To Hold the Line: LBJ, Tet, and the Decision to Continue the War

The Tet Offensive revealed a number of hard truths about the American effort in South Vietnam.  Specifically, the Tet attacks indicated that the United States military, after three years of major combat operations, had failed to sufficiently attrite the Vietcong and its North Vietnamese ally.  Tet also demonstrated that the majority of South Vietnam’s peasants remained either hostile or apathetic toward the Saigon regime.  In addition, the countrywide Communist offensive exposed several glaring weaknesses within the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and Government, including low troop morale, a high desertion rate, and poor leadership.  In the wake of the Tet Offensive, the United States was no closer to defeating the Vietcong insurgency than it had been in 1965. A Department of Defense (DoD) study of Tet and its aftermath stated, “…our control of the countryside and the defense of the urban areas is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels.”[1] For three long years, the United States had been fighting in South Vietnam only to lose.

Because of the Tet Offensive, numerous top U.S. officials, and opinion-makers, concluded that the Vietnam War was lost.  There was just no way that the U.S. could win the war and preserve South Vietnam – too many South Vietnamese actively sided with the Communists; and North Vietnam (and its Chinese ally) had access to a bottomless manpower pool. That President Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow, and General William C. Westmoreland did not accept these truths did not change the reality of the U.S.’s weak position within South Vietnam. Each of those men had strong personal and professional reasons not to accept the facts. But others, not afflicted with the emotional baggage of men who had devoted years to solving the Vietnam puzzle, believed that Tet proved that the U.S. had suffered an irreversible defeat in Vietnam.

On February 8, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy told a crowd in Chicago that officials in the Johnson administration had for years deceived themselves and the American public about conditions in South Vietnam. Tet, according to Kennedy, exposed a number of illusions – all of which needed to be done away with in order to arrive at a true understanding of the situation in that distant Asian land. “We must,” Kennedy said, “first of all, rid ourselves of the illusion that the events of the past two weeks [with the launching of the Tet Offensive] represent some sort of victory. That is not so.” Then, after mentioning a string of American self-deceptions related to the war, RFK stated, “The fifth illusion is that this war can be settled in our own way and in our own time on our own terms…We have not done this nor is there any prospect we will achieve such a victory.”[2]

Soon after the end of the Tet Offensive, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who had been a key architect of the war in Korea, and who had been a staunch opponent of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh since serving in the State Department in the 1940s, changed his mind about U.S. involvement in South Vietnam.  Tet convinced Acheson that it would be impossible to maintain South Vietnam as a non-Communist state. On March 26, 1968, in a meeting of the Wisemen (a group of elder American statesmen), Acheson expressed the majority opinion of the Wisemen, telling President Johnson he should pull the United States out of South Vietnam as soon as possible. According to notes of the meeting written by McGeorge Bundy, Acheson said something along the lines of: “Neither the effort of the Government of Vietnam or the effort of the U.S. government can succeed in the time we have left. Time is limited by reactions in this country. We cannot build an independent South Vietnam….” For Acheson, it was all over. In reference to the destabilizing effects of the Communist Tet Offensive on South Vietnam’s economy and social cohesion, and the difficulty of stopping similar offensives in the future, Acheson said, according to McGeorge Bundy’s notes, “The issue is can we do what we are trying to do in Vietnam. I do not think we can. This issue is can we by military means keep the North Vietnamese off the South Vietnamese. I do not think we can. They can slip around [through Laos] and end-run them and crack them up.”[3] In being able to “crack them up,” the Communists would forever prevent the establishment of a politically, economically, and militarily viable South Vietnam.

