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.

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.


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.

Even in the advanced state of disenchantment which had overtaken him by late February, McNamara' s instinctive reaction on receiving the new military request was to "manage the problem," whittle down the numbers, muffle the differences, and thereby avoid a bruising confrontation within the administration. The President's initiative of November to move McNamara to the World Bank proved a fateful hinge on which swung later events of far-reaching consequence. Phil G. Goulding, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, thought that if McNamara had remained firmly in the saddle and had made the trip to Saigon, there would have been no request for 206,000 men and probably no immediate and dramatic reappraisal of policy. The matter is of course speculative, but my own view is close to Goulding's.

With McNamara managing the manpower question, it seems likely that agreement inside the circle of advisers would have been rather quickly reached on troop reinforcements of perhaps 50,000, together with a renewed offer to stop the bombing in exchange for reciprocal acts by Hanoi. Such terms would have been set forth in a generally tough, patriotic, hortatory speech by the President. This approach might have bought the Administration another month or two of public toleration. It might have weakened Senator McCarthy's showing in New Hampshire (where public knowledge of the 206,000 figure helped enormously), which in turn might have made Robert Kennedy more hesitant; it might have persuaded President Johnson to stay in the political race. But in the end, I am sure, and well before the summer, an attempt to carry on in Vietnam without significant change, as though the Tet offensive had not really happened, would have generated a wholesale domestic cataclysm as well as a major explosion in the Democratic Party that neither Lyndon Johnson nor his Vietnam policy could have survived. For the deep-seated, powerful thrust of public opinion in March was that "more of the same" was simply not good enough. The further irony is that an explosive upheaval, produced by yet another effort to finesse the basic issues, might have forced a far more definitive decision sometime in mid-1968: for example, immediate unilateral reduction of U.S. forces and a phased liquidation of the entire enterprise in twelve to eighteen months. Because circumstances brought about a dramatic reappraisal in March and because the President was thereby persuaded to act .as he did -- to put a ceiling on the war, to halt the bombing partially, to take himself out of the political race -- the teeth of the domestic opposition were pulled sufficiently to preserve at least a semblance of Lyndon Johnson's leadership inside the Democratic Party and to permit him a tolerably graceful exit at the end of the year, with his Vietnam policy still shrouded in ambiguity.

But McNamara did not go to Saigon, and the sending of Wheeler produced an undiluted expression of the true military desideratum -- no less than a 40 percent increase in a force level already at 510,000. This was an event that galvanized the Pentagon civilians, who were for the first time able to assert their strong anti-escalation position in a favorable psychological and managerial climate. The Wheeler-Westmoreland request was a catalyst that made serious reappraisal unavoidable, and Clark Clifford's arrival as Secretary of Defense meant that new channels of communication were now available to debate the issues.


SINCE his Senate confirmation in January, Clifford had of course been preparing himself for his new responsibilities by conferring frequently with McNamara, Deputy Secretary Paul Nitze, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On February 28, two days before the swearing-in ceremony, the President named an Ad Hoc Task Force on Vietnam, with Clifford as chairman. Its purpose was to examine the Wheeler-Westmoreland request for more forces and to determine the domestic implications. As the principals understood it, the assignment from the President was a fairly narrow one -- how to give Westmoreland what he said he needed, with acceptable domestic consequences.

Clifford convened the Task Force that same day in McNamara's Pentagon dining room for an introductory meeting. Beginning on March 1, he held day and evening sessions through March 6. McNamara attended the first session as Secretary of Defense, but did not thereafter participate. The other participants were Clifford, Nitze, Assistant Secretaries Paul Warnke and Phil Goulding for Defense; Rusk, Undersecretary Nicholas Katzenbach, Assistant Secretary William Bundy, and Philip Habib for State; Wheeler for the JCS; Richard Helms for CIA; Walt Rostow for the White House; Secretary Henry Fowler for Treasury; and General Maxwell Taylor as a special adviser. Initially, Clifford adopted a kind of quiet judicial posture, encouraging others to develop information. He was going through, as he later put it, "the most intensive learning period of my life." Rusk said little at the opening session, it being a familiar trait of his to remain relatively silent at meetings he did not himself conduct, preferring to reserve his position for the President's ear. Thereafter, he did not attend the Task Force discussions.

Clifford moved immediately to broaden the inquiry's frame of reference by stating that to him the basic question was whether the United States should continue to follow the same course in Vietnam. What was likely to happen if we put in another 200,000 men? Would that bring us any closer to our objectives? Perhaps Westmoreland did need 200,000 additional troops under his present strategic concept, but was that a sensible concept? McNamara said Westmoreland's forces had been asked to carry more of the burden of achieving U.S. political objectives in Vietnam than could be borne by military power; we could not, he said "by limited military means" force North Vietnam to quit, but neither could they drive us out of South Vietnam; the time had therefore come to recognize the necessity for negotiations and a compromise political settlement. Nitze argued the need to re-examine the involvement in Vietnam in the wider context of U.S. interests and commitments elsewhere in the world; he said that whatever the result in Vietnam itself, we would have failed in our purposes if the war should spread to the point of direct military confrontation with China or Russia, or to the point where our resources were so heavily committed in Vietnam as to put our other commitments in serious doubt. He thought a less ambitious strategy should be devised in order to buy time for strengthening ARVN and for getting out. Habib, who was deputy to William Bundy and a specialist on Vietnamese affairs, thought almost any alternative course would be preferable to sending more U.S. troops, because that would simply take the pressure off the GVN and ARVN to stand on their own feet.

Rostow, Wheeler, and Taylor expounded the hard line, arguing that the Tet offensive was in reality a new and unexpected opportunity. The guerrilla enemy, so long elusive and unwilling to give battle under conditions that favored America's superior firepower, had suddenly exposed himself all over the country. He had come into the open in large numbers, in a desperate attempt to seize cities and promote popular uprisings. This dramatic shift of strategy indicated he could longer stand the relentless pressure of U.S. military power in a protracted war. Therefore, the prompt and substantial reinforcing of Westmoreland could open the way to victories that would decimate enemy forces and bring Hanoi, much more quickly than otherwise, to the conference table under conditions favorable to our side. Speaking for the JCS, Wheeler said the full 206,000 men were needed, and that to provide less would be taken by Westmoreland as a vote of no confidence. Taylor doubted whether sending even the full 206,000 would enable Westmoreland "to do what he is trying to do." [Endnote 1].

