederates around Washington. Indeed, he told me, he had fancied himself to be a character like the Scarlet Pimpernel, co¬vertly enlisting plotters during the French Revolution, whispering, “Is he with us?” He sensed a kindred spirit in Harry McPherson, the president’s speech writer. In late February, they had both attended McNamara’s farewell luncheon at the State Department, and Clifford was touched by McPherson’s sympathetic reaction to McNamara’s emotional outburst against the war. That afternoon, back at his office, Clifford telephoned McPherson. “Old boy, I noticed you today, and it seems to me that we’re on the same side. I think we should form a partnership. You be the partner in the White House, and I’ll be the partner at the Pentagon. You tell me what goes on over there, and I’ll tell you what happens here—and together we’ll get the country and our president out of this mess. ”
Their chance arose toward the end of March, as McPherson grappled with a speech on Vietnam that Johnson had directed him to write weeks earlier. Gone are the days when Abraham Lincoln could scratch a few remarks on the back of an envelope on the way to Gettysburg. Preparing a presidential address has become a vast collective enterprise. Varius government bureaus contribute ideas, which are discussed at meeting after meeting before a version is shown to the president, who invariably bucks it back for revisions, and the officials meet again and again to discuss it afresh. So McPherson had gone through five or six drafts by the last week of March, feeling like “an engineer assembling an erector set.” Soon, though, Clifford would begin to register his views.
He and Rusk were still wrangling over the issue of halting the bombing of North Vietnam. But the details of the issue, almost tal- mudic in their complexity, had become less important than the tone of the address—its delivery now scheduled for the evening of March 31. Several of Johnson’s advisers had submitted their versions, and the speech at that stage still rang with Churchiliian phrases pledging the United States to keep fighting. Three days before the deadline, however, Clifford met at the State Department with Rusk, Rostow, William Bundy and McPherson, and he insisted on a complete over¬haul. To broadcast the speech in its present form, he warned, would be a “tragic error.” It was a “hard-nosed” lecture on war, not the peace pronouncement that the president needed. “For example, the first sentence read, ‘I want to talk to you about the war in Vietnam.’
I wanted that changed to ‘I want to talk to you about peace in Vietnam.’ What I wanted to do—and did—was to turn it around.”
Clifford also wanted the speech to announce a full or partial bomb¬ing halt as a first step toward winching down the war—but his concern with its absence from the text was misplaced. Johnson, who often conferred separately with his various advisers, had already indicated to Rusk that he intended to include the proposal in his address. Even Rostow favored a limited curb on the air strikes.
McPherson returned to his typewriter to punch out yet another, more conciliatory, draft. He marked it “Speech 1A” and sent it to Johnson, whose desk by this time was littered with a dozen or more versions. The next morning, as McPherson related the story to me, Johnson telephoned him. “ ‘I don’t like what you say there on page three,’ he said. I looked very quickly to see which draft he was talking about. It was 1A, the alternate version. We were on track.”
On the morning of March 30, the day before the deadline, Johnson assembled his advisers at the White House for a drafting session that stretched into the evening. Coatless, his necktie loosened, Johnson hunched over the text, scrutinizing every word. The speech now announced a partial U.S. bombing halt, but Clifford watched Johnson like a lawyer, questioning any nuance that might offer a pretext to resume the air strikes. The address still lacked a peroration, however, and McPherson offered to write one swiftly. Johnson stopped him. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I may have a little ending of my own.” With that, he strode from the room.
“Good Lord,” McPherson said to Clifford, “is he going to quit?” And he recalled, “Clifford looked at me as if I were out of my mind.”
McPherson confirmed his instinct the next day, a Sunday, when he returned to the White House to learn that Johnson was closeted in the family quarters with Horace Busby, a close friend and former aide. McPherson spent the day polishing the address, which Johnson was to deliver on television at nine o’clock that evening. Late in the after¬noon, Johnson telephoned to ask his opinion of the speech. “It’s pretty good,” McPherson answered, adding that he was pleased and proud it had been changed.
“I’ve got an ending,” Johnson said.
“So I’ve heard,” McPherson responded.
“What do you think?”
“I’m very sorry, Mr. President.”
“Okay,” Johnson replied, accentuating his Texas drawl, “so long, pardner.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Categories

Meta