As the rightwing seems to think we liberals protesting the Vietnam War led President Nixon to chicken out in 1973 (at perhaps the height of Nixon’s political popularity), let’s go back about five years as to what President Johnson’s advisors were telling him in early 1968 as to the implications of the Tet offensive:
The Tet Offensive and Khe Sanh may well have reminded Johnson and Westmoreland of the Duke of Wellington’s dictum: “If there’s anything more melancholy than a battle lost, it’s a battle won”. Giap had been frustrated at Khe Sanh and defeated in South Vietnam’s cities. NVA/VC dead totaled some 45,000 and the number of prisoners nearly 7000. But the shockwave of the battle finished Johnson’s willingness to carry on. Westmoreland was pressuring Washington for 206,000 troops to carry on the campaign in the South and to make a limited invasion of North Vietnam just above the DMZ. As the battle for Hue died out, Johnson asked Clark Clifford (who had recently replaced a disillusioned McNamara as Secretary of Defense) to find ways and means of meeting Westmoreland’s request.
Clifford and an advisor group looked at the war to date, and among others, consulted CIA Director Richard Helms who presented the Agency’s gloomy forecasts in great detail. On March 4th Clifford told Johnson that the war was far from won and that more men would make little difference. Johnson then turned to his chief group of informal advisors (which included among others, Generals Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgway, and Maxwell Taylor; Cyrus Vance, Dean Acheson, and Henry Cabot Lodge). Johnson soon found that they too, like Clifford, had turned against the war. According to Thomas Powers, Johnson’s “wise old men” had been told that recent CIA studies showed that the pacification programme was failing in forty of South Vietnam’s forty-four provinces and that the NLF’s manpower was actually twice the number that had been estimated previously. Not only had Tet shown that the optimism of the previous year had been an illusion, but it now seemed that the enemy was far stronger than anybody had thought, and that the long efforts to win Vietnamese “hearts and minds” had largely been a disaster.
If Tet wasn’t a full-scale shock to the American public, it was at the very least, an awakening. The enemy that Johnson and the generals had described as moribund had shown itself to be very alive and, as yet, unbeaten. America and its ARVN ally had suffered over 4,300 killed in action, some 16,000 wounded and over 1,000 missing in action. The fact that the enemy suffered far more and had lost a major gamble mattered little, because the war looked like a never ending conflict without any definite, realistic objective. The scenes of desolation in Saigon, Hue, and other cities looked to be war without purpose or end. Perhaps the most quoted US officer of the time was the one who explained the destruction of about one-third of the provincial capital of Ben Tre with unintended black humor: “It became necessary to destroy it,” he said, “in order to save it”. For many, this oft-quoted statement was not just a classic example of Pentagon double-think but also a symbol of the war’s futility. Westmoreland became the parody “General Waste-mor-land” of the anti-war movement.
Being against the war became more-or-less politically respectable for liberal elements. Robert Kennedy spoke of giving up the illusion of victory, and Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged Johnson for the Presidential nomination on a peace platform. He was supported by thousands of students and young Americans opposed to the war. Vocal elements of the extreme right largely supported the war, but condemned the Administration for not going all out for victory. The JCS backed Westmoreland but convinced him to settle for half of the over 200,000 additional troops he wanted to take the initiative. The JCS then reported to the White House that the extra men were needed to get things back to normal following the battles of the Tet Offensive.
Johnson’s dilemma was complete. He couldn’t meet the generals’ manpower requests without either depleting Europe of American troops – which was unacceptable – or calling up the active reserves – which would have been a political disaster. His most senior advisors had turned against the war and Johnson took another briefing from the CIA analyst whose gloomy reports had soured some of his most hawkish counselors. A few days after this briefing, Johnson went on TV to announce a bombing halt of the North and America’s willingness to meet with the North Vietnamese to seek a peace settlement. Johnson then said that he was not a candidate for reelection under any circumstances and would spend the rest of his term in a search for peace in Indochina.
One of those present at the special CIA briefing which convinced Johnson that a change of course was inevitable was General Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland’s deputy commander. Shortly after Johnson’s turnabout, Abrams replaced Westmoreland as head of US forces in Vietnam. Westmoreland came home to become Army Chief of Staff – a move many saw as a kick upstairs – but, whatever the reasons behind the changeover, Abrams went to Saigon with a mission. He was to institute a program of “Vietnamization”. In other words, to take all necessary measures to enable the ARVN to bear the main burden of the fighting, and gradually return the chief role of American troops to that of advisors. Vietnamization had always been a feature of America’s role in Vietnam, but it had been on a back-burner since 1965 when it seemed that Saigon was incapable of doing the job. Now things were to be returned to what they were supposed to have been from the beginning. Vietnamization is usually credited to Nixon, but it began in the wake of the Tet Offensive and Johnson’s turnabout.
The modern day equivalent of Vietnamization is Bush’s “when the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down”. Vietnamization did not work for Nixon as the popular support for the South Vietnamese government never was that strong. Similarly, the support for the current Iraqi government is quite weak. But this Administration is damned determined not to learn from history.