GEN. WILLIAM WESTMORELAND AND U.S. MILITARY STRATEGIES IN THE VIETNAM WAR

GEN. WILLIAM WESTMORELAND

Gen. William C. Westmoreland commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1964 until 1968. Initially regarded as a hero and selected as Time Man of the Year for 1965, he was given credit for visiting the battles zones and talking with ordinary soldiers to keep morale high and personally signing every letter sent the family of soldiers who died in action. His perception of the enemy were not so morally succinct. He failed to realize that North Vietnamese fought just as hard for their beliefs and sovereignty as Americans fought for their beleifs in the American Revolution and the American Civil War. In the 1974 film Hearts and Minds , Westmoreland said: "The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."

Westmoreland's exemplary record met its match in Vietnam. It was all down hill after the Time Man of the Year selection. As the war wore one, he played a big part in the war's escalation, claiming the war was winnable as long as he had the troops do it. He ordered the use of napalm and Agent Orange, and relied on body counts and kill ratios to mask gross miscalculations. Ten weeks before the Tet offensive Westmoreland said, "We have reached an important point, when the end begins to into view." After this Westmoreland’s effigy was burned at college campuses and his daughter was the subjected to harassment at her school. In the end he, McNamara and Johnson bore the responsibility for the war's loss. Historian Arthur Schlesinger called him "our most disastrous general since Custer." He spent the early 1980s in court seeking damages for a scathing 60 Minutes report.

In his obituary, Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times: "Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the Army artilleryman and paratrooper, failed to lead United States forces to victory in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 and then made himself the most prominent advocate for recognition of their sacrifices, spending the rest of his life paying tribute to his soldiers. His firm jaw, bushy eyebrows and ramrod military bearing made the six-foot-tall William Childs Westmoreland the very image of a general, though he said he learned from an early encounter with a soft-spoken major named Omar Bradley that there was more than one way to command. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005]

Bruce Palling wrote in The Guardian: "Westmoreland was permanently tainted as the commander of what became the worst military defeat ever suffered by the U.S. This aura clung to him even years after he had retired. In 1980, during the presidential primaries, he was on the same flight to Charleston, South Carolina, as Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Reagan's aides whispered to him not to sit next to the general, lest he be smeared by association. During his four-year spell as commander in Vietnam (1964-68), Westmoreland was a textbook version of how a general should look: ramrod straight, well over 6ft tall, with a purposeful jawline and always confident of victory. He never accepted that the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong were capable of ambushing his troops; even incidents where upwards of 50 U.S. troops were killed were invariably described as a "meeting engagement" - an unexpected encounter, rather than an organized one. The worst example of this wilful misrepresentation was his press conference in October 1965, after the slaughter of 155 US troops at Landing Zone Albany, in the battle of Ia Drang: "I consider this an unprecedented victory. At no time during the engagement were American troops forced to withdraw or move back from their positions, except for tactical manoeuvres. The enemy fled from the scene." This deceit led to widespread cynicism among the US press corps, while much of the rest of the world came to loathe the wholesale destruction heaped on Indochina by his prosecution of the war. [Source: Bruce Palling, The Guardian, July 20, 2005]

Gen. William Westmoreland’s Life

The son of a textile and mill manager, Westmoreland was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, on March 26, 1914. Westmoreland was an Eagle Scout and president of his high school class. He graduated from West Point in 1936. Despite his poor academic record was awarded the highest command position in the cadet corps in his senior year and was the first in his class to make captain.

