Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a short series before the documentary series The Vietnam War (directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) premieres this Sunday. Do not miss Part I and Part II.
In the popular memory, the “Vietnam war at home” is usually remembered roughly like this: As the war continued, mounting anti-war protests turned the public against the war, forcing the government to reverse course and start withdrawing U.S. troops.
That narrative validates the myths of both sides in the Vietnam debate. For opponents of the war, it’s a celebration of success in a worthy cause. For the war’s supporters, it verifies their belief that long-haired college kids and disloyal intellectuals, not mistaken policy or bad leadership, kept Americans from winning a justified war.
History, though, tells a different story about America’s change of course from escalation to disengagement.
In February and March 1968, as the Tet Offensive raged in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson received two dramatic messages — one in public, one in private — pressing him to rethink his war policy.
The public message came from New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary, where voters gave unexpected support (though not victory) to Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who campaigned against the war. The private message was from charter members of the Cold War establishment: Johnson’s own defense secretary Clark Clifford, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, retired World War II generals Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgway, and others of similar stature. Those were the so-called “Wise Men” who told Johnson that a satisfactory outcome in Vietnam was out of reach, and that by continuing a vain effort they would hurt, not harm, larger American interests in the world.
Both messages pointed in the same direction as the peace movement’s call for a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, but it is misleading to give anti-war activists primary credit for either one.
In New Hampshire, though McCarthy’s campaign was strongly identified with the anti-war movement, a large number of his voters actually favored more military action, not less. Their votes were a protest against Johnson’s conduct of the war, not against its moral or strategic justifications. They were telling the president to “win or get out” — quite a different message from the protesters’ unqualified demand to “get out.”
Meanwhile, the Wise Men were concluding that winning was an unattainable goal. Declining public support for the war was one factor in their change of heart. But that does not mean that men like Clifford, Acheson, and Bradley were turned from hawks to doves by demonstrators shouting slogans on college campuses.
In a meeting with Johnson a couple of weeks after the New Hampshire primary, all but three of the 14 Cold Warriors in the room endorsed Dean Acheson’s advice to the president: “We 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.”
Historians agree that that meeting was a crucial moment in Johnson’s switch from escalation to disengagement. Less than a week later, in one of history’s most dramatic presidential speeches, he announced a partial halt to U.S. bombing in North Vietnam, called for immediate peace negotiations, and ended his campaign for reelection. From then on, slowly and haltingly but without significant deviation, America’s leaders sought a way out of the Vietnam morass. The peace movement played a role in that change of direction, but contrary to popular myth, it was not the decisive or the only cause.
As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Arnold R. Isaacs covered both the war in Vietnam and the antiwar protests at home. He is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, and From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America. Isaacs lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Image: Library of Congress