For many who remember the period, Gen. William Childs Westmoreland is the face of the Vietnam War. And as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, his would seem to have been the perfect face aesthetically; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once said that Westmoreland looked as if he’d come right from central casting.
Unfortunately, as Lewis Sorley – a former member of Westmoreland’s staff and author of the recently released biography Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam – explains, the confidence which Westmoreland’s looks inspired was ill-founded. Despite a career building upon his experience as an Eagle Scout at 15, First Captain of his West Point class, combat commander in World War II and Korea, command of the 101st Airborne Division, and a return to West Point as Superintendent, Westmoreland proved woefully inadequate as the man in charge of America’s war in Vietnam and, later, of the U.S. Army.
In his book, Sorley details Westmoreland’s career, his flaws and deceptions and his failure to understand the fundamental nature of the conflict in Vietnam. Westmoreland’s tenure as commander of U.S. forces, the author concludes, ultimately put America’s massive effort in Vietnam on a negative trajectory from which it never recovered. In this four-part interview with DMN writer Eric Tegler, Sorley discusses Westmoreland’s tenure as Army Chief of Staff, his conduct of the war in Vietnam, how he came to that position and why he stayed in command for so long. Part 1 of the interview can be found here.
Eric Tegler: Did Westmoreland ever really embrace the ideas of strengthening the Vietnamese army and “Vietnamization” (building/strengthening Vietnamese civil society and institutions) as the PROVN Study recommended?
Lewis Sorley: Westmoreland always claimed he was giving high priority to support for South Vietnamese forces. There was no substance to that claim. He did little or nothing for them. Many, many other officers then remarked that we wasted three or four years when we could have been developing them much earlier and they could have taken over far more responsibility for the security of their country much sooner.
Among the evidence of how thoroughly Westmoreland ignored the South Vietnamese is the weaponry they were given. They limped through his tenure with basically cast-off American World War II weapons. I saw a study which said the average Vietnamese soldier stood five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds. The M1 rifle weighs about 11 pounds loaded and would stand almost to the shoulder of a five foot Vietnamese. The enemy was meanwhile arming the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army with, among other things, the AK-47, one of the great infantry assault weapons of all time.
So the South Vietnamese are terribly outgunned. As a result they lose a lot of engagements, lose a lot of leaders, their reputation suffers and their morale suffers. Meanwhile, Westmoreland is giving every mechanic, cook, radio repairman, and everyone else in the U.S. forces M16s. It’s not until Gen. Abrams comes on the scene as deputy commander that this changes, and changes very dramatically. The claims made by Westmoreland that he cared about the South Vietnamese forces and did everything he could to improve them are simply without substance.
Up to the level of division commander, Westmoreland was well respected by the Army’s senior commanders and by his own troops. Thereafter he seems like a “Dudley Do-Right” who looked the part and had allies like JCS Chairman Gen. Earle Wheeler and others. How did he stay in command despite his obvious shortcomings?
The Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, was fighting, fighting, fighting, trying to get Gen. Westmoreland to change the way he was running the war in accordance with the PROVN Study or to get him replaced. But Gen. Johnson was not in the chain of command. He was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but with Gen. Wheeler as the chairman it was hard to wield influence. Three people could have acted to change the situation – the Commander in Chief, Lyndon Johnson; the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara; and Earle Wheeler, the Chairman of the JCS.
Johnson, I think it’s fair to say, had little or no military background. Same thing for Robert McNamara. And Wheeler was essentially a staff officer with very limited command experience and none in combat. His understanding of the nature of the war paralleled Westmoreland’s – the way to win was to go out and kill as many of the enemy as you could. I think those senior people lacked the experience and, I would say, the confidence to replace Westmoreland before it became so painfully obvious that it had to be done.
I’m also convinced that Westmoreland’s looks had considerable influence. It’s hard to say how much, but he was one of the most handsome, photogenic officers we’ve ever had. Robert McNamara once said that if you sent to central casting for a general, they’d send you William C. Westmoreland. I try not to speculate, but I think Lyndon Johnson, looking at the magnificence of Westmoreland, was unable to believe that this general didn’t know what he was doing.
You point out that one of the generals under Westmoreland’s command opined that American forces should have defended what was worth defending in Vietnam – the cities and natural resources – and let the enemy come to them rather than fighting him in the jungle at times and places of his choosing. Westmoreland never heeded such advice, despite hearing it and other doubts from a number of people, including McNamara and Johnson.
That was Gen. Stone up with the 4th Division in the Central Highlands. The interesting thing was that many, many senior people – military officers and others – critiqued Westmoreland’s approach, not after the fact but at the time. No one could persuade him to change, and those with authority over him who could have ordered him to change or replaced him didn’t do so.