A general-in-chief has no right to shelter his mistakes in war under cover of his sovereign, or of a minister, when they are both distant from the scene of operations, and must consequently be either ill informed or wholly ignorant of the actual state of things.
Hence, it follows that every general is culpable who undertakes the execution of a plan which he considers faulty. It is his duty to represent his reasons, to insist upon a change of plan; in short to give in his resignation rather than allow himself to become the instrument of his army’s ruin. . .
Napoléon I, Maxims., LXXII, p. 79 (Ed. David G. Chandler, Macmillan, 1988)
From the first I contemplated eventually moving into Laos to cut and block the infiltration routes of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in 1966 and 1967 my staff prepared detailed plans for such an operation. . .Yet I recognized that blocking the trail would require at least a corps-size force of three divisions, and I would be unable for a long time to spare that many troops from the critical fight within South Vietnam. When at last, in 1968, our strength had increased sufficiently and the enemy had been depleted enough to make the move possible, President Johnson was so beset by war critics that he would take no step that might possibly be interpreted as broadening the war, which he had publicly announced he would not do.
In a discussion [in April 1967] . . .ex-presidential candidate Harold Stasssen asked if there was not some alternative strategy lying somewhere between a strategy of attrition and a strategy of annihilation. I replied that there was most certainly: block the Ho Chi Minh trail with ground troops. Yet Washington had ruled that out. . .
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Yet, even with the handicap of graduated response, the war still could have been brought to a favorable end following the defeat of the enemy’s Tet offensive in 1968. The United States had in South Vietnam at that time the finest military force – though not the largest, ever assembled. The build-up of troops and the logistical support base were slow in coming, but at last they were there ready for decisive action. Had the president allowed a change in strategy and taken advantage of the enemy’s weakness to enable the command to carry out operations planned over the preceding two years in Laos and Cambodia and north of the DMZ . . .the North Vietnamese doubtless would have broken. But that was not to be.
William Childs Westmoreland, commander of US forces in the Republic of Vietnam from 1964-1968, then Chief of Staff of the US Army, died last week at 91. Ernest B. Furguson’s biography of the General is entitled: Westmoreland: The Inevitable General which almost perfectly sums up peers’ expectations of William Westmoreland from the moment he left West Point in 1936.
Commissioned into the artillery, Westmoreland entered World War II with the 9th Infantry Division, commanding artillery battalions in North Africa and Sicily, and becoming Chief of Staff of the division. Westmoreland rapidly caught the eye of three stars in the Army hierarchy: the Airborne generals Matthew Ridgway, Maxwell Taylor, and James Gavin, By the end of the war, Westmoreland was a full colonel.
Shortly after the war Westmoreland transferred to the infantry, and was offered command of a regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, then as now, one of the Army’s elite formations. The Army’s confidence in Westmoreland may be more adequately weighed when it is considered that during this time, the Army shrank in size from approximately 100 divisions to 16. While Westmoreland was serving with the 82nd Airborne, General Eisenhower, then Army Chief of Staff, is said to have ordered his personnel chief to prepare a list of 10-15 officers who had shown extraordinary promise during World War II: a group to be groomed as future Army movers and shakers. Membership in this circle has been debated, but almost all agree that Westmoreland was in it, along with his successor as commander in Vietnam, Creighton Abrams.
After his stint with the 82nd Airborne Division, an oddity emerges: In 1949, Westmoreland went to the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, not as a student – but an instructor. Westmoreland in fact never attended the staff colleges: the CGSC, the Army War College, the National Defense University – which are the usual stops for somebody destined for senior military command. Westmoreland had a perfectly good excuse of course: he had been too busy doing – serving in the field with troops.
Then the Korean Conflict came along: Westmoreland did not go immediately, but when he did, it was in command of possibly the most coveted unit available for a colonel: the 187th Infantry Regimental Combat Team (Airborne) – a separate reinforced parachute regiment previously commanded by a Brigadier General. Westmoreland did well enough in Korea to garner a Brigadier General’s star at the young age of 38, but Korea meant there was little further time for education, other than a three month course in advanced management at Harvard Business School.
Westmoreland thus rose to very lofty command rank absent the theoretical and intellectual education normally considered a routine requirement. Westmoreland’s position as commander in Vietnam required from him not only the ability to command troops, and plan and direct their operations; but meant he needed to actively participate in the evaluation of political and military intelligence; in the formulation of national and theatre strategy, the making of logistical and force-structure plans, and engage in continual interaction with US and foreign politicians and with the media. Westmoreland became what Napoléon called a “general in chief” in probably the most politically and strategically complex war America ever fought with arguably insufficient intellectual ballast.
But command in war was Westmoreland’s destiny, and there is no doubt that he discharged it to the best of his ability. But one wonders if the man was out of his depth ? Westmoreland arrived in Vietnam in 1964, and presided over the US escalation of that conflict. When Westmoreland arrived in-country, there were 16,000 US troops. By 1968, the force under his command had swollen to over 500,000.
