Westmoreland on the Vietnam War

Westmoreland on the Vietnam War

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On April 28, 1967, Gen. operations in Vietnam, describes to a joint session of Congress the challenges of fighting a relentless enemy.

Book Review: Westmoreland’s War

Addressing the seemingly dogged entanglement in South Vietnam with General William Westmoreland, Brig. Gen. Willard Holbrook Jr. advised the incoming chief of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to avoid being made a scapegoat “for a situation for which there may be no solution.” Holbrook’s counsel proved prescient. Westmoreland, perhaps more than any other figure, has become virtually synonymous with America’s failure in Vietnam.

Yet what if Westmoreland was in fact a good general burdened with a bad war? Colonel Gregory A. Daddis explores that question in Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam.

Most critics of American military strategy in Vietnam argue that Westmoreland and the U.S. Army, hopelessly wedded to conventional war, expressed little interest in counterinsurgency warfare and failed to comprehend the sociopolitical, post-colonial context of Communist-inspired “national wars of liberation.”

Daddis demonstrates that neither charge is accurate. Army officers in the 1950s frequently read Mao Zedong writings on revolutionary warfare. Later, as the United States shifted its strategic focus to Southeast Asia, students in the Army school system studied Mao, Vo Nguyen Giap and French counterinsurgency expert David Gulua. Moreover, during Westmoreland’s time as superintendent at West Point (1960-63), he insisted that counterinsurgency instruction be added to the core curriculum. These courses emphasized the role of political and social reform in countering insurgencies.

The author makes clear that when Westmoreland assumed command in 1964, he did it with the understanding that the conduct of the war would differ from campaigns he had waged as a battalion and regimental commander in World War II and Korea. The war “is political because the ultimate goal is to regain the loyalty and cooperation of the people,” the MACV chief noted in 1965, “and to create conditions which permit the people to go about their normal lives in peace and security.”

Plainly Westmoreland, contrary to claims that he relied on body counts as the principal metric for success in the field, recognized that a strategy based entirely on killing the enemy would not secure victory.

Daddis, a veteran of operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom who is teaching at West Point, details the broadly conceived, carefully considered military strategy Westmoreland proposed to counter the threat from North Vietnam with U.S. forces, train the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) and promote “pacification” programs that used military, political, social and economic means to uproot the Viet Cong presence around the country and extend the South Vietnamese government’s control.

Sensitive to cultural considerations, Westmoreland initially thought it best to assign the delicate task of pacification to indigenous forces. The sheer size of the enemy threat, however, prompted greater ARVN participation in the war waged with big units. Responsibility for securing the population thus fell more heavily on South Vietnam’s territorial forces, which never managed to wrest control of the countryside from the Viet Cong.

ARVN units, crippled by corruption, ineffectual leadership and poor morale, sometimes mistreated the civilians they were asked to protect. Nor was the U.S. Army always above reproach in its treatment of the civilian population. Even in areas where the allies “got it right,” political support for the South Vietnamese government did not necessarily follow.

Frustratingly, the South Vietnamese government made only modest strides behind the main-force shield American units struggled to erect.

“Despite its power,” Daddis writes, “the U.S. mission in Vietnam could not simultaneously create an army, build a nation and fight a war.”

Masterfully explaining the MACV and the intricacies of modern command, Westmoreland’s War is revisionist scholarship at its best and a reminder that a sound military strategy can only achieve so much in the service of an otherwise flawed grand strategy.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.

William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War

William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem. Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly there was no slouching for Westy. A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted. He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68). His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.

I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend. (Thanks, Paul!) Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.

  1. Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
  2. Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
  3. Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought). He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance. He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
  4. Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
  5. Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.

Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel. Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division. Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.

Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex. Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.” He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions. For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.

Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism. When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count. (Kinnard refused.)

Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that. Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail. Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam. Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964. He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]

McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.” In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”

Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed? Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”

What was that larger purpose? I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago. Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors. Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace. Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.

Crazy: General Westmoreland initiated plan to use nukes in Vietnam

Recently, the New York Times ran an extraordinary article about the Vietnam War.

In it were facts that have only recently come to light and illustrate exactly how frustrated the American military and political leadership were with the war and each other.

This news was that General William Westmoreland, overall American military commander in Vietnam from 1968-1972, activated a plan to move and potentially use nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese.

Recently declassified documents show that Westmoreland was increasingly nervous about the outcome of the siege of Khe Sanh, one of the biggest and longest battles of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

In the end the engagement, which lasted from January to June 1968, proved indecisive. The Vietnamese communists failed to dislodge the Americans from their strategic base, and US forces withdrew from the area voluntarily after the siege had been lifted.

National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow showing President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area, 15 February 1968

In many ways, Khe Sanh was the Vietnam War in a nutshell: the US inflicted dire losses on the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies, and the Vietnamese were able to engage the Americans in a long prolonged conflict with no clear ending.

Sanh, especially its conclusion, sapped already poor American support for the war at home, and crushed American morale in the field.

An Army 175-mm M107 at Camp Carroll provides fire support for ground forces.

At the time Westmoreland began to act on his ideas, however, the siege was still going on, and not going well for the United States.

People all over the world were comparing Khe Sanh to the French defeat in North Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which essentially put an end to French rule in Southeast Asia.

A burning fuel dump after a mortar attack at Khe Sanh

Khe Sanh began nine days before the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong Tet Offensive, which signaled to many in the West that the Vietnamese War was lost, despite victory on the field. As the siege at Khe Sanh went on, that feeling only grew.

Marine Corps sniper team searches for targets in the Khe Sanh Valley

Westmoreland and the Johnson Administration were worried that a clear North Vietnamese victory at Khe Sanh would put yet another nail in the coffin of American involvement in Southeast Asia, and would cause even greater protest against the war in the United States.

To that end, Westmoreland put in place a contingency plan – one that Johnson did not know about.