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, "The general was born on near Spartanburg, S.C., where his father was a cotton-mill manager who later became an investment banker. His paternal ancestors included soldiers who had served during the Revolutionary War and with the Confederate Army, but after graduating from high school in Pacolet, he went to The Citadel, the state military college, in 1931. His father wanted him to study law after graduation, General Westmoreland wrote in his memoir, "A Soldier Reports" (Doubleday, 1976). But instead, James F. Byrnes, an influential family friend, secured for him an appointment to West Point, which he entered in 1932. Explaining to an uncle who had been with Lee at Appomattox that he was "going to that same school that Grant and Sherman went to," he felt better after his uncle replied, "That's all right, son, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson went there, too." [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

"He graduated with the class of 1936 and at Fort Sill, Okla.; Schofield Barracks in Hawaii; and Fort Bragg, N.C., led a leisurely life of the field artillery officer: formal dinners and dances, horse shows and polo (at a time when artillery pieces were still horse drawn). At Fort Sill, he first met the daughter of the post executive officer, Katherine ("Kitsy") Van Deusen, 9 years old at the time. They were married in 1947 and had three children: a daughter, Katherine Stevens Westmoreland; a son, James Ripley Westmoreland II; and another daughter, Margaret Childs Westmoreland. ==

Gen. William Westmoreland’s Military Career

During World War II Westmoreland commanded artillery battalions in Sicily and North Africa. Later he became Chief of Staff of the 9th Infantry Divisions.During World War II, he ventured behind enemy lines in North Africa and Sicily to help Allied artillery find their targets and played a major roll in securing the bridge at Remagen over the Rhine. Westmoreland commanded the 187th Airbourne Infantry in the Korean War. He also became commander of the 101st Airborne Division, though he never actually made a combat jump. At the age of 42 became the youngest major general in the United States Army. He studied management at Harvard and was appointed superintendent of West Point in 1960. Four years later he was sent to Vietnam.

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, "Westy, as he became known while a West Point cadet, led fast-moving artillery battalions in World War II and became a paratrooper as the Army prepared in the 1950's for the new kind of war he would face in Vietnam. General Westmoreland's rise to command in Saigon came after an early career that caught the eye of senior officers who later became influential during the Kennedy administration, notably Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, who was commanding the 82nd Airborne Division in Sicily when they first met in 1943 and later influenced President John F. Kennedy's thinking on counterinsurgency warfare. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

"He went to North Africa in 1942 as a lieutenant colonel in command of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion, part of the Ninth Division, which went to Sicily and later landed in Normandy, but not in the first wave on June 6, 1944. He was the division's chief of staff when the division entered Germany and was decorated for his actions in a battle at the Rhine crossing at Remagen, but suffered no injuries. "Somehow none of the enemy's shells had my number," he wrote. Returning to Fort Bragg after the war, he commanded a parachute infantry regiment for a year and then, under another commander influential in his later career, Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, became chief of staff of the 82d Airborne Division, remaining there for three years. ==

"General Westmoreland went to Korea in 1952 as commander of the 187th Regimental Combat Team and later clashed with a division commander who ordered him to withdraw one of his battalions from a hill where it was engaged with Chinese Communist forces. The general complied only under protest. Transferred to the Pentagon in late 1953, he ran the Army's manpower office, a perch from which he observed the Eisenhower administration's struggle with a decision whether to rescue stranded French paratroopers in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu with troops or even nuclear weapons. "The difference in the later American commitment was that the stigma of French colonialism was removed," General Westmoreland wrote later, though the North Vietnamese Communists and their followers would not agree. ==

"General Taylor made him secretary of the Army General Staff in 1955, and three years later, he took command of the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky., moving to West Point as superintendent in 1960. As vice president, Johnson went there in 1961 to deliver the commencement address, telling the cadets he was confident that their class would "nail the coonskins to the wall." The following year, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told them, "Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable - it is to win our wars." ==

Gen. William Westmoreland’s in Vietnam

According to Spartacus Educational: "In April, 1964, Westmoreland was made military commander of South Vietnam, in part because of his ostensible knowledge of guerrilla warfare. In this post he played an important role in increasing the number of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was determined to avoid the kind of disaster suffered by the French Army at Dien Bien Phu. He therefore forbade any military operations by units smaller than about 750 men. In September, 1967, the NLF (the main North Vietnamese army) launched a series of attacks on American garrisons. Westmoreland was delighted. Now at last the National Liberation Front was engaging in open combat. At the end of 1967, Westmoreland was able to report that the NLF had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the NLF would be unable to replace such numbers and that the end of the war was in sight. [Source: Spartacus Educational]

