LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT McNAMARA, McGEORGE BUNDY AND THE POLITICAL SIDE OF THE VIETNAM WAR

LYNDON JOHNSON AND THE VIETNAM WAR

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) believed he had no choice but to fight in Vietnam to contain communism. When Johnson assumed office following the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 it soon became clear that he had no intention of withdraw from Vietnam but, rather, to increase its support for the new Saigon government. The Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) in North Vietnam leadership concluded that only armed struggle would lead to success and called for an escalation of the war. The critical issues then became the reactions of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hanoi clearly hoped that the United States would opt for a compromise solution, as it had in Korea and Laos, and the party leaders believed that a quick and forceful escalation of the war would induce it to do so.

Evan Thomas and John Barry wrote in Newsweek, "Johnson was horribly conflicted. One of his advisers, Douglass Cater, recalled the president's angst: "I'd never seen the man in as dejected a mood—he said, 'I don't know what to do. If I send more boys in, there's going to be killin'. If I take them out, there's going to be more killin' ' … And he never put a 'g' on the 'killin',' it was Texas 'killin'.' Then he got up and walked out of the room, leaving us in a somewhat shattered state." Despite these melodramas, Johnson's heart was never in the Vietnam War. He was much more concerned with getting his Great Society legislation through Congress. To avoid a fractious public debate over Vietnam, he tried to slide by without leveling with the American people about the commitment required to win. Inevitably, he just got sucked in deeper, an agony he captured in his colorful way: "I knew from the start if I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to fight this bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home," he told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "All my programs. All my hopes … all my dreams." [Source: Evan Thomas and John Barry, Newsweek, November 16, 2009]

On July 28, 1965, Johnson said, ""I do not find it easy to send the flower of our youth, our finest young men into battle. I think I know how their mothers weep and their families sorrow." "This is a Greek tragedy really," John Frankenheimer, the director the HBO Vietnam drama, "Path to War," told the New York Times. "This is the bigger-than-life hero who was taken down by his own weakness. He believed what the generals told him, he believed what his advisers told him. He was insecure on foreign issues; he was not going to be the first president to lose a war. In the end, the war killed him too." That drama came out around the time the United States was sending troops to Iraq. On the similarities faced by Johnson and U.S. President George Bush Frankenheimer said. "You also have a president today who has American troops on foreign soil, you have a president who's facing an enemy, he doesn't know who they are. You have a president who wants to be re-elected, you have a president who's not expert on foreign affairs and is dependent on his advisers. The similarities are tremendous."[Source: Bernard Weinraub, New York Times, December 13, 2001]

The inner circle of aides that advised Kennedy and Johnson and gave us the Vietnam War were dubbed the "The Best and the Brightest" by journalist David Halberstam. They included Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Walt W. Rostow. rest. Robert G. Kaiser wrote in the Washington Post, they "allowed themselves to believe that the shrewd application of U.S. power — pulling a lever here, pushing a button there — could create and prop up an independent, democratic South Vietnam. [Source: Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post, January 14, 2007]

Vietnam: Johnson’s Inherited War

In "Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War," David Coleman and Marc Selverstone wrote: "The circumstances of Johnson’s ascendance to the Oval Office left him little choice but to implement several unrealized Kennedy initiatives, particularly in the fields of economic policy and civil rights. But LBJ was equally committed to winning the fight against the Communist insurgency in Vietnam—a fight that Kennedy had joined during his thousand days in office. While Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower had committed significant American resources to counter the Communist-led Viet Minh in its struggle against France following the Second World War, it was Kennedy who had deepened and expanded that commitment, increasing the number of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam from just under seven hundred in 1961 to over sixteen thousand by the fall of 1963. Kennedy’s largesse would also extend to the broader provision of foreign aid, as his administration increased the amount of combined military and economic assistance from $223 million in FY1961 to $471 million by FY1963. [Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, David Coleman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs;Marc Selverstone, Assistant Director for Presidential Studies and Associate Professor with the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs <>]

"Those outlays, however, contributed neither to greater success in the counterinsurgency nor to the stabilization of South Vietnamese politics. Charges of cronyism and corruption had dogged the government of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem for years, sparking public condemnation of his rule as well as successive efforts at toppling his regime. Diem’s effort to construct strategic hamlets—a program run by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu—ended up alienating increasing numbers of South Vietnamese, arguably creating more recruits for the Communists instead of isolating them as the program had intended. The shuffling and reshuffling of military personnel also contributed to Diem’s troubles, further undermining the counterinsurgency; indeed, by reserving some of the South’s best troops for his own personal protection instead of sending them out to defeat the Communists, Diem contributed to the very incident—his forcible removal from power—he was trying to forestall.3 A poor showing against the Viet Cong at the battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 sparked the most probing questions to date about those personnel shifts and about the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). But it was the attack by Diem’s minions on parading Buddhists four months later that ignited the nationwide protest that would roil the country for the remainder of the year and eventually topple the regime. Both Diem and Nhu were killed in the coup that brought a military junta to power in early November 1963, ending America’s reliance on its "miracle man" in Vietnam. <>

"Kennedy’s own assassination three weeks later laid the problems of Vietnam squarely on Johnson’s desk. Unhappy with U.S. complicity in the Saigon coup yet unwilling to deviate from Kennedy’s approach to the conflict, Johnson vowed not to lose the war. If anything, he encouraged his closest advisers to work even harder at helping South Vietnam prosecute the counterinsurgency. Those officials included many of the same figures who had acquiesced in Diem’s removal, as the desire for continuity led him to retain Kennedy’s presumed objectives as well as his senior civilian and military advisers.5 Uncertainty about his own foreign policy credentials also contributed to Johnson’s reliance on figures such as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, all of whom had been with Kennedy since the outset of that administration. "I need you more than he did," LBJ said to his national security team. <>

"That need was now more pressing because the counterinsurgency was deteriorating. The Diem coup had unleashed a wave of instability below the seventeenth parallel that Communist forces were only too eager to exploit. Raids by the local Communists—dubbed the Viet Cong, or VC, by Diem—had picked up in frequency and intensity in the weeks following Diem’s ouster. All signs were now pointing to a situation that was more dire than the one Kennedy had confronted. Or so it seemed. Compounding the new administration’s problems was the realization that earlier assumptions about progress in the war were ill-founded. Although State Department officials had maintained in October 1963 that that statistical evidence pointed not to success but to mounting troubles against the Viet Cong, Pentagon officials—both civilian and military—had rejected those arguments. By December, with attacks increasing in the countryside, a look back at those earlier metrics revealed that State Department analyses were indeed on the mark.8

