155. Editorial Note

On March 25, 1968, members of the group informally known as the “Wise Men” assembled at the Department of State for a series of presentations on Vietnam. The following senior U.S. statesmen made up this body: former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the President’s former Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, former Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, Representative to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg, former Under Secretary of State George Ball, retired Generals Matthew Ridgway and Omar Bradley, Special Consultant to the President Maxwell Taylor, Justice Abe Fortas, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Murphy, Ambassador at Large Henry Cabot Lodge, former High Commissioner of Germany John McCloy, and Arthur Dean, who had been involved in the Korean war peace negotiations.

The group dined at 7:30 p.m. with Secretary of State Rusk, Secretary of Defense Clifford, Ambassador at Large Harriman, General John P. McConnell, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Bundy, and Special Assistant Walt Rostow. Over dinner, the Wise Men listened to Clifford’s discussion of the overall situation in Vietnam. Clifford outlined the three choices that the United States faced: an expansion of the war effort, “muddling along” by continuing the current policy, or reducing the U.S. role by cutting back the bombing and curtailing ground operations. Following dinner, the Wise Men went to the Operations Center, where they received three formal briefings. (Johnson Library, Dean Rusk Appointment Books, 1968) A schedule for the Wise Men meetings is in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Nitze Papers, Vietnam War—Courses of Action—Post Paris Talks, 1967–1968.

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The first briefing was by Major General William DePuy, Special Assistant to the Joint Chiefs for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities, who described the post-Tet military outlook in encouraging terms but was assailed by Goldberg in the following exchange, as later recalled by Clifford: “What, Goldberg asked, was the normal ratio of wounded to killed? A three-to-one ratio among the Vietnamese would be a conservative estimate, DePuy answered. How many ‘effectives’—regular soldiers—do you think they now have, Goldberg asked. Perhaps 230,000, maybe 240,000, said DePuy. Well, said Goldberg, with 80,000 killed and a wounded ratio of three to one, that makes about 320,000 men killed or wounded. ‘Who the hell is there left for us to be fighting?’ he asked.” See Clifford, Counsel to the President, page 513.

The next briefer was less hopeful. George Carver, top adviser to Richard Helms on Vietnamese affairs, discussed pacification and enemy strength, noting that the problems facing the civil side of the war effort would prove more difficult than expected to overcome. The most pessimistic assessment came from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Philip Habib. He portrayed the political situation in South Vietnam as extremely dire and military victory as unachievable; he advocated negotiations preceded by a bombing halt.

By the time the meeting ended at 11 p.m., the majority of the Wise Men favored de-escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. No record of the meeting has been found, but it is described in detail in The Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, pages 591–593; see also George Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern (New York: Norton, 1982), pages 407–409; Walter Issacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), page 700; Herbet Y. Schandler, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam: The Unmaking of a President (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pages 259–261; Maxwell Taylor, Swords and Plowshares (New York: Norton, 1972), page 390; Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War (New York: Norton, 1989), pages 194–195; Douglas Brinkley, Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953–1971 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), page. 260; and Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995), pages 451–453.