I took office on March 1, 1968. The enemy's Tet offensive of late January and early February had been beaten back at great cost. The confidence of the American people had been badly shaken. The ability of the South Vietnamese government to restore order and morale in the populace, and discipline and esprit in the armed forces, was being questioned.
At the President's direction, General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had flown to Viet Nam in late February for an on-the-spot conference with General William Westmoreland. He had just returned and presented the military's request that over 200 000 troops be prepared for deployment to Viet Nam. These troops would be in addition to the 525 000 previously authorised.
I was directed, as my first assignment, to chair a task force named by the
President to determine how this new requirement could be met. We were not instructed
to assess the need for substantial increases in men and materiel; we were to
devise the means by which they could be provided.
It is, of course, not possible to recall all the questions that were asked nor all of the answers that were given
Here are some of the principal issues raised and some of the answers as I understood them: "Will 200,000 more men do the job?" I found no assurance that they would. "If not, how many more might be needed and when?" There was no way of knowing.
"What would be involved in committing 200,000 more men to Viet Nam?" A reserve call-up of approximately 280,000, an increased draft call and an extension of tours of duty of most men then in service.
"Can the enemy respond with a build-up of his own?" He could and he probably would.
"What are the estimated costs of the latest requests?" First calculations were on the order of $2 billion for the remaining four months of that fiscal year, and an increase of $10 to $12 billion for the year beginning July 1, 1968.
"What will be the impact on the economy?" So great that we would face the possibility of credit restrictions, a tax increase and even wage and price controls.
The balance of payments would be worsened by at least half a billion dollars a year.
"Can bombing stop the war?" Never by itself. It was inflicting heavy personnel and materiel losses, but bombing by itself would not stop the war.
"Will stepping up the bombing decrease American casualties?" Very little, if at all. Our casualties were due to the intensity of the ground fighting in the South. We had already dropped a heavier tonnage of bombs than in all the theatres of World War II. During 1967, an estimated 90,000 North Vietnamese had infiltrated into South Viet Nam. In the opening weeks of 1968, infiltrators were coming in at three to four times the rate of a year earlier, despite the ferocity and intensity of our campaign of aerial interdiction.
"How long must we keep on sending our men and carrying the main burden
combat?" The South Vietnamese were doing better, but they were not ready yet to
replace our troops and we did not know when they would be.
When I asked for a presentation of the military plan for attaining victory
in Viet Nam, I was told that there was no plan for victory in the historic American
sense. Why not? Because our forces were operating under three major political
The President had forbidden the invasion of North Viet Nam because this could trigger the mutual assistance pact between North Viet Nam and China;
the President had forbidden the mining of the harbour at Haiphong, the principal port through which the North received military supplies, because a Soviet vessel might be sunk;
the President had forbidden our forces to pursue the enemy into Laos and Cambodia, for to do so would spread the war
"Given these circumstances, how can we win?" We would, I was told, continue to evidence our superiority over the enemy; we would continue to attack in the belief that he would reach the stage where he would find it inadvisable to go on with the war. He could not afford the attrition we were inflicting on him. And we were improving our posture all the time.
I then asked, "What is the best estimate as to how long this course of
take? Six months? One year? Two years?" There was no agreement on an answer. Not only was there no agreement, I could find no one willing to express any confidence in his guesses. Certainly none of us was willing to assert that he could see 'light at the end of the tunnel' or that American troops would be coming home by the end of the year.