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The Politics of War

[TIME for August 23, 1968]

(TIME, August 23, 1968) -- The Democratic Party this week has to face up to the task of formulating a credible campaign policy on Vietnam. But which Democratic Party? And which policy?

Lyndon Johnson's loyalists can hardly be expected to suggest that the war has, after all, been a mistake, or to conjure up a speedy solution after so many years of searching for one. Hubert Humphrey's adherents, while professing residual loyalty to Johnson's policies, must at the same time proffer some hope for an early and tenable peace. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, though nominally rivals, will continue to urge approximately similar terms for ending the war posthaste.

All approaches are clouded by the enigmatic status of the war itself. No one, from Paris to Washington to Saigon, can say with any certitude at this point whether the recent reduction of military activity in South Vietnam represented a planned de- escalation by Hanoi of whether it presages yet another all-out offensive.

The prevailing, but by no means unanimous, view within the Administration is that Hanoi is merely regrouping and re- equipping its forces in preparation for a new assault. This has been the history of previous lulls -- and "lull" is a relative term. Fierce fighting continues, and at the end of last week Communist-initiated ground action was accelerating. U.S. military commanders in Vietnam, pointing to the massive infiltration of troops (150,000 so far this year) from the North, believe that the big attack will come any day and that the main thrust will be aimed at Saigon itself.

Accepting this premise, the White House, along with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, has been in no mood to yield to the North Vietnamese demand that the U.S. halt all bombing of the North as the price of advancing the Paris negotiations. Rather, Washington insists that Hanoi make some parallel gesture. "All they have to do," said Defense Secretary Clark Clifford last week, "is get word to us that they have reduced the level of combat and will continue to reduce the level of combat, and that that constitutes a de-escalation step." What Washington wants is private or public assurances from Hanoi to the effect that it intends to reduce, or at least not increase, its war effort. Barring that, some concrete evidence, such as a reduction in infiltration, could be taken as a token of good faith. To date, Clifford pointed out, there has been no recognizable "clear signal."

One Little Note. Some other officials take a less rigid stand. Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance, the U.S. negotiators in Paris, think that the time may be at hand to try a bombing pause. Humphrey, too, in private Administration deliberations, has been arguing for a pause. He is inclined to take the lull at face value, to accept it as a pacific gesture of sufficient weight to justify a bombing suspension. In public, of course, he cannot break with the Johnson Administration. Yet Humphrey clearly is continuing to edge toward a more conciliatory position, in the process attempting to come out on the left of Richard Nixon.

Early last week the Vice President insisted on voicing "one little note of optimism" about the course of the Paris talks. The discussions, he said, "are at a serious stage." Then the conferees held their 17th formal session in three months and made no visible progress whatever. Harriman, in exasperation, demanded of North Vietnam's Xuan Thuy how long he would have to go on "listening to the phrase, `The U.S. must unconditionally cease the bombing and all other acts of war over the entire territory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in order, thereafter, to discuss questions of interest to both parties.'" Thuy responded by using "The Phrase," as U.S. negotiators call it, half a dozen times over. In a later press briefing, a Hanoi spokesman parroted the words a score of times, adding the dig that eventually "Mr. Harriman will hear this demand with both his ears." Harriman, 76, is hard of hearing in both ears.

Medium Soft. Lack of progress at the latest Paris round did not faze Humphrey. He continued to talk up the possibility of making headway. He pointedly discarded the words "reciprocal" and "reciprocity" to describe what is wanted of Hanoi, talked instead of "restraint or any reasonable response." While Clifford was repeating the argument that an end to the bombing would further endanger U.S. lives, Humphrey observed. "If stopping the bombing can aid peace negotiations, than that helps protect the men."

Thus Humphrey could live happily with a medium-soft Vietnam platform plank, one that inches further toward conciliation than the Administration has thus far been willing to go, but stops considerably short of actually repudiating Johnson's Vietnam policy, as some Administration critics demand. Such balanced language would, in fact, help the Vice President establish his independence of the Administration in the fall campaign. There will likely be resistance from more militant members of the Platform Committee, such as Hale Boggs of Louisiana, Lyndon Johnson's hand-picked chairman, and perhaps from some delegates on the convention floor. Far more adamant opposition is to be expected from the antiwar followers of McCarthy and McGovern.

Both rebel Senators want an outright and immediate end to the bombing. They favor strong U.S. pressure on Saigon to form a coalition government that would include the National Liberation Front. While neither has declared for unilateral withdrawal of American forces now, McGovern came close to that by saying that "as our fighting men complete their tours, I would not replace them." This would begin the evacuation almost immediately. [Most soldiers serve for twelve months, Marines for 13. U.S. strength in South Vietnam is now 543,000, and the President has approved the dispatch of 6,500 more troops to reach the maximum authorized of 549,000.] Of the two, McCarthy seems more determined to wage a stubborn platform fight regardless of its effects on the party. He has also re-opened the possibility of his joining a postconvention fourth party movement. McGovern, in contrast, has pledged to support the Democratic nominee, whatever the Vietnam plank.

Valuable Option. McCarthy has already launched a broadside on Humphrey's attempts to articulate an independent position on Vietnam. "The Vice President," he said, "is proceeding to take almost every possible position, which is not very different from the Nixon position." Actually, Nixon, by merely promising that a Republican Administration can end the war on honorable terms, has left himself the valuable option of attacking whichever Democratic candidate or position emerges from Chicago, and in terms relevant to the state of the war a couple of weeks from now.

That state will largely be up to the Communists to determine. Among those U.S. officials who think an enemy strike is imminent, there is much speculation as to Hanoi's motives. Some believe that North Vietnam hopes to strengthen the U.S. peace movement by demonstrating the futility of American arms in Southeast Asia. Yet if a major offensive occurs in the midst of the Democrats' platform dispute or during the convention itself, it will doubtless undercut the McCarthy-McGovern argument. Not many politicians would opt for a U.S. stepdown in the midst of a Communist step-up.

It is also possible that the Communists are merely feinting, going through the motions of preparing a new assault while betting that the Johnson Administration will back down on the bombing issue. According to this reverse psychology, a suspension of the air war in the North would give the Communists an inducement not to attack by showing they could gain their goals without additional heavy losses. And despite the President's seeming determination not to take another one-sided move to notch down the war, his time in office is fast slipping away, and he is all the more eager to achieve some demonstrable move toward a settlement.

Finally, it is possible that Hanoi is simply watching and waiting for U.S. politics to take its course. Unless the North Vietnamese came to believe that the U.S. was about to take a markedly more militant stand after the election, they would have little reason to compromise in Paris before they read the November returns.

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