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, In Vietnam "he presided over a vast buildup from 16,000 troops when he arrived to more than 500,000 in 1968, when a devastating Communist offensive caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to lose confidence in the strategy and replace the general. That was General Westmoreland's mission when he was chosen by the Johnson administration a few months after President Kennedy's assassination to go to Vietnam as deputy to the United States military commander there, Gen. Paul Harkins, and replace him in June 1964 as a full four-star general. "Replacing General Harkins with Westy," Robert S. McNamara, then secretary of defense, wrote in his book "In Retrospect" (Times Books/Random House, 1995), helped to signal President Johnson's "determination to increase the effectiveness of U.S. policy and operations in Indochina." [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

"As head of the United States Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, General Westmoreland decided that far more American combat involvement was necessary to enable the struggling South Vietnamese military to resist the more disciplined and organized Communists. At the beginning of 1964, there were only 16,000 American military advisers in South Vietnam. Political instability in Saigon, the general wrote in his memoirs, made escalation vital. The overthrow and killing of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in a coup by officers in November 1963, the general wrote, had "opened a Pandora's box of political turmoil seriously deterring effective prosecution of the war and leading directly to the necessity of introducing American troops" to fight "if South Vietnam was not to fall." ==

"After the announcement that American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin were attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats in August 1964, the American buildup followed, with the number of ground troops climbing to 470,000 in 1967. The general had gained approval for the buildup because American troops seemed to be winning most of their battles with the North Vietnamese and the Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam. Gen. Westmoreland said in a radio interview in November, 1965: When the American people read the headlines about victories, there may be a tendency for them to magnify the magnitude of these actions. I do believe that there is a certain danger that we will be overwhelmed by a feeling of optimism and may lose sight of what I consider a true appraisal of the situation... It involves a long conflict and we must be prepared to accept this.

See Gen. Westmoreland’s Strategies and Failures

Westmoreland and the Impact of the Tet Offensive

In a speech in New York City in April 1967, Gen. Westmoreland said, "The end is not in sight," and he added, "In effect, we are fighting a war of attrition." Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, "Then he flew to Washington to ask for still more reinforcements to bring United States forces up to 550,500, the "minimal essential force," or 670,000, the "optimum." The request shocked Johnson, who asked, "Where does it all end?" Mr. McNamara asked how long it would take to win. As General Westmoreland recalled his answer, it was "With the optimum force, about three years; with the minimum force, at least five." No decision had been made when the Communists launched an offensive during the Tet lunar new year festival on Jan. 31, 1968. They blasted into more than 100 cities and towns, occupied Hue for 25 days, and even fought their way into the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon. Washington's optimism about progress shattered. Clark M. Clifford, whom Johnson had put in charge of examining the troop requests and who later succeeded Mr. McNamara as secretary of defense, "had turned dove and defeatist," General Westmoreland later wrote, and the president had lost his stomach for the battle. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

"Johnson announced he would not run again for office in 1968, and told the general he was appointing him Army chief of staff. He should ignore press speculation that he had been "kicked upstairs," the president told him, but it was true. The men met in the White House in the midst of riots that had started after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and afterward flew over the embattled capital while fires were still burning. "It looked considerably more distressing than Saigon during the Tet offensive," General Westmoreland observed. ==

In an interview with CNN in 1998, Gen. Westmoreland said: We saw the Tet Offensive coming and we were prepared for it. And the enemy took tremendous casualties there; and we felt that the magnitude of those casualties would result in the enemy coming up with some sort of diplomatic solution. But that never took place.... The American public were caught by surprise. We were making military progress at the time -- which [is] a statement of fact. And when the Tet Offensive took place, the American people were not prepared for that, and I assume some significant responsibility for that. and I've made this statement many times. If I would have to do it over again, I would have made known the forthcoming Tet Offensive. At that time, I didn't want the enemy to know that I knew what was going to happen. I did know. I made a mistake in not making that known to the American public, because they were caught by surprise and that was a very much of a negative factor.

