The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Earle G. Wheeler

U.S. Army general, chief of staff (1962-1964), and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) (1964-1970). Born in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1908, Earle "Bus" Wheeler enlisted in the District of Columbia National Guard at age sixteen and reached the rank of sergeant before entering the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated from West Point in 1932, was commissioned in the infantry, and served with the 15th Infantry in Tianjin, China, from 1937 to 1938.

In 1940 Wheeler returned to West Point as a mathematics instructor. During the first half of World War II, he trained infantry units in the United States. In December 1944 he went to Europe as chief of staff of the 63d Infantry Division. Wheeler was selected to lead an assault regiment against Hitler's headquarters in the Bavarian Alps, but the war ended just as the operation was to begin.

A protégé of General Maxwell Taylor, Wheeler was a full general by 1962. That March he became deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, and seven months later he was named chief of staff of the Army. When Taylor retired as chairman of the JCS in June 1964 to become ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, wheeler succeeded him.

Wheeler had good political relations with Congress, particularly with Senators John Stennis and Henry Jackson. He was fairly close to President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he had a reputation as a skillful player of the Pentagon's game under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's rules. Nonetheless, as the war progressed, wheeler was increasingly overshadowed by McNamara and his systems analysis "whiz kids." As chairman, Wheeler worked hard to smooth over dissenting opinions or "splits" in JCS recommendations. He believed these opened the door for interference by McNamara and his assistants, resulting in civilians making military decisions they were not qualified to make. Even though there was a wide difference of opinion within the JCS on the air war strategy, Wheeler convinced all the chiefs to go along with it on the basis that they all agreed it was at least worth a try. Wheeler's approach did not work. Unanimity did not produce greater JCS influence, and McNamara increasingly made military decisions to a far greater degree than any of his predecessors.

As American involvement in the war grew, the JCS recognized the widening discrepancy between the total force needed to meet worldwide U.S. commitments and the manpower base the political leadership was willing to support. In August 1965 Wheeler and the chiefs proposed an overall strategy for American military operations in Vietnam that centered around three tasks: (1) forcing Hanoi to "cease and desist" in the South; (2) defeating the Viet Cong in the South; and (3) deterring China from intervening. To support the strategy and to rebuild the depleted strategic reserve at home, the JCS urged at least a limited call-up of reserve forces.

The chiefs continually pressed for the adoption of this overall strategy throughout the war, but their recommendations were never fully accepted. On the other hand, they could clearly see where McNamara's strategy of piecemeal force and graduated response would lead. Wheeler once commented, "Whatever the political merits of [graduated response], we deprived ourselves of the military effects of early weight of effort and shock, and gave the enemy time to adjust to our slow quantitative and qualitative increase of pressure."

As the American war effort grew, seemingly without end, frustration also grew among the JCS. In the fall of 1967 the chiefs even considered resigning en masse in protest over the reserve mobilization issue. Despite their frustration, however, Wheeler and the other chiefs failed in one of their most important responsibilities. Even though their own strategy recommendations were being ignored, they never once directly advised the president that the ad hoc strategy being pursued was sure to fail. Explaining (but not excusing) this glaring failure, General Bruce Palmer suggested that the chiefs were too imbued with the military's characteristic "can-do" attitude, and they did not want to appear disloyal or to be openly challenging civilian authority.

The 1968 Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh brought about the psychological turning point of the war. They also marked a historical low point in the relations between America's military leaders and their civilian superiors. President Johnson became obsessed with Khe Sanh. Haunted by the specter of Dienbienphu, he had a terrain model of the Khe Sanh base constructed for the White House situation room. Johnson spent evenings, sitting in his bathrobe, reading teletype traffic from the field and studying aerial photographs. In one of the most demeaning demands ever placed on military leaders by a U.S. president, Johnson insisted that Wheeler and the chiefs sign a formal declaration of their belief in General William Westmoreland's ability to hold Khe Sanh. In making his demand, the president told Wheeler, "I don't want any damn Dinbinphoo."

Immediately after the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland remained confident, and Wheeler strongly encouraged the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) commander to request more troops. Wheeler apparently hoped that another large commitment of forces to Vietnam would finally force Johnson to mobilize the reserves. At that point in the war, the members of the JCS were alarmed over America's worldwide strategic posture. The only combat-ready division outside of Vietnam was the 82d Airborne Divisionóand even one of its three brigades was on its way to Vietnam. The once-proud Seventh Army in Europe had been reduced to little more than a replacement holding pool. The chiefs believed the reserve call-up was necessary to restore the military's global strategic posture.

On February 23, 1968 Wheeler flew to Saigon to confer with Westmoreland. The two generals developed a request for an additional 206,000 troops. Once back in Washington, however, Wheeler presented the proposal as if Westmoreland were on the verge of defeat unless he was rapidly reinforced. When a member of the White House staff leaked the story to the New York Times, it was presented in just those terms. Unfortunately, Wheeler, who had actually maneuvered Westmoreland into making the request in the first place, did little to set the record straight.

From that point on, Wheeler's influence declined even more.

Although he continued to attend all high-level white House meetings on Vietnam, Wheeler's advice was virtually ignored. Oddly enough, Johnson in July 1968 requested and received congressional approval to extend Wheeler's tenure as JCS chairman for another year. When Richard M. Nixon became president, he too requested another one-year extension. Nixon, however, also did not heed the military advice of Wheeler and the chiefs.

Wheeler retired on July 2, 1970. The stress and frustration of those years led to several heart attacks and ruined his health. Wheeler died in Frederick, Maryland, on December 18, 1975. One positive legacy of the Wheeler years was the lesson of JCS unanimity. Under one of the provisions of the much-heralded 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act, the chairman of the JCS is now required to report all dissenting opinions to the president, and the dissenting service chief is both allowed and obligated to state his views.

David T. Zabecki

 

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