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The Two Alternatives. Not at all. For ten days, Johnson pondered the project, finally summoned General Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked whether a bombing pause would damage the U.S. military position. "If we maintain our reconnaissance," replied the general, "the military disadvantage will not be that significant." With that, Johnson at last decided to go ahead, and the question became: When? The first opportunity was the Viet Cong-proposed Christmas ceasefire, but the President obviously did not want to dignify the Reds' offer by linking his peace offensive to their initiative. Then came a totally unexpectedand heaven-sentcue: Pope Paul's Christmas appeal to the world for peace in Viet Nam. Along with the other engines of war, the bombers were grounded during the Christmas truce of three daysand when it was over simply never took off again for North Viet Nam. Just as quietly, Johnson's peace ambassadors slipped off on their missions.
Their goal was delicate and tripartite: to clarify once and for all U.S. aims in Viet Nam; to persuade friend and foe alike of the sincerity of Washington's wish for peace in Asia; and to try, through a mobilization of world opinion, to get the message through to Hanoi that an approach to peace was the only sane course for either side. With nearly 200,000 U.S. troops now in Viet Nam, and at least twice as many due to be there by the end of this year, the White House wanted the enemy to understand the simple, stark alternatives: 1) a clear move toward the conference table, or toward a non-negotiated but unmistakable reduction of the fighting, within a relatively short time; or 2) sharply increased military action by the U.S., very likely spilling over into Laos and Cambodia as American troops move to cut off the movement of men and supplies from the north down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
First in the Delta. To make certain that the Communists understood the second point and did not mistake the U.S.'s genuine desire for peace talks for a weakening of its will in the war, the President ordered one further precaution. While the bombers spared North Viet Nam during the period of probing, U.S. forces in South Viet Nam were to step up their thrusts at the Viet Cong.
Step them up they did. Men of the 173rd Airborne swept out in Operation Marauder into the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta, the first U.S. troops to operate in the Delta. Penetrating an area so thoroughly held by the Viet Cong that government troops have not ventured in for six months, they killed 114 V.C. in their first major contact, rooting the enemy out of beehive bunkers built into the mud along the canals.