3/4 Marines memorial service at Khe Sanh Combat Base

Named “Operation Fracture Jaw,” the plan called for the movement of nuclear weapons from American bases in the Pacific and the United States to Vietnam in case of defeat at Khe Sanh.

On February 10, 1968, Westmoreland communicated with Admiral Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific and told him that “Oplan Fracture Jaw has been approved by me.”

Fracture Jaw operation

Westmoreland also communicated with other generals, such as General Earle Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they discussed implementing “Fracture Jaw” as soon as possible, if circumstances warranted.

Combat on Hill 875, the most intense of the battles around Dak To.

As often happens in Washington, there was a leak, and the National Security adviser to President Johnson found out about the “Fracture Jaw” discussions. Of course, he notified Lyndon Johnson right away.

Note from white house Fracture Jaw

Johnson had grown exceedingly suspicious of the military as the Vietnam War went on, and with good reasons. Among them were the constant promises of victory, followed by requests for billions of more dollars to win the war.

When Johnson found out about “Fracture Jaw” he was furious, and immediately issued an order to Westmoreland that left no room for misunderstanding.

General Westmoreland with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, November 1967.

“Discontinue all planning for Fracture Jaw”, read the first point of Johnson’s cable to the general. The other three points stressed the importance of secrecy regarding this incident and all planning of this type:

“Debrief all personnel with access to this planning project that there can be no disclosure of the content of the plan or knowledge that such planning was either underway or suspended” and “Security of this action and prior activity must be air tight [sic].”

Discontinue Fracture Jaw

That was the last anyone heard of “Fracture Jaw” until these documents were recently declassified.

Press conference outside the White House in April 1968.Secretary of State Dean Rusk, General William Westmoreland, President Lyndon B. Johnson, others in background.

Before the Cold War ended, many Americans wondered why the Soviet Union and China prepared for an American first nuclear strike. They told themselves, “We’re not the aggressive ones.

If anyone starts a nuclear war, it will be the Communists.” Unfortunately, both sides had reasons to be suspicious of each other, and looking at the situation solely from the Soviets’ perspective, history would seem to bear out their idea that the Americans might strike first with nuclear weapons.

The United States is the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons in war. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs put an end to World War II.

The point here is not whether the US was justified in their use or not, but that America had–and used–nukes first.

Westmoreland in Vietnam.

After three years and thousands of deaths in Korea, incoming US President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the veiled threat of American nuclear attack to bring the Communists to the negotiating table.

In 1962, John Kennedy went on television to let the American public, and incidentally the Soviets, know that any strike coming from Cuba against the United States would be considered an attack by the USSR on the USA.

We learned much later that the Cubans, much to the Soviets’ chagrin, were prepared to take over Soviet tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba to repel an American invasion.

October 23, 1962: President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba.

In 1981, President-elect Ronald Reagan let it be known by back-channels that he would consider using nuclear weapons to end the Iran Hostage Crisis. On the day Reagan took office, the hostages were released.

The release of the “Fracture Jaw” information has already been blared in headlines in the Russia Times this week, as the new “Cold War” continues.

William Westmoreland

Despite a stellar career as a U.S. Army officer, General William Childs Westmoreland is, unfortunately, best remembered for prevaricating about the situations surrounding the Vietnam War. Criticized for giving positive assessments of worsening conditions in Vietnam, he was ridiculed by the public and media for deliberately deceiving President Lyndon B. Johnson, to maintain support of the war. Early years Westmoreland was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, on March 26, 1914, to a prosperous textile manufacturer. He was graduated from West Point in 1936 at its highest cadet rank of first captain. During World War II, Westmoreland commanded artillery battalions in Sicily and North Africa. Later, he became Chief of Staff of the Ninth Infantry Division. Shortly after his promotion, he married Katherine S. Van Deusen in 1947. The couple had three children. Westmoreland commanded the 187th Airborne Infantry in The Korean War, was commander of the 101st Airborne Division and, at the age of 42, became the youngest major general in the United States Army. Westmoreland in Vietnam In 1960, Westmoreland was named superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In June 1964, he was promoted to senior military commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. He was instrumental in increasing the number of U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War. In 1965, Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of “search and destroy." The objective was to find and then kill members of the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong. U.S. soldiers found the order difficult to obey. "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike," said a marine captain. Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As another marine officer admitted, “They were usually counted as enemy dead under the unwritten rule, 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'." Westmoreland was determined to avoid a repeat of the disaster suffered by the French Army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. He ordered military operations to be carried out by units of no fewer than 750 men. In September 1967, the Vietcong launched a series of attacks on U.S. combat units. That was what Westmoreland had hoped for. Now, at last, the NLF was engaging in open warfare. By the end of 1967, Westmoreland reported that the rebels had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the Vietcong would be unable to replenish those kinds of numbers and that the end of the war was near. Tet Offensive The Vietnamese people pay tribute to their ancestors on Tet, their most sacred holiday of the year. In 1968, unknown to upper U.S. military officials, the NLF had celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. On the evening of January 31, 1968, about 85,000 members of the NLF launched a series of coordinated surprise attacks on more than 100 cities, villages, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the U.S. troops in September had been to lure army units away from the cities. The Vietcong even assaulted the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the embassy compound and kill five U.S. Marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon's main radio station. They captured the building and, although they only held it for a few hours, the event stunned the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat, but now the enemy was strong and brazen enough to take control of important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another upsetting factor was that, even with the large losses of 1967, the Vietcong could still send 85,000 men into battle. The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed, compared to 1,100 Americans and 2,800 South Vietnamese. However, it illustrated that the NLF had the resolve to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams shortly after requesting an additional 200,000 men. After Vietnam William served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1968 until his retirement in 1972. He then decided to run for governor of South Carolina in 1974, but lost. One year later, Westmoreland published his autobiography, A Soldier Reports. The former general later served on a task force in South Carolina to improve educational standards. When the year 1982 came around, Mike Wallace sank his talons into the chief when he ambushed Westmoreland in an interview for the CBS special The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. That didn't go over too well with Westmoreland, and he sued Wallace and CBS for being "unfair." The case was later resolved under settlement agreement. On July 18, 2005, Westmoreland died at Bishop Gadsden retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina, where he had lived with his wife for several years. He was 91. Notable quotes “War is fear cloaked in courage.” “Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.” “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner.”

