Tet 15

At that stage, Rusk approached him with an idea. Rusk, primarily pained by the gloomy mood at home, had come to believe that Amer¬ica’s confidence in the president’s policies might be restored by cur¬tailing the bombing of North Vietnam as a prerequisite to inviting the Communists to negotiate. If they agreed, Johnson would be seen as an apostle of peace; if not, as seemed more likely, he had a justi¬fication for stronger American military moves. In any case, the ex¬periment would be cheap, since monsoon rains normally reduced air operations during that period anyway. Outlining the project at John¬son’s regular Tuesday luncheon on March 5, Rusk recommended that the gesture be uncomplicated by stated conditions in order to avoid “theological debates about words.” Or as he put it: “Just take the action, and see whether anybody is able to make anything out of it.”
Both Clifford and Warnke objected, fearing that its almost certain rejection by the Communists would furnish the joint chiefs of staff with the pretext to demand an intensification of the war. Johnson also greeted the notion coolly, having halted the bombing eight different times over the past three years without results. But he soon recon¬sidered, partly because he needed some sort of peace proposal to ap¬pease public opinion and because he trusted Rusk—“a deliberate man, a judicious man, a careful man” who would not steer him into a crazy scheme. He tucked the idea away for future use.
Though Johnson had virtually shelved the troop request concocted by Wheeler and Westmoreland, news of their bid for more men began to filter up to Capitol Hill. Senator Robert Kennedy heard the story from Daniel Ellsberg, a young Defense Department official, and he publicly criticized the proposed deployment on the Senate floor. Other senators, among them William Fulbright and Gaylord Nelson, also denounced any escalation, while Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, declared that “we are in the wrong place, fighting the wrong war.” As they spoke out, a more important switch was occurring less openly in Congress. The hard-line senators, like John Stennis and Henry Jackson, who had consistently underwritten the military es¬tablishment, now began to see the hopelessness of the struggle. They quietly imparted their views to Clifford and also voiced their opinions to Wheeler, warning that they could not subscribe to bigger force commitments as long as the administration refused to pursue a win¬ning strategy.
On March 8, sensing that the tide was running against them, Wheeler advised Westmoreland to cease making optimistic statements to the press if he expected Congress to back their plea for a larger manpower investment in Vietnam. The rebuke startled Westmore¬land, who naively replied that he was merely appraising the situation objectively. The next day, effectively announcing defeat on the Wash¬ington front, Wheeler again cabled Westmoreland: “I do not wish to shunt my troubles on you. However, I must tell you frankly that there is strong resistance from all quarters to putting more ground force units into South Vietnam. . . . You should not count on an affirmative decision for such additional forces.”
The seeds of a sensational newspaper revelation had meanwhile been planted on the evening of March 1 at the elegant Georgetown home of William Moorhead, a Pennsylvania congressman. Moorhead had thrown a party for the Washington chapter of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society, whose members included Edwin Dale, a New York Times reporter, and Townsend Hoopes, under secretary of the air force. Hoopes, who had turned against the war, hinted to Dale that a faction at the Pentagon was forming to resist a troop buildup in Vietnam. Dale passed the tip to his Times colleagues, Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith, both former Vietnam correspondents now cov-ering defense and diplomatic affairs. Tapping their sources, they stitched together the details within a week. On March 10, a Sunday, the Times published their dispatch on page one under a three-column headline.
The story was incomplete, lacking as it did the fact that Wheeler wanted half the force to fulfill America’s security obligations elsewhere in the world. Even so, it posed a central question that now was being asked with increasing frequency in Congress and across the United States. If the Tet battles had crippled the Communists—as Johnson, Westmoreland and other senior administration figures continued to proclaim—why were another two hundred thousand Americans needed in Vietnam? Characteristically, the president widened his al¬ready gaping credibility gap into a veritable canyon by instructing his press secretary, George Christian, to say that “no specific request” for troops had reached the White House. Johnson, privately furious at the Times disclosure, traced its origin to Hoopes, whom he would repeatedly deride during the months ahead. “Hoopees! Hoopees! Who the hell is Hoopees? Here I take four million people out of poverty, and all I ever hear about is Hoopees.”
The Times was not the only news medium to torment Johnson. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before Fulbright’s foreign relations committee to testify for eleven hours over a two-day period. The spectacle was broadcast on television during the day, and taped ex¬cerpts were replayed to larger audiences in the evening; and though Rusk acquitted himself well under Fulbright’s relentless grilling, the marathon hearing gave the public a unique insight into the mount¬ing congressional misgivings toward the administration’s Vietnam policies.
On the second day of the hearing, another drama was taking place in New Hampshire, the site of the election year’s first presidential primary election. Until then, Johnson had managed to prevent Viet¬nam from becoming a domestic political issue, largely by mustering bipartisan backing for the war and thus reducing his critics to an apparent handful of either right-wing or leftist militants with only marginal influence. Senator Eugene McCarthy, the sole Democrat who planned to challenge Johnson on the issue in the primaries, was somewhat more respectable. Yet he was an eccentric without broad appeal, whose ratings in the polls by the middle of February showed him gaining fewer than 20 percent of the votes in New Hampshire. Johnson’s name was absent from the ballot, since he had not yet formally entered the race. But his activists had organized a write-in campaign on his behalf, implying in their advertisements that a vote for McCarthy was a vote for the enemy: “The Communists in Viet¬nam are watching the New Hampshire primary.”

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