The General Who Lost Vietnam

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Even now, the easiest way to get into an argument at a V.F.W. bar is to mention Vietnam. Seared into all who fought it — and many who merely lived through it — that conflict remains a bitter stew of second-guessing and recriminations. Historian Lewis Sorley — author of 1999’s well-regarded A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of American’s Last Years in Vietnam  — now zeroes in on General William Westmoreland. Not only is Sorley — a third-generation graduate of West Point — a Vietnam veteran and a historian, but he worked for Westmoreland as well. Alas, as a historian, he passed on the opportunity to answer Battleland‘s questions about what Vietnam should teach us about Afghanistan, and who, if anyone, is today’s Westmoreland, during our email chat earlier this week:

What’s the most important thing you learned writing Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam?

The most important, and also the saddest, is that in Vietnam and thereafter Westmoreland was willing to shade or misremember or deny or invent the record when his perceived interests were at stake. This was true in matters both great and small.

A very significant instance was his determination to arbitrarily hold down the estimate of enemy strength during a 1967 order of battle controversy. Although Westmoreland denied it, he imposed a ceiling on the reported number of enemy by instructing his intelligence officers to adhere to a “command position” of not more than 300,000, even though newly acquired and more accurate data developed in his own headquarters then indicated a much higher figure. And, to further demonstrate “progress” in reducing enemy strength, Westmoreland arbitrarily and entirely on his own removed from the order of battle several categories of enemy forces that had long been carried there, including during the three years Westmoreland had already been in command of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

A more minor case, but one revealing of Westmoreland’s character, stemmed from his unwillingness to level with his senior Marine subordinate at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Westmoreland established a headquarters known as MACV Forward in the northern provinces of South Vietnam and put his deputy, General Creighton Abrams, in charge, placing him over the Marines and also the Army forces in that region.

This infuriated the Marines, who viewed it as evidence that Westmoreland lacked confidence in them. Westmoreland held a press conference in which he categorically denied any such loss of confidence. But in a contemporaneous cable to General Earle Wheeler, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Westmoreland complained that “the military professionalism of the Marines falls far short of the standards that should be demanded by our armed forces. Indeed they are brave and proud, but their standards, tactics, and lack of command supervision throughout their ranks requires improvement in the national interest.” And, he added, “I would be less than frank if I did not say that I feel somewhat insecure with the situation in Quang Tri province, in view of my knowledge of their shortcomings. Without question, many lives would be saved if their tactical professionalism were enhanced.”

Years later, when Marine Corps historians were at work on their history of the war, Westmoreland met with them. Of course they raised this issue, leading Westmoreland to declare vehemently that establishing MACV Forward “had not a damned thing to do with my confidence in General Cushman or the Marines, not a damned thing.” That again was not only false but, given the existing paper trail, reckless as well.

These two instances are illustrative of many, many more, ranging from his actions or lack of action in combat situations to his determination to take over the war and win it with U.S. forces to his resultant  failure to build up South Vietnamese forces to the validity of body count to the decision to close Khe Sanh to his actions when Lang Vei was overrun to denying predictions he had made of an early end to the war to claims of not being surprised at Tet 1968 to denying a post-Tet request for many additional U.S. forces.

Lewis Sorley

Is your subtitle — The General Who Lost Vietnam — fair?

Yes, eminently. General Westmoreland had complete freedom of action in deciding how to prosecute the war within South Vietnam. He decided to conduct of 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 kill enough of the enemy, they would lose heart and cease their aggression against the South Vietnamese. In his single-minded pursuit of that objective, Westmoreland (despite his repeated claims to the contrary) essentially ignored two other crucial aspects of the war, improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces and pacification.

Implementing the attrition strategy, Westmoreland typically employed a series of large unit sweeps conducted in the deep jungle regions along South Vietnam’s western borders. These operations were designed to seek out enemy forces and engage them in decisive battle. This proved possible only with enemy cooperation, since they could break contact and limit casualties as they wished by withdrawing into sanctuaries across the border.

Over time Westmoreland asked for and received large numbers of U.S. troops, eventually totaling well over half a million. And he was able to inflict massive casualties on the enemy. This did not, however, achieve the postulated outcome. The enemy did not lose heart, did not cease aggression. Instead he simply sent more and more replacements to make up his losses. Westmoreland’s first resort in claiming progress in the war was always body count, but in fact this was meaningless. All the enemy’s losses were quickly made up. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.