Johnson Takes the War Effort in Vietnam Up a Notch While Changing Personnel

In "Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War," David Coleman and Marc Selverstone wrote: "Yet Johnson did not need that retrospective appraisal to launch a more vigorous campaign against the Communists, for his first impulse as the new president was to shift the war into higher gear. Meeting with his top civilian advisers on Vietnam, LBJ told them to forget about the social, economic, and political reforms that Kennedy had stressed. Victory in the military conflict became the new administration’s top priority. Hoping to apply more pressure on the Communists, the administration began to implement a series of tactics it had adopted in principle within the first week of Johnson’s presidency. These included a more aggressive propaganda offensive as well as sabotage directed against North Vietnam. [Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, David Coleman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs;Marc Selverstone, Assistant Director for Presidential Studies and Associate Professor with the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs <>]

"But those enhanced measures were unable to force a change in Hanoi or to stabilize the political scene in Saigon. In late January 1964, General Nguyen Khanh overthrew the ruling junta, allegedly to prevent Diem’s successors from pursuing the neutralization of South Vietnam. Washington was generally pleased with the turn of events and sought to bolster the Khanh regime. Nevertheless, it remained dissatisfied with progress in counterinsurgency, leading Secretary of Defense McNamara to undertake a fact-finding mission to Vietnam in March 1964. His report to LBJ was not a happy one, as signs pointed to a deterioration in South Vietnamese morale and an acceleration of Communist success. McNamara thus recommended, and Johnson endorsed, a more vigorous program of U.S. military and economic support for South Vietnam. <>

"Over the course of the next several months, American assistance to South Vietnam would play out against a backdrop of personnel changes and political jockeying at home and in Saigon. The U.S. general election that loomed in November altered the administration’s representation in Vietnam as Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge resigned his post that June to pursue the Republican nomination for president. His replacement was retired Army General Maxwell Taylor, formerly military representative to President Kennedy and then, since 1962, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the signal that the United States was becoming more invested in the military outcome of the conflict could not have been clearer. Further indication of that resolve came the same month with the replacement of General Paul D. Harkins as head of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) with Lieutenant General William C. Westmoreland, who had been Harkins’s deputy since January 1964 and was ten years Harkins’s junior. <>

Lyndon Johnson and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

In "Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War," David Coleman and Marc Selverstone wrote: "Having already decided to shift prosecution of the war into higher gear, the Johnson administration recognized that direct military action would require congressional approval, especially in an election year. Of all the episodes of the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, the episodes of 2 and 4 August 1964 have proved among the most controversial and contentious. Claiming unprovoked attacks by the North Vietnamese on American ships in international waters, the Johnson administration used the episodes to seek a congressional decree authorizing retaliation against North Vietnam. Passed nearly unanimously by Congress on 7 August and signed into law three days later, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—or Southeast Asia Resolution, as it was officially known—was a pivotal moment in the war and gave the Johnson administration a broad mandate to escalate U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Again and again in following years, Johnson would point to the near-unanimous passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in trying to disarm increasingly vocal critics of his administration’s conduct of the war. [Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, David Coleman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs;Marc Selverstone, Assistant Director for Presidential Studies and Associate Professor with the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs <>]

"On 2 August, the USS Maddox, engaged in a signals intelligence collection mission for the National Security Agency (known as a Desoto patrol) off the coast of North Vietnam, reported that it was under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Using its own defense measures and aided by aircraft from the nearby aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, the Maddox resisted the attack and the North Vietnamese boats retreated. Two days later, on the night of 4 August, the Maddox and another destroyer that had joined it, the USS C. Turner Joy, reported a new round of attacks by North Vietnamese military forces. In response, President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam and asked Congress to sanction any further action he might take to deter Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. <>

As real-time information flowed in to the Pentagon from the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy, the story became more and more confused, and as frustratingly incomplete and often contradictory reports flowed into Washington, several high-ranking military and civilian officials became suspicious of the 4 August incident, questioning whether the attack was real or imagined. The tapes included in this edition show vividly a president all too aware of shortcomings of the deeply flawed information that he was receiving, and by the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, several senior officials—and apparently the President himself—had concluded that the attack of 4 August had not occurred. Within days of the attack, Johnson reportedly told State Department official George Ball that "Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!"11 The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the conclusion that the 4 August incident was fiction; whether it was imagined by flawed intelligence or fabricated for political ends has remained a vigorously contested issue. <>

"With vehemence that ultimately provided fodder for the administration’s harshest critics, and betraying none of these doubts and uncertainties, administration officials insisted in public that the attacks were unprovoked. But not wanting to get railroaded into large-scale military response by political pressure from hawks on the right in Congress, Johnson and McNamara privately and selectively conceded that classified sabotage operations in the region had probably provoked the North Vietnamese attack. It was a political strategy that worked, and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed with minimal dissent, a striking political victory for Johnson even as the 1964 presidential campaign got under way with a vengeance. <>

Vietnam Becomes "Johnson’s War"

In "Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War," David Coleman and Marc Selverstone wrote: "Johnson’s election as president in his own right allowed the administration to move forward in crafting a more vigorous policy toward the Communist challenge in South Vietnam. Just days before the vote, the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa was attacked by Communist guerrillas, killing four Americans, wounding scores of others, and destroying more than twenty-five aircraft. Johnson opted not to respond militarily just hours before Americans would go to the polls. But on 3 November—Election Day—he created an interagency task force, chaired by William P. Bundy, brother of McGeorge Bundy and chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, to review Vietnam policy. The working group settled on three potential policy strands: persisting with the current approach, escalating the war and striking at North Vietnam, or pursuing a strategy of graduated response. Following weeks of intensive discussion, Johnson endorsed the third option—Option C in the administration’s parlance—allowing the task force to flesh out its implementation. The plan envisioned a series of measures, of gradually increasing military intensity, that American forces would apply to bolster morale in Saigon, attack the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, and pressure Hanoi into ending its aid of the Communist insurgency. The first phase began on 14 December with Operation Barrel Roll—the bombing of supply lines in Laos. [Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, David Coleman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs; Marc Selverstone, Assistant Director for Presidential Studies and Associate Professor with the Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs <>]

"The emergence of the William Bundy task force highlights a key dimension of the administration’s policymaking process during this period. Broad planning for the war often took place on an interagency basis and frequently at levels removed from those of the administration’s most senior officials. The presence of several policy options, however, did not translate into freewheeling discussions with the President over the relative merits of numerous strategies. Johnson abhorred the Kennedy practice of debating such questions in open session, preferring a consensus engineered prior to his meetings with top aides.14 Two of those senior officials, Secretary of Defense McNamara and Secretary of State Rusk, would prove increasingly important to Johnson over the course of the war, with McNamara playing the lead role in the escalatory phase of the conflict. Nevertheless, the State Department’s influence in Vietnam planning was on the rise, as it had been since early 1963. William Bundy’s role atop the Vietnam interagency machinery is indicative of that development—a pattern that continued for the remainder of the Johnson presidency as Rusk’s star rose and McNamara’s faded within Johnson’s universe of favored advisers. <>

