159. Editorial Note
On March 26, 1968, the President met in the Cabinet Room with the Vice President, Secretary of State Rusk, Secretary of Defense Clifford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler, General Creighton Abrams, Special Assistant Walt Rostow, Special Counsel Harry McPherson, and Justice Abe Fortas in a meeting that lasted from 6 to 7:40 p.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) The primary topic of conversation was the situation on the ground in Vietnam, with Wheeler presenting General William Westmoreland’s assessment of it. Wheeler noted that Westmoreland had emphatically stressed that his troops were “doing well” and that their morale was “good.” Westmoreland believed that he could keep on the offensive if he could receive the balance of the Program 5 forces yet to be delivered and necessary support elements for that deployment. He also recommended the stationing of a significant reserve force in Hawaii. Westmoreland also had wanted to clarify that he never had asked for 206,000 men; it had been only one of several packages discussed “in contingency thinking.” Wheeler stated that, based on Westmoreland’s requirements, the force levels in Vietnam would consist of those already in the pipeline comprising the 525,000 ceiling, plus the 11,000 emergency augmentation and the 13,500 support troops. However, if the civilianization program was canceled, the ceiling could increase by an additional 12,500.
In light of this significant augmentation, Wheeler positively assessed the prospects facing Westmoreland in Vietnam: “My feeling is that, with Westy’s present force and when we include in these two brigades and Program V to continue with the addition of these 13,500 support troops, that he was not going to suffer any defeat of any magnitude. Now this does not mean that he may not find it necessary under certain conditions to give up some terrain, temporarily or perhaps even permanently. I don’t foresee that he will have to do that, but he might. We have a powerful force out there and if it is well-balanced, and if he has adequate air and unless the enemy reinforces quite substantially—I would even say more than the two divisions that we have been talking about—Westmoreland with the Army should be able to take care of the situation.”
At the President’s request, Abrams speculated on what would happen in the near future: “I would predict that they will continue to send replacements down in order to maintain the structure that they’ve got in the next few months, in the next two or three or four months, to try to keep the pressures off the urban and rural areas and with the structure they’ve got, they may reinforce it by bringing some other units down.” But he noted that the South Vietnamese military “was going to [Page 476] get better and better and that we were going to stand up to them more and more.” Abrams later offered a personal comment: “One thing, Mr. President, I would like to tell you. I know there is a lot of dying men out there. But you should know about me. I had made up my mind several years ago whether I would continue serving in the Army with all this business and I decided there was something worse than being dead. I thought I would put up with it. I don’t like it but it’s worth it.” (Ibid., Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room)