Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

Williamsburg Regional Library
Williamsburg, Virginia
30 April 2012

Lewis Sorley

I am grateful for the privilege of this forum, and thank you all for coming. I want to acknowledge at the outset that we are gathered on 30 April, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon and end of the war in Vietnam, a very sad day for all those who had hoped that South Vietnam might be able to preserve its freedom and independence. It didn’t have to end that way, but that is another story for another day.

There is one very positive outcome of the war, despite its tragic ending, and that is the million or more South Viet­namese who, then or later, made their way to Amer­ica. They are part of a new diaspora, people fleeing their homeland in search of opportunities to live in freedom elsewhere. Ginny and I have been fortunate to make many friends in the Vietnamese-American community. We are very proud of them for their decency, their work ethic, their thirst for education, and their patriotism regarding their new country.

Years ago, when I was researching the life and career of General Creighton Abrams, who spent five continuous years in Vietnam during the war, the last four as com­mander of all U.S. forces there, I was at Fort Leavenworth to interview the eldest of his sons, then on the faculty of the Army’s Command & General Staff College. I reminded him of what journalist Robert Shaplen had once said, that his father deserved a better war. “He didn’t see it that way,” young Creighton responded at once. “He thought the Vietnamese were worth it.” So do I.

Now to the topic of the evening, the life and career of General Westmoreland. I warn you at the outset that this is not a happy story.

But it is, I think, an important, even essential, one. My contention is that, unless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never understand fully what happened to us in Vietnam, or why.
And Westmoreland’s is, overwhelmingly, a Vietnam story.
His involvement in the Vietnam War was the defining aspect of his life. He himself perceived that, and was driven for the rest of his days to characterize, explain, rationalize, and defend that role.
His memoirs reflect the fixation. In a long career totaling thirty-six years as an officer, and a string of postings to increasingly important assignments, the four years he commanded American forces in Vietnam, and the after­math, constitute virtually the entirety of his account, all the rest a meager tenth.


Understanding Westmoreland is not easy. He turns out to be a surprisingly complex man. Fueled by ambition, driving himself relentlessly, of impressive military mien, energetic and effective at self-promotion, and skillful in cultivating influential sponsors, from his earliest days of service he led his contemporaries, was admired and advanced by his seniors, and progressed rapidly upward.

But few who served with him would claim they really knew this distant and difficult man. General Walter Kerwin, who was Westmoreland’s chief of staff for over a year in Vietnam, recalled that, although they worked very closely together, he and Westmoreland never had a personal relationship, never even a normal conversation as colleagues ordinarily would. “You couldn’t get to him—friendship and that kind of thing,” Kerwin remembered.

Westmoreland had an extraordinary capacity for polarizing the views of those who encountered him. Few remained indifferent. His executive officer when Westmoreland was Army Chief of Staff described him as “the most gracious and gentlemanly person with whom I ever served.” And an executive officer Westmoreland had in Vietnam regarded him as the only man he ever met to whom the term “great” could be applied.

There were others, though, many others, who had a darker view. Among the most prominent was General Harold K. Johnson, a man of surpassing decency and good will. “I don’t happen to be a fan of General Westmoreland’s,” said Johnson. “I don’t think I ever was, and I certainly didn’t become one as a result of the Vietnam War or later during his tenure as Chief of Staff of the Army.” A general officer of another service, who served closely with Westmoreland in Vietnam, described him as “awed by his own magnificence.”


Westmoreland was born and raised in semi-rural South Carolina, near Spartanburg, where his father was manager of a textile mill. An Eagle Scout at age 15, president of his high school class, First Captain at West Point, Westmore­land was encouraged from his earliest days to think of himself as specially gifted and specially privileged.

 “You do not know [how] happy and proud it makes us all to know that you are making good,” his father wrote to West-moreland during his plebe year at West Point. “Even the small boys and the negroes are interested and proud of it.”

 “When you need anything,” said his father on another occasion, “write me and I will send it to you. There is nothing too good for you.”

