Thursday, November 02, 2006

November 2

Harriman and JohnsonOn 2 November 1967, Lyndon Johnson met with more than a dozen foreign policy advisers over lunch to discuss the progress of the American War in Vietnam. It was four years to the day since the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, in whom Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had placed so much hope for the future of South Vietnam; no one at the meeting drew attention to the anniversary. The "Wise Men," as they were often called, generally agreed that the war effort had seen "great improvement and progress" in recent months. McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Douglas Dillon each pointed out that the South Vietnamese government needed to act more aggressively against corruption, but the "general feeling" among Johnson's advisers -- according to the minutes of the meeting -- was that the US needed to "press forward" with the war.

Rededicating themselves to the war -- which by the end of 1967 would have cost 20,000 American lives while sapping $2 billion per month from the public treasury -- the advisers turned to the question of how the government might better convey the progress and overall importance of the war to ordinary Americans. Bundy urged Johnson to continue emphasizing the "light at the end of the tunnel" in his public addresses, while Omar Bradley recommended that Johnson blame the media for the administration's problems. Perhaps, he added, Johnson needed some catchy new patriotic slogans. Several advisers noted that the public appeared to be confused as to why the United States was fighting in Vietnam -- and that a strong public relations campaign might be in order to clarify those reasons (none of which were actually specified during the meeting). Others hoped that briefings from Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker might settle a restless Congress, while Robert Murphy suggested that the United States needed to promote a "hate complex" against Ho Chi Minh, much as it had done with Hitler during World War II.

With no specific consensus on how best to massage public perceptions of the war, the "Wise Men" were completely unanimous in their view that an American withdrawal from Vietnam was "unthinkable," in the words of Henry Cabot Lodge.

"Absolutely not," said Acheson, while Bundy added that withdrawal from Vietnam was "as impossible as it is undesirable."

According to Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, one of Johnson’s closest friends and most trusted advisers, "The public would be outraged if we got out."


The details of this meeting would have greatly distressed Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, Maryland. Morrison, however, was not alive to witness Johnson's efforts to implement the advice of the "Wise Men," nor was he able to witness the Tet Offensive in early 1968, when the optimistic predictions and public reassurances of the administration collapsed in a bloody heap.

Exactly two years before the Johnson's luncheon with his advisers, Norman Morrison drove with his infant daughter Emily and a can of kerosene to the Pentagon, where he set himself on fire in full view of the office occupied by Secretary of State Robert McNamara. Morrison was the second of three Americans who -- following the example of several Vietmanese Buddhist monks -- immolated themselves in 1965 to protest the war. Eighty-two-year old Alice Hertz had set herself alight on March 16 in Detroit; Roger Allen LaPorte, sixty years younger than Hertz, would do the same in New York City on November 9, exactly a week after Morrison's protest.

Robert McNamara, who was not present at the November 2 meeting, announced his resignation less than a month after the second anniversary of Morrison's death.