Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 15

Equally worrisome to Johnson was the domestic weariness with the war—especially on the eve of an election year. He had tried to placate the right-wingers by scuttling McNamara, yet they continued to press him for further escalation. Their impatience was not unlike the mood of the public, whose disillusionment with the war appeared to reflect displeasure with Johnson’s leadership more than with the commitment itself. Meanwhile, Johnson was alienating his progressive constitu¬ency, which had supported him for his civil rights and social programs. Allard Lowenstein, a liberal activist, had been laboring since the sum¬mer to muster an antiwar Democrat to challenge Johnson in the pres¬idential race. Bobby Kennedy demurred, figuring that the moment was not ripe. But Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, an icon¬oclastic figure, announced on November 30, 1967, that he would run against Johnson in the primaries as an opposition candidate to the war. Johnson saw McCarthy for what he was—a stalking horse for Ken¬nedy—and the sight heightened his sense of beleaguerment. The street demonstrations were also enraging him; during one particularly noisy period of protests, he harried an aide, “How can I hit them in the nuts? Tell me how I can hit them in the nuts.”
Johnson railed against “gutless” bureaucrats who leaked “defeatist” information to “simpleton” reporters. “It’s gotten so,” he told a visitor to the White House, “you can’t have intercourse with your wife with¬out it being spread around by traitors.” But in contrast to Richard Nixon, who was to organize agents to harass or spy on dissenters, Johnson believed that he could reform his adversaries—and he mounted an impressive public relations machine.
One of Rostow’s assistants monitored congressional speeches, deluging critics with “correct” information supplied by a special White House research team. To help Americans get the “facts,” Rostow himself chaired a “psychological strategy committee,” which released favorable government reports on the war to the media. Its equivalent in Saigon, run by Barry Zorthian and a cast of hundreds, fed corre¬spondents everything from statistics to captured enemy documents, nearly all designed to prove that the war was being won. And Johnson personally participated in the effort, touring military bases and naval installations around the country to promote optimism and confidence.
As presidents do in moments of crisis, he sought comfort from distinguished outsiders as well. His aides saw to it that a “citizens’ committee” was formed of more than a hundred prestigious Ameri-cans, including former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, to rally public opinion behind the administration. Another group, dubbed the “wise men,” included elder statesmen like former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, retired Ambassador Robert Murphy and the promi¬nent New York banker John McCloy. Convened in early November at the State Department, they were handed reports and briefed orally, and they predictably endorsed Johnson’s policy without the faintest awareness that in a few months events would compel them to reverse their views—and stimulate fresh decisions.
On the theory that battle-scarred soldiers were irresistible, Johnson summoned Westmoreland home in mid-November to revive the country’s flagging spirit. Westmoreland later recollected that he had compunctions about fulfilling the public relations task, but he obeyed orders. His tour schedule was meticulously planned to give him broad exposure—except to critics who might pose pernicious questions. Carefully steered away from Senator Fulbright and his ilk, West¬moreland met with the more sympathetic State and House armed services committees, and he attended a White House banquet to which Johnson had invited the tamer members of Congress. Westmoreland performed perfectly throughout, never uttering a gloomy word. “The ranks of the Vietcong are thinning steadily,” he assured a gathering at the Pentagon, and he promised a National Press Club audience that “we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.” And he defied the Communists to stage a massive attack. “I hope they try something,” he told a Time interviewer, “because we are looking for a fight.”
So were the Communists in Vietnam. Their leaders had been plan¬ning a major offensive since the summer—and, by the fall, their paper mills were working overtime, instructing military units and political cadres to prepare for a huge drive that would throw the Americans and the Saigon regime into “utmost confusion.” The present juncture, said one directive, was a “golden opportunity” to “liberate” hamlets and villages, towns, cities and South Vietnam “as a whole.” In Hanoi following the war, a retired North Vietnamese officer recalled to me that he and his comrades were told to prepare for the drive because “Uncle Ho was very old and we had to liberate the south before his death.” The massive attack erupted on Tet, the lunar New Year, and for Lyndon Johnson it brought the end into view.

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