"In fact, it was those advisers who would play an increasingly important role in planning for Vietnam, relegating the interagency approach—which never went away—to a level of secondary importance within the policymaking process. In time, LBJ would make his key decisions in the presence and on the advice of very few advisers, a practice that Johnson hoped would protect him from the leaks he so greatly feared would undermine his carefully crafted strategy. By spring of 1965, Johnson was holding impromptu lunch meetings with only a handful of senior officials on Tuesdays where they hashed out strategy. Those "Tuesday Lunches" would involve a changing array of attendees over the course of the next two years and, by 1967, would become an integral though unofficial part of the policymaking machinery. <>

"But the procedural issues of these months, as important as they were and would become, were constantly being overwhelmed by the more pressing concerns of progress in the counterinsurgency. No amount of administrative tinkering could mask the continuing and worsening problems of political instability in Saigon and Communist success in the field. The deterioration of the South Vietnamese position, therefore, led Johnson to consider even more decisive action. His dispatch of National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to South Vietnam in February 1965 sought to gauge the need for an expanded program of bombing that the interdepartmental review had envisioned back in November and December. Bundy’s presence in Vietnam at the time of the Communist raids on Camp Holloway and Pleiku in early February—which resulted in the death of nine Americans—provided additional justification for the more engaged policy the administration had been preparing. Within days of the Pleiku/Holloway attacks, as well as the subsequent assault on Qui Nhon (in which twenty-three Americans were killed and twenty-one were wounded), LBJ signed off on a program of sustained bombing of North Vietnam that, except for a handful of pauses, would last for the remainder of his presidency. While senior military and civilian officials differed on what they regarded as the benefits of this program—code-named Operation Rolling Thunder—all of them hoped that the bombing, which began on 2 March 1965, would have a salutary effect on the North Vietnamese leadership, leading Hanoi to end its support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. <>

"While the attacks on Pleiku and Qui Nhon led the administration to escalate its air war against the North, they also highlighted the vulnerability of the bases that American planes would be using for the bombing campaign. In an effort to provide greater security for these installations, Johnson sanctioned the dispatch of two Marine battalions to Danang in early March. The troops arrived on 8 March, though Johnson endorsed the deployment prior to the first strikes themselves. Like other major decisions he made during the escalatory process, it was not one Johnson came to without a great deal of anxiety. As he expressed to longtime confidant Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), LBJ understood the symbolism of "sending the Marines" and their likely impact on the combat role the United States was coming to play, both in reality and in the minds of the American public. " <>

"The bombing, however, was failing to move Hanoi or the Viet Cong in any significant way. By mid-March, therefore, Johnson began to consider additional proposals for expanding the American combat presence in South Vietnam. By 1 April, he had agreed to augment the 8 March deployment with two more Marine battalions; he also changed their role from that of static base security to active defense, and soon allowed preparatory work to go forward on plans for stationing many more troops in Vietnam. In an effort to achieve consensus about security requirements for those troops, key personnel undertook a review in Honolulu on 20 April. Out of that process came Johnson’s decision to expand the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam to eighty-two thousand. <>

U.S. Escalation of the War in Vietnam

The Johnson administration remained hesitant to raise the American commitment to Vietnam. However, in August 1964, following the reputed shelling of United States warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnamese coast, Johnson approved air strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases. At President Johnson's urgent request, the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president the power "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." This tougher United States stance was matched in Moscow in October when Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin took over control of the government following the fall from power of Nikita Khrushchev. The new Soviet government pledged increased military support for Hanoi, and the NLF set up a permanent mission in Moscow. [Source: Library of Congress *]

United States support for South Vietnam, which had begun as an effort to defend Southeast Asia from the communist threat, developed into a matter of preserving United States prestige. The Johnson administration, nevertheless, was reluctant to commit combat troops to Vietnam, although the number of United States military advisers including their support and defense units had reached 16,000 by July 1964. Instead, in February 1965 the United States began a program of air strikes known as Operation Rolling Thunder against military targets in North Vietnam. Despite the bombing of the North, ARVN losses grew steadily, and the political situation in Saigon became precarious as one unstable government succeeded another. General William C. Westmoreland, commander of MACV from June 1964 to March 1968 urged the use of United States combat troops to stop the Communist advance, which he predicted, could take over the country within a year. The first two battalions of U.S. Marines (3,500 men) arrived in Vietnam in March 1965 to protect the U.S. airbase at Da Nang. The following month, Westmoreland convinced the administration to commit sufficient combat troops to secure base areas and mount a series of search and destroy missions. By late 1965, the United States expeditionary force in South Vietnam numbered 180,000, and the military situation had stabilized somewhat. Infiltration from the north, however, had also increased, although still chiefly by southerners who had gone north in 1954 and received military training. PLAF strength was estimated to be about 220,000, divided almost equally between guerrillas and main force troops, the latter including units of PAVN regulars totalling about 13,000 troops. *

In mid-1967, with United States troop levels close to the half million mark, Westmoreland requested 80,000 additional troops for immediate needs and indicated that further requests were being contemplated. United States forces in Tay Ninh, Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai, and Dinh Tuong provinces had initiated major offensives in late 1966 and in early 1967, and more troops were needed to support these and other planned operations. As a result of these deployments, United States forces were scattered from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta by mid-1967. Opposition to the war, meanwhile, was mounting in the United States; and among the Vietnamese facing one another in the South, the rising cost of men and resources was beginning to take its toll on both sides. *

Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and the Decision to Escalate the Vietnam War

In the debate about Vietnam during the spring and summer of 1965, Clark Clifford argued as forcefully as he could against the huge escalation of our involvement which was being proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the American military. In an an article published in The New Yorker Clifford said he argued his case and lost in a face-to-face debate with McNamara at Camp David. Clifford said everyone favored escalation. McNamara said our national honor was at stake and withdrawal would start further probing by the Communists and we would lose all of Southeast Asia. Clifford felt even though he lost the argument over escalation it was his duty to support any actions that appeared to offer a chance to bring an end to our involvement in Vietnam. [Source: Clark Clifford and Richard Holbrooke, The New Yorker, May 6, 1991 ><]

In November 1965 Gen. Westmoreland asked for a staggering increase in troops. McNamara supported this request but he thought that air attacks should be suspended around Christmas for at least three weeks in an effort to start negotiations There was much debate about this but it was done. In the fall of 1967 McNamara abandoned the policy he had played such a central role in creating. His public credibility had begun to erode because so many of his recommendations failed to produce anticipated results. By November 1967 he felt that "continuation of our present course of action...would be dangerous, costly in lives, and be unsatisfactory to the American people." His departure from the Pentagon came after these views became public. ><

