Tet 16

The results were staggering. Of the fifty thousand votes cast for the Democratic party contenders, McCarthy received only three hundred fewer than Johnson. A maverick senator had successfully defied an incumbent president and master politician in a performance that electrified the country. Interestingly, though, New Hampshire citizens had strongly endorsed McCarthy as a protest against Johnson rather than as a gesture of approval for a peace platform. Studies conducted later indicated that many of McCarthy’s supporters favored the war but had registered dissatisfaction with the administration— and a large proportion of them voted in the November national elec¬tion for George Wallace, a ferocious anti-Communist. Or perhaps many mistook Eugene McCarthy for the late Senator Joe McCarthy, the fanatical Red-baiter who had died in 1957.
McCarthy may have been a symbol. Four days later, however, Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy, and he was real. Moreover, he made it plain that he intended to use the war as an issue to defeat Johnson. Two days before throwing his hat into the ring, he ap¬proached Clifford with a proposition for the president: he would stay out of the race on condition that Johnson confess publicly that the administration’s Vietnam policy had been an error and appoint a com¬mission, including himself, to recommend a new course. The idea was both arrogant and devious. For Johnson to accept would signify, in effect, the abdication of his authority as chief executive. To spurn it, though, meant the opposition of a formidable foe bearing a magical name and launching a challenge at a time when he, Johnson, could not have been more vulnerable.
Not only did he reject Kennedy, but he defiantly struck shrill notes in his speeches on Vietnam. “We shall and we are going to win,” he harangued a business group on March 17, and he sounded even more strident in an address to a convention of farmers in Minneapolis the next day. In recalling nearly every crisis of the century, from the sinking of the Lusitania and the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Berlin blockade, his hoarse voice rasped out the peroration. “The time has come when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and our allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”
The Wisconsin primary was scheduled for April 2, and Johnson, on the ballot, faced serious opposition from both Kennedy and McCarthy. His advisers foresa.w not only his doom but the doom of the Democratic party. One of them, James L. Rowe, a party insider since the Roosevelt era, sent him a tough memorandum. In contrast to Kennedy and McCarthy, who had become the peace candidates, he had become “the war candidate.” So he had to “do something exciting and dramatic” to recapture the peace issue. Intransigence was not the answer. “Hardly anyone today is interested in winning the war,” Rowe told him. “Everyone wants to get out, and the only question is how.”
The message sank in. On March 20, the morning after Rowe’s memo reached him, Johnson telephoned Clifford and said: “I’ve got to get me a peace proposal.”
Three days later, Johnson secretly dispatched Wheeler to the Philip¬pines to meet Westmoreland and inform him not to expect the ad¬ditional forces he had requested the month before. The president would furnish only thirteen thousand five hundred more American troops, and it was up to Westmoreland to inspire the South Vietnamese to make a greater effort. The Saigon regime had only recently begun, under pressure, to conscript eighteen-year-olds—while, ironically, American draftees of the same age had been fighting the war for nearly three years.
In good times, Lyndon Johnson could be cheerful, expansive, gen¬erous. But now he felt alone and beleaguered, a bound Prometheus being ravaged by real or imagined vultures. His former press secretary and protege, Bill Moyers, found him insulated inside the White House, paranoiacally blaming all his woes on political and personal rivals. Henry Brandon, a British correspondent, was stunned by his appear¬ance. He looked exhausted—his face ashen, his eyes sunken, his skin flabby, and yet, underneath, his expression was taut. To Clark Clif¬ford, his old confidant, Johnson had suddenly become cranky and suspicious. In only a few weeks, he recollected, “the bloom was off our relationship.”
Harry McPherson, who closely observed Johnson and Clifford at the time, later analyzed the interplay between them. He recalled that over the past year, as Vietnam increasingly obsessed him, Johnson had come to depend primarily on three faithful advisers—Rusk, Ros- tow and McNamara. Then McNamara defected, and Johnson turned to Clifford, counting on him for a fresh perspective coupled with the total devotion he expected from all his associates. But as he examined the crisis from inside the government, Clifford had changed, and as he changed he no longer seemed to Johnson to be loyal. Johnson was disappointed, feeling that he had been deceived by an intimate and valued friend. So, McPherson concluded, Johnson began to tune Clif¬ford in and out—sometimes consulting him, sometimes ignoring him, sometimes treating him with an excessive politeness contrived to il¬lustrate the distance that separated them.
Johnson had no intention by now of enlarging the war, but neither did he intend to quit. Nor was he ready to stop the American air strikes against North Vietnam in return for possible talks with the Communists, since he thought that would endanger the forces still besieged at Khesanh. His strategy, in short, was simply to “hang in there.”
Clifford’s dream, in contrast, was to reshape Johnson’s entire ap¬proach to the war and to put him on the path to an honorable with¬drawal from Vietnam. But Clifford’s ideas for winding down the U.S. commitment were just as fuzzy as Johnson’s conviction that the sit¬uation would somehow improve if only America could hold on. He regarded Rusk’s suggestion for a partial pause in the air raids to be a gimmick. He believed instead that the peace process might be started by a full bombing halt, which would show the Communists the administration’s sincere desire for a compromise. “The baby has to crawl before the baby can walk,” Clifford argued.
By late March, however, Clifford had barely dented Johnson’s at¬titude. He and his assistants at the Pentagon, desperate, contemplated wholesale resignation. But, deciding that such a bold protest would wreck the administration and shatter the country, Clifford cast around for a dose of “stiff medicine” to purge Johnson’s thinking. He found the prescription in the elder statesmen—the “wise men”—who had endorsed the president’s policies only five months before.

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