A subsequent letter, still during Westmoreland’s plebe year, went even further. “The people here, white and black, think you are about the biggest man in the country,” reported his father. “Roosevelt has no rank at all compared to you. They really believe you will be President of the U.S. some day and talk this among themselves.”


Westmoreland entered World War II as commander of an artillery battalion in the 9th Infantry Division, taking his unit into combat in North Africa. There they performed with distinction, earning a Presidential Unit Citation.
Subsequently, in Sicily, Westmoreland served temporarily under then-Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor, an associa­tion that would be extremely important to him throughout the rest of his career. For the rest of World War II Westmore­land was a staff officer.

Back in the United States, Westmoreland was able to get an assignment to the 82nd Airborne Division where, after attending jump school, he had a year in command of a parachute infantry regiment and then three years as division chief of staff.


Late in the Korean War, Westmoreland took command of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, a unit that constituted the theater reserve and consequently was stationed in Japan and periodically deployed to Korea. Westmoreland commanded the outfit for fifteen months, of which nine months were spent in Japan (where, after a promotion to brigadier general, he was able to live with Kitsy and their young first child) and six months in Korea.

During one such Korean period when they were not in combat, Westmoreland—desirous of qualifying for the master parachutist’s badge—made thirteen jumps in one day.

New Brigadier General Westmoreland experienced his first Pentagon duty with an assignment in personnel. “I had not served there earlier, and I didn’t want to serve there,” he said in an oral history. Then Maxwell Taylor became Army Chief of Staff and rescued Westmoreland from the personnel policy morass, making him his Secretary of the General Staff. Two years later, having in the meantime been promoted to two-star rank, Westmoreland was rewarded by Taylor with command of the 101st Airborne Division.

Two years as division commander were followed by a three-year assignment as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, then promotion to lieutenant general and six months in command of the XVIII Airborne Corps.


Westmoreland was sent to Vietnam in January 1964 as deputy to General Paul Harkins, then in June 1964 replaced him as Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, beginning what turned out to be a four-year stint in that post.
In the spring of 1965 the United States began deploying ground forces to Vietnam. Under Westmoreland, who had decided to conduct a war of attrition, these forces concentrated almost entirely on large-unit search and destroy operations, primarily in the deep jungle.

Fixated on these large unit operations, called by many the “war of the big battalions,” Westmoreland largely ignored other key responsibilities, most importantly the upgrading of South Vietnam’s military forces and dealing with pacification. His way of war did nothing to affect the situation in South Vietnam’s hamlets and villages, where the enemy’s covert infrastructure was left free to continue using coercion and terror to dominate the rural populace.

Meanwhile Westmoreland deprived the South Vietnamese of modern weaponry, giving U.S. and other allied forces priority for issue of the new M-16 rifle and other advanced military wherewithal. The South Vietnamese thus went for years equipped with castoff World War II-vintage U.S. equipment while being outgunned by the communists, who were provided the AK-47 assault rifle and other advanced equipment by their backers.


It is important to know that it was left to Westmoreland to devise his own approach to conduct of the war. The con­ventional view of the war, even now, is that it was micro­managed from Washington. There are many stories of how, at Lyndon Johnson’s White House “Tuesday Lunches,” he and other top (mostly civilian) officials even selected indi­vidual bombing targets and made other such detailed de­terminations about aspects of the war. Those accounts are accurate. But the decisions involved had to do with ac­tions taken outside South Vietnam. Within South Viet­nam, the U.S. commander had very wide latitude in decid­ing how to fight the war. This was true for Westmoreland, and equally true for his eventual successor.

General Bruce Palmer Jr. confirmed this fact. “Washington never made any basic decisions on the strategic concept,” he said. “And that left Westmoreland in Vietnam to invent his own strategic concept, which he did.”

This was not, Palmer concluded, a good thing. “There were many weaknesses in this strategy which in numerous in­terrelated ways played into the hands of the enemy.” For one, said General Palmer, “chasing around the countryside was futile.”

General Phillip Davidson, Westmoreland’s chief intelli­gence officer, said that “Westmoreland’s interest always lay in the big-unit war. Pacification bored him.” And, said Davidson, the search and destroy operations favored by Westmoreland “accomplished little in providing the secure environment which pacification required.”