Nitze and Warnke, supported by Katzenbach, sought to counter these arguments. There was, they argued, no very convincing evidence that the enemy's attack was motivated by desperation or that his immediate aims were as ambitious as a popular uprising against the GVN and the wholesale desertion of ARVN. It seemed more likely, they argued, that the enemy had decided the time was ripe for a major effort to achieve several very important but still limited purposes: to capture one or more major cities, to cause large-scale panic in the ARVN, to recapture large parts of the countryside in order to destroy the pacification program and gain access to new recruits; above all, to show public opinion in America that, contrary to the optimistic projections of November, the United States was not winning the war and in fact could not seriously attempt to win it without undermining more important domestic and global interests.

Warnke, who was to have perhaps more influence on Clifford's change of position than any other single person, had held the pivotal post of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs since August, 1967. Previously he had been General Counsel of the Defense Department, and for fifteen years before that engaged in practice with a distinguished Washington law firm. Warnke possessed a strong, lucid mind, bold in conception, rigorously disciplined in argument. He was tough, but always personally engaging, discriminating, and fair. Above all, he brought to bogged-down inter-agency arguments on Vietnam the bracing gift of candor, including a readiness to assert the increasingly obvious truth that the Emperor's policy had no clothes on.

As Warnke saw it, both sides were disappointed by the results. The enemy failed to capture and hold any major city, and he suffered tremendous losses, perhaps 30,000 killed; also, ARVN fought better than expected. But the attacks produced devastating effects on our side as well -- many cities were overrun and then gravely damaged or destroyed in the process of recapturing them, with heavy loss of life; the enemy still held the countryside and had demonstrated the inherent fragility of the pacification program; large-scale U.S. forces were tied down in remote, uninhabited places like Khesanh and Conthien, unable to move, pounded by enemy artillery, and with their ability to resist direct assault a matter of growing doubt. Finally, it was clear that public opinion in United States had been shaken to the roots. In plain truth, Warnke argued, neither side could win militarily. U.S. strategy should henceforth be based on that reality and should aim, not at victory, but at the kind of staying power necessary to the achievement of a compromise political settlement. In military terms, this meant no further troop increases (for the enemy could and would match them), a pullback from isolated posts like Khesanh, and a far less aggressive ground strategy designed to protect the people where they lived. A revised directive should be sent to Westmoreland making clear that henceforward his primary mission would be to protect the population of South Vietnam. There should also be a renewed effort to open talks, if necessary by halting the bombing.

With Clifford listening intently and learning fast but not yet committed to any position, the sheer momentum of the ongoing policy continued to dominate the proceedings. Except for Clifford, who was still neutral, the participating principals -- Rusk, Rostow, Wheeler, Taylor, and Fowler -- were strongly for meeting the request and getting on with the war. They claimed, explicitly or by implication, to know the President's mind, and everyone was aware that he had many times said his commanders in Vietnam would get whatever they needed. In the circumstances, the advocates of change faced a heavy, uphill battle, but they kept doggedly at it. After each Task Force session broke up, Warnke and Goulding stayed behind to express to Clifford their concern over the drift of the discussion, to press a particular point, to counter a particular line of argument. Clifford listened intently, then asked them to go and prepare facts and analysis that he could use at the next session. All during the seven-day period, Warnke and Goulding would thus retire to an office between sessions to develop hasty counterarguments, dictating and correcting drafts at a rapid clip, so that Clifford could have fresh information for the next meeting.

While the Clifford Task Force was meeting, the Army and the Air Force were analyzing possible "alternative strategies" at Clifford's direction. In the Air Force, Harold Brown and I worked steadily through the weekend, receiving drafts from the Air Staff, discussing these with the Vice-Chief, General Bruce Holloway, and a small team of officers, and then sending the drafts back to be amended and refined. The Air Staff brought forward three alternatives: (1) an intensified bombing campaign in the North, including attacks on the dock area of Haiphong, on railroad equipment within the Chinese Buffer Zone, and on the dike system that controlled irrigation for NVN agriculture; (2) a greater effort against the truck routes and supply trails in the southern part of North Vietnam (the narrow area called the panhandle), to be generated by shifting about half the daily sorties away from the Hanoi-Haiphong area; and (3) a campaign designed to substitute tactical airpower for a large portion of the search-and-destroy operations currently conducted by ground forces, thus permitting the ground troops to concentrate on a perimeter defense of the heavily populated areas.

The Air Staff strongly preferred Alternative 1, but Brown and I continued to feel that, while there was little assurance such a campaign could either force NVN to the conference table, or even significantly reduce its war effort, it was a course embodying excessive risks of confrontation with Russia. Alternative 2 was statistically promising (it became the basis for the President's later decision to eliminate all bombing above the 20th parallel), but it too lacked decisiveness. Alternative 3 was pressed on the staff largely at my insistence, and the analysis seemed to show that tactical airpower could provide a potent "left jab" to keep the enemy in the South off-balance while the U.S.-ARVN ground forces adopted a modified enclaves strategy, featuring enough aggressive reconnaissance to identify and break up developing attacks, but designed primarily to protect the people of Vietnam and, through population control measures, to force exposure of the VC political cadres. It was a strategy aimed not at winning a military victory, but at providing a strong negotiating posture. Harold Brown forwarded the Air Staff papers together with a memorandum representing his supplementary views and my own. He and I were in full agreement.


THESE various countermovements notwithstanding, the Task Force ended its seven-day effort by drafting a set of recommendations which in all essential respects confirmed existing policy. In a short unsigned memorandum for the President, it recommended an immediate deployment of about 20,000 additional troops and the prompt approval of Reserve call-ups, larger draft calls, and lengthened duty tours in Vietnam sufficient both to provide the remaining 186,000 men requested by Westmoreland and to restore a strategic reserve force adequate to meet contingencies that might arise elsewhere in the world. There was to be a reiteration of the formula announced at San Antonio in September, 1967, but no new initiative toward negotiation or peace. There was also to be a step-up in the bombing, with Wheeler, Taylor, and Rostow advocating measures beyond those acceptable to the other members of the Task Force --that is, to expand the targets around Hanoi and Haiphong and to mine Haiphong Harbor. These were the central recommendations. The advocates of change gained only the fringe benefit of delay --that is deferment of the actual decision to deploy the remaining 186,000 to Vietnam and agreement to make that decision subject to (1) evidence of improved political performance by the GVN, (2) studies that might produce new political and strategic guidance for Westmoreland, and (3) week-by-week examination of the developing situation in Vietnam. Beyond these frail and imprecise caveats, the report was entirely silent on the matter of the relevance and adequacy of U S. political objectives in Vietnam, the validity of the present ground strategy, the usefulness of the bombing, or the effects of Tet. Its spare, terse, emotionless prose typified those papers that go to the President for action on issues of great heat and consequence. They do not reargue the issues, for these are painfully known to all concerned; they state merely the minimal compromise agreement that the contending parties have been able to reach.

