Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 11

A different pattern prevailed on Capitol Hill, where Johnson faced two small opposition blocs on the Vietnam issue. One, crystallized around Senator Fulbright and his foreign relations committee, was pushing for a way out of the war. The other, centered on Senator Stennis and the armed services committee, wanted stronger action. Johnson knew that most congressmen would toe the administration line. He was irritated by Fulbright, whom he mocked as “Senator Halfbright,” but he dared not taunt Stennis and his followers, who might tar him with being timid toward Communism. One of his priorities was to appease the conservatives—without becoming their captive.
By 1967 Johnson had been escalating the war steadily for eighteen months, with dismal results. A CIA summary of the air strikes against North Vietnam during 1966 told him part of the story: hundreds of bridges had been wrecked, but virtually all of them had been rebuilt or bypassed. Thousands of freight cars, trucks and other vehicles had been destroyed, but North Vietnamese traffic was moving smoothly. Roughly three-quarters of the country’s oil storage facilities had been eliminated, but there were no fuel shortages. The bombing had cost the United States nearly ten dollars for every dollar’s worth of damage inflicted. The morale of the Communists had not been weakened, and they were continuing to supply their forces in the south.
The knee-jerk reaction of the generals and admirals was to demand more bombing. “Bomb, bomb, bomb—that’s all they know,” John¬son grumbled; yet he kept authorizing new targets, hoping to mollify the senior officers and their congressional cronies. But after every new attack, they raised the ante. In April 1967, for instance, when Johnson permitted raids against power transformers, ammunition dumps and other objectives near Hanoi and Haiphong, the assaults barely hindered the enemy, and soon thejoint chiefs had persuaded Johnson to approve further bombing. Throughout this dialogue, they issued statements extolling the air campaign as “highly effective.”
In the spring of 1967, back home for consultations, General West¬moreland acceded to Johnson’s request to be optimistic in public, affirming in a series of speeches and interviews that the evidence pointed to “steady and encouraging success.” Behind closed doors, however, he warned Johnson that “the war could go on indefinitely” unless he found “a way to halt North Vietnamese infiltration” and unless the Vietcong organization seriously began “to disintegrate,” a prospect he considered “unlikely.” What he wanted was more men, and even then he saw no rapid success. Like a corporation executive presenting a production schedule to the chairman of the board, he reeled off the numbers for Johnson.
Under the current plan—the deployment of a total of four hundred and seventy thousand U.S. troops in Vietnam by late 1967—he could “do little better than hold our own.” Increase the force by a hundred thousand and, he estimated, “the war could well go on for three years. ” Add yet another hundred thousand: he could shrink the sched¬ule to two years. After all, Westmoreland explained, “we are fighting a war of attrition in Southeast Asia.”
But this was not quite the same as manufacturing shoes or auto¬mobiles. “When we add divisions, can’t the enemy add divisions, and if so, where does it all end?” Johnson asked. Westmoreland conceded it “likely” that the Communists would put in more troops. Johnson, haunted by the memory of the Chinese pouring into Korea, perceived a similar disaster in Vietnam. “At what point,” he pressed, “does the enemy ask for volunteers?” Westmoreland could only reply: “That is a good question.” Johnson did not need an answer. “I’m not going to spit in China’s face,” he later confided to an aide.
Just as he strung along the joint chiefs of staff by extending their bombing targets inch by inch, so Johnson ultimately gave West¬moreland a troop increment of only forty-five thousand men, while leaving open the possibility of sending others. And the bureaucrats reenacted their routine of churning out fresh contingency plans. One was a bold recommendation by Rostow for invading North Vietnam. Mercifully, it was shelved, but Rostow persisted with the proposal— even claiming years after the war that it would have been the key to victory.
One of the most perceptive documents was an unsolicited analysis drafted by Alain Enthoven, a senior assistant to McNamara. An expert on European defense issues, Enthoven dealt only tangentially with Vietnam at the Pentagon. He was, so to speak, an inside observer, with no personal or professional ax to grind. The real force confronting the United States in Vietnam, he wrote, was less Communism than “the strongest political current in the world today—nationalism.” That force had welded the North Vietnamese together through more than twenty years of almost uninterrupted fighting, and, he predicted, it would inspire them to “continue to endure great hardship.” Thus the American bombing would not “hurt them so badly as to destroy their society or, more to the point, their hope of conquering all Vietnam.” The basic challenge for America, therefore, was to promote an “equally strong” sense of nationalism in the south. Without that, “we will have lost everything we have invested … no matter what military success we may achieve.”
Domestic U.S. opinion was crucial, Enthoven went on. The strug¬gle was “a race between, on the one hand, the development of a viable South Vietnam and, on the other, a gradual loss in public support, or even tolerance, for the war” among Americans at home. The Com¬munists were betting that America’s patience would wear thin. To avoid that, the administration had to arrest the U.S. public’s declining support for the war while accelerating South Vietnam’s development. “Our horse,” Enthoven stressed, “must finish first.”
But how could the American public be induced to back the com¬mitment? For one thing, Enthoven argued, American casualties had to be held down. More significantly, the “diversion of the national wealth from badly needed domestic programs” had to be curbed, and it was vital to stop the “ominous history” of relentless escalation. Above all, Americans had to be given some sense of when the war would end. Only then could they be expected to make sacrifices.

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