McGeorge Bundy, who was instrumental in the U.S. decisions to escalate the U.S. role in South Vietnam in 1965, and someone who was as knowledgeable on the circumstances prevailing in Vietnam as anyone in and out of government at the time, agreed with Acheson. He told the president during the meeting of the Wisemen, “There is a very significant shift in our [the Wisemen’s] position. When we last met we saw reasons for hope. We hoped then there would be slow but steady progress. Last night and today the picture is not so hopeful particularly in the countryside.”[4]

Barry Zorthian, who had been in-charge of public relations for the U.S. Mission in Saigon and who had advised Westmoreland and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker on media matters, concluded after the Tet Offensive that the U.S. had made no progress during the four years (1964-1968) he had been in Saigon. He recalled, “I used to go out to the provinces on Saturday and Sunday. I think I visited Long An Province five times over the years for briefings by the province team. The fifth briefing was almost the same as the first. The same areas were being cleared and made secure and the same degree of progress was announced and yet the province still wasn’t cleaned up. After that fifth trip I said, “That’s it, I’ve had it. We just haven’t made any progress.””[5]

The Department of Defense’s Systems Analysis Office concluded that Communist influence among the previously pro-GVN urban population of South Vietnam had advanced so far that the United States and GVN would likely never acquire the popular backing to maintain a non-Communist South Vietnam. Its analysts wrote, “Even if the political makeup of the GVN should change for the better, it may well be that VC [Vietcong] penetration in the cities has now gone or will soon go too far for real non-communist political mobilization to develop.”[6]

Neither the Tet attacks nor the informed opinions of the Wisemen nor the analysis done by the DoD persuaded Johnson to disengage from South Vietnam. Instead, throughout 1968, the president escalated the intensity of the war.  He increased U.S. troop numbers, ordered a series of brutal counter-offensives, and oversaw a dramatic rise in the number of bombing sorties in the South.  He also refused to negotiate on reasonable terms with Hanoi. And although he harbored grave misgivings about Westmoreland’s search and destroy strategy, he did not push the Joint Chiefs of Staff to come up with a new ground war strategy.[7]

Why did Johnson take such a hawkish stance on Vietnam in 1968?  Because as simplistic as it may seem, Johnson did not want to be the first president to lose a war.  In a 2011 interview conducted by the LBJ Presidential Library, George McGovern was asked why LBJ refused to withdraw the U.S. from South Vietnam.  The former senator and presidential aspirant responded, “Well, I take him [LBJ] at his word.  He didn’t want to be the first president to lose a war. That’s what he said, and I take him at his word on that, that he . . . .  I think he was saying exactly what was in his head, that he did not want to say we cannot prevail against these little dinks out in Southeast Asia.  And that he’s going to hold the line….”[8]

McGovern’s statement makes it clear that Johnson felt that an American defeat in Vietnam would forever tarnish his legacy – a legacy that was increasingly on his mind after announcing on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection in the fall of that year. The president understood that a hasty U.S. withdrawal in 1968 would lead to the South’s rapid collapse because the South Vietnamese could not stand alone against the combined strength of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army units then operating within South Vietnam’s borders. And if South Vietnam went Red while he still occupied the White House, the American public would forever blame him for the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history.

In 1968, Johnson confronted a double bind with regard to Vietnam.  If he pulled the U.S. out of South Vietnam and the country fell, he would be vilified by the GOP, the military, American veterans, and many of those who had lost loved ones in the war.  And yet, if he continued the war, he would be derided by many within his own party and the growing anti-war movement. Convinced that he had no good options on Vietnam, LBJ decided to stay the course. Withdrawal and its consequences, for him personally, looked worse than continuing the war until he left office on January 20, 1969.

[1] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 28.

[2] New York Times, “Excerpts from Text of [Robert] Kennedy Speech,” February 8, 1968; Robert F. Kennedy, “Unwinnable” Speech, Chicago, Illinois, February 8, 1968.

[3] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 158, Notes of a Meeting, March 26, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 471-474.

[4] William Appleman Williams, Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, and Walter LaFeber, eds., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 271.

[5] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 294.

[6] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 34.

[7] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 249, Notes of Meeting, May 25, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 716-717.

[8] LBJ Presidential Library, Oral History Transcript, “George McGovern Interview 2,” Interviewed by Mark Updegrove, 2/3/2011, Transcript, page 24.

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