Reviews – Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

General William C. Westmoreland and British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig are in a category by themselves in the annals of military history. Both are roundly vilified by their own countries for their roles as the senior commanders in traumatic, unpopular and largely misunderstood wars. Almost 100 years after the start of World War I, Haig is still widely considered the bungler and butcher whose tactical and strategic ineptitude were the primary causes of the bloodbath on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. And Westmoreland, of course, is “the general who lost Vietnam.” But the cases against both commanders are not quite as black and white as many people would like to believe.

Lewis Sorley’s book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, is the latest salvo against him. This is an important book, extensively researched and argued with precision. But it is also a disturbing book. It is not a balanced biography of Westmoreland so much as it is an indictment, and a damning one at that. There is, unfortunately, plenty to indict Westmoreland for during his command tenure in the war. Did he make mistakes, major command mistakes? It retrospect that seems abundantly clear. Did he misunderstand the nature of the war? Most certainly. Was he really promoted to a level of command significantly above the level of his competence? Probably. But did Westmoreland lose the Vietnam War? Did he lose it single-handed? I think the historical record makes it pretty clear he had a lot of help.

There is one key fact about Westmoreland in Vietnam that fails to come out clearly in this book, although it is mentioned tangentially in a quote by Westmoreland himself on page 226. Westmoreland was not a supreme commander like Dwight D. Eisenhower in World War II or Douglas MacArthur in Korea. He was a subordinate unified commander under U.S. Pacific Command. Westmoreland had no control over the air war against North Vietnam or over the U.S. Navy’s blue water operations off North Vietnam. He was not responsible for forming the overall American strategy for the war. And if he actually wound up doing so, he did it by default. He did it because those above him in the chain of command and the political leadership failed to do their jobs. On page 265 Sorley comes closest to the real heart of the matter when he quotes Frank Getlein of the Washington Star: “No American in a position of authority in either Saigon or Washington had any remote notion of what the war was all about, least of all poor Westmoreland.”

Sorley skillfully uses Westmoreland’s own words to show time and again his duplicity at worst and his lack of touch with reality at best. But the argument is unbalanced. Many of the charges leveled against him have also been laid at the feet of many, if not most, of history’s most successful generals. Westmoreland was not an experienced senior field commander, but rather a political general. How many times has that been said of Eisenhower or Colin Powell? Westmoreland was a publicity hound who loved sharp, crisp uniforms and never met a photo-op he didn’t like. Did anyone ever say that about George Patton or MacArthur? Westmoreland focused on attritional warfare at the expense of his troops in the field. Wasn’t that how Ulysses S. Grant fought the Civil War?

One of the most damning features of Sorley’s book is many negative assessments of Westmoreland by his fellow general officers. An average reader, especially one with limited military experience, might conclude that the condemnation of other general officers represents the final conclusive argument. But anyone who has ever studied military history in depth or who has spent much time in the military at the higher ranks knows only too well that general officers in their ultra-competitive world constantly criticize each other, and always have. Few general officers in the Wehrmacht, for example, had much good to say about Erwin Rommel. And Patton was always carping about Eisenhower, even though he was a close friend.

Sorley offers one particularly disturbing vignette on page 59. While Westmoreland was superintendent of West Point, his aide-de-camp routinely scheduled tennis partners for him from the younger officers on the academy’s staff. One captain who was an exceptionally good player received a call from Westmoreland’s aide one day suggesting that the captain’s victories should not be so one-sided, concluding with the comment, “The General and I will be a lot happier.” The key question is what really happened here? Did Westmoreland really tell his aide to lean on the young captain to shave points off his game? If that is what actually happened, it is a serious black mark against Westmoreland’s character. As the vignette is presented, anyone with limited or no experience with general officers could not reach any other conclusion. But in the real world of general officers, this is a classic symptom of an aide-de-camp who is out of control. Attempting to “wear the general’s stars” behind his back is one of the great occupational hazards of being an aide. I have personally encountered this sort of thing so many times that I would assume it to be the case here, unless it can be proved otherwise.

Despite its flaws and its lack of balance Westmoreland is well worth reading—but read it critically. Nor is it the final word on the general. Someone once described history as an argument without end. The arguments over Field Marshal Haig have been going on for almost 100 years now, and there is no end in sight. The arguments about General Westmoreland are just getting started.

Johnson, Westmoreland and the ‘Selling’ of Vietnam

By early 1967, American and allied forces appeared stuck in the morass of Vietnam. Publicly, military commanders talked about progress off the record, Army officers told journalists that they weren’t “anywhere near the mopping up stage.” Moreover, the press increasingly noted Lyndon B. Johnson’s own frustrations. One report even suggested that the president was “tormented by the slow progress” of the war effort.

Ever an eye on domestic political trends, the president responded that spring by starting what would become a yearlong campaign to not only “sell” his Southeast Asia policy, but also disprove accusations of a stalemated war in Vietnam. Johnson began this publicity drive in April by bringing the head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, to report on the war’s progress. It was the first time in American history a president had called back a wartime field commander to testify on the administration’s behalf.

At the time, Westmoreland seemed the embodiment of post-World War II American military power. In naming Westmoreland its 1965 “Man of the Year,” Time magazine called the four-star general a “jut-jawed six-footer” and a “straightforward, determined man.” Westmoreland, already a veteran of two wars before arriving in Vietnam, had led the famed 101st Airborne Division and had served as West Point’s superintendent. In inheriting the multiple roles of a politically sensitive command in Vietnam, Time quipped, Westmoreland wore “more hats than Hedda Hopper.”