Television Drama About Johnson’s Escalation of the Vietnam War

"Path to War" is an ambitious drama and Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War shown on HBO and directed by John Frankenheimer. Johnson is played by British actor Michael Gambon, who at some camera angles bears a remarkable resemblance to Johnson. Based on extensive research and interviews by the screenwriter, Daniel Giat, "Path to War" is television's first dramatic exploration of the Johnson administration's decision to escalate the Vietnam War. The film, b Frankenheimers other films include "The Manchurian Candidate," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Seven Days in May." [Source: Bernard Weinraub, New York Times, December 13, 2001 **]

Bernard Weinraub wrote in the New York Times, "The film begins on Jan. 20, 1965, at an inaugural ball at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington - two months after Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. In the film, Johnson describes, with delight, his aides and cabinet members: "I've got three or four Rhodes scholars, four or five graduated of Harvard, a couple from Yale and why there's even one here tonight from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. And don't you know that one rules the roost." The film ends on March 31, 1968, when Johnson, beleaguered by the war, unexpectedly announces that he will not seek a second term. The film shows Johnson, bewildered and frustrated, finally accepting that the war is unwinnable. At first, he is furious and blames his advisers. Eventually, he accepts his own responsibility. "How can you not like this man?" Gambon asked as he stood near his dressing room trailer, just a few blocks from the Civic Auditorium. "He had a heart, a big heart, and he genuinely wanted to do something about civil rights and improving the lives of people. But then he got trapped by the war and he didn't know how to get out of it." **

Gambon examined Johnson's television appearances and read numerous biographies about him. "He was surrounded by Harvard graduates," Gambon said. "He admired them, but part of him didn't like them at all. Beneath it all, beneath the bluster, he was insecure, he had a chip on his shoulder." The screenplay depicts the administration's internecine battles - especially between Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary, played by Alec Baldwin, and George Ball, the deputy secretary of state. In the film, Ball compares McNamara, other hawks in the cabinet and the joint chiefs of staff to "buzzards sitting on a fence discussing the price of carrion" - a line paraphrased from his 1982 memoir. **

Dratch and Giat interviewed numerous members of the Johnson administration, though McNamara declined. Many White House aides, including Joseph Califano, Richard Goodwin and Jack Valenti, as well as several historians, read the script and said it was an accurate portrayal of the White House decision-making. Donald Sutherland plays Clark Clifford, who served as defense secretary in the final months of Johnson's administration. In an early version of the script, "it looked like Clifford was responsible for those final three years of Vietnam under Johnson, and he was not," Sutherland said. "His advice to Johnson since '64 was to get out of there. He kept giving that advice, and Johnson took the other advice. His whole job was to get Johnson re-elected. So he was labeled a hawk by some. He wasn't." Sutherland said the role of Clifford in the screenplay was altered, and he accepted the job. **

Gambon said that he had become fascinated with Johnson after he left the White House. Johnson, who had a heart condition, died in 1973. "After Johnson left the White House he went back to his ranch and sat there," said Gambon. "I saw a film of him giving a speech at a college shortly before he died. He was popping pills. And you see photographs of him with long hair, long gray hair. As soon as he retired he let his hair grow. Just like the people who were standing outside the White House shouting at him." **

U.S. Strategy in Vietnam

The Vietnam War was expected to be a war of attrition as other wars involving the United States had been in the past. In his memoirs, Johnson's Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote: "Grind up the other guy's army until he would presumably not take it anymore, and then we get a political settlement. I thought North Vietnam would reach a point when it be unwilling to continue making those terrible sacrifices."

The Vietnam War was fought within self-imposed limits. The United States didn't want to step over a line etched in the sand like it had in Korea and bring in Chinese or Soviet troops. Many Pentagon generals wanted to fight an all out war and attack North Vietnam with an unrelenting bombing campaign in which ports would be obliterated, dams destroyed, and holes would be poked in dikes, causing widespread flooding, crops damage and starvation in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to their knees. People in the Johnson administration thought that course was too brutal ane extreme. Their aim was to reach a stalemate like the one in Korea and maintain the status quo of a divided Vietnam.

Some scholars have argued that the Americans could have won the war if U.S. forces had been able to unleash the kind of offensive that could have defeated the north. Adm. Ulysses Grant Sharp, commander of the Pacific forces in the war, said U.S. forces were forced to fight "with one hand tied behind their backs." The Americans were not allowed to move their army to the north and meet the enemy head on, instead they were vulnerable to attack and retreat tactics which the North Vietnamese appeared to be able to carry out forever.

Ultimately, the War in Vietnam ended up being a war in which conventual military strategies didn't work. There were no clear battle lines; the war had no clear beginning and no clear means of achieving an end; the enemy was everywhere and nowhere; and it was difficult to tell friend from foe.

McGeorge Bundy: One of the

Harvard Brains Behind the Vietnam War

In a review of the book "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," which he said illuminates the five years (1961–1966) during which the defense of South Vietnam was Americanized, Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "McGeorge Bundy was dean of the faculty when I was at Harvard. For an entire generation of Harvard graduates, Bundy was the beau ideal of the academician-activist whose intellectual acuity was matched by devotion to public service. Brilliant and fiercely articulate, he was a warm and thoughtful human being behind the Boston Brahmin crust. He had had a spectacular academic career. Elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows, he became eligible for a faculty appointment without having to acquire a doctorate. He became the dean of the faculty at the age of 34. At Harvard the conviction was widespread that the next change of administration (whether Republican or Democrat) would find Bundy (himself a Republican) in high office. Many of his contemporaries saw in him a future secretary of state. [Source: Henry Kissinger, Newsweek, October 24, 2008 \+/]

"In 1961, John Kennedy appointed Bundy as national-security adviser. At that time, this office was considered an essentially administrative position. In one of the most spectacular career misjudgments ever, Paul Nitze turned it down in favor of a midlevel job in an operating department. Bundy created the modern portfolio of the national-security adviser. Since the flow of memoranda from various departments concerned with national security had become too vast, Bundy's office turned into a clearinghouse. Ever since, the National Security Council has prepared—or, at least, is in perhaps the best position to prepare—the range of options among which the president chooses (including, if the occasion requires, options not put forward by any department). If that task is neglected, the president flies blindly, driven from crisis to crisis, without the guidance of strategy. \+/

