To evaluate Westmoreland’s request and its possible impact on domestic politics, Johnson convened the “Clifford Group” on 28 February and tasked its members with a complete policy reassessment. Some of the members argued that the offensive represented an opportunity to defeat the North Vietnamese on American terms while others pointed out that neither side could win militarily, that North Vietnam could match any troop increase, that the bombing of the North be halted, and that a change in strategy was required that would seek not victory, but the staying power required to reach a negotiated settlement. This would require a less aggressive strategy that was designed to protect the population of South Vietnam. The divided group’s final report, issued on 4 March, “failed to seize the opportunity to change directions… and seemed to recommend that we continue rather haltingly down the same road.”
On 1 March Clifford had succeeded McNamara as Secretary of Defense. During the month, Clifford, who had entered office as a staunch supporter of the Vietnam commitment and who had opposed McNamara’s de-escalatory views, turned against the war. According to Clifford: “The simple truth was that the military failed to sustain a respectable argument for their position.” Between the results of Tet and the meetings of the group that bore his name, he became convinced that de-escalation was the only solution for the United States. He believed that the troop increase would lead only to a more violent stalemate and sought out others in the administration to assist him in convincing the President to reverse the escalation, to cap force levels at 550,000 men, to seek negotiations with Hanoi, and turn responsibility for the fighting over to the South Vietnamese. Clifford quietly sought allies and was assisted in his effort by the so-called “8:30 Group” – Nitze, Warnke, Phil G. Goulding (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs), George Elsey, and Air Force Colonel Robert E. Pursely.
On 27 February Secretary of State Dean Rusk had proposed that a partial bombing halt be implemented in North Vietnam and that an offer to negotiate be extended to Hanoi. On 4 March Rusk reiterated the proposal, explaining that, during the rainy season in the North, bombing was less effective and that no military sacrifice would thus occur. This was purely a political ploy, however, since the North Vietnamese would probably again refuse to negotiate, casting the onus on them and “thus freeing our hand after a short period…putting the monkey firmly upon Hanoi’s back for what was to follow.”
While this was being deliberated, the troop request was leaked to the press and published in The New York Times on 10 March. The article also revealed that the request had begun a serious debate within the administration. According to it, many high-level officials believed that the U.S. troop increase would be matched by the communists and would simply maintain a stalemate at a higher level of violence. It went on to state that officials were saying in private that “widespread and deep changes in attitudes, a sense that a watershed has been reached.” A great deal has been said by historians concerning how the news media made Tet the “turning point” in the public’s perception of the war. Popular CBS anchor Walter Cronkite stated during a news broadcast on February 27, “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” and added that, “we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.” Far from suffering a loss of morale, however, the majority of Americans had rallied to the side of the president. A Gallup poll in January 1968 revealed that 56 percent polled considered themselves hawks on the war and 27 percent doves, with 17 percent offering no opinion. By early February, at the height of the first phase of the offensive, 61 percent declared themselves hawks, 23 percent doves, and 16 percent held no opinion. Johnson, however, made few comments to the press during or immediately after the offensive, leaving an impression of indecision on the public. It was this lack of communication that caused a rising disapproval rating for his conduct of the war. By the end of February, his approval rating had fallen from 63 percent to 47 percent. By the end of March the percentage of Americans that expressed confidence in U.S. military policies in Southeast Asia had fallen from 74 to 54 percent.
By 22 March President Johnson had informed Wheeler to “forget the 100,000” men. The President and his staff were refining a lesser version of the troop increase – a planned call-up of 62,000 reservists, 13,000 of whom would be sent to Vietnam. Three days later, at Clifford’s suggestion, Johnson called a conclave of the “Wise Men”. With few exceptions, all of the members of the group had formerly been accounted as hawks on the war. The group was joined by Rusk, Wheeler, Bundy, Rostow, and Clifford. The final assessment of the majority stupefied the group. According to Clifford, “few of them were thinking solely of Vietnam anymore”. All but four members called for disengagement from the war, leaving the President “deeply shaken.” According to the Pentagon Papers, the advice of the group was decisive in convincing Johnson to reduce the bombing of North Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson was depressed and despondent at the course of recent events. The New York Times article had been released just two days before the United States Democratic Party’s New Hampshire primary, where the President suffered an unexpected setback in the election, finishing barely ahead of Senator Eugene McCarthy. Soon afterward, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced he would join the contest for the Democratic nomination, further emphasizing the plummeting support for Johnson’s administration in the wake of Tet.
The President was to make a televised address to the nation on Vietnam policy on 31 March and was deliberating on both the troop request and his response to the military situation. By 28 March Clifford was working hard to convince him to tone down his hard-line speech, maintaining force levels at their present size, and instituting Rusk’s bombing/negotiating proposal. To Clifford’s surprise, both Rusk and Rostow (both of whom had previously been opposed to any form of de-escalation) offered no opposition to Clifford’s suggestions. On 31 March President Johnson announced the unilateral (although still partial) bombing halt during his television address. He then stunned the nation by declining to run for a second term in office. To Washington’s surprise, on 3 April Hanoi announced that it would conduct negotiations, which were scheduled to begin on 13 May in Paris.
On 9 June President Johnson replaced Westmoreland as commander of MACV with General Creighton W. Abrams. Although the decision had been made in December 1967 and Westmoreland was made Army Chief of Staff, many saw his relief as punishment for the entire Tet debacle. Abrams’ new strategy was quickly demonstrated by the closure of the “strategic” Khe Sanh base and the ending of multi-division “search and destroy” operations. Also gone were discussions of victory over North Vietnam. Abrams’ new “One War” policy centered the American effort on the takeover of the fighting by the South Vietnamese (through Vietnamization), the pacification of the countryside, and the destruction of communist logistics. The new administration of President Richard M. Nixon would oversee the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the continuation of negotiations.