America’s two decades-long engagement with Vietnam, ending in April, 1975 with the shocking and traumatic fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces, has left a suppurating wound on the American body politic. Though time and other factors have lessened the pain, the debate and remonstrations continue and ‚??lessons of Vietnam‚?Ě continue to be bandied about by hawks, doves and all avian types in between.
As in the case of the fall of China in 1948, a debate has ensued in the U.S. over ‚??who lost Vietnam?‚?Ě This debate has grown louder in recent months, as 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War.
Dr. Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and prominent military historian, gives us the answer in his book, “Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam.” Although some might give this dubious distinction to another individual (such as President Lyndon Johnson), Sorley builds a powerful case against Westmoreland. Following the partition of Vietnam at the end of the French-Indochina war in 1954, South Vietnam had a functioning government and military for years thereafter, under the presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem. The communist insurgency (Viet Cong) was small and a minor threat.
A series of communist protests ‚?? most notably by Buddhist monks, some of whom set themselves on fire ‚?? shocked the Western press, as well as the U.S. Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, who came to believe that Diem had to go. Lodge conspired with a number of South Vietnamese generals who ended up assassinating Diem. Chaos ensued, with the US installing one president after another, further adding to the turmoil.
Looking at the disintegration of South Vietnam the communist rulers in Hanoi, Peking and Moscow became convinced that the country was ripe for the plucking. They stepped up their aid to the Viet Cong enormously. Fearing that the country was being overrun, President Kennedy dispatched 17,000 ‚??advisors‚?Ě to South Vietnam in 1962 ‚?? officially the beginning of what became known as the Vietnam War.
President Johnson dramatically increased the number of US troops sent to Vietnam and Hanoi responded by dispatching large numbers of North Vietnamese regulars to the south. It was into this escalating conflict that General William Westmoreland stepped, having been appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in 1964.
Westmoreland, with the approval of President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara, devised a strategy of ‚??search and destroy‚?Ě missions utilizing multi-battalion and sometimes multi-division units that would force the communists into pitched battles against superior American firepower.
As Sorley points out, the communists rarely took the bait, melting back into the jungle, only to return after the Americans had left. This tactic had the effect of alienating the local population from both the Americans and the South Vietnamese government. Sorley also criticizes Westmoreland for shunting the South Vietnamese armed forces aside and denying them the advanced weaponry possessed by US forces, as well as the training and combat experience that they desperately needed to defend their country.
Sorley also takes Westmoreland to task for his fixation on body counts and his belief that he could defeat the enemy by attrition. Westmoreland also underestimated the willingness of the North Vietnamese to absorb losses (1.1 million dead) while over-estimating the willingness of the American people to absorb losses (57,000 dead).
In a meeting with Senator Fritz Hollings, Westmoreland told Hollings that the Americans were killing the enemy by a ratio of 10 to 1.
Hollings replied, ‚??They (the American people) don’t care about the ten, Westy, they care about the one.‚?Ě
Many of Westmoreland’s contemporaries believed that he was ill-suited for the position of US commander.Westmoreland had a solid, though unspectacular record during World War II. He climbed the Army career ladder quickly, beginning as first captain at West Point, to which he returned later as superintendent. He later occupied a number of staff and command positions, but, as Sorley points out, never attended any of the military war colleges where he would have been immersed in military history and a wide-ranging discussion of new thinking on strategy and tactics.
Brigadier General Amos ‚??Joe‚?Ě Jordan, who knew Westmoreland well and served under him at West Point, was so upset by rumors that Westmoreland was being considered for the Vietnam assignment that he went to then – Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance and told him that the appointment would be a grave mistake.
‚??This is a counterinsurgency war,‚?Ě he told Vance, ‚??and he would have no idea of how to deal with it.‚?Ě
Vance replied, ‚??Joe you‚??re too late. We’ve already made the decision.‚?Ě
The rest, as they say, is history. Four years of search-and-destroy made absolutely no impact on the ground in Vietnam. Meanwhile Americans on the home front were exposed to daily losses in the war and became increasingly disillusioned. Then came the Tet offensive of 1968 ‚?? a great military victory for the US as it turned out, but a shocking development to the American people and one that was portrayed by the media as a great defeat.
