The Commitments Deepen 2

That primitive bluster also masked Johnson’s discomfort in the com¬plicated realm of international affairs. The strange names, places and customs puzzled him. During a visit as vice president to Bangkok, he flew into a rage when a staff member of the American embassy coun¬seled him against shaking hands with the Thais, who traditionally recoil from physical contact with strangers. Dammit, Johnson ex¬ploded, he shook hands with people everywhere, and they loved it. Nor could he comprehend his inability to bargain with foreign leaders the way he haggled with American politicians, businessmen and labor negotiators. In 1965, to cite an example, he was baffled by Ho Chi Minh’s rejection of his offer of a huge economic project to develop the Mekong valley in exchange for concessions to end the Vietnam war. “Old Ho can’t turn me down, old Ho can’t turn me down,” he repeated after making the offer. In his mind, Ho was no different from George Meany, the labor leader, with whom he regularly struck such deals.
Equally alien to Johnson was the Eastern establishment that mo¬nopolized American foreign policy. The Bundys and Harrimans and Achesons were not his breed, nor were the State Department “cookie pushers” with Ivy League credentials. They spoke a language of their own, the shorthand of New York and Boston, which sounded fake and affected to a Texan. They frequented the affluent salons of Georgetown, which derided him and his “white socks” cronies, and they vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard—that “female island,” as he scornfully called it. Besides, he had inherited them, along with Rusk and McNamara and Taylor, from Kennedy, whose inner circle he had never penetrated, and that was reason enough to suspect their fidelity. Yet he could not function without them, any more than he could do without the generals and admirals, whom he coddled mainly because they had confederates among his crusty rivals in Congress. So he consulted with them all continually, convening meeting after meet¬ing and insisting on studies and analyses that mounted into millions of pages. To outsiders, it seemed, he was always in search of “consensus.”
But he alone exercised control—and with prodigious attention to detail. He made appointments, approved promotions, reviewed troop requests, determined deployments, selected bombing targets and re¬stricted aircraft sorties. Night after night, wearing a dressing gown and carrying a flashlight, he would descend into the White House basement “situation room” to monitor the conduct of the conflict, hovering above the military and civilian specialists collating reports from Saigon or Danang or Bienhoa. Often, too, he would doze by his bedside telephone, waiting to hear the outcome of a mission to rescue one of “my pilots” shot down over Haiphong or Vinh or Thai Nguyen. It was his war.
At about eleven o’clock on the night of November 22, 1963, Johnson arrived back in Washington from Dallas, where he had gone to cam¬paign with Kennedy. Now Kennedy was dead and he was president. Exhausted after the ghastly day but too nervous to sleep, he drove home. He sprawled across his bed, talking for hours as his assistants listened. He was going to revolutionize America with federal aid to education, tax cuts to stimulate business, civil rights legislation, con¬servation programs. He barely mentioned Vietnam. As Jack Valenti, one of those present, later recalled to me: “Vietnam at the time was a cloud no bigger than a man’s fist on the horizon. We hardly discussed it because it wasn’t worth discussing.”
But Johnson was not oblivious to Vietnam. To the extent that he had focused on the problem as vice-president, he had been a partisan of firmness, having argued after his whirlwind trip through Southeast Asia in 1961 that the “battle against Communism” in the area “must be joined . . . with strength and determination.” He had also been impatient with the attempts to compel Diem to behave more flexibly, saying that “we should stop playing cops and robbers and get back to . . . winning the war.” On November 24, two days after succeed¬ing Kennedy, he invited a small group to talk with Henry Cabot Lodge, who was in Washington for consultations following Diem’s assassination. He would not “lose Vietnam,” Johnson asserted, and he instructed Lodge to “tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word.” He translated his affirmation into an official National Security Council “action memorandum,” which reiterated that the United States would assist the South Viet¬namese to “win their contest against the externally directed and sup¬ported Communist conspiracy.”
The pledge, Johnson’s first formal decision on Vietnam, essentially signaled a continuation of Kennedy’s policy. But how long could American involvement remain at the present level? For not only had the situation in South Vietnam worsened in the weeks since Diem’s downfall, but irrefutable evidence now indicated that it had been de¬generating since the summer.
Conditions were particularly perilous in the Mekong Delta, the rice basket of South Vietnam, where 40 percent of the population lived. About that time, curious to observe the situation firsthand, 1 drove south from Saigon into Long An, a province I had visited before. There I found the strategic hamlet program begun during the Diem regime in shambles. At a place called Hoa Phu, for example, the strategic hamlet built during the previous summer now looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. The barbed wire fence around the enclo¬sure had been ripped apart, the watchtowers were demolished and only a few of its original thousand residents remained, sheltered in lean-tos. Speaking through an interpreter, a local guard explained to me that a handful of Vietcong agents had entered the hamlet one night and told the peasants to tear it down and return to their native villages. The peasants complied without question. From the start, in Hoa Phu and elsewhere, they had hated the strategic hamlets, many of which they had been forced to construct by corrupt officials who had pock¬eted a percentage of the money allocated for the projects. Besides, there were virtually no government troops in the sector to keep them from leaving. If the war was a battle for “hearts and minds,” as the platitude went, the United States and its South Vietnamese clients had certainly lost Long An.

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