Westmoreland Is Replaced in Vietnam

Johnson refused Westmoreland’s request for a further 200,000 troops in addition to the 470,000 or so already there and, in March, 1968, announced he was seeking peace talks with North Vietnam. Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams in 1968. On his return to the United States he was appointed as Chief of Staff to the United States Army. However, Johnson and President Richard Nixon rarely consulted him and he was never promoted to the post of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, "President Richard M. Nixon pursued a different strategy after he took office in 1969. "While Washington spared the bombs and the enemy talked but said nothing and agreed to nothing except the shape of the conference table, the war went on for four more years of American involvement," General Westmoreland later wrote. "That is hardly anything to claim credit for." A a fellow member of the West Point class of 1936, General Abrams departed from General Westmoreland's way of operating. He emphasized measures to strengthen the South Vietnamese military's capability to do battle, and deployed American forces around cities and in other populous areas. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

Back in Washington as the Army chief, General Westmoreland oversaw efforts to adjust the Army to the post-Vietnam period. Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., who served with General Westmoreland in Vietnam and Washington, wrote in his book, "The 25-Year War" (The University Press of Kentucky, 1984) that the Army benefitted greatly from General Westmoreland's leadership in the Pentagon, but that the general "was deeply hurt by the slights accorded him" by Nixon administration officials, "who rarely consulted him on Vietnam affairs." When General Westmoreland was not chosen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in mid-1972, he retired and moved to Charleston.

Westmoreland After Vietnam

Westmoreland retired in 1972. A member of the Republican Party, he was unsuccessful in 1974 in his attempt to become governor of South Carolina. His memoirs, A Soldier Reports, was published in 1980. In 1982, Westmoreland waged a long and costly libel action over a CBS documentary which claimed that he had deliberately misled the Pentagon and the public about the true strength of the communist forces in South Vietnam. Westmoreland failed to win his libel claim and eventually he had to accept a CBS statement that they did not mean to "impugn his honour". He died in July, 2005.

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, "Though he was dogged by antiwar protestors and denounced as a war criminal when, as Army chief of staff from 1968 to 1972, he tried to speak on college campuses, after passions cooled General Westmoreland led a march of Vietnam veterans to their memorial in Washington in 1982 and, tearfully, a gathering of 200,000 veterans in Chicago in June 1986. He made a foray into South Carolina politics in 1974, running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but was defeated in the primary by State Senator James B. Edwards, a conservative veteran of many years of Republican politics. After the campaign, the general told supporters: "I was an inept candidate. I'm used to a structured organization, and this civilian process is so doggone nebulous." [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

"In 1982, General Westmoreland filed a $120-million suit against CBS over a documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy," which he claimed accused him of misleading Johnson and the public about the war while he was in command in Vietnam. The suit came to trial in 1984 in Federal District Court in Manhattan. Eighteen weeks of testimony ensued, in which some senior American officers who had served under General Westmoreland in Vietnam contended that he had been influenced by political rather than purely military concerns in reports about enemy strength that were sent to Washington. When he dropped the suit early in 1985, he said he had come to believe that the trial, involving complex legal issues, was "a no-win situation" for him. ==

"In a statement at the time, CBS declared that it did not believe "that General Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them." The general said that he interpreted that statement as a victory and that it constituted an apology for what the program had charged. But CBS called that interpretation invalid and continued to contend that its documentary was accurate. "As the soldier prays for peace, he must be prepared to cope with the hardships of war and to bear its scars," the general wrote in his autobiography. The quotation was a paraphrase from a speech by General MacArthur. In a striking coincidence, it was also in 1982 that the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, one of the first events at which thousands of Vietnam veterans felt they could openly claim a salute from the American people. Though the crowds were smaller than organizers had hoped, General Westmoreland, characteristically, was there.