"For five years, Bundy performed his duties with the articulateness and deftness with which he had managed the Harvard faculty. This included the Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile period and the nuclear test-ban agreement. Then his grip loosened with the decline in the fortunes of the Vietnam War, whose public advocate and, to some extent, co-manager he had become. He retired in 1966, never to hold public office again. After leaving office, Bundy became the target of David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," which used him to illustrate the thesis that the cream of the establishment led America astray in Vietnam. The book set the tone for most of the subsequent assessment of the war. Bundy bore the opprobrium with dignity, never answering the criticisms directly and perhaps privately agreeing with some of them. Toward the end of his life, he began, with a research assistant, to assemble materials for reconstructing the events that had pushed America from hope to despair. He died before he could begin the manuscript. " \+/

Book: "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam" by Gordon M. Goldstein (

McGeorge Bundy and Kennedy’s Vietnam Policy

Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "Bundy successfully managed the legacy of America's postwar policy in Europe and toward the Soviet Union. Where he failed was in extending to Southeast Asia the policies that reconstructed Europe and eventually won the cold war. The difficulty was that Southeast Asia presented a different strategic problem. In Europe, governmental institutions had survived the ravages of the Second World War. The threats they faced were to their economic expectations—compounded by the Soviet troops along their borders. The Marshall Plan took care of the first threat; NATO addressed the second. [Source: Henry Kissinger, Newsweek, October 24, 2008 \+/]

"None of these conditions existed in South Vietnam. The dividing line in Vietnam was technically a demilitarized zone never accepted as an international frontier by Hanoi, which was attempting to undermine governmental institutions by guerrilla warfare. In this war without front lines, military containment took on a different meaning. In Europe, there were established states, the legitimacy of whose governments was firmly established; in South Vietnam, there was no legacy of a state at all. Governmental institutions had to be created while under constant military attack. In Europe, the basic challenge was territorial integrity; in Southeast Asia, it was governmental legitimacy.\+/

"The new Kennedy administration paid lip service to this distinction, but never solved how to act on it. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations had slowly increased the American commitment in South Vietnam. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, Hanoi had committed its forces in all countries of Indochina. During the transition period, Eisenhower had told the president-elect that if North Vietnamese infiltration continued, American combat forces should be sent to Laos. \+/

"The Kennedy administration accepted the conventional wisdom regarding the issues; it rejected the strategy. Like its predecessors of both parties, it assumed containment to be indivisible and the domino effect of the collapse of South Vietnam to be a kind of natural law. As described by Goldstein, Bundy and his senior colleagues defined the domino effect as involving the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan. The new Kennedy administration even added a philosophical refinement. Vietnam was no longer treated as one of many fronts in the global cold war but as the central front. Conventional aggression having been stymied by NATO, guerrilla warfare needed to be similarly frustrated in Vietnam. China and the Soviet Union were perceived as part of a joint enterprise to tip the global equilibrium. \+/

"One must remember that governments run by addressing conventional wisdom, not by challenging it. Caught between established convictions and his premonitions, Bundy concentrated on managing the crises in terms of familiar patterns. No cabinet-level official challenged that established view. Nor did many observers on the outside. With departmental memoranda and personal letters seeking to influence the president, the real debate took place more or less ad hoc in the meetings of the National Security Council or at informal meetings of cabinet-level officials. Decisions were reached but no settled strategy was agreed upon. The administration slid into a series of ad hoc decisions that pre-empted Kennedy's strategic choice. Presidents, in any event, are prone to avoid confrontations, having reached their eminence in part by merging seemingly contradictory constituencies. In reading the Goldstein book, one is struck by the informal, almost conversational, tone of the process as Bundy was feeling his way. Thus, in November 1961, Bundy wrote to the president: "The other day at the swimming pool, you asked me what I thought, and here it is. We should now agree to send about one division when needed for military action inside Vietnam." Goldstein reports no accompanying options paper, no definition of the meaning of "about one division," nor a definition of a desired strategic outcome. \+/

Turmoil in Vietnam at the Time Johnson Becomes President

Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "There was little doubt that Kennedy was opposed to sending combat troops to Southeast Asia. He flatly refused to follow Eisenhower's recommendation, supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with respect to Laos in 1961. He resisted similar proposals concerning Vietnam in 1963. It was more the result of a visceral reluctance than a strategic judgment. In fact, on the formal level Kennedy was ambivalent, torn between considering the survival of South Vietnam essential for national security and being loath to achieve this goal with American combat forces. That decision could be postponed in 1963, but it became unavoidable in 1965 when Johnson was president and Vietnam was on the verge of collapse. As it happened, Johnson's options and his dilemmas were made more acute by a decision taken in the last weeks of the Kennedy presidency, to which the loose procedures of the National Security Council staff made a fateful contribution. [Source: Henry Kissinger, Newsweek, October 24, 2008 \+/]

"Guerrilla war in a developing country elaborating its political institutions almost inevitably produces a dilemma that has heretofore proved insoluble. Since civil war is ultimately about legitimacy, and legitimacy is unachievable without security, a gap opens up between these requirements. Security is impossible without authority; legitimacy is ultimately unsustainable without consensus. But the time scale for achieving democratic consensus is longer than that for bringing about security. As the guerrilla war raged in Vietnam in 1963, some American officials became convinced that the governing president's authoritarianism was a fundamental cause of the impasse. The administration came to believe that Vietnam's military would provide a more cohesive and perhaps more democratic governmental framework. \+/

"On a weekend when both Kennedy and Bundy were out of town, the assistant secretary of state, together with an NSC staffer, contrived an instruction to the U.S. ambassador in Saigon that was used to trigger a military coup. President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were assassinated. A series of coups followed during which a coherent strategy became ever more problematic. Hanoi saw in this turmoil an opportunity to introduce regular combat troops into the South. Kennedy was assassinated three weeks later. \+/

McGeorge Bundy, Johnson and the Vietnam War

In a review of the book "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," by Gordon Goldstein, Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "The decision to send combat troops, left in abeyance in 1963, became Johnson's. Goldstein traces the evolution of the debate, in which the principal advisers—Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara and Bundy—and the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly advocated a significant buildup of combat forces. Goldstein argues that Kennedy, while accepting the domino theory, would have lived with its consequences, including the communization of all of Southeast Asia, rather than send a large expeditionary force to Southeast Asia. But we cannot know his reaction had he been presented with the strongly held, united views of his principal foreign-policy and security advisers—assuming that they would have presented their recommendations with comparable vehemence to a reluctant president. [Source: Henry Kissinger, Newsweek, October 24, 2008 \+/]