The full history of the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, and the battles during his tenure is beyond the scope of this piece, but some discussion is in order. Westmoreland shattered several North Vietnamese regular infantry divisions at Khe Sanh in 1967-1968, inflicting disproportionately huge losses on the enemy. Similarly, in 1968, Westmoreland won the biggest American battle of the war, making a shambles of the Viet Cong’s “Tet Offensive” that was supposed to end the war in the communists’ favor.
Perhaps the finest hour of Westmoreland’s military life was his decision to abandon the Tet cease-fire and alert US and South Vietnamese forces when it became clear that a massive communist offensive was imminent. His decision won this battle and saved thousands of lives. After Tet, the Viet Cong were finished as a political and military factor: the war would be decided, ultimately, by North Vietnamese regular troops. Westmoreland’s “big unit” war of 1967-1968 kept the harried Viet Cong away from the South Vietnamese cities and allowed the South Vietnamese time to build an army.
Yet arguably, Westmoreland devoted insufficient time and attention to this latter task: leaving the heavy lifting on this task for his successor, Creighton Abrams. Westmoreland allowed the South Vietnamese to become too dependant on the Americans. At its most elemental level, war is decided by the successful mastery of time, space and available forces. Lyndon Johnson controlled the space in which the war would be fought; he controlled the available forces; and, as for time, Westmoreland appears to have failed to appreciate its strategic importance: the need to win the Vietnam War, or making it appear, politically, that it could be won, before the patience of the American people was exhausted.
Westmoreland presented the Johnson administration with plans that would have undoubtedly ensured the survival of the Republic of Vietnam and an American victory. This involved the expansion of the war to Laos and Cambodia in 1967-69, and the movement of large numbers of US forces into those countries and possibly into the southern parts of North Vietnam to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail (by which Hanoi supplied both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese troops in the South). This would have required about 200,000 additional US troops, and the mobilization of US reserves: both from the Army Reserve component and from the National Guard. (90,000 of these troops would not have left the US; they would have reconstituted the US strategic reserve, which is what Westmoreland would get). The Johnson Administration balked.
With this decision, it became clear in retrospect, the United States, and the people of South Vietnam, lost the war. The liberals protest that the US violated the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia: however, neutrality has obligations – these countries were unable and unwilling to prevent the violation of their neutrality by North Vietnam. When the United States failed to block the Ho Chi Minh trail (thus isolating the battlefield), it tied its own hands: limiting itself to a second-best strategy of attrition, that is, attempting to wear down North Vietnam by totaling up “body counts” – by destruction of its units within South Vietnam. Since the Ho Chi Minh trail could not be interdicted, this was a losing proposition.
It is Westmoreland’s reaction to the Johnson administration’s rejection of his strategy – the right strategy: the strategy that would have vindicated the sacrifices of 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, that would have meant the triumph of our just cause -- that is deserving of scrutiny. Westmoreland was the commander in the field, the man supposedly entrusted by the government with planning the battles and winning the war. He presented a plan for doing so. The government rejected it: and he took it in silence. Why didn’t he resign, as Napoléon would have suggested ?
The Johnson administration thus disposed of Force and Space, and Time ran out after the Tet Offensive, The Tet Offensive battle, thanks largely to Westmoreland, was an American victory. But with no apparent strategy to win the war in sight: the American people concluded the strategy was bankrupt, and, in El Jefe’s opinion wrongly, withdrew support from the struggle. Millions of South Vietnamese are still paying the price.
Shortly after Tet, the Johnson administration kicked the General upstairs, making him Chief of Staff of the Army, and replacing him with Creighton Abrams, probably a better commander, who focused on building up the South Vietnamese armed forces, in the little time he had left before the American abandonment of South Vietnam. The Nixon administration treated General Westmoreland rather shabbily, although his tenure as Army Chief of Staff during the sad years of impending defeat in Vietnam would have been difficult under the best of circumstances.
After the war, General Westmoreland wrote an excellent memoir, A Soldier Reports, which is required reading for anybody interested in the Vietnam War. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Governor of South Carolina; sued CBS for libel over a television “documentary” called The Uncounted Enemy; and served as a target for various groups of anti- war liberals unfit to shine his shoes.
General Westmoreland lived until 91, thus outlasting most of his contemporaries. He seems to have been blessed with a singularly happy home life. With some perspective, and appreciation of the political and social forces that he had to contend with, we can see now that General Westmoreland was thrown into a hopelessly complex political and military situation for which his education, experience and training supplied no precedents; and in which he was inadequately supported. History will be kind to him.
The General will be buried on the grounds of the Military Academy at West Point, of which he was, at one time, the commandant. Rest in peace.