During the first two weeks of February, Generals Westmoreland and Wheeler communicated as to the necessity for reinforcements or troop increases in Vietnam. Westmoreland insisted that he only needed those forces either in-country or already scheduled for deployment and he was puzzled by the sense of unwarranted urgency in Wheeler’s queries. Westmoreland was tempted, however, when Wheeler emphasized that the White House might loosen restraints and allow operations in Laos, Cambodia, or possibly even North Vietnam itself. On 8 February, Westmoreland responded that he could use another division “if operations in Laos are authorized”. Wheeler responded by challenging Westmoreland’s assessment of the situation, pointing out dangers that his on-the-spot commander did not consider palpable, concluding: “In summary, if you need more troops, ask for them.”
Wheeler’s bizarre promptings were influenced by the severe strain imposed upon the U.S. military by the Vietnam commitment, one which had been undertaken without the mobilization of its reserve forces. The Joint Chiefs had repeatedly requested national mobilization, not only to prepare for a possible intensification of the war, but also to ensure that the nation’s strategic reserve did not become depleted. By obliquely ordering Westmoreland to demand more forces, Wheeler was attempting to solve two pressing problems. In comparison with MACV’s previous communications, which had been full of confidence, optimism, and resolve, Westmoreland’s 12 February request for 10,500 troops was much more urgent: “which I desperately need… time is of the essence.” On 13 February, 10,500 previously authorized U.S. airborne troops and marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs then played their hand, advising President Johnson to turn down MACV’s requested division-sized reinforcement unless he called up some 1,234,001 marine and army reservists.
Johnson dispatched Wheeler to Saigon on 20 February to determine military requirements in response to the offensive. Both Wheeler and Westmoreland were elated that in only eight days McNamara would be replaced by the hawkish Clark Clifford and that the military might finally obtain permission to widen the war. Wheeler’s written report of the trip, however, contained no mention of any new contingencies, strategies, or the building up the strategic reserve. It was couched in grave language that suggested that the 206,756-man request it proposed was a matter of vital military necessity. Westmoreland wrote in his memoir that Wheeler had deliberately concealed the truth of the matter in order to force the issue of the strategic reserve upon the President.
On 27 February, Johnson and McNamara discussed the proposed troop increase. To fulfill it would require an increase in overall military strength of about 400,000 men and the expenditure of an additional $10 billion during fiscal 1969 and another $15 billion in 1970. These monetary concerns were pressing. Throughout the fall of 1967 and the spring of 1968, the U.S. was struggling with “one of the most severe monetary crises” of the period. Without a new tax bill and budgetary cuts, the nation would face even higher inflation “and the possible collapse of the monetary system”. Johnson’s friend Clifford was concerned about what the American public would think of the escalation: “How do we avoid creating the feeling that we are pounding troops down a rathole?”
According to the Pentagon Papers, “A fork in the road had been reached and the alternatives stood out in stark reality.” To meet Wheeler’s request would mean a total U.S. military commitment to South Vietnam. “To deny it, or to attempt to cut it to a size which could be sustained by the thinly stretched active forces, would just as surely signify that an upper limit to the U.S. military commitment in South Vietnam had been reached.”