The Commitments Deepen 3

My cursory impression, I later discovered, was confirmed in a more extensive survey conducted by Earl Young, the senior U.S. repre¬sentative in the province. He reported in early December that three- quarters of the two hundred strategic hamlets in Long An had been destroyed since the summer, either by the Vietcong or by their own occupants, or by a combination of both. He also contradicted the American and South Vietnamese optimists in Saigon, who had been heralding the decline in enemy activity, by pointing out that Vietcong attacks in the province had subsided primarily because there were no longer any strategic hamlets worth attacking. “The only progress made in Long An province,” he concluded, “has been by the Viet¬cong.”
Young’s survey, along with other similarly downbeat accounts for¬warded to Washington by Ambassador Lodge, unnerved the Johnson administration—as did the initial performance of the generals who had overthrown Diem. They rapidly disrupted the South Vietnamese administrative structure by replacing Diem’s officials with their own cronies, many of them no only inexperienced but, hungry for graft, even more corrupt than their predecessors.
In Saigon, meanwhile, the ruling generals were paralyzed by in¬eptitude. They had formed a military revolutionary council, composed of twelve members who bickered endlessly. Their normal chairman, General Minh, boasted that the collegial arrangement would guarantee against the autocratic excesses of the old regime. In reality, Minh had contrived the committee in order to bolster his prestige without in¬creasing his responsibility. He was a model of lethargy, lacking both the skill and the inclination to govern. As he confided to me one morning as we chatted in his headquarters, he preferred to play tennis and tend to his orchids and exotic birds than to preside over tedious meetings and unravel bureaucratic tangles. His junta was to be ousted in late January by General Nguyen Khanh, who was equally incom¬petent, despite his shrewdness. Until then, Lodge tried to guide Minh. But though Lodge was hardly dynamic himself, his patience soon wore thin. In a cable to Washington, he described Minh as a “good, well-intentioned man,” but added a prophetic note: “Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?”
Even at that early stage, Johnson could sense eventual doom. Over dinner one evening not long after he took office, he confessed to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, that he had “the terrible feeling that something has grabbed me around the ankles and won’t let go.” Un¬sure how to proceed, he did what Kennedy had done when in doubt: he sent McNamara, his secretary of defense, to Vietnam.
“I am optimistic as to the progress that can be made in the coming year,” intoned McNamara following his arrival in Saigon on Decem¬ber 19. But, as usual, his public utterances bore no resemblance to his real estimate. The situation was “very disturbing,” he privately told Johnson, predicting that “current trends, unless reversed in the next two or three months, will lead to neutralization at best or more likely to a Communist-controlled state.” On his previous journey to Viet¬nam in October, he had assured Kennedy that “the military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress.” Now, in a star¬tling turnabout, he acknowledged that the statistics on which he had based that conclusion had been “grossly in error.” Since July, the regime’s hold over the countryside had “in fact been deteriorat¬ing … to a far greater extent than we realized.” The Vietcong con¬trolled “larger percentages of the population, greater amounts of territory and have destroyed or occupied more strategic hamlets than expected.” The South Vietnamese army was losing more weapons to the Vietcong than it was capturing, and its casualties were also rising. And the slide had accelerated since the coup against Diem.
One’ “major weakness, ” McNamara went on, was the official Amer¬ican team in Saigon, which “lacks leadership, has been poorly in¬formed and is not working to a common plan.” Lodge was still squabbling with General Paul Harkins, the American military com¬mander, even to the point of excluding him from the embassy’s com¬munications with Washington, and their subordinates were also wrangling among themselves. Worse yet, McNamara reported, “there is no organized government in South Vietnam.” The junta was “in¬decisive and drifting,” its generals “so preoccupied with essentially political affairs” in the capital that their troops and provincial officials were “not being effectively directed.” Thus “there are more reasons to doubt the future of the effort . . . than there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of our cause.” But McNamara could not offer a precise prescription: “We should watch the situation very care¬fully, running scared, hoping for the best, but preparing for more forceful moves if the situation does not show early signs of improve¬ment.”
Predictably, the joint chiefs of staff were preparing for “more force¬ful moves.” General Curtis LeMay, the outspoken commander of the air force, had already begun to argue that North Vietnam should be bombed on the grounds that “we are swatting flies when we should be going after the manure pile,” and his colleagues were no less bellicose, even though they employed more respectable language. Early in 1964, they handed Johnson a series of suggestions that then seemed drastic, but he would gradually adopt many of them.
The joint chiefs prefaced their plan with an inflated version of the “domino theory.” South Vietnam was “pivotal” to America’s “world¬wide confrontation” with Communism, and a defeat there would deal a blow to U.S. “durability, resolution and trustworthiness” through¬out Asia as well as erode “our image” in Africa and Latin America. Given its importance, the conflict could not be confined to South Vietnam, where “we are fighting … on the enemy’s terms” and under “self-imposed restrictions.” The United States should undertake “increasingly bolder” measures, among them joint actions with the South Vietnamese to stage air strikes and commando raids against North Vietnam, and flights over Cambodia and Laos to gather intel¬ligence. The introduction of American combat forces might also be necessary. But above all, a U.S. commander must assume “the actual direction of the war.” In short, they were ready to “Americanize” the struggle.

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