The President and His Advisors Review the Situation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In early March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisors faced a quandary. The war in Vietnam had ballooned under Johnson's administration. With upwards of 500,000 men already on the ground, the military commanders were calling for over 200,000 more men. A little over a month prior, the enemy's Tet Offensive had failed to gain a military victory, but further diminished support for the war among the American public. President Johnson tasked his advisors to assess the commanders' proposal. They returned with a report, which they summarized for him in the meetings recorded in this document. Their plan granted the field commanders only 22,000 more men, a little more than one tenth of the requested amount. The war would drag on for seven more years, and yet this meeting marked a shift in US tactics and a cap on American troop numbers. Beginning in 1969, under a new president, the troop total dropped every year.

Summary Overview

In early March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisors faced a quandary. The war in Vietnam had ballooned under Johnson's administration. With upwards of 500,000 men already on the ground, the military commanders were calling for over 200,000 more men. A little over a month prior, the enemy's Tet Offensive had failed to gain a military victory, but further diminished support for the war among the American public. President Johnson tasked his advisors to assess the commanders' proposal. They returned with a report, which they summarized for him in the meetings recorded in this document. Their plan granted the field commanders only 22,000 more men, a little more than one tenth of the requested amount. The war would drag on for seven more years, and yet this meeting marked a shift in US tactics and a cap on American troop numbers. Beginning in 1969, under a new president, the troop total dropped every year.

Defining Moment

At the time of these meetings in early March of 1968, President Johnson had been in office for over five years. As president, he had overseen significant policy victories in the case of his Great Society domestic programs, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the same time, US involvement in Vietnam had skyrocketed under his leadership. Around 20,000 American troops were on the ground in Vietnam when he was sworn in. Just five years later, the total stood at approximately 500,000, twenty-five times the original total.

Up until this time, the Johnson administration had been accustomed to fulfilling field commanders' requests for troops. This latest request was no small plea. General Westmoreland was asking for a 140 percent increase to an already massive force. A month before, the CIA had sent a report on the Tet Offensive, employing a sort of balanced optimism to underscore the continuing need for an American military presence in the region. In the year before that, Robert McNamara had advised President Johnson that American objectives could not be obtained militarily. At the time of the present meetings, McNamara's replacement, Clark Clifford, had been on the job for less than a week. Nevertheless, he performed the lion's share of the speaking, at least in the sections of the meeting recorded here.

The proposals that Clifford and the other advisors present here heed McNamara's previous calls for change. These meetings occurred at a watershed moment for troop numbers. Richard Nixon was elected to replace President Johnson later in 1968. Troop totals peaked and started to drop in 1969. These numbers corresponded to a deeper shift in American tactics in Vietnam. These meetings display the infancy of such later policies as the switch to South Vietnamese troops and the increased role of helicopters. The shift in tactics proved indecisive as the fighting continued for seven more years.

Author Biography

Several voices appear in these notes. Lyndon B. Johnson had been president for over five years; he did not seek reelection at the end of 1968. Walt Rostow was the special assistant for national security affairs from 1966 to 1969; a month before these meetings, he was the one who received the CIA report in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Clark Clifford had taken over as secretary of defense less than a week before these meetings, following Robert McNamara's departure. Earle Wheeler served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1964 to 1970. Paul Nitze was the deputy secretary of defense from 1967 to 1969. Dean Rusk served as secretary of state from 1961 to 1969.

Historical Document

Washington, March 4, 1968.

The President: As I told you last week, I wanted you to return today with your recommendations in response to General Westmoreland's request. Among the things I asked you to study were the following questions:

What particular forces are you recommending that we dispatch immediately? How do we get these forces?

How soon could we formulate what we want from the South Vietnamese?

What difficulties do you foresee with your recommendations, both with the Congress and financially?…

As I understand it, Clark Clifford, Secretary Rusk, and Rostow and others have been meeting on these questions in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Walt Rostow: That is correct.

Clark Clifford: … The subject is a very profound one, and I consider it advisable to outline the difficulty we face and the central problem which your advisers see you facing.

As you know, from time to time, the military leaders in the field ask for additional forces. We have, in the past, met these requests until we are now at the point where we have agreed to supply up to 525,000 men to General Westmoreland.

He now has asked for 205,000 additional troops. There are three questions:

Should the President send 205,000?

Should the President not send any more?

Should the President approve a figure somewhere in between and send an alternative number?

Your senior advisers have conferred on this matter at very great length. There is a deep-seated concern by your advisers. There is a concern that if we say, yes, and step up with the addition of 205,000 more men that we might continue down the road as we have been without accomplishing our purpose—which is for a viable South Vietnam which can live in peace.

