The doubts would be presented to the president but in a circuitous fashion. During a February 28, 1968, cabinet meeting President Johnson warned cabinet members that
the big problem is the impression we make with the public. . . . We have to be careful about statements like Westmoreland's when he came back and said that he saw "light at the end of the tunnel." Now we have the shock of this Tet Offensive. Ho Chi Minh never got elected to anything. . . . He is like Hitler in many ways. . . . But we, the President and the Cabinet, are called murderers and they never say anything about Mr. Ho. The signs are all over here. They all say "Stop the War," but you never see any of them over there. Then he launches the Tet attack, breaks the truce and escalates by firing on 44 cities, all at the time that we are offering bombing pause. It is like the country lawyer who made the greatest speech of his life but they electrocuted the client. We are like that now.
February ended with Johnson fighting back. In his first visit to Dallas since President Kennedy's assassination, he announced that the war had reached a critical turning point and said, "I do not believe we will ever buckle." Flying from his ranch near Austin to attend a convention of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the president spoke about the war: "There will be blood, sweat and tears shed. The weak will drop from the lines, their feet sore and their voices loud. Persevere in Vietnam we will and we must. There, too, today, we stand at a turning point."
Johnson would need all the help he could get because he was about to lose Middle America. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite had told a national television audience that the war was stalemated: "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . . For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. Today, that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion."
A television anchorman had declared the war over. After watching the broadcast Johnson concluded, "Cronkite was it."8 But Johnson was wrong. Cronkite mirrored public opinion, he was not ahead of it. The weeks ahead would lead the president's inner circle of advisors and then Lyndon Johnson to the same conclusions. The initial impetus would be pressure to meet General Westmoreland's troop request. Should the nation's reserves be mobilized? The president appointed his new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, to head a task force to evaluate General Westmoreland's request. The president's initial instructions to Clifford were "give me the lesser of evils."
The documents used in this essay are part of the National Security Council history, "The March 31st Speech," at the LBJ Library. The project traces the events