Clifford, although he passed along the report, was uneasy about it, for the Task Force deliberations had deepened his doubts as to the wisdom and practicality of existing policy. Moreover, in separate meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had probed for their professional assessment of the battlefield effect of adding 206,000 troops, but had received only "vague and unsatisfactory" answers. They could not promise victory; at most, they could say that more troops would add to the cumulative weight of our pressure on the enemy. Warnke, Goulding, and I were profoundly discouraged, for we felt that presidential approval of the first increment of troops would implicitly reaffirm both the Bunker-Westmoreland assessment of the Tet offensive and the Westmoreland ground strategy. To me the Task Force report was mindless folly, confirming once more the depressing truth that the inner core of the Administration was frozen solid in misconceptions as to the nature of the war, as to what our military power could accomplish, as to how our real interests in Asia should be served. The advisers seemed incapable of extricating themselves from policies that were manifestly not working. The memorandum contained, for example, no mention at all of negotiations, yet it seemed clear we would only begin another dreary cycle of inconclusive bloodshed and widening conflict if, in the wake of Tet, we made the mistake of insisting there could be no talks until we had once again regained the military initiative. As I said in a memorandum to Warnke at this time:

In the see-saw struggle to determine the precisely propitious moment to risk negotiations, we should try to retain a sense of proportion. We are a nation of 200 million -- the strongest economic and military power in the world -- whereas North Vietnam is an underdeveloped country of 19 million. We should be able to afford a certain magnanimity on this point of the circumstantial "position of strength" prerequisite for entering upon negotiations. In other words, we should not too much insist on our own particular stage setting for talks. If we do, we will probably get no talks at all.

But by far the most serious deficiency of the Task Force report was its failure to gauge the horrendous political implications of its basic recommendation that the military manpower request be met. For this involved a Reserve mobilization on the order of 250,000 men as well as increased draft calls. Together, these measures would add 450,000 men to active-duty forces, bringing the total strength to about 3.9 million. With his sensitive journalistic antennae quivering, Goulding, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, hastily dictated an appendix which Clifford circulated within the Task Force, but which did not go forward to the President. Goulding's appendix noted that there had been absolutely no preparation of public opinion for such a large-scale mobilization. The official line had stressed our ability to fight in Vietnam and at the same time to meet commitments elsewhere without undue strain; it had held that we were winning the war and, specifically, that we had emerged victorious from the Tet offensive; it insisted that ARVN was improving every day. Now suddenly 250,000 American Reservists were to be separated from their families and careers and another 200,000 men drafted --- all in the absence of any new or palpable national crisis.

Goulding argued that the shock wave would run through the entire American body politic. The doves would say the President was destroying the country by pouring its finest men and resources into a bottomless pit. The hawks would cry that the Administration had no moral right to disrupt the lives of all these young men and still insist on waging a war of limited objectives, limited geographical boundaries, and limited weapons. They would demand, Goulding wrote, that the Administration "unleash ... hit the sanctuaries ... if necessary invade." The antiwar demonstrations and resistance to the draft would rise to new crescendos, reinforced by civil rights groups who would feel the President had once again revealed his inner conviction that the war in Vietnam was more important than the war on poverty. It would be quite unavailing for the Administration to say that only 20,000 more men were being committed to Vietnam. That might or might not prove to be true; in the larger sense the claim would be irrelevant, for in the context of steady escalation over the past three years, it simply would not be believed. Moreover, the major political damage would be done by the increased mobilization itself, for it was this that would bring on the domestic surprise and disruption, as well as cause the defense budget to rise by $2.5 billion in 1968 and by $10 billion in 1969. Actual deployment of the other 186,000 to Vietnam would be, as the saying went, a "secondary explosion."

Goulding's appendix made clear that the Administration had trapped itself in repeated expressions of overblown optimism and could thus carry into effect the recommendations of the Task Force only if it were ready to accept the gravest domestic political risks. Clifford was deeply impressed by its unanswerable logic; others were equally taken aback. Fowler, who had concluded that a formal war mobilization was the only sure way to obtain the higher taxes and controls he felt were necessary for a successful defense of the dollar, was apparently chastened by the chilling implications of the Goulding analysis.

The Task Force recommendations were sent to the President on March 7. The following day, Clifford went to the White House to discuss the proposed actions and their implications, and also to lay before the President some of the fundamental questions which had formed in his own thinking about Vietnam. The recommendations, he explained, were responsive to instructions and represented actions that the President could take "if that is the way you wish to go." He felt obliged to add, however, that, while not yet agreeing or disagreeing with the thrust of the Task Force report, he had developed "doubts" about the efficacy of the ground strategy, the effectiveness of the bombing campaign, and what could really be accomplished by a further large infusion of American troops. He acknowledged that his doubts did not appear to be shared by the other principals on the Task Force, namely, Rusk, Rostow, Wheeler, Taylor, and Fowler.

When the basic differences were out on the table, the President was less than pleased with Clifford's position, notwithstanding its essential tentativeness at that point. Disturbed by what had seemed to him McNamara's progressive emotionalism and apostasy, the President had looked forward to Clifford's coming aboard as a means of reestablishing solid group harmony. Then, as Clifford later said wryly, "this Judas appeared." The warm, long-standing friendship between the two men grew suddenly formal and cool. For with Lyndon Johnson nothing counted more than personal loyalty, and with respect to Vietnam, nothing was so deep-rooted as the President's instinctive bellicosity and will to win. Clifford was affronting both of these feelings, and over the following days he felt the relationship deteriorating seriously. However, it did not during March fall to the point where the President refused to see him alone -- that was to be a manifestation of the following summer, during Clifford's struggle to effect a total bombing halt in an effort to get the Paris talks off dead center.

The session on March 8 ended with Clifford emphasizing the tentative nature of his own judgments and expressing the hope that there would be time for further study. Wheeler and the JCS were anxious to move ahead on the Task Force recommendations, but Rusk and Rostow were prepared to have the issues studied further, in part because the domestic implications, political and economic, seemed to grow more ominous with each passing day. Some reasonable delay appeared to meet the President's preferences.


BY mid-April, storm warnings were coming in from all points of the political-economic compass. Newspaper dispatches of March l0 had disclosed the magnitude of the military manpower request, and this was producing a sharp aggravation of the chronic balance-of-payments problem, with attendant serious strains on the international monetary system. In the Congress, there was rising criticism of Westmoreland, alarm at the threat to the dollar, opposition to a large-scale call-up of reserves, and uneasiness at the apparent drift and indecision that seemed to have descended upon the Administration. The Gallup Poll reported that 49 percent of the American people now believed the United States was wrong to have become involved in Vietnam with its own military forces.