We are not convinced that our present policy will bring us to that objective.

As I said before, we spent hours discussing this matter. For a while, we thought and had the feeling that we understood the strength of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. You will remember the rather optimistic reports of General Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker last year.

Frankly, it came as a shock that the Vietcong-North Vietnamese had the strength of force and skill to mount the Tet offensive—as they did. They struck 34 cities, made strong inroads in Saigon and in Hue. There have been very definite effects felt in the countryside.

At this stage, it is clear that this new request by General Westmoreland brings the President to a clearly defined watershed:

Do you continue to go down that same road of “more troops, more guns, more planes, more ships?”

Do you go on killing more Viet Cong and more North Vietnamese and killing more Vietcong and more North Vietnamese?

There are grave doubts that we have made the type of progress we had hoped to have made by this time. As we build up our forces, they build up theirs. We continue to fight at a higher level of intensity.

Even were we to meet this full request of 205,000 men, and the pattern continues as it has, it is likely that by March he (General Westmoreland) may want another 200,000 to 300,000 men with no end in sight.

The country we are trying to save is being subjected to enormous damage. Perhaps the country we are trying to save is relying on the United States too much. When we look ahead, we may find that we may actually be denigrating their ability to take over their own country rather than contributing to their ability to do it.

We recommend in this paper that you meet the requirement for only those forces that may be needed to deal with any exigencies of the next 3–4 months. March–April–May could be an important period.

We recommend an immediate decision to deploy to Vietnam an estimated total of 22,000 additional personnel. We would agree to get them to General Westmoreland right away. It would be valuable for the general to know they are coming so he can make plans accordingly.

This is as far as we are willing to go. We would go ahead, however, and call up a sufficient number of men. If later the President decides Westmoreland needs additional reinforcements, you will have men to meet that contingency.

The President: Westmoreland is asking for 200,000 men, and you are recommending 20,000 or so?

Clark Clifford: The strategic reserves in the United States are deeply depleted. They must be built up. Senator Russell has said this. We do not know what might happen anywhere around the world, but to face any emergency we will need to strengthen the reserve.

Out of this buildup you can meet additional requests from Westmoreland in the event you decide he needs more than the 22,000 later. The first increment will meet his needs for the next three to four months.

Westmoreland must not have realized it, but it would have taken much longer than he had anticipated to provide the men and units he originally requested anyway. We could not meet that schedule.

We suggest that you go ahead and get the manpower ready. If they are not really necessary for Vietnam, they can be added to the Strategic Reserve to strengthen it.

We also feel strongly that there should be a comprehensive study of the strategic guidance to be given General Westmoreland in the future.

We are not sure the present strategy is the right strategy—that of being spread out all over the country with a seek and destroy policy.

We are not convinced that this is the right way, that it is the right long-term course to take. We are not sure under the circumstances which exist that a conventional military victory, as commonly defined, can be had.

After this study is made—if there is no clear resolution in the actions of the next 3–4 months except long drawn-out procedure—we may want to change the strategic guidance given Westmoreland. Perhaps we should not be trying to protect all of the countryside, and instead concentrate on the cities and important areas in the country.

There will be considerably higher casualties if we follow the Westmoreland plan. It just follows that if we increase our troop commitment by 200,000 men, there will be significantly higher casualties.

We may want to consider using our men as a “shield” behind which the government of South Vietnam could strengthen itself and permit the ARVN to be strengthened.

Under the present situation, there is a good deal of talk about what the ARVN “will do” but when the crunch is on, when the crunch comes, they look to us for more. When they got into the Tet offensive, Thiêu's statement wasn't what more they could do but that “it is time for more U.S. troops.” There is no easy answer to this.

If we continue with our present policy of adding more troops and increasing our commitment, this policy may lead us into Laos and Cambodia.

The reserve forces in North Vietnam are a cause for concern as well. They have a very substantial population from which to draw. They have no trouble whatever organizing, equipping, and training their forces.

We seem to have a sinkhole. We put in more—they match it. We put in more—they match it.

The South Vietnamese are not doing all they should do.

The Soviets and the Chinese have agreed to keep the North Vietnamese well armed and well supplied.

The Vietcong are now better armed than the ARVN. They have:

better rifles

better training

more sophisticated weapons (mortars, artillery, rockets).

I see more and more fighting with more and more casualties on the U.S. side and no end in sight to the action.

I want to give a whole new look at the whole situation. There is strong unanimity on this. If it were possible, we would want to look at the situation without sending more troops to him. But we should send the 22,000—that is, until a new policy decision is reached. And that 22,000—that will be it until that decision is made.