In 1965, however, Westmoreland had only one strategic goal in mind — arrest the losing trend. By most accounts, South Vietnam teetered on the verge of collapse. Hanoi was sending full infantry regiments along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. Acts of terrorism targeted local officials. The South Vietnamese Army (officially known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or A.R.V.N.) appeared incapable of keeping pace with the escalating levels of violence.

Westmoreland realized, though, that regaining the strategic initiative meant more than just killing the enemy. Rather, military operations were means to a larger end. In short, battlefield victories were intended to have political purpose.

Thus, throughout 1966 and early 1967, American forces undertook a host of missions helping to extend Saigon’s control over the population. They fought alongside the A.R.V.N. and local militia against enemy main force and insurgent units. They implemented nonmilitary civic action plans, such as medical visits to rural hamlets and administrative training of district officials. And they instituted programs to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”

Contrary to the way it was later portrayed in the press and history books, Westmoreland’s war proved far more than a singular focus on attrition of the enemy and racking up high body counts simply for a “false sense of military pride.”

Of course, there were myriad difficulties in implementing such a wide-ranging strategy, of balancing a war whose nature was as much political as it was military. Westmoreland grappled with contentious party politics in Saigon, with a Communist-nationalist message that resonated among the South Vietnamese countryside, and with a stubborn enemy committed to Vietnam’s reunification and freedom from Western influence.

Perhaps most troubling, by 1967 the American military command faced a home front increasingly questioning the sacrifices for a war that seemed to produce so few tangible results. As the year wore on, words like “stalemate” and “quagmire” became commonplace in appraisals of America’s strategy and chances for victory in Southeast Asia.

Westmoreland’s designation as the president’s chief surrogate in the spring of 1967, though, left little doubt that Johnson had committed himself, and the nation, to continued war. Johnson intended his “salesmanship campaign” to shore up defenses backing the United States’ commitment to Vietnam, to push back against those questioning the viability of his policies. The nation’s top field general would disprove critics by demonstrating progress.

At Westmoreland’s first stop, The Associated Press’s annual editors luncheon on April 25, the general argued that Vietnam’s fate would affect the future of all “emerging nations.” He lauded his soldiers’ performance in rescuing a Saigon government “on the verge of defeat,” while highlighting the complexities of this kind of war — “a war of both subversion and invasion, a war in which political and psychological factors are of such consequence.” And while a confident Westmoreland painted a favorable military picture, he twice emphasized a point that most likely made Johnson wince. “I do not see any end of the war in sight.”

Three days later Westmoreland gave another speech that overshadowed his A.P. address. To a joint session of Congress, the general roused legislators to “enthusiastic cheers,” according to one report, pledging that his command would “prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor.” (Such language intimated a threat more external than internal.) Yet Westmoreland noted that military success alone would not ensure “a swift and decisive end to the conflict.” The enemy was waging a “total war all day — every day — everywhere.” Westmoreland maintained that only a strategy of “unrelenting but discriminating military, political and psychological pressure” on the enemy would lead to success.

At no time did Westmoreland mention the issue of stalemate. While their enemy was “far from quitting,” American forces, backed at home by “resolve, confidence, patience, determination and continued support,” would succeed.

Critics, though impressed by the general’s speech, believed Westmoreland had won no converts. Tom Wicker of The New York Times saw the oration as nothing more than a bid by Johnson to “enlist the general’s military prestige in the administration’s struggle to maintain political support at home.” And for all the plaudits he received, Westmoreland flew back to Vietnam having persuaded precious few in Washington.

Johnson’s salesmanship campaign fell short on two levels. Westmoreland did not convince the president’s opponents that American policy in Vietnam indeed was making progress. Nor, perhaps more important, did these speeches cause the American public to embrace the complex realities of the continuing war in South Vietnam.

In truth, Westmoreland proved unable to articulate the convoluted nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity that no foreign entity was likely to resolve. The war remained as “undefinable” as ever.

As 1967 unfolded after Westmoreland’s return to MACV headquarters, more and more evidence surfaced that the war might indeed be mired in stalemate. Pundits lambasted the quality of South Vietnam’s fighting forces. The pacification program appeared “tottering on the brink of collapse.” A political shake-up in Saigon — by 1967, a common occurrence to weary American officials — seemed to reflect security woes in the countryside. By year’s end, the battle over measuring “progress” seemed to rival the ferocity of the war itself.

Such debates aside, Westmoreland’s public statements in April 1967 offer a useful perspective on how Americans talk about war, particularly the strategies designed to win them. Throughout his tenure in Vietnam, Westmoreland wrestled with how best to communicate, to numerous and varied audiences, the complexities of a war so unlike the conventional battlefields of World War II. As one United States Embassy official in Saigon admitted, “I cannot make any positive statement about Vietnam that I cannot honestly contradict with another statement.”

But if the American war in Vietnam was truly “unlike anything else in the experience of our country,” 50 years on, it still can remind us of the need to embrace the nuances of war.

War is chaotic and messy. It defies easy explanations. And yet we turn to clichés all too often. In reality, for Vietnam, longstanding tropes like “body counts” and “attrition,” a mainstay of the historical narrative, have done little to advance a deeper understanding of what was always a complicated political-military affair.

How we — as politicians, as journalists, as historians, as the general public — talk about war, then and now, matters. Reducing complex wars to one-word phrases — Vietnam as war of “attrition” or supposed successes in Iraq as a result of a “surge” — dangerously oversimplifies. Rudimentary language dismisses the inherent chaos central to the deadliest of human endeavors. Easy explanations for victory and defeat make it hard to understand what really happened, and makes us less ready to understand the next conflict.