The measure of merit in a war of attrition is body count. Westmoreland underestimated the enemy’s staying power, calculating that if he could inflict enough casualties on the communists they would lose heart and cease their ag­gression against South Vietnam. Instead the enemy proved willing to absorb enormous losses and still keep fighting. Thus the “progress” Westmoreland claimed in racking up huge body counts did nothing to win the war. The enemy simply kept sending more and more replacements to make up his losses. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.

Westmoreland also overestimated the American people’s patience and tolerance of friendly losses. On a visit to South Vietnam, Senator Hollings from Westmoreland’s home state of South Carolina was told by Westmoreland: “We’re killing these people,” the enemy, “at a ratio of 10 to 1.” Said Hollings, “Westy, the American people don’t care about the ten. They care about the one.”


Westmoreland’s response to any problem was to request more troops. The result was buildup of a U.S. contingent of ground forces that eventually reached well over half a mil­lion men. But when the troop requests kept coming, with no evident progress in winning the war, Washington’s pa­tience ran out.

In the spring of 1967 Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops, but got only a fraction of that amount.
And then when, in the wake of the enemy’s 1968 Tet Of­fensive, Westmoreland asked for another 206,000 troops (a request he then spent years denying he had ever made), he got just token forces and was soon on his way home, re­placed in Vietnam by his deputy.


It is clear that Westmoreland thought he could take the war over from the South Vietnamese, bring it to a success­ful conclusion, then hand their country back to them and go home in glory.

Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker saw that this was the case, concluding that when the United States first got involved the political and psychological nature of the war was not understood. And, he said, “because we didn’t understand it our military thought we could get in and do the job and get out much more quickly than proved to be the case. Therefore,” he added, “I think that’s one reason we were slow in training the Vietnamese, instead of starting really to train them in an intensive way when we first went in there.”

General Fred Weyand, on the scene commanding a corps-level headquarters, saw the results at first hand. “The rea­son why some” South Vietnamese units “never operated at any distance from their fortified bases,” he observed, “was that they were quite literally surrounded by a strong, but well-hidden enemy and these lightly armed, under-strength units simply did not have the capability to deal with them.”

This disparity in resources, especially weapons, persisted throughout Westmoreland’s tenure in Vietnam. Ambassa­dor Bunker noted it in a reporting cable to the President only weeks before Westmoreland’s departure. “The enemy has been able to equip his troops with increasingly sophis­ticated weapons; they are in general better equipped than the ARVN forces, a fact which has an adverse bearing on ARVN morale.” He might also have noted the adverse ef­fects on ARVN performance and reputation. Westmoreland had by then been in command of U.S. forces in Vietnam for nearly four years.

Another American Ambassador of the time, General Maxwell Taylor, was even more blunt. “We never really paid attention to the ARVN army,” he said. “We didn’t give a damn about them.” Not until General Creighton Abrams came on the scene did this attitude change.


1967 was a fateful time in Westmoreland’s Vietnam serv­ice. During that year he made three trips to the United States, where in public appearances he gave very optimis­tic assessments of how the war was going, part of what later came to be called the Johnson administration’s Pro­gress Offensive. “Very, very encouraged,” said Westmore­land in a plane-side press conference upon arriving in the U.S. in mid-November. “I’ve never been more encouraged during my entire almost four years in country.”
At the National Press Club he asserted that, “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” And, he added, “the enemy’s hopes are bank­rupt.” On another visit that year he spoke to a Joint Ses­sion of Congress, rendering another optimistic report and being so taken with the experience that he later described it as “the most memorable moment in [his] military ca­reer” and “[his] finest hour which gave [him] the greatest personal satisfaction.”

1967 was also a time of vigorous debate about the enemy’s order of battle—meaning his strength and organization.

Westmoreland denied senior civilian officials accurate data by imposing a ceiling on the number of enemy forces his intelligence officers could report or agree to and by personally removing from the order of battle entire cate­gories that had long been included, thus falsely portraying progress in reducing enemy strength.