The New York Times called the situation a "manmade disaster." On March 15, Time magazine commented that the debate was being conducted in a vacuum, that the President had retreated into an ever-narrowing circle of advisers, with no one outside the coterie knowing what was on his mind, what questions he was asking, or what alternatives he foresaw. The Senate and the country were troubled by the prospect that the Administration would announce new military measures without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress; indeed, Fulbright thought the President's authority further to expand the war without consent of the Congress was the principal issue.

On March 12, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened its annual hearings on the Foreign Aid Bill (of which the Military Assistance Bill was a part). The first witness was Rusk and, as had been unanimously anticipated, the discussion quickly turned from economic and military aid to an extended, painful, and frustrating renewal of the public debate on the Vietnam War. For two full days the sorely tried Secretary of State bore the skeptical, troubled, hostile questions from the senators with admirable dignity and an invincible politeness, but without satisfying any of their doubts. Forced to defend the past and unable to speculate on possible new departures that might emerge from the still ongoing reappraisal, Rusk was in a unenviable position. The resulting dialogue was stale, unedifying fare for both official Washington and the presumed millions of television viewers.

Fulbright had also requested Clifford to testify immediately following Rusk, this being the normal sequence for foreign aid hearings, but Clifford, still uncertain as to the depth of his own disaffection from the Administration's Vietnam policy, had declined with the ploy that he was too new to the office and too preoccupied with Vietnam [sic] to have developed mature judgments on the Military Assistance Program. The President was also negative about a Clifford appearance before the Fulbright Committee, having concluded that the circumstances of Rusk's testimony -- before hostile questioners seeking to exploit the medium of nationwide television -- had resulted in a net detriment to the Administration's position. After discussing the problem together, Clifford and the President agreed that Nitze, as Deputy Secretary of Defense should testify, if this was agreeable to the senators. Fulbright promptly concurred, but Nitze then advised Clifford that he was not in a position to defend the Administration's Vietnam policy. Since it was clear, in light of Rusk's experience, that the senators would quickly finesse the subject of foreign aid and direct their questions to Vietnam, it reasoned that he could not avoid the issue and accordingly he should not testify. He had drafted a letter to the President which he then showed to Clifford. It stated briefly and politely his position, going on to say that he placed hope in the range of alternative options that were, as he understood it, still under consideration in connection with the reappraisal. The letter concluded with a short paragraph recognizing the possibility that, in view of Nitze's stated position, the President might prefer that he "not continue."

Paul Nitze possessed wide and relevant experience in foreign-military affairs, a sophisticated intellect, and a considerable charm edged with a somewhat Prussian quality. The son of a college professor, he had made his money as a young man in Wall Street before World War II, married well, and thereafter addressed himself primarily to a public career with emphasis on the study and management of strategic problems. After service on the Strategic Bombing Survey in 1946-1947, he became Dean Acheson's distinguished Director of Planning at State. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed him Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and in the ensuing years President Johnson, at McNamara's urging promoted him to Secretary of the Navy and then to Deputy Secretary of Defense. Basically a hard-liner in his attitudes toward Russia, China, and Communism, he was, however, noted for his sense of proportion, knowledge, and sound judgment on matters of both policy and technique. He was that rare combination of intellectual and manager, as well as a man of unquestioned loyalty and integrity. To those seriously concerned with the effective management of defense affairs, he was a pearl of great price.

Clifford, who was impressed by the depth of Nitze's conviction and who badly needed Nitze's professional expertise to handle major strategic, technical, and administrative problems which time had not yet permitted him to come to grips with, was concerned that the President, acutely sensitive on the matter of loyalty, might in his current frame of mind resent the tone of Nitze's letter and ask for his resignation. Clifford agreed to convey the letter to the President, but urged Nitze first to delete any reference to resigning and then to soften the language, assuring him it was very important, both politically and substantively, that he stay on. Nitze was willing to amend the letter, but even in its revised form it got a sour reception from Lyndon Johnson. Clifford and the President next agreed that Warnke should be the Defense witness, on the logical grounds that his office was directly responsible for planning and managing the Military Assistance Program. Warnke was agreeable, notwithstanding his profound misgivings about Vietnam policy, for, not having been in government at the time of the 1965 decisions, he felt he could roll with the punches. Fulbright, however, demurred, insisting that the Committee could accept only Clifford or his deputy. So the ball was hit back into Clifford's court. Either he would have to testify personally or the Defense Department would have to bear the onus of refusing to comply with a request from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

There is reason to believe that this was the moment -- about March 16 -- when all of Clifford's unresolved uneasiness and doubt crystallized into a firm conviction that the Administration's policy in Vietnam was indefensible. Moved by Warnke's persuasive skepticism, chilled by Goulding's appendix, in receipt of my long memorandum, [Endnote 2] impressed by Nitze's readiness to resign, his own thoughts coalesced into solid form. Certainly, the idea of having to defend a highly dubious enterprise before informed and vehement congressional critics, and under klieg lights for the benefit of a national television audience, was a prospect calculated to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Clifford decided he would not do it. Instead, he paid a private call on Fulbright, and in the course of a talk that was frank on both sides, spoke of the ongoing reappraisal within the Administration and of his own deepening doubts with respect to the existing policy. He urged Fulbright to understand that the prospects for change might be damaged if he were to testify while the major issues were still being debated at the White House, but he thought a more propitious time for testimony would develop. Fulbright, who was heartened by what he heard dropped all Committee pressure for Clifford's appearance and wrote a letter which in effect invited the Secretary of Defense to name his own time and convenience.

Clifford, having now reached the firm conclusion that the war was not winnable in military terms under any conditions compatible with American interests, began to state his case for a fundamental change of policy -- aimed squarely at disengagement. He was still groping for the precise formula, but the ingredients were apparent: a bombing halt to get talks started, a shift to a less costly ground strategy, measures to strengthen ARVN, a clear warning to the GVN that U.S. military power would not remain indefinitely in Vietnam, and that therefore the GVN must posture itself for a serious political settlement involving compromise with the NLF.


DESPITE strident declarations which reflected the visceral Johnson, the President was privately troubled and uneasy during February and early March. Whatever his strong instinctive preferences, he could not responsibly ignore the hard realities of the human and financial cost of the war, the fading support for it in the country, the malaise in foreign-military bureaucracy, and the galloping deterioration of the Democratic Party. However unpalatable, these were facts that could not be wished away.