And in the end, simplifying war allows us to turn to it far more readily than we probably should.

Did General Westmoreland Doom the War in Vietnam?

Key point: The General was human just like the rest of us. Could he have done better?

In 1989, this writer had occasion to interview four-star General William Childs Westmoreland, now 86, formerly U.S. military commander in South Vietnam and at the time of the interview a retired Chief of Staff of the Army.

Not only had I read his memoirs just a few days before our meeting, but I had also served in the Vietnam War myself as an enlisted man of the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade during 1966-1967, and thus had my own perspective on the struggle. When I met him in 1989, the general had already been a top soldier, pilot, diplomat, warrior, and confidant of presidents. He was still the ramrod-straight imperial proconsul of my youth.

Westmoreland was the nation’s number one Vietnam vet whose wife, Kitsy, lost a brother killed in the war, LTC Frederick Van Deusen. Westmoreland is still speaking about the war and taking part in memorial marches around the United States. He told an earlier interviewer that the hardest decision of the war for him was to recommend to President Lyndon Johnson that U.S. ground combat forces be committed to Southeast Asia to shore up the flagging South Vietnamese effort there in 1965.

“LBJ,” he recalled, “always did what he said he would do.… During his first year in office, 1964, we went from 500 advisors to 15,000 military personnel.… I don’t dislike [then Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara. He was fair to me.… We were actually operating in the unknown,” he once told veteran Vietnam writer Laura Palmer. A decade earlier, at the time of the French defeat, Westmoreland—then an army general staff officer during the Eisenhower Administration—had been in on the discussions about whether or not to send U.S. troops to aid the French Foreign Legion paratroopers and Vietnamese colonial troops to defeat the Viet Minh, the predecessors of the Viet Cong.

Westmoreland took part in the final decision in 1954 not to send U.S. forces. He later recalled: “All the negatives were exposed. Had I not been in on them, my doubts about the wisdom of committing American troops in 1964 might not have occurred to me.”

"It was Evident That America Was Not Going to Make Good its Commitment to the Vietnamese”

In early 1968, he told Palmer, “Tet was our last chance. The Tet offensive was a terrible gamble by the enemy, and they were crushed. After that defeat, I think there was a really good chance of bringing them to the conference table, but public opinion was disgusted with a war that was dragging on and on. … I object to saying that was the point when the war was lost. That was the point when it was evident that America was not going to make good its commitment to the Vietnamese.

“We had thrown away all our trump cards when we finally got them to the conference table in Paris. Their big trump card was the POWs. We didn’t have any trump cards because we were already withdrawing our troops. We’d even sanctioned letting their troops remain on South Vietnamese soil.”

By 1968 Westmoreland had come home from Vietnam to assume his new duties as Chief of Staff of the Army, the highest post a soldier can aspire to. He resigned in 1972 after a 40-year military career that spanned horse-drawn artillery to nuclear missiles. In the 1980s, he would spend $60,000 of his own money to clear his name in a controversial lawsuit against Columbia Broadcasting System television.

Westmoreland was from South Carolina his ancestors fought for the Confederacy. His father wanted his son to become a lawyer. “Informed and well-read, he encouraged me in a broad range of activities, from studies to boxing and playing the flute,” recalled the four-star retired general in his 1976 memoirs, A Soldier Reports. Famous friend James F. Byrnes (South Carolina Senator, Secretary of State) steered him instead from South Carolina’s famous military school, The Citadel, toward West Point. He was graduated as an artillery officer in 1936 and soon had served in army bases around the country.

Mid-1941 found him stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC, with an artillery unit of the 9th Infantry Division. When the United States went to war, Westmoreland went with the army to Tunisia.

I asked him to discuss his role at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in 1943, and he recounted the following: “We made a forced march from Algeria to Tunisia in the middle of the winter. I was the first American to arrive before this beleaguered British brigadier who was in command in a CP in a basement. He just had a road map on the wall, and a German tank was burning outside. I got there about 2 am. I asked him what the situation was. He was very cool, calm, and collected and said, ‘Well, I have a few tanks left and one platoon of infantry,’ and that was about it. He said he was glad to see us!”

“Have You, Personally, Physically, Ever Killed Anybody?”

Next, we talked about his role in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. “I went in with combat troops of the 9th Infantry Division,” he recalled. “I saw quite a bit of action there. I was shot at a lot. A mine we ran over destroyed my vehicle, but it was well sandbagged, so only it was blown up. I went down to the aid station, where a doctor checked me over and gave me a shot of whiskey—but [laughing softly] no Purple Heart.”

“Have you, personally, physically, ever killed anybody?” I asked. “Not knowingly,” was his reply.

We discussed his crossing of the Remagen Bridge in March 1945, the later battles in Nazi Germany, and his view of General George S. Patton. “I was chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Division. I was one of the first persons over and led the division headquarters across in the middle of the night. At that time, we had one regiment across the Ludendorff Bridge, and finally we brought the whole division over to the German side of the Rhine. The Germans were bringing mortar fire on us. I also went through the Siegfried Line and the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, which was a terrible mistake, one of the major mistakes of the war. It just chewed up one, two, three, four—about five divisions. My division got chewed up twice there!

“I liked Patton,” he continued. “I knew him when he was a lieutenant colonel. He visited my unit in North Africa, I saw him in Sicily, and I saw him in Germany after the war, shortly before he died. I knew Patton very well, and we had a good rapport.”

Commanding the division’s 60th Infantry Regiment during the Allied occupation of the blasted Third Reich, Westmoreland later remembered, “I had to relieve two battalion commanders for improper conduct and to prefer charges against a captain for stealing furs.”

Westmoreland Strikes the Balance of Stalwart, Yet Charming With His Troops

But if Westmoreland did things “by the book,” he was not a man without humor. He recalled a wartime visit of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the 9th early in 1944. “When he arrived to address the assembled troops, he went at first not to the speaker’s stand, but behind a small outbuilding. He reappeared minutes later, deliberately buttoning his fly, making sure no one missed the reason for the delay. The troops loved it.”