U.S. Strategy in Vietnam

The Vietnam War was expected to be a war of attrition as other wars involving the United States had been in the past. In his memoirs, Johnson's Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote: "Grind up the other guy's army until he would presumably not take it anymore, and then we get a political settlement. I thought North Vietnam would reach a point when it be unwilling to continue making those terrible sacrifices."

The Vietnam War was fought within self-imposed limits. The United States didn't want to step over a line etched in the sand like it had in Korea and bring in Chinese or Soviet troops. Many Pentagon generals wanted to fight an all out war and attack North Vietnam with an unrelenting bombing campaign in which ports would be obliterated, dams destroyed, and holes would be poked in dikes, causing widespread flooding, crops damage and starvation in an effort to bring the North Vietnamese to their knees. People in the Johnson administration thought that course was too brutal ane extreme. Their aim was to reach a stalemate like the one in Korea and maintain the status quo of a divided Vietnam.

Some scholars have argued that the Americans could have won the war if U.S. forces had been able to unleash the kind of offensive that could have defeated the north. Adm. Ulysses Grant Sharp, commander of the Pacific forces in the war, said U.S. forces were forced to fight "with one hand tied behind their backs." The Americans were not allowed to move their army to the north and meet the enemy head on, instead they were vulnerable to attack and retreat tactics which the North Vietnamese appeared to be able to carry out forever.

Ultimately, the War in Vietnam ended up being a war in which conventual military strategies didn't work. There were no clear battle lines; the war had no clear beginning and no clear means of achieving an end; the enemy was everywhere and nowhere; and it was difficult to tell friend from foe.

McNamara on Body Counts and Miscalculations

In his 1995 book "In Retrospect," Robert McNamara wrote: "From the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese forces had been giving us poor intelligence and inaccurate reports. Sometime these inaccuracies were conscious attempts to mislead; at other times they were the product of too much optimism."

Pursing a course he leaned at Harvard, McNamara tried to develop a objective and empirical method of monitoring the war and measuring the success of achieving their military objectives. "We measured the target destroyed in the North, the traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the number of captives, the weapons seized, the enemy body count, and so on." The objective McNamara said "was to reach a so-called crossover point at which Viet Cong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain."

Col. David H. Hackworth wrote in Newsweek: "The troops soon discovered the truth: 'This war in unwinnable,' they said. 'Let's get out now.' But no one in authority listened. None of the generals I spoke to seemed to care about the human wreckage. They were into career, body counts and glory." Veteran James Mukoyama Jr. told Newsweek that McNamara as defense secretary should bare the blame for "applying World war II tactic in Vietnam, by using concentrated firepower in a guerilla environment. We grunts paid for it."

Westmoreland’s Strategy in the Vietnam War

According to Spartacus Educational: "Westmoreland believed that if he attacked the National Liberation Front with overwhelming force he could win by attrition. This included a massive bombing, artillery and defoliation campaigns. This strategy did result in the Vietnamese suffering heavy losses, an estimated 2 million people. However, it did not break their will. In fact, this strategy only increased the number of people willing to fight the United States Army. As the war journalist, Stanley Karnow pointed out: "Westmoreland did not understand - nor did anyone else understand - that there was not a breaking point. Instead of breaking their morale, they were breaking ours." In 1965, Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of 'search and destroy'. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'." [Source: Spartacus Educational]

