Tet 17

It was a measure of Johnson’s sense of his own inadequacy that, for all his crude populist affectations, he curried the respect and admiration of the Eastern establishment—the distinguished group that alternated between prestigious public positions and lucrative private pursuits. So he consented to Clifford’s proposal to reconvene the “wise men.” But it was also a reflection of Clifford’s conspiratorial skill that he knew in advance, having adroitly made a few telephone calls, that many of these prominent figures had turned against the war since their last session in November. Johnson might have guessed as much himself. Dean Acheson, secretary of state under Truman and a key member of the group, had already urged him to search for a way out of the war, and he had heard a similar plea from Arthur Goldberg, his envoy to the United Nations, who was due to attend the meeting as well.
The group, numbering fourteen, assembled at the State Department for dinner on the evening of March 25. Among those present, besides Acheson and Goldberg, were George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Henry Cabot Lodge, Abe Fortas, Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance, all veterans of past Vietnam debates, as well as newcomers to the subject like Douglas Dillon, the New York banker who had served both Eisenhower and Kennedy, John J. McCloy and Robert Murphy, a seasoned diplomat. The conclave also included Maxwell Taylor and two other retired generals, Omar Bradley of World War II vintage, and Matthew Ridgway, the U.S. commander during the Korean con¬flict. Rusk, Rostow and Wheeler were there along with Clifford, who outlined the three choices facing the president: he could escalate the war with more troops and heavier bombing; he could continue on the present course; or he could curb the air raids and deploy American forces around South Vietnam’s populated areas while preparing the Saigon regime to take over the fighting.
Three official specialists then appeared to deliver briefings, and one of them, Philip Habib, a deputy assistant secretary of state and out¬spoken Brooklynite, pulled no punches. He had already told Acheson privately that the South Vietnamese government and army were so corrupt and inept that it might take five or ten years to achieve any real progress. Now he stupefied the group with the same appraisal. Like a lawyer leading a witness, Clifford pressed him for details. “Phil, do you think a military victory can be won?” Habib, aware that he ran the risk of alienating Rusk, his boss, paused before responding, “Not under the present circumstances.” Clifford then hurled a ques¬tion that Habib later called the toughest of his career: “What would you do if the decision was yours to make?” Again Habib paused, then replied, “Stop the bombing and negotiate.”
After a moment’s silence, Rusk asked the briefers to leave to enable the group to discuss the issue frankly. The most prestigious figure present, Acheson, bluntly set the tone: the administration had to find a way out of the war. Dillon, Goldberg, Harriman and several others agreed.
Johnson wanted to hear from his senior officers, and in the morning Rusk and Clifford went to the White House with Wheeler and General Creighton W. Abrams, then Westmoreland’s deputy and later to be¬come his successor as U.S. commander in Vietnam. Abrams, just back from Saigon, held the floor. A chunky soldier who chewed cigars and listened to Mozart, he warned that growing numbers of North Vietnamese troops were pouring down the Ho Chi Minh trail into the south. Accordingly, he urged Johnson to enlarge the U.S. combat force, intensify the bombings, authorize incursions into Laos and Cambodia, and even extend the ground fighting into North Viet¬nam—in short, expand the war. The “wise men” were scheduled for lunch, and Johnson ordered Wheeler and Abrams to remain to rebut them. “The civilians,” he told them bitterly, “are cutting our guts out.”
Rusk, who now seemed to be on the fence, said as they waited that “the nation can’t support a bottomless pit.” The comment sent John¬son into a stream of consciousness that sounded to Clifford like a poignant apology to the generals for denying them reinforcements.
Our fiscal situation is abominable. . . . What will happen if we cut housing, education, poverty programs? I don’t give a damn about the election. . . . The country’s demoralized. … I will have over¬whelming disapproval in the polls. I will go down the drain. . . . How can we get this job done? We need more money— in an election year; more taxes—in an election year; more troops— in an election year; and cuts in the domestic budget—in an election year. And yet I cannot tell the people what they will get in Vietnam in return for these cuts. We have no support for the war. . . .
When the considerably wiser “wise men” met at lunch, Johnson interrogated them one by one. He had anticipated dissension, but the virtual unanimity of their opinions astounded and dismayed him. Ex¬cept for Bradley, Fortas, Murphy and Taylor, they all favored with¬drawal from Vietnam in one form or another. Acheson, seated at Johnson’s right in the White House family dining room, did most of the talking—and he talked candidly. Here was this patrician, who had persuaded Truman to finance the French conflict in Indochina nearly two decades before now renouncing the cause he had largely origi¬nated. The basic problem in South Vietnam, he said, was the Saigon regime’s lack of popular support—and the same problem plagued the Johnson administration, which could no longer count on popular sup¬port for the struggle. .When one of the others objected to his portrayal of American policy as an effort to impose a military solution on the Communists, he erupted: “What in the name of God have we got five hundred thousand troops out there for—chasing girls? You know damned well this is what we’re trying to do—to force the enemy to sue for peace. It won’t happen—at least not in any time the American people will permit.”

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