In mid-1951, Westmoreland assumed command of 187th Airborne Combat Team as the Korean War was still raging against the Red Chinese and the North Korean armies. Almost killed by an errant mortar round from his own side, Westmoreland later found himself and his men beset by attacking Chicoms. “When a Chinese Communist attack drove a salient into the lines of two adjacent units, it left my combat team holding a critical shoulder of the salient.” Ordered to withdraw twice or be relieved of command, he did so, but only under duress and a direct order.

I asked the general to give me his impressions of the Red Chinese Communist troops he had fought in Korea. He recalled: “They were like a herd of sheep, just poor peasant boys. They didn’t know how to fire their weapons and they didn’t have too much support, either. Somebody would blow a bugle, kick them in the butts, and they’d move forward! They didn’t mind dying. They used massed manpower against our massive firepower. The carnage was terrible.”

Back in Washington, Westmoreland was assigned to Pentagon duty. By 1958 he was in command of the 101st Airborne Division based at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. In 1960, President Eisenhower named him Superintendent of West Point.

VIP visitors to the Point during Westmoreland’s tenure included Vice President Johnson, JFK, novelist William Faulkner, and General MacArthur, who made his famous “Duty, honor, country” speech there in 1962. Trapped in an old elevator that dated back to MacArthur’s days as a cadet, the two men rode up and down until they came to the right floor. When Westy passed along a request by press photographers for the old man to remove his hat, MacArthur testily replied, “I will take off my hat when I am ready. Don’t pay any attention to them!” Later, during the review of the Corps of Cadets, Westmoreland recalled, MacArthur removed “his hat with a flourish” and “placed it over his heart.”


Brigadier General Edwin Simmons, later the long-serving Chief of Marine Corps History, recalled a commanders’ conference convened by Westmoreland at Nha Trang. The room was filled with senior officers who had served in World War II and Korea, and Westmoreland told them: “At the end of World War II I wrote down some principles of war. I have them still today—on a card I carry in my wallet, and I want to share them with you. Whenever possible, feed the troops a hot meal. Make sure they have dry socks, and check their feet. Stress getting the troops their mail.” The audience had thought they were about to get something the equivalent of Napoleon’s maxims or the like, said Simmons, “and instead they got these platitudes of squad leading.”

His approach to achieving [defeat of the enemy] was to wage a war of attrition, using search and destroy tactics, in which the measure of merit was body count. The premise was that, if he could inflict sufficient casualties on the enemy, they would cease their aggression against South Vietnam. In single-minded pursuit of this objective, Westmoreland essentially ignored two other crucial aspects of the war—improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces and pacification.

U.S. Army Maj. Bruce Crandall flies a rescue mission in Vietnam with fellow Medal of Honor Recipient Ed Freeman. The only time the two pilots and friends flew together, they rescued Freeman’s co-pilot, Frank Moreno, who had crashed. Photo by U.S. Army

Westmoreland describes in his memoirs how and why he came to adopt an attrition strategy as his approach to conduct of the war. There is no doubt that he himself decided on it even though, as he stresses, it was not for him the strategy of choice, merely the best remaining option—or, as he viewed it, the only other option—after his preferred approach involving operations in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam had been ruled out by Lyndon Johnson’s insistence on “no wider war.”

Westmoreland confirmed the fact that, other than determining the pace of “gradual escalation” and the use of certain weapons, “the President never tried to tell me how to run the war. The tactics and battlefield strategy of running the war were mine. He did not interfere with this. He deferred to my judgment, and he let me run the war or pursue tactics and battlefield strategy as I saw fit.” Also: “I, in effect, had a carte blanche in the devising and pursuing tactics and battlefield strategy of the war.”

Implementing the attrition strategy, Westmoreland prescribed search and destroy tactics. What search and destroy meant in practice was a series of large unit sweeps, often multi-battalion and sometimes even multi-division, frequently conducted in the deep jungle regions next to South Vietnam’s western borders with Laos and Cambodia, designed to seek out enemy forces and engage them in decisive battle. That proved possible only with the enemy’s cooperation otherwise, as Andrew Krepinevich tellingly observed, “search and destroy was like Whack-a-Mole.” General Alexander Haig contributed another dramatic characterization, calling Westmoreland’s tactics “a demented and bloody form of hide-and-seek.”

Said [Lieutenant General Hal] Moore, “Westmoreland would learn, too late, that he was wrong that the American people didn’t see a kill ratio of 10:1 or even 20:1 as any kind of bargain.” A very influential visitor, Senator “Fritz” Hollings from Westmoreland’s home state of South Carolina, had warned him about reliance on such ratios. Westmoreland told him, “We’re killing these people at a ratio of 10 to 1.” To that Hollings responded, “Westy, the American people don’t care about the ten. They care about the one.”

A HueyCobra attack helicopter opens fire on targets somewhere in South Vietnam. Photo by U.S. Army

[Army Chief of Staff] General Harold Johnson watched the proliferation of large-unit sweeps primarily in the deep jungle and was appalled. “I felt in 1962,” he stated, “and I still felt in 1968—with virtually no way to influence it—that what was required was a lot of scouting and patrolling type of activity by quite small units with the capacity to reinforce quickly. We didn’t get into very much of that.”

Johnson was also dismayed by the incredible expenditures on unobserved artillery fire, known as harassment and interdiction, with nothing much good to show for it and potentially a lot of negative impact on South Vietnamese peasants. During one trip to Vietnam Johnson learned that only some 6 percent of artillery fire was observed, the rest just being fired out into the jungle on the premise that some enemy might happen to be there. “Today,” he told Westmoreland, “we are writing checks for a quarter of a billion dollars every month to pay for ammunition, which totals out to three billion dollars a year.” Johnson suggested Westmoreland take another look at what was being done. “A reduction of perhaps as much as 50 per cent in the application of unobserved fires as they relate to the destruction of physical facilities in Vietnam, in terms of silencing the battlefield, in terms of scaling down the level of violence, or in terms of reducing the costs of the war, has a lot of attractive features.”