"When the United States goes to war, it should be able to describe to itself how it defines victory and how it proposes to achieve it. Or else how it proposes to end its military engagement and by what diplomacy. In Vietnam, America sent combat forces on behalf of a general notion of credibility and in pursuit of a negotiation whose content was never defined. The credibility point was reflected in an amazing Bundy statement quoted by Goldstein: that it would be better for America's credibility to lose after sending 100,000 men than not to have resisted Hanoi at all. Another self-inflicted handicap was the reluctance to view Indochina as a single strategic theater. Eisenhower was almost certainly right when he described a defense of Laos as essential to the defense of Vietnam. But Bundy resisted that proposition with the argument to Kennedy, according to Goldstein, that "Laos was never really ours after 1954. South Vietnam is and wants to be." This distinction produced the anomalous situation in which half a million Americans fought to achieve a stalemate in Vietnam, a military objective rendered nearly impossible by enemy bases in Cambodia and supply lines through Laos. \+/

As for negotiation, Bundy argued that once Hanoi's efforts to dominate South Vietnam were thwarted, an undefined compromise would emerge through diplomacy—in effect, a strategy seeking stalemate, not victory. But stalemate violates the maxim that the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The escape hatch of diplomatic compromise was based more on American nostalgia than Hanoi's mentality. Hanoi's leaders had fought a decade against France and battled the United States for a similar length of time, not to achieve a political compromise, but to prevail. The effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory—as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience. \+/

Robert McNamara: the Main Harvard Brain Behind the Vietnam War

Robert McNamara was one of the key policy makers—some say the architect—of the Vietnam War era. Many blame him for escalating the war and relying too much on rationality, projections and calculations. Serving as the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1968, he was originally a professor at Harvard, where he made a name for himself statistically analyzing bombing operations of Japan in World War II, and was the president of Ford Motor Company before joining the Kennedy team. After stepping down as Secretary of Defense, he served as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981. While head of Ford he was responsible for introducing seat belts.

In 1967, Neil Sheenen wrote in the New York Times, "McNamara is the managerial type par excellence. He mastered the technique of the statistical approach, the careful analysis of the available option, the ability to qualify the disparate elements of a complex situation...he placed a 467,000-man expeditionary corps in South Vietnam for Johnson without the political repercussions of mobilization and, by frequently calculating war production needs with dangerous narrowness, has eased the inflationary impact on the American economy.

Michael Beschloss wrote in Newsweek, "McNamara was fatally miscast. With his misplaced faith in a "rational" military response, he advised JFK to launch a carefully calibrated escalation of force against Hanoi, believing the pressure would persuade Ho Chi Minh to fold. McNamara knew little about Southeast Asia, and made no conspicuous effort to learn more. His penchant for numbers left him ill-equipped to understand that some human motivations cannot be quantified or predicted. As a result, he drastically underestimated the Viet Cong's determination. [Source: Michael Beschloss, Newsweek, July 10, 2009]

David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post, "What a sense of possibility McNamara conveyed in those first years — the audacity, not of hope but of reason. He came to Washington as the ultimate rationalist, believing that he could transform the bureaucratic morass of the Defense Department into something modern and efficient. He gathered his "whiz kids," bright young aides like my father, and encouraged them to challenge outmoded practices, politics be damned. And he backed them all the way. The military never really forgave McNamara for that determination to apply modern management techniques to the nation's defense. The generals and admirals didn't want to be rationalized; they had built a mighty machine to battle the Soviet Union, and they resented McNamara's attempt to impose change. [Source: David Ignatius, Washington Post, July 07, 2009 >>>]

"Then came Vietnam, the war that will forever be attached to McNamara's name. Vietnam shattered the rationalist's faith: Here was a peasant enemy, fighting in what looked to us like pajamas and living off handfuls of rice, that somehow persisted against all of America's military might -- and all of McNamara's slide-rule calculations. The military kept insisting that with another 100,000 troops and an expanded list of bombing targets, this improbable enemy would be finished. But it wasn't that kind of war, and it slowly ground McNamara down. For all his seeming certainty, McNamara was a reluctant warrior, half in and half out, increasingly convinced that our firepower wouldn't work in this asymmetrical war. For the military, that was his greatest sin -- that he sacrificed young American lives without fully believing in the possibility of victory. >>>

McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson

Michael Beschloss wrote in Newsweek, "JFK was so enchanted with McNamara that at the time of his death in Dallas, he was secretly plotting to make him secretary of state. By contrast, Bobby Kennedy privately considered McNamara "the most dangerous man in the cabinet, because he is so persuasive." [Source: Michael Beschloss, Newsweek, July 10, 2009|:|]

"President Lyndon Johnson proved far more vulnerable than JFK to McNamara's powers of argument. Strangely insecure about his foreign-policy prowess (military affairs, after all, had been one of his congressional specialties), LBJ was certain that McNamara and other Eastern-educated JFK appointees possessed some genius he could never match. Knowing that LBJ was still nervous about seeming to stray from Kennedy's legacy, McNamara assured Johnson that JFK would have escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, had he lived. During one of their taped telephone conversations in January 1965, Johnson felt compelled to warn his defense secretary to disregard Washington rumors that he was planning to ditch the American commitment there and "put the Vietnam War on Kennedy's tomb." |:|

"Two years later, McNamara's strategy of gradual escalation in Vietnam was going down in flames. The president concluded (with some evidence) that his defense secretary was privately colluding with his archenemy, RFK, to demand that LBJ wind down the war. McNamara's apostasy provoked the angry and suspicious Johnson to defy his enemies and keep reinforcing his "stand in Vietnam." |:|

"McNamara might have been the right man for the job—but not in the 1960s, a decade that demanded qualities he simply did not possess. How different our history might have been had JFK entrusted the Pentagon to his brother Robert, whose sensitivity to national motives, allergy to conventional wisdom, and willingness to abandon lost causes might have helped him to stem U.S. escalation in Vietnam. America's adventure in Vietnam and McNamara's central role in that tragedy are a powerful reminder of what a difference one presidential appointment can make. |:|

McNamara, Bundy and Johnson’s Handling of the Vietnam War

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post: McNamara "said it all could have been different if McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon Johnson's national security adviser, had not resigned from the White House in early 1966. "I believe if McGeorge Bundy had stayed in the government . . . he and I together could have prevented what happened in Vietnam," McNamara said in August 2007, less than two years before his death. "He and I together could have done what I couldn't do alone, which was force the president to an open debate on these critical issues." McNamara was a more sensitive man than most people knew, and as the shadows of Vietnam lengthened, he was deeply shaken by the war. He had trouble controlling his emotions in public in the final months before he quit the Pentagon in early 1968. In his later years, he showed a wounded vulnerability and a desire to understand and expiate the Vietnam mistake. [Source: Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein, Washington Post, October 18, 2009 *-*]