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, In Vietnam, "The idea was to use superior American force, supported by overwhelming air bombardment and artillery fire, not to seize or hold territory but to kill enemy soldiers in their jungle redoubts. American forces often went into these battles in helicopters, withdrawing the way they had come but leaving many to wonder why ground won with such difficulty could be surrendered with such ease. Driven by requests from Mr. McNamara and the White House, "body counts" seemed to show that the strategy was working, that more Communist troops were being killed than Americans But American casualties rapidly mounted into the thousands, at a time when the military draft meant that not only volunteers but young men off the streets could be sent to risk their lives in the jungles. As protests against deepening American involvement mounted, General Westmoreland warned that encouraging the enemy in this way could cost American lives. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005]

In an interview with CNN in 1998, Gen. Westmoreland said: "At the outset, the president made the statement that he would not geographically broaden the war, and that meant that military actions were confined to the territory of South Vietnam. The enemy was not operating under such restraints, and therefore over the years the border area of Cambodia and Laos were used freely by the enemy. But by virtue of the policy of my government, we could not fight the overt war or deploy military troops overtly into those countries. And that was a major problem. A major problem. That gave the enemy a sanctuary that was of benefit to him. I mean, when he moved into the South Vietnamese soil, he was defeated, he took great casualties; but then he moved across into Cambodia or to Laos, licked his wounds, and restored his military capability. And that is why the war lasted so long. It was a frustrating experience for us... We were winning on the battlefield, but whether we were winning strategically is another matter. But the strategy came from Hanoi and there was little that we could do about it. And the people in Washington - the Secretary of Defense and [the people in] the White House - understood [that] from a military standpoint, [our policies involved] a restraint that was inevitably going to prolong the war. I mean, I think this was well-understood, but nevertheless, it was [our] policy, based on the fact that we were not the aggressors. We were not going to be party to enlarging the war.

U.S. Escalation of the War in Vietnam

The Johnson administration remained hesitant to raise the American commitment to Vietnam. However, in August 1964, following the reputed shelling of United States warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnamese coast, Johnson approved air strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases. At President Johnson's urgent request, the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president the power "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." This tougher United States stance was matched in Moscow in October when Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin took over control of the government following the fall from power of Nikita Khrushchev. The new Soviet government pledged increased military support for Hanoi, and the NLF set up a permanent mission in Moscow. [Source: Library of Congress *]

United States support for South Vietnam, which had begun as an effort to defend Southeast Asia from the communist threat, developed into a matter of preserving United States prestige. The Johnson administration, nevertheless, was reluctant to commit combat troops to Vietnam, although the number of United States military advisers including their support and defense units had reached 16,000 by July 1964. Instead, in February 1965 the United States began a program of air strikes known as Operation Rolling Thunder against military targets in North Vietnam. Despite the bombing of the North, ARVN losses grew steadily, and the political situation in Saigon became precarious as one unstable government succeeded another. General William C. Westmoreland, commander of MACV from June 1964 to March 1968 urged the use of United States combat troops to stop the Communist advance, which he predicted, could take over the country within a year. The first two battalions of U.S. Marines (3,500 men) arrived in Vietnam in March 1965 to protect the U.S. airbase at Da Nang. The following month, Westmoreland convinced the administration to commit sufficient combat troops to secure base areas and mount a series of search and destroy missions. By late 1965, the United States expeditionary force in South Vietnam numbered 180,000, and the military situation had stabilized somewhat. Infiltration from the north, however, had also increased, although still chiefly by southerners who had gone north in 1954 and received military training. PLAF strength was estimated to be about 220,000, divided almost equally between guerrillas and main force troops, the latter including units of PAVN regulars totalling about 13,000 troops. *