With Tet, American public opinion turned sharply negative about the war. President Lyndon Johnson was led to decline a campaign for reelection.. Robert McNamara was replaced as Secretary of Defense by Clark Clifford, and Westmoreland was transferred from his position of commander of US forces in Vietnam and replaced by his deputy, General Creighton Abrams.
Abrams dropped Westmoreland‚??s search-and-destroy strategy in favor of a pacification strategy of clear-and-hold in which villages were cleared of communist forces and replaced by South Vietnamese Army units who remained in place to protect the population.
Abrams also dramatically increased the pace of training for South Vietnamese forces and enhanced the quality of equipment they were given. As a result, when the last American forces departed South Vietnam in 1973, some 90 percent of the population was under government control. (The definitive account of Abrams’ four years as commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam can be found in Sorley’s book ‚??A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.‚?Ě)
Then came Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974 and huge congressional losses for the GOP in that fall’s elections. The result was a refusal by the new congress to honor the Nixon administration’s commitment to maintain military aid to South Vietnam and to provide US air power in the event that North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam.
Thus the North Vietnamese invasion of 1975 led to a rapid crumbling of South Vietnamese forces and the shocking photos of US Helicopters evacuating personnel from the roof of the US embassy.
So, did Gen. William Westmoreland ‚??lose‚?Ě Vietnam? To simply say ‚??yes‚?Ě is too tidy an answer, for this reviewer. A more precise (if unwieldy) book title would read ‚??Westmoreland: The Man Most Responsible for Losing South Vietnam.‚?Ě
Many people share the blame for the loss of South Vietnam. All of Westmoreland’s superiors ‚?? the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Army ‚?? Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson — all sat by, acceding to Westmoreland’s requests for more troops without questioning whether his strategy was working.(MacNamara said later that he had harbored grave doubts about Westmoreland’s strategy, early on, but he never forced the issue with the president.)
The Democratic leadership in congress also deserves censure for defaulting on America’s commitment under the SEATO Treaty to come to South Vietnam’s aid in the event of communist attack and to honor the commitments, made by Presidents Nixon and Ford, to supply South Vietnam with the weapons and parts that it needed, as well as air power in the event of a North Vietnamese invasion.
A holocaust followed, with more than one million South Vietnamese killed or turned into slave laborers by Hanoi. Hundreds of thousands more died at sea in flimsy boats trying to escape communist wrath.
It should be pointed out that, in Westmoreland’s defense, he was denied many requests that, had they been granted, might have won the war. These include aggressive bombing of key North Vietnamese military and supply facilities, the mining of North Vietnamese harbors and destruction of the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.
As Sorley notes, however, none of these disappointments was sufficient to impel Westmoreland to resign.
And so it was that Westmoreland allowed himself to be ‚??kicked upstairs,‚?Ě accepting the post of Army Chief of Staff, on July 3, 1968, a position he used for much of the next four years to give speeches justifying his record in Vietnam.
It is a record that almost no one else defends today.
Typical is the assessment of Gen. Fred Weyand, a Westmoreland contemporary, who said, ‚??The Vietnam War was not unwinnable. It was just not winnable Westmoreland‚??s way.‚?Ě
Harsher still is the verdict of Sir Robert Thompson, the British counterinsurgency expert who concluded, ‚??When you come right down to it, it was not General Giap who defeated President Johnson, it was General Westmoreland.‚?Ě
To Sorley, the most damning charge in his brief against Gen. Westmoreland is that he squandered the support and goodwill of the American people for four years while he stubbornly pursued a losing strategy of search and destroy instead of a workable strategy of pacification and building up the armed forces of South Vietnam.
In the light of history it is impossible to quarrel with the assessment of Sorley’s sad, but firm assessment of the General himself:
‚??Westmoreland‚??s strengths eventually propelled him to a level beyond his understanding and abilities. The results were tragic, not just for him but for the Army and the nation he served, and most of all of course for the South Vietnamese, who sacrificed and lost all.‚?Ě