The story of General William C. Westmoreland’s stubborn four-year pursuit of a flawed strategy in Vietnam, as related by Lewis Sorley, is both maddening and tragic. It portrays the handsome general, Time’s Man of the Year in 1965, as a hollow man unfit for the demands of high command. His disastrous leadership led to the fruitless deaths of thousands of GIs, a demoralized Army, a loss of confidence in the military and the Vietnam War by the American public, and the political demise of the man who chose him for the job, President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The biography is no mere hatchet job. Colonel Sorley has devoted more than two decades to the study of his topic. The General Who Lost the Vietnam War is based on a thorough understanding of all of the strategic debates, the leadership failures, and the eventual successes of U.S. Army operations in Vietnam. Col. Sorley has interviewed all of the significant military figures of the era, has written biographies of the former Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson and Westmoreland’s successor as commanding officer in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, and has edited The Abrams Tapes, a painstakingly transcribed record of Gen. Abrams’s command conferences from 1968 to 1972. Sorley laid out the findings of this research in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. That book traces the ways in which the U.S. effort in Vietnam, under the leadership of Gen. Abrams, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and the cia’s William Colby, finally solved the major problems neglected by Westmoreland—pacification, and the defeat of the Viet Cong.
Early in his command, Gen. Westmoreland decided the Army’s newest weapons—helicopter-borne infantry and the coordination of artillery and tactical air support—were all the tools he needed to defeat the enemy in Vietnam. He listed his objective as “destroying” the enemy’s “main force,” made up of regiments and divisions of the North Vietnamese Army and its southern clone. This method was called “search and destroy,” and it required American units to take on enemy main forces in their sanctuaries and then withdraw.
As Sorley demonstrates, the general’s emphasis on “search and destroy” Americanized the war, relegating the South Vietnamese to secondary and badly-supported roles and inflating U.S. casualties. His emphasis on battalion-sized operations supported by heavy firepower caused many civilian casualties but failed to prevent the Viet Cong from consolidating their hold over South Vietnam’s population. His obsession with “body counts” was seen by many high-ranking subordinates as “grossly exaggerated,” “often blatant lies,” and “worthless” as a metric of success.
In practice, despite his claims to the contrary, Westmoreland handed initiative to the enemy. A secret report from Westmore-
land’s headquarters in early 1967 showed that the enemy, not the United States, had initiated approximately two-thirds of battalion-level engagements over the past year. This brought an angry response from General Earle C. Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Johnson’s principal military adviser. He sent Westmoreland a cable saying, “I cannot go to the President 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.”
With his focus on “search and destroy” and under constant pressure from Washington to show success, Westmoreland also dismissed the military significance of the Viet Cong local forces and their political cadres, banishing them from official estimates of the enemy’s strength, thereby cutting its estimated size in half. The folly of this narrow focus was exposed during the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive, when Viet Cong local forces nearly seized the American Embassy in Saigon and kept Westmoreland and his staff cornered in their offices for several days. Westmoreland claimed a victory because the enemy suffered heavy losses during the Tet Offensive, but in Washington, Tet was the political turning point of the war. President Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term soon followed.
In addition to a dangerous lack of curiosity about the enemy’s objectives, Gen. Westmoreland also failed to command the respect of his subordinates. They soon learned they could safely omit unpleasant facts when briefing him. On one occasion, Westmoreland learned that he had not been told the details of a successful enemy ambush of an American battalion in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, and that the division commander, assistant division commander, and brigade commander in charge had lied about the reason for the omission. Another general recommended that they be court-martialed. But “Let it slide,” was the general’s response.
His failure to make sure that troops under his command understood their obligations and rules of engagement led, in the devastating words of a report on the My Lai massacre produced by Lieutenant General William Peers and cited by Sorley, to “a permissive attitude towards the treatment and safeguarding of non-combatants which was exemplified by an almost total disregard for the lives and property of the civilian population . . . on the part of commanders and key staff officers.”
Sorley indirectly suggests that the reason many young American reporters in Vietnam often contradicted official accounts of the war and claims of its success was that they soon discovered a disconnect—a “credibility gap”—between Westmoreland’s perspective that the war was being won by attrition and what they themselves were able to see in the field and often hear in private from many of the high-ranking Army officers who rightly saw Westmoreland’s approach to the war as a failure. These officers eventually prevailed to change the Army’s approach to the war. But by then it was too late. Their successes were undone by the legacy of Westmoreland’s failed strategy: an antiwar Congress.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 2, on page 73
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