Tet 19

The scene in Johnson’s bedchamber that afternoon was tumultuous as Busby put the finishing touches on the most dramatic paragraphs of the speech—the president’s statement that he would not run for reelection. Johnson ambled around the room, talking almost contin¬ually on the telephone, trailing its long cord behind him and occa¬sionally using a free hand to play with his baby grandson, who was crawling about. Personal friends, guests at the White House, wandered in and out, and Johnson’s valets bustled back and forth, selecting his clothes for the evening performance. A pair of U.S. navy doctors appeared at one point to scrape Johnson’s hands, which suffered from a benign kind of skin disease. He summoned Clifford, among others, to show him the relevant passages of the address. Clifford was dumbfounded. “I’ve made up my mind,” said Johnson. “I’m actually going to do it.”
Johnson had nearly announced a decision to leave the presidency in his State of the Union message to Congress in January, before the Tet offensive. In September, he had sent George Christian, his press sec¬retary, to Texas to ask Governor John Connally, an old and devoted associate, how he might withdraw his candidacy gracefully, but Con¬nally had skirted the question. Early in the year, Johnson had also invited Busby to draft a statement on the subject for him, but Busby had persuaded him to reconsider, saying that the country should not have a lame-duck president for so long. Thus, though the war punc¬tured Johnson’s popularity, he was not entirely a casualty of the Tet offensive.
Johnson had survived a severe heart attack in 1955, but he worried that a second might leave him crippled in office, like Woodrow Wilson; his wife, Lady Bird, feared worse—his death before another term ended. Johnson also believed that, having promoted more progressive social and economic legislation than any U.S. leader since Roosevelt, he probably had exhausted his political capital with Congress. Over lunch one day in early March, he assured McPherson and Joseph Califano, another aide, that Congress would refuse him the honey¬moon year that it usually grants new presidents. “We’re like an old couple who’ve known each other too long,” he said. “We’ve yelled at each other and begged from each other too often, and I would never get that year.” And there was Vietnam.
As he spoke to the nation on the evening of March 31, 1968, only the impact of Vietnam seemed to matter: “I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
Johnson also announced he was restricting U.S. air strikes to the area below the twentieth parallel, as Rusk had proposed, thereby spar¬ing 90 percent of North Vietnamese territory. He authorized Averell Harriman to open negotiations whenever the Communists were ready. But he did not state specifically that he would refrain from resuming the bombing if the talks with the enemy failed to make progress. Nor did he say clearly and categorically that he would not increase the American force in Vietnam beyond the nearly five hundred and fifty thousand troops already committed. He seemed to have left the door ajar to the possibility of renewed escalation, and the generals and admirals and their pugnacious supporters never abandoned the hope of tougher action. During the months ahead, however, Clifford would maneuver to prevent the conflict from intensifying again, assuming the responsibility, often without Johnson’s authorization, of “inter¬preting” the lame-duck president’s intentions. Clifford could defini¬tively declare by September 1968 that Vietnam was no longer “an unlimited drain on our resources,” adding that “the so-called ‘bot¬tomless pit’has been capped.”
Consistent with their plan to fight and talk simultaneously, the Communists had decided even before Johnson’s abdication speech to begin discussions. And, now aware of the shift in American public opinion, they figured on making a big impact in the United States. In the middle of March, they invited Walter Cronkite to Hanoi, aiming to use him to convey their new approach to his vast American tele¬vision audience. But Cronkite declined; it might seem that he was being rewarded for his criticism of the war. Charles Collingwood, a seasoned CBS correspondent, went in his place. In an interview with him on April 5, Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh stated that North Vietnam was prepared to meet with an American delegation.
The U.S. diplomats were headed by Harriman and the North Viet¬namese by Xuan Thuy, a second-rank Communist veteran. The con¬ference opened in Paris on May 10 in a mood of euphoria—hope ran so high among the American officials, in fact, that they chose hotel rooms in the expectation that a settlement was only months away. But the talks were not negotiations, and the dialogue reached an im¬passe within weeks as the spokesmen for both sides repeated the same arguments. The United States insisted on the withdrawal of the North Vietnamese forces inside South Vietnam—a demand rejected by the Communists, who insisted in their turn that the Saigon regime be reshuffled to include Vietcong representatives.
The frustrating talks were to drag on for another five years. More Americans would be killed in Vietnam than had died there previously. And the United States itself would be torn apart by the worst internal upheavals in a century.

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