In late February he had consulted Dean Acheson. whom he held in the highest regard as a brilliant mind, a courageous and distinguished former Secretary of State, and toughest of Cold Warriors. When the President asked him his opinion of the current situation in Vietnam, Acheson replied he wasn't sure he had a useful view because he was finding it impossible, on the basis of occasional official briefings given him, to discover was really happening. He had lost faith in the objectivity of the briefers: "With all due respect, Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff don't know what they're talking about." The President said that was a shocking statement. Acheson replied that, if such it was, then perhaps the President ought to be shocked. The President said he wanted Acheson's considered judgment; Acheson replied he could give this only if he were free to make his own inquiry into the facts so that he would not be dependent on "canned briefings" from the JCS, Rostow, and the CIA. The President agreed he should have the necessary resources for an independent study.

Acheson thereupon assembled a small group of knowledgeable people at the second and third levels and worked with them over a two-week period, holding meetings at his home where he cross-examined them at length. The group included Philip Habib of State, George Carver of CIA, and Major General William DuPuy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff organization. On March 15, Acheson gave the President his findings, at a luncheon where the two men were completely alone. Acheson told the President that he was being led down a garden path by the JCS, that what Westmoreland was attempting in Vietnam was simply not possible without the application of totally unlimited resources "and maybe five years." He characterized the President's recent speeches as quite unrealistic and believed by no one either at home or abroad. He added the judgment that the country was no longer supporting the war. This was tough, unvarnished advice in the Acheson manner, though served with the customary polish and elegance. The President obviously did not like it, but he greatly respected the purveyor.


THERE was, however, no immediate break in the political weather, for the President was in a combative mood. On March 15, he received an eight-page "eyes only" memorandum from Ambassador Goldberg at the United Nations, arguing for a complete bombing halt in order to get negotiations started. The memorandum produced a volcanic response at the White House. At a meeting of the inner group on Saturday, March 16 -- the day Robert Kennedy put himself into the race -- the President referred to Goldberg's initiative and then said testily, "Let's get one thing clear. I am not going to stop the bombing. I have heard every argument on the subject, and I am not interested in further discussion. I have made up my mind. I'm not going to stop it." A chilled silence settled over the embattled advisers gathered in the Cabinet Room.

In the face of these unpalatable new pressures and of unwanted but unignorable advice, Lyndon Johnson began to feel "crowded"; his immediate reaction was to lash out in a kind of emotional tantrum. On March 17, he flew to the Midwest to deliver two thoroughly truculent speeches -- to the National Alliance of Businessmen and the National Farmers Union -- in the drafting of which Rostow and Justice Abe Fortas had a major hand. Pounding on the lectern, jabbing his finger at the audience, resorting frequently to extemporaneous additions to his prepared text, he said: "Your President has come here to ask you people, and all the other people of this nation, to join us in a total national effort to win the war, to win the peace, and to complete the job that must be done here at home ... Make no mistake about it -- I don't want a man in here to go back thinking otherwise -- we are going to win." Attacking the advocates of a different ground strategy, he charged that "those of you who think that you can save lives by moving the battlefield in from the mountains to the cities where the people live have another think coming"

Back in Washington on March 19 to address the National Foreign Policy Conference at the State Department, he introduced a definite note of chauvinism: "... danger and sacrifice built this land, and today we are the Number One Nation. And we are going to stay the Number One Nation." He then misquoted Lincoln: ''With firmness in the right as God gives us the right [sic], let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

I was, along with others, profoundly discouraged by these outbursts, for they suggested that all our efforts, including especially Clifford's courageous stand, were coming to nothing, that the President at bay was stubbornly determined to steer the ship his own way, giving his critics -- who by this time probably numbered a large majority of the American people -- the back of his hand, conspicuously failing to face the truth about the inadequacy of his preconceptions and his policy. He had also taken to invoking the spirit of the Alamo, which, as someone noted, seemed an unfortunate Freudian slip since everyone there had died. I telephoned Warnke who was briefly in Florida, and told him I thought we had lost and that the time had come to resign. I was writing a letter of resignation. He was equally discouraged, but closer than I to the day-to-day developments, and he said, "Clark hasn't given up yet. I don't think we should until he does." Clifford was still counting on the innate mysteries of presidential decision-making, and perhaps on the ultimate inscrutability of Lyndon Johnson.


ON the almost daily meetings on Vietnam at the White House, Clifford continued to find himself outnumbered "7 or 8 to 1'' and "not getting very far with the President." After the bellicose speeches of March 18 and 19, he feared "the game was lost." Yet with characteristic persistence, he searched for allies, talking to Dean Acheson, McGeorge Bundy and Douglas Dillon, all of whom were members of the informal "Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam," a body of distinguished former diplomats, soldiers, and public servants who had rendered great service to the country in foreign policy or in military posts of high responsibility. The group had counseled with the President once or twice a year since 1965. At the last meeting in November, 1967, all members except George Ball, had expressed support for the administration's policy as well as general satisfaction with the progress of the war (as presented to them by the official briefings). But now Acheson had given the President a far different view, and Clifford also perceived significant shifts in the positions of Bundy and Dillon. From these straws in the wind he developed the suggestion that the President ought to have the benefit of the group's post-Tet assessment and advice before he decided the issues now before him. The president agreed that a new meeting should be held, and the dates of March 25 and 26 were scheduled.

By March 20, the President appeared to have passed through his first explosive reaction to the mounting pressures and to have recovered a measure of calm. On that day he had Goldberg come down from New York to discuss his bombing halt memorandum of March 15. The two men met alone, Goldberg unaware of the President's earlier outburst. The President put forth a number of interested questions, and it was in general a harmonious session. Before they parted, he asked Goldberg to join the meeting of the Senior Advisory Group on March 25, and expressed the hope that the Ambassador would reiterate his views on that occasion. Two days later, on March 22, he announced that Westmoreland would be relieved of his command and come home to be Army Chief of Staff. [Endnote 3] No successor was immediately named and no date fixed for the return. In light of his major decisions several days later, it seemed that by these acts President Johnson was tentatively clearing away the accumulated underbrush and preparing the site for the construction of a possibly different policy. Neither act was conclusive or committed him to substantive change. Those who knew him very well thought in retrospect that the process was largely subconscious, but it did seem that in a mysterious way, peculiar to the U.S. presidency, something was stirring and changing. Clifford continued to see hope in the mere fact that the debate went on, that the President remained willing to hear him out rather than turning him off, "which he was perfectly capable of doing."