Challenged by newsmen on his optimistic pronounce­ments, Westmoreland resorted to his familiar reliance on body count: “We are bleeding him a great deal more than he is bleeding us.”


In May 1967 Westmoreland was sent a new deputy, an officer who was slated to take over the top command from him within a matter of weeks. As events played out, however, that did not happen, and it was thirteen months before it did.


Westmoreland sought to portray 1967 as a triumphant year, one during which he was winning the war. Others, many others, saw it much differently.
+ By May of 1967 President Johnson was referring to the war as “a bloody impasse.”
+ In early November 1967 the President told the Wise Men, his group of outside advisors on war policy, that “we’ve been on dead center for the last year” in Vietnam.
+ The “Wise Men” in turn concluded that Westmore­land’s search-and-destroy tactics must be abandoned.
+ McNamara’s Systems Analysis Office in the Pentagon (headed by Alain Enthoven) concluded that “small patrols were much more effective and much less costly in casualties than big sweeps” and recommended “expanded use of small-unit operations, particularly patrols.”
+ General Bruce Palmer Jr., serving as Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army, Vietnam, told West­more­land’s incoming four-star deputy that he “really had basic disagreements with Westy on how it was organized and how we were doing it.” Later General Palmer elabo­rated: “It was just a mess,” he said. “We were losing and trying to put it together, and it just wasn’t working. There wasn’t anything that was working.”
+ In late summer Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker submitted this assessment: “We still have a long way to go. Much of the country is still in VC hands, the enemy can still shell our bases and commit acts of terrorism in the securest areas, VC units still mount large scale attacks, most of the populace has still not actively committed itself to the Government, and a VC infrastructure still exists throughout the country.” That was what Westmoreland had to show for three years in command of U.S. forces.
+ Even S. L. A. Marshall, a military columnist usually very supportive of the senior leadership, raised the key question: “Do the big sweeps such as the envelopment of the Iron Triangle or the attack on War Zone C really have a payoff justifying an elaborate massing of troops and moun­tains of supply?” His answer: “Many of the generals doubt it and the statistics of what is actually accomplished gives some substance to these doubts.”
+ Surveyed after the war, Army generals who had commanded in Vietnam confirmed those doubts. Nearly a third stated that the search-and-destroy concept was “not sound.” As for the execution of search-and-destroy tactics, a majority of 51 percent thought it “left something to be desired,” an answer ranking below “adequate” in the survey instrument.
+ Commented Brigadier General Douglas Kinnard, author of the study, “Those replies show a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, to put it mildly, by Westmoreland’s gener­als for his tactics and by implication for his strategy in the war.”
+ In December 1967 Robert McNamara told a Tuesday Lunch at the White House that “the war cannot be won by killing North Vietnamese. It can only be won by protecting the South Vietnamese.”
+ By the end of 1967, remembered Nicholas Katzen­bach, “a grim sense of siege was descending on the White House.”
+ Finally even General William DePuy, architect of the search and destroy approach to the war, admitted that it was “a losing concept of operation.” We ended up, he said after it was all over, “with no operational plan that had the slightest chance of ending the war favorably.”

In the face of this united opposition to his way of war, and the widespread negative view of what it was achieving, Westmoreland maintained, then and later, that “the North Vietnamese in mid-1967 were in a position of weakness.”
Commenting on LBJ, military historian Russell Weigley observed that: “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.”


There were many instances, especially concerning matters in Vietnam, where Westmoreland had been willing to shade or misremember or deny or invent the record when his per­ceived interests were at risk. One episode involving his lack of confidence in the Marine leadership is both illus­trative and revealing. Shortly before the Tet Offensive be­gan in early 1968 Westmoreland decided to send his dep­uty north to the I Corps region to establish and run a tac­tical headquarters that he designated MACV Forward. From there the deputy was to control the operations of all U.S. forces in the area, including those of the Marine Corps.

