It was only three months ago that the lethal little men in black pajamas roamed the length and breadth of South Viet Nam marauding, maiming and killing with impunity. No highway was safe by night, and few by day; the trains had long since stopped running. From their tunneled redoubts, the Communist Viet Cong held 65% of South Viet Nam's land and 55% of its people in thrall. Saigon's armies were bone weary and bleeding from defections. As the momentum of their monsoon offensive gathered, the Communists seemed about to cut the nation in half with a vicious chop across the Central Highlands. The enemy was ready to move in for the kill, and South Viet Nam was near collapse.
Today South Viet Nam throbs with a pride and power, above all an esprit, scarcely credible against the summer's somber vista. Government desertion rates have plummeted and recruitment is up, and it is now the Communists who are troubled with rising defections. Some roads are being reopened for the first time in years, and the much-vaunted Viet Cong plan to move into their mass-attack "third phase" is now no more than a bedraggled dream.
The remarkable turnabout in the war is the result of one of the swiftest, biggest military buildups in the history of warfare. Everywhere today South Viet Nam bustles with the U.S. presence. Bulldozers by the hundreds carve sandy shore into vast plateaus for tent cities and airstrips. Howitzers and trucks grind through the once-empty green highlands. Wave upon wave of combat-booted Americanslean, laconic and looking for a fightpour ashore from armadas of troopships. Day and night, screaming jets and prowling helicopters seek out the enemy from their swampy strongholds in southernmost Camau all the way north to the mountain gates of China. The Viet Cong's once-cocky hunters have become the cowering hunted as the cutting edge of U.S. fire power slashes into the thickets of Communist strength. If the U.S. has not yet guaranteed certain victory in South Viet Nam, it has nonetheless undeniably averted certain defeat. As one top-ranking U.S. officer put it: "We've stemmed the tide."
"We Will Stand." It was late July when the President of the U.S. summoned his aides to a three-day secret session to deliberate Viet Nam. Just back from Saigon was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara with the grim prognosis of peril. When Johnson announced his decision, it was the most significant for American foreign policy since the Korean War: "We will stand in Viet Nam." To stand meant in fact that the U.S. would go to Viet Nam in overwhelming force and stay until the job was done. Why? "If we are driven from the field in Viet Nam," the President told the nation and the world, "then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise or in American protection."
By then, 75,000 American servicemen already were present in South Viet Nam or pledged to go. The President promised 50,000 more by the end of this year, and the promise was soon outstripped by the deed. The 50,000 were on the scene by mid-Septemberand they just kept coming. Today the total is 145,000, and it will pass 200,000 by New Year's Day. Target by next summer: 280,000.