On March 22, the inner circle of advisers, plus George Christian, the press secretary, and Harry McPherson, counsel to the President, met with Johnson to discuss a speech on Vietnam that he had now decided to make. He had instructed McPherson in early February, just a few days after the onset of the Tet offensive, to prepare something appropriate; by the first of March, McPherson had proceeded through five drafts, progressively revising and refining his text on the basis of comments from various responsible officials in the interested departments.

The speech draft that the group addressed on March 22 was essentially a tough and uncompromising reiteration of Administration policy (McPherson later called it the "We Shall Overcome draft"). While it left open the question of troop reinforcements, it proposed a call-up of 50,000 Reserves, refused any consideration of a bombing halt without clear reciprocity, and urged the surtax as recommended by Fowler. It was patriotically hortatory, calling upon the nation to persevere in a difficult undertaking.

The draft was dismaying to Clifford, who later described it as "everything I hoped it would not be," and he immediately urged that it be amended to include some serious gesture toward peace. He argued for at least a partial bombing halt, as a means of starting a process of tacit, mutual de-escalation. This would not, he argued, violate the President's injunction against a total halt and would not jeopardize American troops in Northern I Corps. At the very least, it would improve the Administration's public posture and thus extend the lease on public support for the war. The trouble with a partial halt, as everyone recognized, was that it almost certainly wouldn't meet Hanoi's minimal condition for talks. Vice President Humphrey, having in mind the impending Wisconsin primary on April 2, felt that the bombing had to be fully stopped, if a political benefit were to be derived. Katzenbach and Harriman also supported a total bombing halt, but somewhat later, around the end of April, because they wanted to allow further time for the United States to regain its poise in Vietnam after the Tet onslaught. The meeting, which lasted nearly seven hours, ended with a lucid summary by Rusk. He said the consensus seemed to be that some U.S. move toward negotiations was desirable, but that this was necessarily qualified by the recognition that a mere curtailment or partial cessation of the bombing would not, in all probability, bring Hanoi to the conference table. It was a familiar argument. A year before, in the spring of 1967, McNamara and McNaughton [Endnote 4] had proposed a similar plan to pull the bombing down to the 20th parallel, with the intention of concentrating the attacks in the narrow "panhandle" through which the infiltration of men and supplies had to pass. In the summer of 1967, Rusk had also proposed a heavily qualified, partial halt to McNamara and Nitze. In both cases, the hope was that if Washington made the first de-escalatory move, Hanoi might match it, thus setting in motion a cautious step-by-step reduction in the level of violence. But the President had refused to accept these proposals in 1967, in part because the JCS and the Senate hawks were adamantly opposed.

On the night of March 22, as he lay between waking and sleeping, McPherson, the able young counsel and speech writer, was visited by an idea. It involved the establishment of some middle ground between the broad desire to make a gesture toward peace and the fear of its rejection by Hanoi. The next morning, McPherson spelled it out in a short memorandum for the President. What he proposed was that the President should unconditionally stop the bombing north of the 20th parallel and, simultaneously, offer to stop it entirely in exchange for assurances that Hanoi would show restraint at the DMZ and would not attack Saigon and other major cities. To McPherson's surprise, the President acted very swiftly, sending the memorandum to Rusk the same day, and thence to Saigon for consideration by Ambassador Bunker with Rusk's implicit endorsement. Bunker responded without great enthusiasm, but to the effect that he could live with it.


THE Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam met in the White House on March 25 and 26. Those present were Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Truman; George Ball, Undersecretary of State in the Kennedy-Johnson period; McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; Douglas Dillon, Ambassador to France under President Eisenhower and Secretary of the Treasury under President Kennedy; Cyrus Vance, Deputy Secretary of Defense under McNamara and a diplomatic troubleshooter for President Johnson; Arthur Dean, chief Korean War negotiator; John J. McCloy, High Commissioner to West Germany under President Truman and Assistant Secretary of War during World War II; General Omar Bradley, World War II Commander and the first JCS Chairman; General Matthew Ridgway, Korean War Commander and later NATO Commander; General Maxwell Taylor, JCS Chairman under President Kennedy and later Ambassador to Saigon; Robert Murphy, a senior career ambassador of the Truman-Eisenhower period: Henry Cabot Lodge, former U.S. Senator and twice ambassador to Saigon; Abe Fortas, a sitting .Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and a personal adviser to President Johnson; and Arthur Goldberg, Ambassador to the United Nations and a former Secretary of Labor and Supreme Court Justice.

They assembled in the afternoon to read a number of background papers, and then went on to dinner with the principal Cabinet officers plus Rostow, Harriman, and William Bundy, whom they questioned at length. After dinner, the entire group heard briefings from Habib of the State Department, Carver of the CIA, and Major General DuPuy. The discussion continued late into the evening and resumed at a session the next morning preparatory to luncheon with the President. It was apparent at an early stage that the unanimity of October had evaporated and that a majority were now deeply troubled. Some were seeking a means of cutting back the war enough to make it politically and economically endurable for an indefinite period; others felt that disengagement was now the only answer. There was, as one member recalls it, a pervasive awareness that the enterprise in Vietnam stood at an historic turning point, that this was a period of the most earnest soul-searching. A small minority -- Taylor, Fortas, and Murphy -- stayed hard-nosed, defending the strategy of attrition as viable, proposing heavier bombing, advocating no shift in the tactics of search-and-destroy. But Acheson, McGeorge Bundy, Dillon, Vance, Goldberg, Ball, and General Ridgway were strong for change. McCloy, Lodge, Dean, and General Bradley were somewhere in the middle, troubled and in doubt, but less ready to declare for a dramatic shift in policy.

At luncheon with the President, McGeorge Bundy performed the role of rapporteur, summarizing with appropriate shadings what he felt to be the general view in the wake of the previous evening's briefings and discussion, and of the further debate just before lunch. The consensus, as Bundy described it, was that present policy had reached an impasse, could not achieve its objective without the application of virtually unlimited resources, was no longer being supported by a majority of the American people, and therefore required significant change. Bradley, Murphy, and Fortas objected that Bundy's summary did not accurately reflect the views of the full group. Acheson, who was seated beside the President, interjected to say that Bundy's summary clearly reflected his view and that he thought it also represented the great majority of those present. He repeated his conviction that military victory in Vietnam was impossible under conditions consistent with U.S. interests, and that the fundamental U.S. purpose should be to get out rather than further in. He said that insistence on a military solution had dragged the President and the country into a morass which could only get worse unless the goals and the strategy of the war were both changed.

