On Oct. 14, 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had been principally responsible for waging war against the Communists in South Vietnam, threw in the towel. A little over a year before he officially resigned as secretary, he sent a long memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson, artfully admitting that he and his Pentagon had no strategy to end the war on favorable terms for the South Vietnamese.
Johnson quickly turned to others for a new approach. A month after McNamara’s memo, the president asked two aides — Walt Rostow, his national security adviser, and Robert Komer, a National Security Council staff member — to come up with something more effective than McNamara’s tactics of attrition and bombing. Their recommendation, delivered on Dec. 13, 1966, was to “complement our anti-main force campaign and bombing offensive with greatly increased efforts to pacify the countryside and increase the attractive power” of the government of Vietnam. Long before the term became a household word, “Vietnamization” was born.
To put the plan into effect, Johnson chose three men: Ellsworth Bunker to be ambassador in Saigon; Komer to lead a new counterinsurgency organization; and Gen. Creighton Abrams to build up South Vietnam’s military capacity to defeat invading North Vietnamese regulars.
Bunker was to work with the Vietnamese leadership and ensure coordination of all efforts — civil and military, American and Vietnamese nationalist. Komer and Abrams were to be deputies to Gen. William Westmoreland at his headquarters on the outskirts of Saigon.
But it was Bunker whose role Johnson considered most pivotal. It was about more than being America’s top diplomat in South Vietnam. It was about getting America out of the war. “I had gotten him out of the Dominican Republic and accomplished his political objective there,” he told me in an interview. “He wanted me to do the same in South Vietnam.”