We can no longer rely just on the field commander. He can want troops and want troops and want troops. We must look at the overall impact on us, including the situation here in the United States. We must look at our economic stability, our other problems in the world, our other problems at home; we must consider whether or not this thing is tieing [sic] us down so that we cannot do some of the other things we should be doing; and finally, we must consider the effects of our actions on the rest of the world—are we setting an example in Vietnam through which other nations would rather not go if they are faced with a similar threat?

It is out of caution and for protection that we recommend these additional forces.

Now the time has come to decide where do we go from here.

I can assure the President that we can reexamine this situation with complete protection to our present position.

We do recommend the following actions:

A callup of reserve units and individuals totaling approximately 262,000 (194,000 in units; 68,000 as individuals).

An increase in the draft calls.

Extension of terms of service.

These actions would produce a total increase in strength in the Armed Forces of approximately 511,000 by June 30, 1969.

This proposal includes 31,600 troops for deployment to South Korea. I would oppose that. It also includes a U.S. navy unit.

If the troops for South Korea and the naval units are disapproved, the figures would be decreased to approximately 242,000 reservists called up and 454,000 total increase in troop strength.

If you do wish to meet the additional troop request, or further demands of Westmoreland you can do it out of this pool of 242,000.

If you did not, the Strategic Reserve would be strengthened by their addition. This would, in the opinion of the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff], put the Strategic Reserve “just about right.”

You need to have that type of reserve in times such as these.

As part and parcel of policy decisions, it is important to have a very clear understanding with the government of South Vietnam. They should know that your eventual decision about more troops and more use of U.S. support depends to a large part on their attitude.

We should tell the South Vietnamese that the General has asked for 200,000 more troops, but we are giving only 25,000. We should let them know that you are delaying your decision until you know what the GVN [South Vietnamese government] will do about:

removal of the poor unit commanders

meaningful steps to eliminate corruption

meeting their own leadership responsibilities

not only saying they will do something, but meaning it as well.

If they are not, we should know it now.

I suggest you allow yourself greater degree of latitude and flexibility. There possibly is another plan which can be utilized. There may be another way to avoid more bloodshed to us, possibly by letting go some areas.

We should consider changing our concept from one of protecting real estate to protecting people. We need to see if these people are really going to take care of themselves eventually. I am not sure we can ever find our way out if we continue to shovel men into Vietnam.

We have looked at all your questions. The answers to each of them are included in the context of the document before you tonight.

We say, for example, that this is not the time to negotiate.

We have spent the last three days trying to reach a consensus. As we sat together and cross-fertilized, we have reached a general consensus on this.

Of course, if we had to vote on sending the straight 200,000 men or no men, we would come out all over the lot … we would be split all over the place.

But we wonder if we are really making progress toward our goal under the plan we have been following.

This is the overall approach we would recommend.

The President: Does this change the tour of duty?

General Wheeler: The tour of duty in Vietnam is not changed. We feel this is an essential reason for the high morale. It is the total length of service which will be lengthened.

The President: Does it affect the man with 4 years' service the same as the draftee?

General Wheeler: Yes, sir. It would apply to all types. Of course, there are some men we would not want to extend.

The President: Have we done this before (extend tours)?

Undersecretary Nitze: Yes, sir. At least twice. At one time, the Secretary of the Navy had the authority to do this. I did it for a period during Vietnam. The Congress took this authority away last year to put it on an equal basis with the other services.

General Wheeler: We did it at the same time of the Berlin airlift. Also during the Cuban missile crisis, I believe.

Secretary Rusk: Mr. President, without a doubt, this will be one of the most serious decisions you will have made since becoming President. This has implications for all of our society.

First, on the review of strategic guidance: we want the Vietnamese to do their full share and be able to survive when we leave. This was one of the things that saved us in Korea. The question is whether substantial additional troops would eventually increase or decrease South Vietnamese strength.

We may very well find that there are equipment factors that would create competition among our new U.S. forces being sent out to Vietnam and the South Vietnamese. Many of us would like to see the ARVN equipped better and supplied with the M-16 rifles.

We must also consider what would happen to our NATO troop policies. To reduce NATO troops is a serious matter indeed.

We have also got to think of what this troop increase would mean in terms of increased taxes, the balance of payments picture, inflation, gold, and the general economic picture.

We should study moving away from the geographic approach of Vietnam strategy to a demographic approach.

On the negotiation front, I wish we had a formula to bring about a peaceful settlement soon. We do not. The negotiation track is quite bleak at the current time….

