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.
Go to part one of this article.
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.
IN 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.
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.
Townsend Hoopes served in the Pentagon from 1947 to 1953 and again from 1965 to 1969. He has also been a management consultant in New York.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1969; The Fight for the President's Mind -- And the Men Who Won It; Volume 224, No. 4; pages 97-114.