LBJ Goes to War 4

Late in October, a hundred Vietcong troops armed with mortars slipped into the surrounding area of rice fields, palm groves and placid villages. Though they were dressed in black peasant pajamas, the local peasants knew their identity, yet not a hint of their presence reached the authorities. Before dawn on November 1, a shower of shells fell on the base, the explosions shattering the still darkness. South Viet¬namese pilots and technicians and their U.S. advisers tumbled out of bed, running in all directions as gasoline tanks erupted in flames and debris flew everywhere. Search parties immediately fanned out through the neighborhood in quest of the assailants, but they had vanished without a trace. By daylight, when the losses were tabulated, six B-57s had been destroyed and more than twenty other aircraft damaged; five Americans and two South Vietnamese were dead, and nearly a hundred injured.
Outraged, Taylor could no longer restrain himself. In September, he recollected, the president had approved reprisals for “any” Com¬munist actions taken against American units. Now he cabled Wash¬ington to urge that air raids against selected North Vietnamese targets should be promptly initiated, with warnings that bombing would occur again in the event of future Communist assaults. Too mild, the joint chiefs of staff complained; Taylor’s “tit-for-tat” approach was “unduly restrictive.” The moment had come for a relentless bombing offensive, they asserted. Indeed, aircraft carriers deployed off North Vietnam were poised to strike.
President Johnson did nothing. With the presidential election three days away, he was wary of a dramatic venture that might either dismay or offend voters, if they construed it as a cheap expedient to deflate Goldwater. Curiously, however, Johnson told the joint chiefs he was contemplating sending an expedition of U.S. combat troops to Viet¬nam to protect American families and installations. The idea alarmed Taylor, who was puzzled that Johnson could “casually” make a de¬cision so much more difficult than the bombing of North Vietnam.
On November 3, just after the polls confirmed his election, Johnson created a “working group” composed of eight middle-level State De¬partment, Pentagon and CIA officials, with William Bundy as chair¬man, to study “immediately and intensively” the U.S. options in Southeast Asia. Its conclusions were to be reported to a panel of ten “principals”—Rusk, McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Wheeler, Taylor and five others—who would in turn transmit an array of refined proposals to the president. The bureaucratic layer cake suited Johnson, since it offered him the chance to create unanimity. But, in the end, the final choices were to be his—and his alone.
The research and discussion pursued by the committees throughout November were interestingly circumscribed. The fundamental issues had ceased to be whether Vietnam was vital to America’s national interests or whether the United States could succeed there. The ques¬tion now was, starkly, what to do. A sense of urgency animated Bill Bundy’s group: another Vietcong attack like the one against Bienhoa could occur at any moment, or the South Vietnamese regime might fall through its own instability. The Johnson administration was on trial before the world—its credibility, in Bundy’s words, hinging on its ” determination to take risks if necessary to maintain our position in Southeast Asia.”
But certain of his colleagues had doubts. Many CIA analysts had been consistently gloomy. One, Willard Matthias, had forecast in June 1964 that the situation in Vietnam at best augured a “prolonged stale¬mate,” and he had suggested a negotiated settlement “based upon neutralization” of Southeast Asia. The Bundy group’s intelligence expert, Harold Ford, now offered a similar prognosis. The Vietcong, he pointed out, could carry on the insurgency even if North Vietnam were “severely damaged” by U.S. bombing. He saw no early end to the war.
The Pentagon representative, Vice Admiral Lloyd Mustin, dis¬agreed. He argued that “something far less” than the total annihilation of North Vietnam would work. How much less he could not say, but he proposed a “progressively increasing squeeze”—inflicting “substantial levels of military, industrial and governmental destruc¬tion” on the north. In any case, there was no choice. The only alter¬native to success in Vietnam, he concluded apocalyptically, was America’s “abject humiliation.”
After three weeks, Bundy boiled down the group’s reports into three broad options: to continue the present policy of moderation; to launch bold attacks against North Vietnam immediately; and to make “graduated military moves,” initially in Laos and then against North Vietnam, so designed as to give the United States the flexibility at any time “to escalate or not, and to quicken the pace or not.” Bundy had resorted to a classic bureaucratic device known as the “Goldilocks Principle.” By including one choice “too soft” and one “too hard,” he could plausibly expect the upper-echelon “principals” to go for the “just right” option—in this case the third, which he himself favored.
In late November, the president’s top advisers met to shape the recommendations that they would hand him after he returned from a Thanksgiving holiday at his Texas ranch. The foremost partisan of prudence among them was George Ball, under secretary of state. A bulky bear of a man, Ball firmly believed in the primacy of America’s relations with Europe—a concept that bucked the then fashionable trend of focusing on Asia, Africa and Latin America, where Com¬munist-led “wars of national liberation” were frequent. That trend, exemplified in the fixation on Vietnam, alarmed Ball, and he had told Kennedy as much; Johnson was also aware of his dissidence. But Ball was valuable as a “devil’s advocate.” He kept other officials alert by testing their conformism, and he particularly comforted Johnson, who liked to hear different sides of an issue. Besides, Ball was a discreet team player. He might quarrel internally, yet he would never openly wash the dirty linen.
Years later, when he had become a New York investment banker, I asked him why he had stayed in government service long after his views on Vietnam had been spurned rather than resign and speak out. His somewhat awkward reply obliquely explained how it was that not a single high-level American bureaucrat walked out in protest against the war, even though many were disgusted with it: “I figured that I could do better by remaining on the inside. Had I quit, the story would have made the front page of The New York Times next day— and then I would have been promptly forgotten.”

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