Westmoreland was uncomprehending, or at least impervious, to such reasoning. Just over two weeks later he cabled major subordinates to say that “a study of the present rate of fire of artillery currently in the Seven Mountain area reveals that the tempo could be drastically increased in order to effectively harass and interdict enemy movements and actions.” He instructed them to “increase rate of fire of existing artillery…by orders of magnitude, e.g., 100 to 200 rounds per tube per day.”

A Blue Team rifle squad exits from a Huey helicopter in Vietnam. Photo by U.S. Army

Westmoreland himself was unmoved by such logic, if indeed he was even exposed to it, maintaining even during his final days in Vietnam that the war there had confirmed his “belief that our major advantage in war lies in our superior firepower . . .”

Meanwhile, in virtually ignoring the crucial tasks of pacification and the upgrading of South Vietnam’s armed forces, Westmoreland failed to advance the security of the populace or the capacity for self-defense of South Vietnam’s armed forces. He likewise failed to diminish the enemy’s combat forces, despite near-exclusive focus on that task, as the casualties inflicted were simply replaced. What he had done was squander four years of his troops’ bravery and support by the public, the Congress, and even most of the news media for the war in Vietnam.

Westmoreland’s repeated requests for troops were essentially approved—until the spring of 1967, when he asked for 200,000 more troops and got only a pittance. The mood in Washington had changed, as illustrated by a 4 May 1967 memorandum from McGeorge Bundy to the President: “I think there is no one on earth who could win an argument that an active deployment of some 500,000 men, firmly supported by tactical bombing in both South and North Vietnam, represented an undercommitment at this time. I would not want to be the politician, or the general, who whined about such a limitation.”

Yet the massive escalation brought no real change in the war’s dynamics. Someone recalled the story of the Texan selling watermelons alongside the road who bought a hundred melons for a hundred dollars, sold them for a dollar apiece, and wondered why he hadn’t made any money. His conclusion: “We’ve got to get a bigger truck.” Westmoreland reached that very conclusion, figuratively speaking, over and over again.

During a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter’s steady descent, a U.S. Army Soldier standing on a landing skid prepares to touch ground. Photo by U.S. Army

Despite many Westmoreland protestations of his abiding interest in and robust support for pacification, there was no substance to the claim. General Phillip Davidson saw it clearly from his post as MACV J-2: “Westmoreland’s interest always lay in the big-unit war. Pacification bored him.”

Westmoreland was unrepentant. “Pacification was oversold in the United States and oversold to the Johnson administration, where it was the ‘end all,’ ” he insisted in his oral history. “It was never the end all with me,” he said, “and I got pressure after pressure after pressure to put emphasis on pacification at the expense of allowing the main forces to have a free rein.”

During most of 1967 the Johnson administration orchestrated what came to be known as the “Progress Offensive,” a systematic effort to convince the American people that the war in Vietnam was being won. Westmoreland became an important part of the campaign, making several trips back to the United States for speaking engagements and briefings of political leaders.

Even before those trips began, a most revealing flap on the implications and integrity of reporting came to light. Westmoreland had submitted to General Earl Wheeler, in an early 1967 cable, statistics that showed the enemy, not allied forces, holding and indeed increasing the tactical initiative. Wheeler was distraught. “If these figures should reach the public domain,” he wailed, “they would, literally, blow the lid off Washington.” First an interim solution: “Please do whatever is necessary to insure these figures are not repeat not released to news media or otherwise exposed to public knowledge.”

Two days later Wheeler followed up with a longer and even more anguished message. He had been informed that the MACV Periodic Intelligence Report for January 1967 showed that, of about 385 enemy battalions making contact with friendly forces during the period 1 February 1966 through 31 January 1967, approximately two-thirds had been contacted as a result of enemy initiative. “I must say I find this difficult to believe and certainly contrary to my own impression of how the war has been going during the past six to eight months,” he observed.

“The implications are major and serious,” Wheeler continued. “Large-scale enemy initiatives have been used as a major element in assessing the status of the war for the President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Congress, and, to some degree, the press here in Washington.” Moreover, “these figures have been used to illustrate the success of our current strategy as well as over-all progress in Vietnam. Considerable emphasis has been placed on these particular statistics, since they provide a relatively straightforward means of measuring the tempo of organized enemy combat initiative. (In cold fact, we have no other persuasive yardstick.) Your new figures change the picture drastically.” Thus: “I can only interpret the new figures to mean that, despite the force buildup, despite our many successful spoiling attacks and base area searches, and despite the heavy interdiction campaign in North Vietnam and Laos, VC/NVA combat capability and offensive activity throughout 1966 and now in 1967 has been increasing steadily, with the January level some two and one-half times above the average of the first three months in 1966.”

“I cannot go to the President,” Wheeler maintained, “and tell him that, contrary to my reports and those of the other Chiefs as to the progress of the war in which we have laid great stress upon the thesis that you have seized the initiative from the enemy, the situation is such that we are not sure who has the initiative in South Vietnam.” Of course Wheeler could have done that, could have told the President the truth, could have provided him with the information he needed to make informed decisions about the future course of the war. But he did not. Instead he sent his Special Assistant, a general officer, out to Vietnam to confer with Westmoreland about how to make the problem go away.

By 22 March 1967 Westmoreland could report by cable to Admiral Sharp the fixes that had been made. Quoting a memorandum sent to General Wheeler: “Lieutenant General Brown’s team and members of my staff have developed terms of reference in the form of new definitions, criteria, formats and procedures related to the reporting of enemy activity which can be used to assess effectively significant trends in the organized enemy combat initiative.” General Wheeler could rest easy. They had redefined the problem out of existence.