Westmoreland’s chief intelligence officer, General Phillip Davidson, had returned from a visit to Khe Sanh and briefed Westmoreland on the situation there. “The de­scription of the unprotected installations…and the general lack of preparation to withstand heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire agitated General Westmoreland,” said Davidson. “Finally he turned to [his deputy] and said something to the effect that he (Westmoreland) had lost confidence in [Marine General] Cushman’s ability to han­dle the increasingly threatening situation….” His response was to set up MACV Forward.
Marine reaction was predictable. One division commander called this “the most unpardonable thing that Saigon did!” and said Marines viewed it “with shock and astonish­ment.” Westmoreland soon held a press conference in which he denied that any loss of confidence in Marine leadership had been his reason for placing the new head­quarters over them.
Westmoreland also cabled Cushman to say “there has been extensive backgrounding here [in Saigon] with the various news bureau chiefs to point out that the establishment of MACV Forward carried no stigma whatsoever with respect to the Marines, that it was merely a normal military practice…, and that it was only temporary.”
Only the “temporary” was true. The other denials were false, as evidenced not only by Davidson’s eyewitness ac­count but also by a lengthy and anguished cable Westmo­reland sent contemporaneously to General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “As you perhaps ap­preciate,” he began, “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.”
There was more: “I would be less than frank,” added Westmoreland, “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.”

After the war, when the Marines were writing their history of the conflict, they sent a draft of the 1968 volume to Westmoreland for comment. He marked it up so exten­sively, and took issue with so many of the judgments ren­dered, that he was invited to discuss the whole matter in person. He accepted and, in a session with a number of Marine Corps historians, again insisted with regard to es­tablishment of MACV Forward that “that particular action had not a damned thing to do with my confidence in Gen­eral Cushman or the Marines, not a damned thing.” This was not only false but, given the existing paper trail, reckless in the extreme.

Westmoreland racked up a lengthy record of false, misleading, and inaccurate statements or omissions, ranging from enemy order of battle to his troop requests, from the situation in Vietnam to closure of Khe Sanh Base, and from battles in the Ia Drang to prediction of an early end of the war to light at the end of the tunnel. Some of these matters were petty, others of crucial importance, but they were alike in one respect—when Westmoreland saw his personal interests at stake, he did not hesitate to conceal or abandon the truth.


When, at the end of January 1968, the enemy’s Tet Offensive began, Westmoreland’s long turn at bat was nearing an end. The Tet resurgence of enemy forces led many to conclude that, in his optimistic forecasts of the previous year, Westmoreland had either not known what he was talking about or had not leveled with the American people. It is hard to know which is the more devastating criticism. What was clear, however, was that with his unavailing approach to conduct of the war Westmoreland had squandered four years of support by much of the American people, the Congress, and even the media.


For the next four years Westmoreland served as Army Chief of Staff. The Army of that day was struggling with many problems, some the result of the ongoing war in Vietnam, others more societal in origin. These included indiscipline, widespread drug abuse, racial disharmony, budgetary shortfalls, and the necessity to prepare for the end of the draft and transition to an all-volunteer force.

Faced with these multiple crises, Westmoreland decided to focus his attention elsewhere. “I spoke in every state in the union,” he later recalled. “I considered myself the military spokesman of the Army, and that I should be exposed to the American public and put forth the Army’s point of view. I felt that an understanding of the military was the primary mission that fell on my shoulders while I was Chief of Staff.”

 “I had too much to occupy me [to get into details of Army reorganization],” Westmoreland said in a later oral history. “I, frankly, in evaluating the priorities of my time, gave rather high priority to going around the coun­try and giving them the facts of life with respect to the military….”


In later years Westmoreland viewed himself as very much put upon. “My years away have been fraught with challenges, frustrations, and sadness,” he said to a hometown audience. “Nobody has taken more guff than I have,” he claimed, “and I am not apologizing for a damn thing—nothing, and I welcome being the point man!”

That outlook, no second-guessing of himself and no regrets, persisted through the end of his life. As Army Chief of Staff and beyond, Westmoreland made strenuous efforts to shape the historical record in ways favorable to his version of reality.

This included writing his memoirs. Charles MacDonald, a professional military historian, was the ghost writer for that project. He was dismayed that Westmoreland insisted on producing an account like Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe and didn’t let the fact that he’d lost his war keep him from doing so.

