Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt

By the beginning of 1966, Vietnam had become an obsession for Lyndon Johnson—the “center of our concerns,” as he put it in his State of the Union message. Yet he had no intention of quitting or even compromising. He still be¬lieved the United States was strong and prosperous enough to produce both guns and butter. He had also persuaded himself that making any concessions to North Vietnam would provide his right-wing oppo¬nents with the pretext to sabotage his Great Society. So he reaffirmed his pledge to persevere: “We will stay until aggression has stopped,” he intoned, “because in Asia and around the world are countries whose independence rests, in large measure, on confidence in America’s word and in America’s protection. ”
But Johnson sensed that the war was poisoning his administration— and might eventually tilt the nation against him unless he could show rapid progress. One of his closest aides, Jack Valenti, described the gloom that seemed to be enveloping the White House: “Vietnam was a fungus, slowly spreading its suffocating crust over the great plans of the president, both here and overseas. No matter what we turned our hands and minds to, there was Vietnam, its contagion infecting everything that it touched, and it seemed to touch everything.” Actually, the nearly two hundred thousand American soldiers sent to Vietnam during 1965 had made a critical difference—at least in conventional military terms. The marines had secured the sector around Danang and gone on to stage the first big American drive of the war in August, crippling a Vietcong regiment in the vicinity. Two months later, a U.S. airborne division crushed three North Vietnamese regiments in the la Drang valley, a dense jungle area near Pleiku, and prevented a Communist sweep from the central highlands down to the populated coast. The la Drang operation, Silver Bayonet, dem-onstrated for the first time the effectiveness of pitching large units into action by helicopter, and it also proved that B-52s, designed for stra¬tegic bombing, could be deployed to give tactical support to ground forces. Though more than three hundred Americans died in the battle, the engagement cost the Communists nearly two thousand men, and the favorable ratio of casualties prompted General Westmoreland to assert that his search-and-destroy missions could gradually grind down the enemy—on condition that he be given the battalions to do the job.
But his concept was flawed. The “kill ratio” would scarcely gratify Americans back home, who refused to equate the lives of their boys with those of the enemy. So Westmoreland’s policy of attrition was doomed from the start, since U.S. opinion would eventually react against increasing American losses, no matter how many North Viet¬namese regulars and Vietcong guerrillas were wiped out. Westmore¬land’s determination to defend all of South Vietnam rather than hold selected enclaves would also frustrate his own forces eventually. One U.S. officer later likened it to “Primo Camera going after Willie Pep in a pigsty ten miles square.”
By the end of the year, the Communists were building up their strength in South Vietnam at twice the rate of the U.S. escalation. Westmoreland reckoned that he would need more men than he had originally anticipated, both to cope with the immediate threat and to shift to the offensive in 1966. His request for a virtually open-ended troop commitment put the president in a dilemma: Johnson wanted to win the war, but he hoped to keep the investment within politically acceptable bounds. As usual, Johnson sent Robert McNamara to Viet¬nam to appraise the situation.
Until late November 1965, McNamara had believed firmly in the American crusade in Vietnam. But his attitude altered perceptibly during his quick trip to Saigon at this juncture. The U.S. combat performance impressed him, yet he was shaken by the evidence that North Vietnamese infiltration into the south had risen so dramati¬cally—and would surely continue. Discarding his customary display of public optimism, he candidly told correspondents in Saigon that “it will be a long war,” and he returned to Washington to offer Johnson a bleak set of options.
The current plan to boost the number of American troops in Viet¬nam to some three hundred thousand by late 1966 would merely serve to avert disaster—in which case, he advised, the best approach was to seek a “compromise solution” through negotiations. On the other hand, the United States could “stick with our stated objectives” by providing “what it takes”—a total of at least six hundred thousand men by the beginning of 1968. But, McNamara cautioned, even that “will not guarantee success.” It might raise the American casualty rate to a thousand deaths a month and, he figured, the odds were “about even” that nothing better would be attained than “a military standoff at a much higher level,” along with the potential danger of “active Chinese intervention.” In short, the future held out the unalluring possibility of a deadlock that might explode into a wider war.
Johnson fretted about domestic dissent as he pondered his choices. Student opposition to the war was spreading in response to larger draft quotas. Two young American protesters, emulating the Viet¬namese Buddhists, committed suicide by self-immolation in early No¬vember, one in front of the Pentagon and the other at the United Nations, and a crowd of twenty thousand marched on the White House to clamor for peace. Surveys disclosed that an overwhelming majority of Americans favored a fresh cease-fire initiative—though nearly the same proportion approved dynamic action if the effort failed. “The weakest chink in our armor is American public opinion,” Johnson warned his staff. “Our people won’t stand firm in the face of heavy losses, and they can bring down the government.”

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