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1 ESCALATING THE VIETNAM WAR, 1964–1967 During 1962 and 1963, General Paul Harkins, commander of MACV, reported that the war was being won, and he put heavy pressure on his subordinates to report the same. Many in Washington, though not all, believed him. Harkins continued to talk optimistically well into 1964, but hardly anyone still believed him. General William Westmoreland, his deputy, thought his optimism “incredible.”1 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara , once a leading optimist, was an extreme case. At a meeting of the National Security Council Executive Committee on May 24, he said, “The situation is still going to hell. We are continuing to lose. Nothing we are now doing will win.”2 Other top officials were less gloomy than McNamara, but not dramatically so. They spoke optimistically in public , but over the course of 1964 they increasingly came to acknowledge that the Communists were winning the war and that the government in Saigon that the United States was supporting (the Republic of Vietnam [RVN]) did not seem capable of reversing this trend. Only the direct use of American combat forces on a substantial scale could be expected to rescue the situation. The Communists also thought the end of the war was in sight. During 1964, the B2 Front—the Communists’ regional command for the southern half of South Vietnam—was drawing up plans, in considerable detail, for a general offensive that would seize Saigon. Their forces were not yet strong enough for such an operation, but those forces were growing.3 During the 1964 presidential campaign, the White House asked CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray Cline whether the United States could afford to wait until after the election to escalate the war. Would chapter one 10 CHAPTER ONE South Vietnam already be irretrievably lost by that time? Cline’s evaluation was that it would barely be possible to put off a major increase in the US effort until after the election; “You’re going to have your back to the wall.”4 On the other hand, many officials were optimistic about the likely results of escalation. Thomas Hughes, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, later commented, “The one thing that the policy makers of 1965 were incapable of accepting was the idea that there was no positive way out. There had to be some road to victory .”5 Many thought that an American force of quite moderate size, much smaller than the one the United States eventually did send, might be adequate to handle anything the Vietnamese Communists could put up. When McNamara recommended in April 1965 that the number of US military personnel in Vietnam be increased to 82,000, with a possibility of 42,000 more being sent later, he held out hope that the war would effectively be won in “perhaps a year or two.”6 The broader public was not inclined to extremes of optimism or pessimism . A Gallup Poll taken in the autumn of 1965 asked Americans how they believed the war would end. The percentage of the public who said they believed the war would end with “Communist victory” or “We will pull out” was zero, but only 29 percent thought there would be an American victory. The most common response, at 30 percent, was “Stalemate.”7 The escalation of 1965 was pushed by official recognition that the situation was very bad. President Lyndon Johnson was an extreme case. Four days after the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, he told a trusted friend, Senator Richard Russell, “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”8 Contemplating “light at the end of the tunnel” with Bill Moyers around the same time, he said, “Hell, we don’t even have a tunnel, we don’t even know where the tunnel is.”9 Most high officials were less pessimistic than President Johnson, but they were willing to recognize that the situation was bad, because they did not have to see it as primarily an American failure; they could blame the Republic of Vietnam. General Westmoreland had replaced Harkins as commander of MACV in 1964. In June 1965, Westmoreland wrote, ESCALATING THE VIETNAM WAR, 1964–1967 11 The South Vietnamese battlefield strength is declining in the face of North Vietnamese reinforcements and a Viet Cong offensive. It is my...


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