General Wheeler, who had not attended the previous evening's briefings, stated that if the group's views were derived from those briefings, then he would have to say that the briefers must have been men who didn't know the true situation. Moreover, he insisted that Acheson was incorrect in describing . policy as bent upon a military solution. Westmoreland and the JCS, he said, clearly understood that "a classic military victory" was not possible in the special circumstances presented by Vietnam. Acheson replied that it was disingenuous to argue about semantics; if the employment of a half million men to eradicate every Viet Cong and drive the North Vietnamese Army out of the South was not an effort aimed at a military solution, then words had lost their meaning. Murphy backed the superiority of military advice in wartime and objected to the interposition of civilian judgments. Fortas continued to play the curious role he had assumed on other occasions in the running debate on Vietnam -- as spokesman for those private thoughts of Lyndon Johnson that the President did not wish to express directly.

At the end of a rough, gloves-off session during which the President queried each man as to his personal view, Lyndon Johnson was left in no doubt that a large majority felt the present policy was at a dead end, and that the U.S. strategic interest required basic change. The group did not attempt to spell out the specific elements of a new policy, but the unmistakable thrust of their thinking was toward de-escalation, negotiations, and disengagement.

The President was visibly shocked by the magnitude of the defection, and perhaps even more by the fact that some, like McGeorge Bundy and Vance, were now associating themselves with it. Bundy had been a major architect of intervention in 1965; Vance had been McNamara's able right hand at the Pentagon and more recently a distinguished diplomatic troubleshooter in Greece, Turkey, Korea, and Detroit. Acheson, whose high ability and measured toughness he probably admired most had previously expressed the same view in the strongest terms. Nevertheless, the President was stung by what seemed to him an unexplainable shift of sentiment, if judged in terms of the information that formed the basis of his own assessment. The next day he demanded to see the men who had briefed the Senior Advisory Group. Carver and DuPuy dutifully presented themselves, but Habib was out of town making a speech. The two men repeated for the President the essentials of their earlier briefing. He asked, "What did you tell them that you didn't tell me?" They replied there were no discrepancies. The President was insistent: "You must have given them a different briefing; you aren't telling me what you told them because what you're telling me couldn't account for the inferences they drew." It was a tense moment, but there was no immediate explanation.

In retrospect, it was my impression that the President's sense of incongruity reflected the extent to which he had become the victim of (1) Rostow's "selective briefings" -- the time-honored technique of underlining, within a mass of material, those particular elements that one wishes to draw to the special attention of a busy chief -- and (2) the climate of cozy, implicit agreement on fundamentals which had so long characterized discussions within the inner circle on Vietnam, where never was heard a disparaging word. In addition, it was evident that the members of the Senior Advisory Group brought to the meeting a wider, better balanced view of America's world role, a more direct exposure to the swift-running currents of public opinion after Tet, and of course a less fixed commitment to one policy. It was also true that Habib, the briefer who was unavailable for the President's interrogation, had probably provided a more candid, pessimistic assessment of the post-Tet situation in Vietnam than the other two men. Yet it was my impression that this latter distinction was not decisive. What counted was the breadth and depth of relevant experience that the Senior Advisers brought with them. Hearing the bleak facts from the briefers, whether tinged with optimism or pessimism, they reached their own conclusions.


TWO days later, on March 28, Clifford met in Rusk's office, together with Rostow, William Bundy, and McPherson. He was unaccompanied by anyone from the Pentagon. The announced purpose of the meeting was to "polish the draft" of the speech the President was now scheduled to make just three days later. Prepared by McPherson, the draft presumably reflected the long discussion of March 22. Because of the uncertainty of the President's position, however, it did not take account of the proposed two-step bombing halt put forward by McPherson on March 23 and implicitly accepted by Rusk and Bunker. For similar reasons, and also owing to the pressures of time, it did not reflect the majority view of the Senior Advisory Group. It was still essentially a defiant, bellicose speech written to be delivered between clenched teeth. It made a pro forma plea for negotiations, but said nothing whatever about a bombing halt, which was of course the prerequisite for talks. Significantly, it proposed a troop increase of only 15,000 men, which was of course a far cry from the original request; this appeared to reflect a second meeting between Wheeler and Westmoreland in the Philippines on March 24. Presumably, Wheeler had on that occasion conveyed to the Field Commander a far different assessment of the operative realities in Washington than he had provided on his trip to Saigon in February.

After reading the draft, Clifford said, "The President cannot give that speech! It would be a disaster! What seems not to be understood is that major elements of the national constituency -- the business community, the press, the churches, the professional groups, college presidents, students, and most of the intellectual community -- have turned against this war. What the President needs is not a war speech, but a peace speech." This opening comment seemed to place his main argument on the grounds of domestic considerations, but in the course of a comprehensive presentation he dealt fully with the military situation in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world. For the first hour or so, Clifford still appeared to be alone, meeting only silent patience from Rusk and Rostow, and with Bundy and McPherson "not taking substantive positions, but simply sitting in as aides." But significantly, Rusk did not attempt to cut him off, as he might have, with the comment, "I know your views, but let's get on with the reading." As he talked on, Clifford began to feel he was making progress with Rusk, who was "troubled and sincerely anxious to find some way to the negotiating table." The Clifford manner is deliberate, sonorous, eloquent, and quite uninterruptible. It gathers momentum as it proceeds, and soon achieves a certain mesmerizing effect; the perfection of the grammar is uncanny. During the course of several hours, speaking slowly, his fingertips pressed together, and glancing occasionally at an envelope on which he had scribbled a series of points, Clifford mustered every available argument in the powerful arsenal of reasons why it was not in the United States's interest to go on pouring military resources into South Vietnam; he drew heavily on the earlier analyses provided by Nitze, Warnke, Goulding, and myself. When the meeting finally broke up at 5 P.M., the group had inadvertently reviewed not only the speech draft but the whole of Vietnam policy. Moreover, Rusk had agreed that McPherson should prepare an alternative draft, in order that the President might have two speeches to consider and thus the benefit of a clear-cut choice. Rusk did not object to giving the President a choice. Clifford thought Rostow refrained from making a fuss because he considered the President had already made up his mind not to stop the bombing -- which was now the central point at issue.

The occasion had a major impact on McPherson who was deeply impressed by Clifford's "brilliant and utterly courageous performance" and who from that point forward became not merely a semicovert dove, but an aroused and powerful ally. Working all through that night, McPherson wrote the first draft of the "peace speech," containing an unconditional bombing cutoff at the 20th parallel and a promise of total cessation if Hanoi provided assurances that it would respect the DMZ and refrain from attacking the cities. He sent this draft to the President early on Friday, March 29, with a note saying that it seemed to reflect the views of "your leading advisers." Later in the day, the President telephoned to ask about a passage "on page 3." McPherson had to compare the two texts in own office before he discovered to his relief that the President was now working from the alternative draft, the peace speech. From then until the late afternoon of Sunday, March 31, the President worked with McPherson, Clifford, and a number of others to polish the new speech.