"In their final interviews, McNamara and Bundy dissected America's failures in managing the Vietnam War. In haunting, mournful tones, they blamed not only Johnson and senior military leaders for a dysfunctional decision-making process, but also themselves. For a wartime president and his top advisers, "there ought to be anguish," McNamara concluded, because there "are no easy answers." In his last extended interview, on Aug. 7, 2007, McNamara offered harsh views of Johnson as commander in chief. "I felt that I owed the president my best judgment, whether it agreed with his or not," he said. "The question in my mind was not so much whether I owed that to him; the question was how to present it effectively to a man who didn't want to listen." Johnson, in McNamara's view, "was more afraid of the right than the left. And he was afraid that if he did anything to in any way appear to appease the North Vietnamese, he would be severely criticized by the right wing of American politics. Therefore he didn't do it." *-*

"In a final series of interviews before his death in 1996, Bundy also described how Johnson's short-term political concerns trumped grand strategy for Vietnam. "LBJ isn't deeply concerned about . . . who governs South Vietnam -- he's deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ballgame of the Cold War," Bundy said. "The great Cold War Championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States, and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don't lose. . . . He's living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions." *-*

"Bundy criticized Johnson's manipulation of the deliberations over the war. The president "wants to be seen having careful discussions, and he does indeed want to hear what everybody is saying," Bundy observed. But that was the past master of the Senate at work, he said, "because that becomes part of the way a majority leader controls events -- you've got to know what the opposition's thoughts are -- so he finds out." Strategy meetings and conversations on the war were a facade, Bundy said. "The principal players do not engage in anything you can really call an exchange of views. . . . That was prevented by him, and the process he used was really for show and not for choice." *-*

"The discussions Johnson valued most, Bundy believed, occurred privately and reflected his instincts as a dealmaker and consensus-builder. In the summer of 1965, Johnson's most important target was his commander in Saigon, Gen. William Westmoreland. Looking back on that time, Bundy said that Johnson viewed the general as though he were a powerful constituency wielding vital legislative votes. "Senator Westmoreland is like the leader of a block of some 20 senators, and you haven't got a good majority without him," Bundy said. *-*

"Johnson's shifting political calculations were often opaque even to his closest advisers, Bundy despaired, compromising the way the president engaged with his senior military and civilian counselors. "The process of decision, explanation and defense is unsatisfactory, frustrating, destructive and impossible to fix," he concluded in one of the dozens of plaintive notes he wrote for an unpublished memoir, a book he struggled with before dying of a heart attack at age 77. "No one knows but LBJ himself what the issues are, what his questions are aimed at, why he is deciding as he is -- or whether or when -- so if we really get to help him it is almost by accident." *-*

"As McNamara looked back at the pivotal decisions to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he recalled Johnson's resistance to confronting his advisers. "I am absolutely positive that most leaders wish to avoid confrontation among their senior people, particularly in front of them," McNamara said. "And that's a serious weakness. I think every leader should force his senior people to confront major issues in front of him." *-*

McNamara on Body Counts and Miscalculations

In his 1995 book "In Retrospect," Robert McNamara wrote: "From the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese forces had been giving us poor intelligence and inaccurate reports. Sometime these inaccuracies were conscious attempts to mislead; at other times they were the product of too much optimism."

Pursing a course he leaned at Harvard, McNamara tried to develop a objective and empirical method of monitoring the war and measuring the success of achieving their military objectives. "We measured the target destroyed in the North, the traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the number of captives, the weapons seized, the enemy body count, and so on." The objective McNamara said "was to reach a so-called crossover point at which Viet Cong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain."

Col. David H. Hackworth wrote in Newsweek: "The troops soon discovered the truth: 'This war in unwinnable,' they said. 'Let's get out now.' But no one in authority listened. None of the generals I spoke to seemed to care about the human wreckage. They were into career, body counts and glory." Veteran James Mukoyama Jr. told Newsweek that McNamara as defense secretary should bare the blame for "applying World war II tactic in Vietnam, by using concentrated firepower in a guerilla environment. We grunts paid for it."

Richard Holbrooke in Vietnam

Richard Holbrooke, a well-respected diplomat who helped hammer out an agreement that ended the conflict in Bosnia, was barely twenty-one when he entered the foreign service, in 1962. George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, "The next year, he arrived in South Vietnam, just as the U.S. was being pulled deeper into the political chaos of a guerrilla war. Because he was a bachelor, Holbrooke was assigned to a post outside Saigon, as the top American civilian in a poor province in the Lower Mekong Delta called Ba Xuyen. He lived alone above a shop, took showers from a cistern, and went out to the U.S. airbase five or six nights a week to watch whatever movie happened to be showing. (He saw "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" a dozen times.) "The terrible truth that people do not like to admit was that the war was fun for young men, at least it was fun if they were civilians or journalists," Holbrooke later wrote. "I was at the center of the world, right where I wanted to be. I had wanted to see war, like Stephen Crane, and I had wanted to participate in history, and I was doing both." [Source: George Packer, The New Yorker, September 28, 2009 >><<]

"In Ba Xuyen, Holbrooke distributed cement, cooking oil, and roofing thatch to villagers, built schools, helped train and arm the militias of the local strategic hamlets, and wrangled with the disagreeable Vietnamese province chief. The term of that era for this kind of wartime aid effort was "pacification"; today it’s "nation-building," and it reflects the idea that, in a counter-insurgency, the main battle is for the allegiance of the population. "Changing hearts and minds—all the smart young men thought that," Gelb recalled. "That became sort of a telltale belief of my generation." Four decades later, after strategic bungling in Iraq and Afghanistan, the smart young men discovered it again. >><<

Holbrooke didn’t question the need to fight Communism in South Vietnam. But, he said, because he was stationed in the countryside, where the war was being fought, he realized early on that "we weren’t being honest with ourselves. . . . I saw the credibility gap." The pessimistic dispatches of David Halberstam and other journalists depicted the war more accurately than the memos and cables passing through official channels. In 1964, Holbrooke became a staff assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Holbrooke shared his contrary views with his superiors, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. On a flight back to Saigon from the field with Lodge, he argued that the tactic of creating "free-fire zones," in which anything that moved could be killed, only embittered the Vietnamese and created more Viet Cong. Holbrooke successfully mixed candor and careerism, rising through the Embassy’s hierarchy by seeking out powerful patrons, impressing them with his intelligence, and making no secret of his critical viewpoint (while concealing the disdain he felt for a few of them). >><<

"In 1966, Holbrooke was called back to Washington and placed under a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, Robert Komer, whose office was taking control of all the pacification programs in Vietnam. Komer was such a brutal bureaucratic fighter that Lodge nicknamed him the Blowtorch. Holbrooke, whose nickname later became the Bulldozer, grew even more brash. After a trip to South Vietnam in late 1966, Holbrooke wrote Komer a memo, reporting, "I have never seen the Americans in such disarray." >><<

Komer’s new office represented a turn toward more intelligent counter-insurgency, and it helped check the Viet Cong’s recruiting efforts; but it came late, and it was undermined by the American strategy of big-unit ground combat, and by the hollowness of the South Vietnamese government. Anthony Lake, the diplomat, was Holbrooke’s colleague and close friend in those years. (Their friendship, always competitive, eventually curdled.) Lake said that pacification had backfired by "focussing on programs at the expense of local politics": "The more we did with the programs, the more we were undercutting the credibility and even legitimacy of the Saigon government."