More Progress Offensive markers had been laid down by Westmoreland during his July 1967 visit to Washington, where at a press conference he asserted that “the statement that we are in a stalemate is complete fiction. It is completely unrealistic. During the past year tremendous progress has been made.”

In contrast, just two months earlier LBJ had stated publicly his conclusion that the war was a “bloody impasse.” During that same month Westmoreland himself laid out a radically more pessimistic view. At a MACV commanders’ conference he presented an assessment including the admission that “the main force war is accelerating at a rapid, almost alarming, rate. The enemy is reinforcing his four main force fronts with people and weapons.” The conclusion is inescapable that Westmoreland had not believed all those positive things he proclaimed back in the United States and thus deserved the subsequent loss of credibility and collapse of his reputation after the Tet Offensive.

As the year of the Progress Offensive drew to an end, President Johnson visited the troops at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam. There he observed that “all the challenges have been met. The enemy is not beaten, but he knows that he has met his master in the field. For what you and your team have done, General Westmoreland, I award you today an oak leaf cluster.” Back in Washington, meeting at the White House with General Wheeler and others, the President observed: “I like Westmoreland…. Westmoreland has played on the team to help me.”

The young Westmoreland, from early days prideful and image-conscious, had developed into an adult of incredible industry, driving himself to achieve, forever in a rush—“This is the way I operate,” he once said. “Don’t talk long to any one person, but talk to as many people as I can.”—unbounded ambition, no apparent sense of personal limitations, doing it by the book, even though he hadn’t read the book or studied at any of the Army’s great schools. Along the way he shed what sense of humor he might once have had, seldom smiled, held himself in a rigid posture that often seemed a pose, took himself very seriously, expected others to regard him thus as well.

His ultimate failure would have earned him more compassion, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame for the endless self-promotion that elevated him to positions and responsibilities beyond his capacity. “It’s the aggressive guy who gets his share—plus,” he insisted. “That principle applies to most anything.”

Great division commander,” concluded another famous four-star. “He had this great appearance, and this charisma, to lead the 101st.” Those were the best days, the balance between tasks and abilities still viable, the conceptual requirements minimal, much physical work and a managerial span he could handle. Despite a certain silliness—most often displayed in the lifelong penchant for giving “cutesy” names to programs and operations—he was taken seriously, and at that stage not only by himself. He looked and acted like a great general, and the troops were convinced of it. Small wonder that he remembered those days as the “most satisfying” of his military career.

In later years Westmoreland, widely regarded as a general who lost his war, also lost his only run for political office, lost his libel suit, and lost his reputation. It was a sad ending for a man who for most of his life and career had led a charmed existence.

Nearly two decades after the end of the war that had consumed him then and later, Westmoreland offered a considered but surprising judgment: “In the scope of history, Vietnam is not going to be a big deal. It won’t float to the top as a major endeavor.”

Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp., $30.00

In June 1964, he became deputy commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), assuming direct control from General Paul D. Harkins. As the head of the MACV he was known for highly publicized, positive assessments of US military prospects in Vietnam. However, as time went on, the strengthening of communist combat forces in the South led to regular requests for increases in US troop strength, from 16,000 when he arrived to its peak of 535,000 in 1968 when he was promoted to Army Chief of Staff.

On April 28, 1967, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress. "In evaluating the enemy strategy," he said, "It is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve . Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission . Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor!"

The 29-minute speech was interrupted nineteen times by applause, but Congressional and popular support for the war thereafter continued to decline.

Under Westmoreland's leadership, United States forces "won every battle. The turning point of the war was the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which communist forces, having staged a diversion at the Battle of Khe Sanh, attacked cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. US and South Vietnamese troops successfully fought off the attacks, and the communist forces took heavy losses, but the ferocity of the assault shook public confidence in Westmoreland's previous assurances about the state of the war. Political debate and public opinion led the Johnson administration to limit further increases in US troop numbers in Vietnam. When news of the My Lai Massacre broke, Westmoreland resisted pressure from the Nixon administration for a cover-up, and pressed for a full and impartial investigation by Lieutenant General William R. Peers. Westmoreland also made efforts to investigate the Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat massacre.

Westmoreland was convinced that the Vietnamese communists could be destroyed by fighting a war of attrition that, theoretically, would render the Vietnam People's Army unable to fight. His war strategy was marked by heavy use of artillery and airpower and repeated attempts to engage the communists in large-unit battles, and thereby exploit the anti-communists' vastly superior firepower and technology. However, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) were able to dictate the pace of attrition to fit their own goals: by continuing to fight a guerrilla war and avoiding large-unit battles, they denied the Americans the chance to fight the kind of war they were best at, and they ensured that attrition would wear down the Americans faster than them. Westmoreland repeatedly rebuffed or suppressed attempts by John Paul Vann and Lew Walt to shift to a "pacification" strategy Westmoreland had little appreciation of the patience of the US public for his time frame, and was struggling to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to approve widening the war into Cambodia and Laos in order to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was unable to use the absolutist stance, "we can't win unless we expand the war" [into Cambodia and Laos]. Instead he focused on "positive indicators" which ultimately turned worthless when the Tet Offensive occurred, since all his pronouncements of "positive indicators" didn't hint at the possibility of such a last gasp dramatic event. Tet outmaneuvered all of Westmoreland's pronouncements on "positive indicators" in the minds of the American public. Although the communists were severely depleted by their heavy defeat at Khe Sanh when their conventional assaults were battered by American firepower, as well as tens of thousands of deaths in the Tet Offensive, American political opinion and the panic engendered by the communist surprise sapped US support for the war, even though the events of early 1968 put the US and South Vietnam into a much stronger military position.


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