Wrote Westmoreland self-pityingly: “As American commander in Vietnam, I underwent many frustrations, endured much interference, lived with countless irritations, swallowed many disappointments, bore considerable criticism.”


Two major episodes, both extremely traumatic, marked the Westmoreland retirement years. First was a dramati­cally unsuccessful campaign for governor in his native state of South Carolina. Then there was a failed libel suit against the CBS Television Network for a documentary charging Westmoreland with manipulation of enemy strength figures while he commanded U.S. forces in Viet­nam.

In each of these cases Westmoreland ignored the advice of highly qualified men who had his best interests at heart and who counselled against the courses of action Westmoreland took.

In the political campaign Westmoreland came in second in the Republican primary to a state senator who then went on to be elected South Carolina’s first republican governor since Reconstruction. Westmoreland said he had found it very hard to shake hands with people, ask people for fa­vors, and talk about himself. Despite a campaign theme describing him as “the only candidate with the proven leadership and administrative ability to carry South Caro­lina to greatness,” Westmoreland ran a poorly managed campaign that was late getting started, never got out a coherent message, and wound up deeply in debt.

Afterward Westmoreland called it his most degrading experience.


In 1982, CBS Television aired a documentary charging Westmoreland with having manipulated reports of enemy strength during the Vietnam War. Westmoreland had willingly participated in making the program, being interviewed on camera (and asking to be paid for it).

The resulting broadcast was not favorable to him, with numerous former intelligence officers describing how enemy strength data had been manipulated, and how Westmoreland himself had decreed that certain whole categories of enemy forces be taken out of the order of battle, thus artificially driving down the total of enemy forces so as to achieve “progress” in his war of attrition.
In due course, against the advice of high-powered attorneys who advised against it, Westmoreland brought a libel suit against CBS, seeking $120 million in damages.

In the course of a lengthy trial, with Westmoreland represented by an attorney who had never before tried a case in court, things did not go well. Still the thing dragged on for some eighteen weeks. Then, just days before the case would have gone to the jury, Westmoreland withdrew his suit. In exchange he received a vanilla statement from CBS which he claimed exonerated him. “The effort to defame, dishonor and destroy me and those under my command had been exposed and defeated,” he asserted. “I therefore withdrew from the battlefield, all flags flying.”

Editorial opinion was not so favorable. The New York Times succinctly stated the prevailing reaction. “At the end,” it concluded, “[General Westmoreland] stood in imminent danger of having a jury confirm the essential truth of the CBS report. For, in court, as on the original program, the general could not get past the testimony of high-ranking former subordinates who confirmed his having colored some intelligence information.” Said one of the jurors to the press on the way out the courthouse door, “The evidence in favor of CBS was overwhelming.”


“Westmoreland’s life since Vietnam has been miserable,” observed a former aide.

Westmoreland himself seemed to have contributed much to that outcome. “The Vietnam War is my number one pri­ority,” he told an interviewer some years after retirement. “I’ve tried to spread myself thin and visit all sections of the country.” 1990
But then, in an assertion completely undermining the meaning and purpose of all those years of incessant, even frantic, activity, Westmoreland told a college audience that “in the scope of history, Vietnam is not going to be a big deal. It won’t float to the top as a major endeavor.” 1993 Hampton-Sydney College

Westmoreland’s ultimate failure would have earned him more compassion, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame for the endless self-pro­motion that elevated him to positions and responsibilities beyond his capacity.

“It’s the aggressive guy who gets his share—plus,” Westmoreland maintained. “That principle applies to most anything.” That’s the way he operated.

In later years Westmoreland, widely regarded as a general who lost his war, also lost his only run for political office, lost his libel suit, and lost his reputation. It was a sad ending for a man who for most of his life and career had led a charmed existence.
General Westmoreland lived a long life. Afflicted by Alz­heimer’s disease for at least his last decade, he died in July 2005 and was buried at West Point at a gravesite he had selected when he was Superintendent there. As a final irony, given Westmoreland’s very strong and vocal opposi­tion to the admission of women to West Point—the cadet honor guard for the burial ceremony was commanded, and very ably, by a female cadet officer.