In mid-1967, with United States troop levels close to the half million mark, Westmoreland requested 80,000 additional troops for immediate needs and indicated that further requests were being contemplated. United States forces in Tay Ninh, Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai, and Dinh Tuong provinces had initiated major offensives in late 1966 and in early 1967, and more troops were needed to support these and other planned operations. As a result of these deployments, United States forces were scattered from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta by mid-1967. Opposition to the war, meanwhile, was mounting in the United States; and among the Vietnamese facing one another in the South, the rising cost of men and resources was beginning to take its toll on both sides. The level of PLAF volunteers declined to less than 50 percent in 1967 and desertions rose, resulting in an even greater increase in northern troop participation. Morale declined among communist sympathizers and Saigon government supporters alike. In elections held in South Vietnam in September 1967, former generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky were elected president and vice president, respectively. A number of popular candidates, including Buddhists and peace candidates, were barred from running, and newspapers were largely suppressed during the campaign. Even so, the military candidates received less than 35 percent of the vote, although the election took place only in areas under the Saigon government's control. When proof of widespread election fraud was produced by the defeated candidates, students and Buddhists demonstrated and demanded that the elections be annulled. *

North Vietnam’s Response to U.S. Escalation of the War in Vietnam

The United States decision to escalate the war was a surprise and a blow to party strategists in Hanoi. At the Twelfth Plenum of the Central Committee in December 1965, the decision was made to continue the struggle for liberation of the South despite the escalated American commitment. The party leadership concluded that a period of protracted struggle lay ahead in which it would be necessary to exert constant military pressure on the Saigon government and its ally in order to make the war sufficiently unpopular in Washington. Efforts were to be concentrated on the ARVN troops, which had suffered 113,000 desertions in 1965 and were thought to be on the verge of disintegration. In early 1965, Hanoi had been encouraged by Moscow's decision to increase its economic and military assistance substantially. The resulting several hundred million dollars in Soviet aid, including surface- to-air missiles, had probably been tied to a promise by Hanoi to attend an international conference on Indochina that had been proposed by Soviet premier Kosygin in February. As preconditions for these negotiations Hanoi and Washington, however, had each presented demands that were unacceptable to the other side. The DRV had called for an immediate and unconditional halt to the bombing of the north, and the United States had demanded the removal of PAVN troops from the South. Although both Hanoi and Washington had been interested in a negotiated settlement, each had preferred to postpone negotiations until it had achieved a position of strength on the battlefield. [Source: Library of Congress *]

By mid-1966 United States forces, now numbering 350,000, had gained the initiative in several key areas, pushing the communists out of the heavily populated zones of the south into the more remote mountainous regions and into areas along the Cambodian border. Revolutionary forces in the South, under the command of General Nguyen Chi Thanh, responded by launching an aggressive campaign of harassment operations and full-scale attacks by regiment-sized units. This approach proved costly, however, in terms of manpower and resources, and by late 1966 about 5,000 troops, including main force PAVN units, were being infiltrated from the North each month to help implement this strategy. At the same time, North Vietnam placed its economy on a war footing, temporarily shelving non-war-related construction efforts. As a consequence of the heavy United States bombing of the North, industries were dismantled and moved to remote areas. Young men were conscripted into the army and their places in fields and factories were filled by women, who also served in home defense and antiaircraft units. Such measures were very effective in countering the impact od the bombing on the North's war effort. The Johnson administration, however, showed no sign of willingness to change its bombing strategy or to lessen its war effort. *

During this difficult period, the communists returned to protracted guerrilla warfare and political struggle. The party leadership called for increased efforts to infiltrate moderate political parties and religious organizations. The underground communist leadership in Saigon was instructed to prepare for a general uprising by recruiting youths into guerrilla units and training women to agitate against the city's poor living conditions and the injustices of the Saigon government. Total victory, according to the party leadership, would probably occur when military victories in rural areas were combined with general uprisings in the cities. *

Westmoreland’s Failures

Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, In Vietnam, Gen. Westmoreland " never understood the war as a Vietnamese nationalist struggle against French and later American domination. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist successors believed they could out-suffer and outlast those they saw as foreign invaders supporting a "puppet" South Vietnamese regime; General Westmoreland believed that hundreds of thousands of American troops could root out the Communist insurgents and enable freedom and democracy to grow in Vietnam, but that Washington lost its nerve, and lost the war. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]

