The best presidents are those who have well-educated and experienced advisors who are willing to do two things: first, seek out new information and admit when they are wrong; and second, be fearless when speaking truth to power. President Lyndon Johnson had a group of such men, called the “Wise Men” ; and to Johnson’s great credit, he listened to them.
Unidentified Marine following a beach landing in Da Nang, South Vietnam, August 3, 1965.
The war in Vietnam was too big for President Johnson to handle on his own. He knew that from the earliest days of his presidency. To cope with the challenge of directing the nation’s first jungle war, Johnson relied on a group of foreign policy and military experts that became known as the “Wise Men.”
President Lyndon Johnson and the “Wise Men,” March 26, 1968. Amb. Henry Cabot Lodge, Dean Acheson, President Johnson.
President Lyndon Johnson and the “Wise Men,” March 26, 1968. Left to right: Walt Rostow, Amb. Arthur Goldberg, Sec. State Dean Rusk, Gen. Creighton Abrams, Gen. Earle Wheeler, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Acheson, President Johnson with his back to the camera.
While some of the Wise Men were currently serving in government, many were former government officials who had become legendary in the years following World War II for their work in crafting America’s aid to post-war Europe and countering the rise of the Communist Soviet Union.
The Wise Men convened in the Cabinet Room of the White House on November 2, 1967, to give Johnson advice on prosecuting the war in Vietnam. Prior to the meeting, the Wise Men had received military briefings and reports from the American ambassador in Saigon that had painted an up-beat picture of progress.
But the war’s rapid escalation, and the growing domestic antiwar movement, were beginning to overwhelm Johnson’s presidency and impede his ability to advance his domestic legislative agenda. The way forward was not clear.
Private Michael J. Mendoza fires his M-16 rifle into a valley in South Vietnam.
In 1964, there were 23,300 U.S. troops serving in Vietnam. By 1967, that number had increased to 485,600 and military commanders were requesting additional troops. Johnson needed fresh perspectives on the war from men he had grown to trust.
The domestic discontent with the war was exacerbated, at least in part, by journalists reporting from Vietnam with chilling stories of U.S. military engagements. The blood and destruction of the Vietnam war were literally being “brought home” to Americans through television. Filmed reports from Vietnam were flown to Tokyo, for editing, and then were either flown to the U.S. for airing on news programs or transmitted directly by satellite. The destructive American bombing campaign, in particular, inflamed public opinion.
Antiwar protest on the Washington, D.C., Mall, October 21, 1967.
On October 21, 1967, around 100,000 people gathered on the Washington, D.C., mall to protest against the war. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the noted “baby doctor” of the 1950s and 60s, told the protesters that “President Johnson is the enemy.” Thousands of antiwar protesters stormed the Pentagon and 600 people were arrested.
President Johnson visits U.S. troops in South Vietnam with Gen. William Westmoreland, December 23, 1967.
At the November 1967 meeting, the Wise Men agreed that the U.S. should remain in Vietnam and continue with the bombing campaign. None advised a U.S. pullout until the South Vietnamese government had become strong. The Wise Men did not advise pursuing a negotiated settlement of the war, either. Instead, they urged Johnson to give the American people more optimistic reports on the war's progress, based on their conclusion that the U.S. was winning the war effort.
But the situation in Vietnam deteriorated rapidly in the ten weeks following the November 1967 meeting. On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise offensive attack (the “Tet Offensive”) against five major cities and many smaller towns and military installations in South Vietnam, including the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the South Vietnamese presidential palace. While the Tet Offensive was an unsuccessful military campaign for the North Vietnamese, it marked a turning point in the war.
Private Fred L. Greenleaf crosses a deep irrigation canal in South Vietnam, November 21, 1967.
America would suffer over 4,700 combat deaths in the first quarter of 1968. Following the Tet Offensive, U.S. casualties rose to approximately 500 killed per week. The Johnson policy of a gradual draw-down of U.S. troops, coupled with increasing the strength of South Vietnam and its military, no longer seemed achievable.
Vietnamese children in a U.S. special forces jeep.
On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite, an influential voice trusted by millions, summed up his views on the Vietnam war after returning from a recent visit there.
“[I]t seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion… [T]he only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
When Gen. Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander in Vietnam, asked Johnson for another 200,000 troops in March 1968, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford urged Johnson to reconvene the Wise Men. They met with Johnson on March 26, 1968.
PFC David Sletten, medic, paddles a 3-man assault boat in South Vietnam, May 13, 1968.
At the March meeting, having received updated briefings from the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Defense, the Wise Men agreed that their previous advice about the war was wrong. Former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, one of the Wise Men, prepared a summary of the meeting for Johnson that said:
“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 [after the briefings] and today the picture is not so hopeful particularly in the [Vietnamese] country side.”
Dean Acheson summed up the majority feeling at the March meeting when he said:
“[W]e can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and we must begin to take steps to disengage. The 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 and end-run them and crack them up. “
And so they did.
President Johnson with Dean Acheson following the meeting of the Wise Men, March 26, 1968.
In his memoirs, former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford writes:
"I suspect that in the inner recesses of his mind Johnson was torn between a search for an honorable exit and his desire not to be the first president to lose a foreign war.”
President Johnson addresses the nation, announcing a partial, unconditional bombing halt in Vietnam and his intention not to seek re-election to a second term as president. March 31, 1968.
Drafts of an Oval Office address long planned for the evening of March 31, 1968, changed following the March 26 meeting of the Wise Men. Instead of the robust defense of the war that Johnson had originally intended, the speech signalled a significant change in Johnson’s war policy. In the speech, Johnson announced an unconditional cessation of bombing in Vietnam (except for defensive bombing in areas north of the DMZ), in the hopes of stimulating peace negotiations.
And at the end of the speech, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing his intention not to seek reelection to the Presidency.
Progressive antiwar politicians [Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy] were in ascendancy in the Democratic Party.
Johnson had become incapable of leading the country forward.
It was time to get off the stage.
President Lyndon Johnson howls with his dog, Yuki, in the Oval Office. At 10:05 pm on the night of March 26, 1968, after the conclusion of the meeting of the Wise Men, Johnson called for his dog, Yuki, to be brought to the second floor White House residence.
South Vietnam. U.S. body bag. 1966.
Nothing lasts forever. Not even the ability to see things clearly and craft good solutions to known problems.
The hard part is recognizing when that point has come.
Wise advisors, who have been entrusted with the honor of being allowed to speak truth to power, are the best friends a president can have.
[Except for maybe his dog.]
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