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

During and immediately after the Tet Offensive, several top U.S. officials, former policymakers, and pundits concluded that the war in Vietnam was lost.  South Vietnam was destined for defeat.  This dire prediction rested on three key facts – facts that became apparent during Tet.  First, millions of South Vietnamese actively sided with the Communists. Second, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army had access to a seemingly bottomless manpower pool. Third, the Communists had the resources, men, and territorial sanctuaries to pursue the war indefinitely.  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 those troubling facts. But others, not afflicted with the emotional baggage of men who had devoted years to solving the Vietnam puzzle, believed the Tet Offensive, and particularly the widespread support granted to the Vietcong by the South Vietnamese people during the Communist military operation, 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 for the United States 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.” He continued, “…[another] 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.”[1]

The Tet Offensive convinced former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who had been a staunch opponent of Ho Chi Minh since the late 1940s, that the U.S. could not save South Vietnam from Communism.  On March 26, 1968, during a meeting of elder statesmen at the White House, Acheson expressed the majority opinion of his colleagues.  He told the president to get the U.S. out of South Vietnam as soon as possible. According to notes of the meeting taken by former National Security Advisor 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….”  Acheson then spoke of the impossibility of stopping future Communist offensives.  “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.”[2]  For Acheson, the war was essentially over – and the U.S. had lost it.  What mattered now was figuring out a way to withdraw U.S. forces without doing too much damage to America’s global standing.

McGeorge Bundy, who was instrumental in the U.S. decisions to escalate the U.S. role in South Vietnam in 1965, and 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 March 26th meeting, “There is a very significant shift in our 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.”[3]

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, realized 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.””[4]

The Department of Defense’s Systems Analysis Office concluded that after the Tet Offensive 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.”[5]  The Systems Analysis Office also noted, “…our control of the countryside and the defense of the urban areas is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels.”[6]  In other words, the United States had failed to extend Allied territorial control in South Vietnam despite three years of war, the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, and 20,000 U.S. deaths.

But none of the opinions of the experts or the analysis done by the Department of Defense persuaded Johnson to disengage from South Vietnam. Instead, throughout 1968, he escalated the intensity of the war by increasing U.S. troop numbers, ordering a series of brutal counter-offensives, and overseeing a dramatic rise in the number of bombing sorties in the South.  The president also refused to negotiate on reasonable terms with Hanoi. And although he harboured grave misgivings about Westmoreland’s search and destroy strategy, he did not push the Joint Chiefs of Staff or MACV 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 U.S. forces from South Vietnam.  The former senator and presidential aspirant responded, “Well, I take him [Johnson] 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]

According to McGovern, 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 re-election 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. If South Vietnam went Red while Johnson 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 faced a double bind on 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.  However, if he did not end the war, he would be derided by many within his own party for insisting on fighting a conflict that had already been lost. Convinced that he had no good options on Vietnam, Johnson 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.

Endnotes

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

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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

[5] 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.

[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), 28.

[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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