Richard Holbrooke Loses Faith in the Vietnam War Vietnam

"Holbrooke began losing faith in the war. He told me, "The most senior people in the U.S. government—the best and the brightest, if you will—were deluding themselves." In early 1967, Nicholas Katzenbach, Rusk’s deputy at the State Department, hired Holbrooke. "I was a sucker for Richard," Katzenbach, who is now eighty-seven, told me. "He never had any hesitation in giving his own opinion, which I think he regarded as superior to yours." Every Thursday afternoon, Katzenbach convened senior officials for an informal discussion of Vietnam. Because the meeting had no official status and produced no paper trail—the point was a candid conversation, over drinks—Katzenbach called the gathering the Non-Group. Holbrooke was desperate to attend. "He pestered me, to the point I couldn’t stand it any longer," Katzenbach said. At the Non-Group, Holbrooke met leading figures of the establishment—Ambassador Averell Harriman; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; his deputy, Cyrus Vance—all of whom became his benefactors. [Source: George Packer, The New Yorker, September 28, 2009 >><<]

George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, "In November, 1967, Holbrooke drafted a remarkable seventeen-page memo to President Johnson, over Katzenbach’s name. Without quite saying that the United States should withdraw, he argued that Hanoi was winning, not on the battlefield but in America: Hanoi uses time the way the Russians used terrain before Napoleon’s advance on Moscow, always retreating, losing every battle, but eventually creating conditions in which the enemy can no longer function. For Napoleon it was his long supply lines and the cold Russian winter; Hanoi hopes that for us it will be the mounting dissension, impatience, and frustration caused by a protracted war without fronts or other visible signs of success; a growing need to choose between guns and butter; and an increasing American repugnance at finding, for the first time, their own country cast as "the heavy."

Johnson had two choices. He could escalate the war in an attempt to strike a decisive blow against North Vietnam—an unlikely outcome. Or he could accept the impossibility of defeating the Communists in South Vietnam, and try instead to reduce civilian casualties, turn over more responsibility for fighting to the Vietnamese, pressure the government in Saigon to improve its performance, and seek an opening for negotiations. Holbrooke showed the memo to Katzenbach. "I was very reluctant to send it, because I knew Johnson would go up in smoke," Katzenbach said. "But I agreed with it, and so I sent it to Johnson." The President never acknowledged the memo.

In 1968, Holbrooke joined the American delegation at the peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. "Holbrooke wants to always talk with the other side," Katzenbach said. "He always thinks there’s some negotiation, some middle road. He always thinks he’ll learn more than he’ll give away." But the talks made no progress, and after the election of Richard Nixon that November, Holbrooke decamped to Princeton, becoming a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School. He soon wrote Anthony Lake, who had joined the new Administration, with a detailed proposal for a ceasefire, American withdrawal, and power-sharing between Saigon and the Viet Cong. "In any case, it is your problem again and not mine anymore," Holbrooke signed off, though he remained "always ready to tell you why the latest plan won’t work."

Propping Up South Vietnam

Robert G. Kaiser wrote in the Washington Post, "When things began to go wrong in Vietnam, we helped stage a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the United States had helped to install as president of South Vietnam. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had once called him Asia's "miracle man." Diem was dumped in 1963. Eight changes in leadership, all involving Washington in one way or another, ended with Nguyen Van Thieu's ascent to the presidency in 1967; Thieu then held on for eight years before being ousted nine days before North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon. We never did find "the right guy" for Vietnam. [Source: Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post, January 14, 2007 //\\]

"We accomplished a great deal during the 14 years we were actively engaged in South Vietnam. We created an infrastructure for the country, built roads and schools and hospitals, trained hundreds of thousands of troops, figured out how to "pacify" the countryside. As long as U.S. military power was available to neutralize the fighting force of North Vietnam — whose communist leaders were determined to expel the Americans and reunify their country — South Vietnam could survive, even prosper. But we could not create a government or an economy in South Vietnam that could survive without our generous help. When I was leaving Vietnam in August 1970, I wrote in these pages about how we had made the Vietnamese utterly dependent on us. //\\

Johnson Decides Not to Seek Re-Election

Johnson began 1968 hoping he could push through his ambitious domestic agenda while running for re-election: " But the disastrous Tet Offensive in January and February and antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy's striking second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary in March convinced Johnson that he had to do something drastic. "Abdication," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her biography of Johnson, "was thus the last remaining way to restore control, to turn rout into dignity, collapse into order." [Source: Clay Risen, Smithsonian magazine, April 2008]

Johnson's withdrawal—which he announced on March 31 on national television with the words "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President"—was long in coming. According to his press secretary George Christian, Johnson had been weighing the decision since October, and he had casually broached the subject with friends even earlier. In January 1968, he asked Horace Busby to draft a withdrawal statement to slip into his State of the Union address, but the president never delivered it.

Clay Risen wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "By late March, however, Johnson had begun to reconsider. At lunch on Thursday, March 28, he brought up the idea of withdrawing with Califano and Harry McPherson, his special counsel. With antiwar protesters outside the White House gates chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" Johnson rattled off his reasons for withdrawing. He was worried about his health. He wanted to spend time with his family. Most important, his political capital was gone. "I've asked Congress for too much for too long, and they're tired of me," he told his lunch companions, according to McPherson, now a partner at a Washington law firm.

Johnson's staff had spent weeks working on a major speech about Vietnam, scheduled for the evening of March 31, in which the president would announce a halt to bombing over most of North Vietnam to encourage Hanoi to enter peace talks. The day before, he asked Busby to rework the statement that had gone unread during the State of the Union address. Busby came to the White House the next morning, and Johnson secluded him in the Treaty Room to work on what Johnson discreetly called his "peroration."

Johnson told his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, about the new ending that morning, but informed key cabinet members only minutes before going on the air. As he sat in the Oval Office, his family watching from behind the cameras, he exuded a calm rarely seen on his face of late, "a marvelous sort of repose over-all," recalled his wife, Lady Bird. When he finished his speech, he stood quietly and hugged his daughters. The White House was silent. "We were stunned," McPherson told me. And then the phones began ringing. All night, friends close and estranged called with congratulations and approval. The White House press corps exploded in activity, clamoring for a further statement. The first lady finally emerged. "We have done a lot," she told reporters. "There's a lot left to do in the remaining months; maybe this is the only way to get it done."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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