The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Wise Men: Vietnam War

Name given to President Lyndon B. Johnson's senior advisers on Vietnam policy. Hoping to augment his foreign affairs credentials, deflect political criticism, and forge ties with America's foreign policy leadership, Johnson established an informal body of senior advisors that became known as the "Wise Men." They met for the first time in July 1965. Some participants, both past and current officials, had played significant roles in post-World War II policy making. Some were involved in the establishment of the containment policy. The group comprised foreign policy establishment notables. They included Dean Acheson, George W. Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Douglas Dillon, Cyrus Vance, Arthur Dean, John J. McCloy, General Omar Bradley, General Matthew Ridgway, General Maxwell Taylor, Robert Murphy, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Abe Fortas, and Arthur Goldberg.

The "Wise Men" assembled again on November 2, 1965, the day after Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara delivered a personal memorandum to Johnson urging an end to the bombing of North Vietnam. He also urged the curtailment of U.S. military operations in the Republic of Vietnam. He pressed for an examination of ground actions aimed at cutting U.S. losses and placing a greater burden on the South Vietnamese. To McNamara's disappointment, Johnson did not share this memorandum with the "Wise Men." Indeed, with the notable exception of Ball, they all urged Johnson to press ahead with his current program. The group rejected both de-escalation of the war and a Joint Chiefs of Staff proposal for a widened ground war and intensified bombing campaign.

In the wake of the January 1968 Tet Offensive, President Johnson, prompted by Acheson, again summoned the "Wise Men" to the State Department. Briefed on March 25, 1968 the group was shocked to learn the extent of damage that the Communist attacks had done to security and pacification programs in the Vietnamese countryside. Following questions about the killed-to-wounded ratio and the remaining force capacity of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, the gathering was predisposed to admit that the war had taken an unfortunate turn.

The next day at the White House the "Wise Men" met for the last time. The president, Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, General Earle G. Wheeler, Taylor, and Lodge were the only administration figures present. Acheson stated that he no longer believed that the United States could reach its goal by military methods. Instead, he favored measures to facilitate a U.S. withdrawal. Acheson's viewpoint, Bundy told a disappointed Johnson, was held by Dean, Vance, Dillon, and Ball. Only Bradley, Taylor, and Murphy thought the administration should take the counsel of the military leadership. Because a majority warned against further escalation, recourse to nuclear weapons, or expansion of the war, disengagement became the unquestioned alternative. This option Johnson acknowledged only grudgingly.

By the time of the Tet Offensive, Johnson's approval rating had fallen precipitously. And public furor against the war had skyrocketed. Faced with intense political pressure, Johnson decided not to seek re-election in the 1968 presidential elections. On March 31, 1968, Johnson told a stunned nation in a nationally-televised address that he would not accept his party's nomination. And taking heed of the advice of a majority of the "Wise Men," Johnson announced an immediate halt to the bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

Rodney J. Ross

 

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