* * *

Washington, March 5, 1968.

[…]

The President: It … appears we are about to make a rather basic change in the strategy of this war, if:

we tell the ARVN to do more fighting.

we tell them we will give 20,000 men; no more.

we tell them we will do no more until they do more.

we tell them we will be prepared to make additional troop contributions but not unless they “get with it.”

I frankly doubt you will get much out of them unless they have a good coach, the right plays, and the best equipment.

Secretary Rusk: Let's put on a massive helicopter program. We always can use them. There is substantial demand for their use as civilian evacuation. They will be put to good use, no matter what the number….

The President: Yes. Let's also give the South Vietnamese the best equipment we can…. The hawks want the others to put up or shut up.

Document Analysis

This document records conversations between President Johnson and his advisors on March 4 and 5, 1968. During the first meeting on March 4, the advisors present the president with their written proposals. Evidence of this written document appears as Clark Clifford verbally summarizes the proposals: “We recommend in this paper that you meet the requirement for only those forces that may be needed to deal with any exigencies of the next 3–4 months” [emphasis added]. The advantages of using meeting notes as a primary document can be shown by looking at this document in contrast with the written document that the advisors handed their boss on March 4, 1968. The written document would offer the reader a more detailed and comprehensive look at the proposals. On the other hand, it is possible to glean from these meeting notes a summary of the proposals by their chief architects, multiple perspectives exposing the various roles of the different interlocutors, a close look at the functioning of the Johnson administration, and the president's role among his advisors.

The perspectives of the different presidential advisors formulating this proposal covered a wide spectrum. Clark Clifford expresses the differences among them: “Of course, if we had to vote on sending the straight 200,000 men or no men, we would come out all over the lot … we would be split all over the place.” Yet the document is far from a cacophony of varying opinions. Throughout the March 4 meeting (the bulk of the document,) President Johnson takes on the role of questioner. He is receiving the proposal for the first time and limits his contributions to several telling questions. As for the advisors, they were not forced to vote yes or no on sending the 200,000 men as in Clifford's hypothetical, and these meetings were not the time for airing their disagreements. (The speakers put on a united front while presenting their proposals to the president, almost exclusively adopting the pronoun “we” to express the proposal.)

Despite the united front, different roles for the different interlocutors can be discerned. On March 4, 1968, Clark Clifford had been on the job for less than a week, yet he speaks the majority of the dialogue. After Clifford summarizes the plan, the president asks some specific questions; given their technical nature, they are fielded by the military brass Earle Wheeler and Paul Nitze. In a respite after one of these answers, Secretary of State Dean Rusk speaks up. He begins by stating the gravity of the situation, citing the “implications for all of our society.” This may be a reference to President Johnson's domestic achievements and legacy. The shorter text from the March 5 meeting shows Rusk in a slightly different role. In this meeting, the president does the majority of the talking, and Rusk chimes in with an idea to help the president develop his thoughts.

Like Rusk, the President takes on two different roles in the two meetings. After introducing the March 4 meeting, he assumes the role of questioner. Yet the text of his questions exposes his position. His first question, “Westmoreland is asking for 200,000 men, and you are recommending 20,000 or so?” registers surprise. The later technical questions display his concern for details. In the March 5 meeting, he muses aloud about how to put the proposals into place. Secretary Rusk turns the president's sports analogy into a “massive helicopter program.” This suggestion and the president's response offer glimpses of future US policy, as well as other forces at work within this policymaking enterprise.

Essential Themes

The perspectives of the different speakers form, together, a critique of previous US policy. Clark Clifford succinctly summarizes the sentiment: “We are not convinced that our present policy will bring us to that objective [a viable South Vietnam which can live in peace].” He later uses colorful metaphors to reiterate this point: “We seem to have a sinkhole… I am not sure we can ever find our way out if we continue to shovel men into Vietnam.” This skepticism toward prior policy can usefully be read alongside McNamara's sentiments from the previous year (see “No Attractive Course of Action” in the present volume) and against the CIA report from the previous month (see “The Tet Offensive: A CIA Assessment”). As well as a critique of past tactics, the document's occurrence at a crossroads of US policy offers glimpses into the major change in strategy to come. The March 5 meeting, in particular, showcases the imminent increase in the role of helicopters and the switch to local South Vietnamese troops. The latter process, called “Vietnamization,” would be one of the strategies associated with the coming Nixon administration.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barrett, David M. Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisors. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas P, 1993. Print.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. Print.
  • Herring, George C. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1994. Print.
  • VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford U P, 1995. Print.
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