There were available better concepts of how to prosecute the war. Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson put one forth in the PROVN Study, a “Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam.” That document held that Westmoreland’s approach was not working and could not work because it ignored the real war in South Vietnam’s hamlets and villages, where the covert enemy infrastructure was through coercion and terror dominating the rural populace.

Publication of the PROVN Study, whose precepts were later implemented with great success by Westmoreland’s successor, illustrated a matter of fundamental importance. Not later than the autumn of 1966 the leaders of both services involved in fighting the ground war in Vietnam—Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson and Marine Commandant General Wallace Greene—both saw Westmoreland’s approach as fatally flawed and agreed on a viable alternative.

General Westmoreland’s close associate, General William DePuy, later admitted the futility of the Westmoreland way of war. “We ended up,” he said, “with no operational plan that had the slightest chance of ending the war favorably.” Westmoreland could not or would not ever bring himself to acknowledge that reality.

The result of his manic commitment to the war of attrition was that Westmoreland squandered four years of his troops’ bravery and support by the public, the Congress, and even much of the news media for American involvement in the war. Yes, Westmoreland was the general who lost Vietnam.

Assuming you believe the subtitle to be accurate, who were GEN Westmoreland’s biggest accomplices in the loss? In order, from most culpable down.

There are a number of contenders for the top places on such a roster. Among them are, of course, Lyndon Johnson himself, Robert McNamara, and General Earle Wheeler.

The problem begins with the fact that nobody in the chain of command was really competent to critique Westmoreland’s performance. Lyndon Johnson had no understanding of military affairs whatever, nor did Robert McNamara. General Earle Wheeler was essentially a staff officer with virtually no troop leading experience, much less combat acumen.

General Harold K. Johnson was an authentic battlefield hero, and as noted above was fundamentally at odds with Westmoreland’s approach, but he was not in the chain of command. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he theoretically had some influence there, at least to the extent he could shape the collective viewpoint, but even then LBJ and McNamara were famously impervious to advice from the Joint Chiefs.

Thus, almost by default, Westmoreland was left to go his own way, year after bloody year.

Military historian Russell Weigley rendered a succinct judgment on LBJ: “No capable war President would have allowed an officer of such limited capacities as General William C. Westmoreland to head Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, for so long.”

While there is much to criticize LBJ for in his conduct of the war, one cannot help having some sympathy for the dilemma posed by the often wildly conflicting advice he was getting from his senior aides and advisors, including those in uniform. General Wheeler was often just flat wrong in what he told the President. When major U.S. ground force deployments were under consideration in July 1965, for example, LBJ worried that North Vietnam would respond by pouring in more men of its own. He need not be concerned, soothed Wheeler, because the “weight of judgment” was that the enemy “can’t match us on a buildup.” That turned out to be one of the classic misjudgments of the war, comparable in magnitude and consequence to General MacArthur’s assurances to President Truman that Chinese forces would not enter the Korean War.

If pressed to rank the miscreants, I would place Wheeler first, then LBJ, and then McNamara, with all entitled to recognition as important accomplices in dooming the endeavor.

Contrarily, I would not so stigmatize another important player often criticized by others, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. He spoke up in Honolulu, during an important U.S. planning conference in February 1966, observing that “we can beat up North Vietnamese regiments in the high plateau for the next twenty years and it will not end the war.” Westmoreland’s later dismissive comment was that “Ambassador Lodge does not have a deep feel of military tactics and strategy.”

What myths or misperceptions surround Westmoreland that you would like to clear up, if any?

Westmoreland is often described as a “Boy Scout,” usually implying, it appears, that he was well-intentioned but naïve. He was certainly naïve, but the Boy Scouts need to be defended here. Their orientation, indeed the core of Scouting’s values, is selflessness and service to others. Westmoreland’s devotion to advancing his own interests, even when necessary by misrepresentation, was fundamentally at odds with what Scouting is all about.

You worked for GEN Westmoreland when he was Army Chief of Staff. What was your impression of the man when you were working for him? Would he be upset if he were alive to read this book today?

Most younger officers who worked around General Westmoreland, excepting only a very  few among his many aides-de-camp or executive officers and the like, had no personal relationship with this difficult and distant man. There was no warmth, no apparent interest in his associates as people. Some staff officers who briefed him one-on-one at deskside were dismayed when Westmoreland occupied himself by signing photographs of himself, one after another, during their presentations.

Westmoreland’s own book about himself gives some indication of how he would react to this more recent one. Wrote Kevin Buckley in a scathing review, “From the beginning Westmoreland probably expected to write a memoir of victory similar to Crusade in Europe…and the defeat in Vietnam has not deterred him from this.”