Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Wise Old Men

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the dissent building in early 1968 in Lyndon Johnson's cabinet over the Vietnam War and LBJ's decision to drop out of the presidential race.

Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire sent an ambiguous message to President Lyndon Johnson regarding Vietnam. Not all of anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy's voters advocated a peace agreement. Many McCarthy supporters wanted the United States to take a more aggressive stand in the war. McCarthy voters agreed, however, that the President’s approach was not working. A similar shift of opinion occurred within the Johnson administration.

In November 1967, a distraught Johnson began to despair about the war. He had convened a meeting of longtime friends, advisers, and political insiders – a group dubbed the “Wise Old Men” -- to Washington, D.C., to discuss the future plan of attack. Included in the discussion was Clarke Clifford, an attorney soon to be appointed Robert McNamara’s replacement as defense secretary, former national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Supreme Court Justice (and, like Clark), a longtime Johnson confidant) Abe Fortas.

The men received typically glowing reports from military officers on the progress being made in the war. “I don’t believe one single Wise Man raised any serious questions,” Clifford later recalled of that first convocation. Only Bundy raised an objection, and that only as the meeting was breaking up. “I’ve been watching you across the table,” Bundy said. “You’re like a flock of buzzards sitting on a fence, sending the young men off to be killed. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” No one responded to Bundy.

That was before the Tet Offensive. As the embarrassing scenes unfolded at the American Embassy in Saigon and Khe Sanh, only Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow remained solidly committed to the status quo in Vietnam within the president’s inner circle. The new Secretary of Defense, Clarke Clifford, already parted with Johnson over the war.

Experienced Washington hands had expected Clifford, selected to replace the wavering McNamara precisely because of his steadfast faith in the Vietnam effort, to be a hawk (a supporter of the war). Clifford had been one of the harshest critics of McNamara’s proposals in late 1967 to halt bombing of North Vietnam and hand over more responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese. When news broke on March 10, 1968, that Gen. Westmoreland wanted 206,000 more troops in Vietnam, many interpreted this proposal as having Clifford’s backing.

The Tet Offensive shook up Clifford, who changed his mind about the war early in his tenure as defense secretary. “I had personal daily and hourly access to civilians and all the top military,” he recalled later. “ . . . I was finding out, in constant contact with the joint chiefs, that we had no real plan to win the war. All we were going to do was just keep pouring men in there . . .” Clifford interrogated officers on whether there was any sign that the North Vietnamese government and military had lost any of its will to fight and the cabinet official was told no. Meanwhile, the budget office placed the cost of 206,000 more troops at $2 billion for the last four months of the fiscal year and up to $12 billion for the following fiscal year.

“Will three hundred thousand more men do the job?” Clifford asked the Pentagon, which remained unable to give a definite answer. He then asked how long it would take for the United States to win the war. Again, military leaders could not give him an answer with any confidence. “It all began to add up to the realization that we’d been through a period of never-never land in thinking that we were going to win this,” Clifford said. The defense secretary decided he must prevent the administration from deepening even further America’s commitment to the Vietnam War and, if possible, to find an honorable way out of the conflict.

In the wake of the Tet Offensive, Johnson asked the Wise Old Men to gather again at the State Department on March 25. Once again, they received glowing reports from the military. The Tet Offensive had been a defeat. The communists supposedly had suffered heavy casualties and would be unable to recover. Though they couldn’t specify when this would happen, Pentagon officials told the Wise Men that the war would soon end in an American victory. The Wise Men, however, had become skeptics.

As historian Taylor Branch observed, Bundy “chilled the Cabinet Room” with his first words. “Mr. President, there is a very significant shift in most of our positions since we last met.” Bundy bluntly told the president, “We must begin steps to disengage.” At a second day of discussions on March 26, former Secretary of State (under President Truman) Dean Acheson said that the American public did not support the war and the United States had no right to militarily impose a corrupt, dictatorial government on South Vietnam. Someone in the room objected that the United States was not imposing its will. Acheson lost his temper and blurted out:

"What in the name of God have we got five hundred thousand troops out there for? Chasing girls? You know damned well this is what we’re trying to do – to force the enemy to sue for peace. It won’t happen – at least not in any time the American people will permit."

Johnson realized he no longer had the confidence of his own cabinet. The negative feedback from the Wise Men and McCarthy’s showing in New Hampshire moved President Johnson towards making a decision he had contemplated at least since the fall of 1967. The president had been scheduled to make a televised speech in prime time about the Vietnam War on March 31.

Clifford had worried that early drafts of the speech had included no mention of a halt in bombing of North Vietnam, which the defense secretary considered vital to moving the peace process forward. It was clear, however, that Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 more troops was a dead letter. Clifford got the president to change the first line of his speech from “I want to talk to you about the War in Vietnam” to “I want to talk to you about peace in Vietnam.” The final draft of the speech included a bombing halt in North Vietnam. Johnson told his speechwriters that he would provide the concluding remarks himself.

By the morning of March 31, Johnson’s daughter Lynda’s husband, Chuck Robb, was serving with the Marines in Vietnam. His other son-in-law Patrick Nugent was due to ship out to Vietnam shortly. The war had been hard on Lynda and Johnson’s other daughter Lucy, who had to deal with protestors from their generation chanting, “Hey, Hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?” outside the White House. That morning, according to Kaiser, Johnson had an intense conversation with Lynda, who wanted to know why her husband, Robb, had to “fight for people who did not even want to be protected?” The president told his wife Lady Bird that he “wanted to comfort her [Lynda], and I could not.” The First Lady recalled later that Johnson’s face sagged and “there was such pain in his eyes as I had not seen since his mother died.”

During the speech, Johnson told his audience that the United States would end bombing of North Vietnam as part of an effort to kick-start peace talks. At the end, he looked up from the paper copy of his speech and said directly into the camera that he “did not want the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing this political year.

With our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than that of the awesome duties of this office – the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I will not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.

As the television camera shut off, Johnson “bounded from . . . the Oval Office . . . ” an aide later recalled. “His shoulders temporarily lost their stoop. His air was that of a prisoner let free.” Some of Johnson’s most sharp-tongued critics now praised the president’s statesmanship. Even the president’s chief nemesis, Bobby Kennedy, had words of praise for Johnson, describing the president’s decision as “truly magnanimous” and offering to meet with the president to discuss “how we might work together in the interest of national unity during the coming months.” That Wednesday, North Vietnam finally agreed to start peace talks with the United States.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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