The Fight for the President's Mind—And the Men Who Won It

Who got us into Vietnam? There is no way to say fairly now, for the responsibility is shared. Who Stopped the escalation? That story can be told.
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Nineteen sixty-eight began with the Communist Tet offensive in Vietnam. Late in February, the Johnson Administration sat down to assess the attack. Soon, disagreements about the meaning of Tet, and the proper response to it, appeared at the highest levels of government.

THE reappraisal of Vietnam policy began on February 26, 1968, with the arrival of a cable from General Earle Wheeler sent from Saigon. He had been dispatched by President Johnson about February 20 "to find out what else Westmoreland might need." He conferred with Westmoreland and inspected the battle areas. Then he sent a cable for McNamara, Rusk, Rostow, and Helms of the CIA setting forth his assessment of the situation and of the additional "force requirements" that he and Westmoreland considered necessary or at least very desirable. While Wheeler was flying home, McNamara convened the three Service Secretaries and the Chiefs of Staff on the afternoon of February 26 to address the Wheeler cable. My boss, Harold Brown, being out of town, I was present as Acting Secretary of the Air Force.

General "Bus" Wheeler, USA, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was an intelligent, personable, politically sophisticated staff officer whose talents were admirably suited to the demanding tasks of coordinating the strong (and by no means always common) interests of four powerful military bureaucracies -- the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps -- and of serving as their principal advocate and defender in relations with the Secretary of Defense, the President, and the Congress. Handsome and distinguished in appearance, he was also seasoned, articulate, and courteous, as well as more resilient than most military professionals in his relations with civilian officials and politicians. He understood the importance of intangible factors and readily grasped the limits of what was politically feasible. His perception and tact had helped on countless occasions to bridge the sensitive gap between what his colleagues on JCS insisted was militarily necessary and what the civilian authorities were willing to approve. Though they disagreed often, he and McNamara respected each other greatly. There was, however, never any doubt of Wheeler's fundamental commitment to a military solution in Vietnam, his determined advocacy of whatever level of effort was required to achieve it, or his unqualified support of Westmoreland. Although more polished and subtle than the Service Chiefs, he was in every respect a convinced and authentic spokesman for the professional military interest.

The Wheeler cable gave authoritative confirmation to many earlier impressions. The fighting was by no means over; indeed, large actions appeared in the offing at Khesanh or Hue and all across the central highlands. The enemy had suffered very substantial losses during the Tet offensive, yet retained sizable reserves, and was displaying a greater tenacity than the U.S. Command had seen at any earlier period of the war. He was hanging in close to urban areas in a serious effort to disrupt the inflow of food and other supplies, to paralyze the economy, to intimidate the people by rumor and violence. At least six enemy regiments remained on the edges of Saigon. ARVN had fought well on the whole, but had required reinforcement by U.S. troops in a number of places, including Hue. In addition, it had been necessary to position more than half of the 110 U.S. maneuver battalions in Northern I Corps to counter the heavy enemy threat there. As a result, there was no remaining theater reserve to meet contingencies. Westmoreland's forces were stretched thin, and required prompt and substantial reinforcement. Wheeler's cable then summarized the "force requirements," which amounted to about 206,000 men divided into three time phases: 107,000 by May l; another 43,000 by September l; and the final 56,000 by December. The ground force package (both Army and Marines) totaled about 171,000, the Air Force about 22,000, and the Navy about 13,000.

To say the least, the magnitude of the request was a stunner to those gathered around the table. The Secretary of the Navy, Paul Ignatius, asked why, if U.S. and allied forces had killed more than 30,000 enemy troops since Tet, Westmoreland needed an extra l00,000 men within sixty days. General Harold Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff (and Acting JCS Chairman in Wheeler's absence), replied that because the Viet Cong were now vigorously recruiting in the countryside, abandoned by ARVN, we had to expect them to recover their losses at least numerically; he thought, however, that the quality of VC forces had suffered irretrievably.

I expressed surprise at the size of the request for additional air power -- seventeen tactical fighter squadrons, of which twelve were to be Air Force and five Marine. Two of the twelve had been previously requested, and the Air Force was engaged in preparations to deploy them. I expressed concern that sending more would seriously crowd the airfields in South Vietnam, with resulting higher damage rates from mortar fire and sapper attacks or, alternatively, would create further adverse political consequences if we introduced another increment of U.S. air forces into neighboring Thailand. General Johnson replied that the new request simply maintained the existing ratio of air support to ground forces. This was true, but it was a bureaucratic rather than a substantive answer. I did not pursue the point in the meeting, but there was in fact no well-reasoned analysis to support the existing air-ground ratio; it had simply evolved out of the early conditions of the war. Moreover, it was a matter of some delicacy in Army-Air Force relations because it touched the boundary line between the assigned roles and missions of the two Services. If the Air Force did not provide close air support in a ratio satisfactory to the Army, that would strengthen the Army's argument for developing its own means of close support. Already, through the introduction of helicopter gunships of increasing power, speed, and sophistication, the Army had pressed against that boundary. The rote application of that ratio in constructing the new "force requirements" for Vietnam was the first hint that perhaps they had not been entirely made in Saigon, but that Wheeler had carried to his meeting with Westmoreland some rather definite JCS views as to what was needed and could be obtained at this juncture of the war.

The fact remained that we already had thirty land-based tactical squadrons in South Vietnam. Wheeler and Westmoreland were now asking that this be increased to forty-seven. A number of professional airmen considered South Vietnam already saturated with allied air power, and there was of course the basic question whether large additional forces were available. In response to the Pueblo crisis, we had just dispatched 150 aircraft to South Korea. The Air Force was a "can do" outfit; it could generate additional squadrons if the decision were made to do so, but this would take time, cost money, and almost certainly require the further call-up of Reserves if we were to avoid a drawdown of the squadrons in Europe or otherwise committed to NATO.

McNamara gave his opinion that to meet the Westmoreland request would create a requirement for about 400,000 more men on active military service (Reservists or draftees) and involve an added cost of $10 billion for the first twelve months (at this time he was working on a Defense budget for the year beginning in July, 1968, that amounted to about $90 billion, of which roughly $30 billion was attributable to Vietnam). He asked each Service to analyze the Westmoreland request in light of three possibilities: (1) that we would fully comply, (2) that we would partially comply, and (3) that we would examine alternative political and military strategies in Vietnam. But for purposes of moving ahead, he asked that we concentrate initially on the first alternative.

MCNAMARA'S MANAGED DECISIONS

ONE of the major ironies of the Wheeler trip was that had McNamara not been in his final month of office, he rather than Wheeler would almost surely have gone to Saigon, and his judgment rather than an undiluted military judgment would have formed the basis of the authoritative request, if any, for more forces. Previously, at every critical turn in the war, McNamara had flown to Vietnam to bargain directly with Westmoreland and the other commanders regarding the manpower and discretionary authority required for the next phase. In every instance, he had reached his own conclusions before departing Washington and had meticulously prepared his position, including a draft of what he would report to the President on his return. In every case he prevailed upon the military commanders to scale down their requests (called "requirements"); in return for their cooperation, he gave his public endorsement to the amended buildup. That pattern had been repeated at approximately six-month intervals since early 1965. It was a technique which exemplified McNamara's mastery of, and strong instinct for, managed decision-making: by holding control within very narrow channels, developing an advance position, and moving fast, he finessed serious debate on basic issues and thus saved the President from the unpleasant task of arbitrating major disputes within his official family. It had worked smoothly, but it had also resulted in a twenty-five-fold increase in the military manpower commitment to Vietnam -- from 21,000 to 510,000 -- over a three-year period.

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