"Had President Johnson changed our strategy and taken advantage of the enemy's weakness to enable me to carry out the operations we had prepared over the preceding two years in Laos and Cambodia and north of the demilitarized zone, along with intensified bombing and the mining of Haiphong harbor, the North Vietnamese doubtlessly would have broken," he wrote in his memoirs. Instead, as he saw it, "The United States in the end abandoned South Vietnam." President Richard M. Nixon did not take decisive steps to win, and after most United States troops withdrew in 1973 after a cease-fire, Communist tanks rolled into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. "Despite the final failure of the South Vietnamese, the record of the American military services of never having lost a war is still intact," General Westmoreland wrote. ==

According to U.S. military publication The Morning Call: "Gen. Westmoreland blamed civilian leaders for micromanaging, including not allowing him to fight in Laos and Cambodia. His own approach however, was not effective. Heavy air power could not stop mobile guerrillas. He tried to ''search and destroy'' the enemy with U.S. units of 750 men and larger. Historians have written that his basic miscalculation was that he could not kill enemy soldiers faster than they could be replaced, and at war's end, when communist forces took over South Vietnam, their numbers were greater than ever. In other words, he was fighting the last war. The tragedy was that an officer from the finest traditions of the U.S. military was given an assignment made impossible by miscalculations. Gen. Westmoreland used to say he had to ''fight with only one hand,'' and the limits put on him by President Johnson had that effect. It takes nothing away from the honor of him and those who served with him to say that the United States did not understand what was happening in Southeast Asia in those years - or, at least, understood it too late. [Source: The Morning Call, July, 20 2005]

Problems with Westmoreland Approach to the Vietnam War

Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post, As McGeorge Bundy "reflected, he bemoaned the failure of civilian leaders to probe and scrutinize the assumptions behind the American strategy in Vietnam -- a strategy that over time devolved into an open-ended war of attrition, an endurance contest the United States was unlikely to win. Bundy frequently observed that in 1965, when the administration decided to initiate a massive deployment of ground combat forces to Vietnam, "we debated a number, not a use." Agreeing to Westmoreland's plan for a war designed to deplete and degrade the enemy until it capitulated, Bundy concluded, was "a major error, and we failed even to address it." The attrition strategy, Bundy conceded in his notes, "was a loser. But it was also a most formidable indicator of which side cared the most. Because in strategic military terms, we quit first." [Source: Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein, Washington Post, October 18, 2009 \\//]

"McNamara also focused on how the inadequate relationship between civilian and military leaders left key questions unasked. "It wasn't so much they resented civilian oversight -- they just didn't feel we were competent to question it," he said of top military commanders. "And to a considerable degree, they were right. But they should have recognized, even if we weren't experts in military operations, the questions we raised were fundamental. And they should have been willing to reexamine their actions in relation to those fundamental questions, and most of them were not." \\//

"McNamara lamented that "the military never told me or the president that 'the course you're on is wrong.' I don't think you'll find any evidence of that." And he singled out the Joint Chiefs of Staff for particular criticism. "I don't think you'll find any record, secret or otherwise, of the chiefs' critical analysis of the military plans in Vietnam," he said. "And that was a very serious deficiency." He added: "I didn't always agree with them, by any means, but I had tremendous admiration for their willingness to serve and for their dedication to the government. But they needed a check and a balance, and they weren't getting it." \\//

"Even in 2007, McNamara contended that the U.S. defense establishment had yet to absorb the lesson: "I don't think the military today recognizes the degree to which they failed to confront the president, confront me and the president, secretary of state, with the shallow foundation to our actions." But he accepted responsibility for a monumental lapse in coordination and communication between civilian and military leaders. He was asked, "Did you ever call one of them in and sit him down and say, 'Hey, look?' " \\//

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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