AT nine o'clock on Sunday evening, speaking from his office in the White House, the President said "Good evening, my fellow Americans. Tonight I want to talk to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia." He reviewed his Administration's efforts "to find a basis for peace talks," especially the San Antonio formula of the preceding September, and asserted that there was "no need to delay the talks that could bring an end to this long and this bloody war." He then moved to the principal conclusion of the reappraisal and the pivotal element of the new approach to Hanoi. He said "So, tonight ... I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict. We are reducing -- substantially reducing --the present level of hostilities ... unilaterally and at once." We were stopping the bombing he said, in areas inhabited by "almost 90 percent" of North Vietnam's population. "I call upon President Ho Chi Minh to respond positively, and favorably to this new step toward peace."

He referred to the emergency deployment in mid-February of 10,500 Marine and airborne troops, and argued that to enable these forces to reach maximum combat effectiveness "we should prepare to send -- during the next five months -- support troops totaling approximately 13,500 men."

Turning to "an estimate of the chances for peace," the President said, "As Hanoi considers its course, it should be in no doubt of our intentions.... We have no intention of widening this war. But the United States will never accept a fake solution to this long and arduous struggle and call it peace.... Peace will come because Asians were willing to work for it -- and to sacrifice for it -- and to die by the thousands for it. But let it never be forgotten: Peace will come also because America lent her sons to help secure it."

Finally, and somewhat surreptitiously he came to his surprise withdrawal from the presidential race. Asserting that the country's "ultimate strength" lies in "the unity of our people," he acknowledged that "there is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and prospect of peace for all people.... With America's sons in the fields faraway, with America's future under challenge right here at home ... I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes.... Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

Clifford and his wife, Marney, had been invited to the family quarters on the second floor of the White House for a drink, half an hour before the President's address. Without a word, the President motioned him into a bedroom and handed him the last two paragraphs. A few minutes later, as Clifford disclosed the President's secret to his own wife and to Rostow's wife, Elspeth, a photographer snapped a picture. "The ladies look," Clifford said later, "as though they had just been hit by a wet towel." At home in McLean, Virginia, I was unaware as to how the battle of the "war" and "peace" drafts had finally been decided, but expecting the worst, I worked at polishing a letter of resignation for submission the following morning. Immediately after the President's address, the electricity failed throughout the house. I found a cold bottle of champagne in the cellar and for the next hour sat on the bedroom floor with my wife, sipping thoughtfully by the light of a single candle.

In retrospect, the most important effect of the March 31 decisions was to put a ceiling on the resources the United States was henceforward willing to allocate to Vietnam. They applied the brakes to the war, finally bringing to a halt the open-ended escalation which had been rising with gathering momentum and heedlessness since 1965. They met the primary need expressed by the Fourteen Asian Scholars -- that is, to show "a capacity for innovation of a de-escalatory, nature, indicating there is no inevitable progression upwards in the scope of the conflict." In addition, the decisions began, at least in principle, the shift of ultimate responsibility to the GVN and ARVN; they implied a repudiation of military victory as a valid goal and of search-and-destroy as a valid strategy. When public opinion quickly endorsed both the decisions and their implications, there was born a new policy of finite means which became in fundamental respects irreversible.

How did the President come to these decisions? No one can be sure. He seems finally to have grasped the seismic shift in public opinion and the absolute political imperative of yielding to it, at least temporarily. This shift was borne in upon him by the New Hampshire primary, Robert Kennedy's entrance into the presidential race, the solid congressional opposition to mobilizing larger reserves, and the almost unanimous hostility of the press. The intractable nature of the new environment was made personal for him by the sharply changed outlook of Acheson, McGeorge Bundy, Vance, and Dillon. Without question, Clifford played a pre-eminent -- I believe the decisive -- role. He was the single most powerful and effective catalyst of change, bringing each day to the stale air of the inner circle a fresh perception of the national interest, unfettered by connection with the fateful decisions of 1965. He rallied and gave authoritative voice to the informed and restless opposition within the government, pressing the case for change with intellectual daring, high moral courage, inspired ingenuity, and sheer stubborn persistence. It was one of the great individual performances in recent American history, and achieved in the remarkably taut time span of thirty days. Moreover, it retained its luster and its central effectiveness amid all the backsliding and ambiguity of the Administration's final ten months in office. If, as later events showed, these prodigious efforts did not really change President Johnson's mind about the Vietnam War, at least they compelled him to decide -- in favor of reason, restraint, and a new approach. And such decisions by the incumbent of perhaps the most powerful office on earth created a new situation that virtually precluded a return to the old.

Clifford's own view of the March 31 decisions was both modest and mystical:

Presidents have difficult decisions to make and go about making them in mysterious ways. I know only that this decision, when finally made, was the right one.


1. There has been a curious, retrospective effort by the military leaders to argue that an actual request for 206,000 additional troops was never made. That figure, they now claim, merely represented one of several possible force levels in a wide spectrum of "normal contingency plans" that covered plausible future battlefield situations ranging from favorable to ominous. But the Wheeler assessment contained only one set of figures and related them directly to his considered view that Westmoreland needed prompt reinforcement. Certainly the President, in establishing the Ad Hoc Task Force on Vietnam, understood that he was organizing to consider a specific manpower request. Finally, Wheeler's own line of argument in the Task Force discussions leaves no doubt that he regarded the figure as a firm military proposal, endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

2. This paper was an attempt to muster definitive arguments demonstrating that the idea of military victory in Vietnam was "a dangerous illusion, at any price that would be compatible with U.S. interests, the interests of the people of South Vietnam, or the cause of world peace."

3. By interesting coincidence, a letter by Arthur Schlesinger appeared in the Washington Post the same day. Scornful of the caliber of military generalship that had led to the ordeal of the surrounded garrison at Khesanh, Schlesinger wrote: "President Johnson likes to compare himself with Lincoln -- 'sad but steady' -- but he lacks one prime Lincolnian quality: that is, the courage to fire generals when they have shown they do not know how to win wars. Lincoln ran through a long string of generals before he got to Grant. It is not likely that he would have suffered Westmoreland three months.... Let us not sacrifice our brave men to the folly of generals and the obstinacy of Presidents."

4. John T. McNaughton, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. Nominated to be Secretary of the Navy, he was tragically killed together with his wife and younger son in a commercial airplane accident on July 19, 1967.