Defense Media Network

How Westmoreland Lost Vietnam

An Interview with Lewis Sorley, author of Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam – Part 3 of 4

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 remained in command for so long. Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview can be found here and here.


Eric Tegler: Some people apparently had significant doubts about Westmoreland even before he was assigned command in Vietnam.

Lewis Sorley: Yes. Brig. Gen. Amos “Joe” Jordan went to see Cyrus Vance, who was then deputy secretary of defense. Jordan had known Vance well, and had been a permanent professor at West Point when Westmoreland was superintendent, so he knew the general well too.

He said to Vance that [Westmoreland’s selection] would be a disaster, that Vietnam would be a counter-insurgency war and that Westmoreland was a ‘two up and one back’ man [in standard Army tactics with three battalions a commander places two forward and one behind, a rote approach to military ops] and he’d have no idea how to go about it.

The irony of Vietnam is that there were any number of places where, had a different decision been made, it would have made a significant difference in the way the war was conducted and probably in the way it turned out.


And the decision to send Gen. Westmoreland to Vietnam had to be one of those?

When Westmoreland was proposed to go out and replace Gen. Paul Harkins [then Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] in early 1964, there were four candidates offered to the president. I don’t think Lyndon Johnson knew any of these officers, because he’d only recently replaced Jack Kennedy, so Secretary McNamara was probably the key figure in making recommendations and helping the president decide. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who from World War II days forward was a great supporter and patron of Westmoreland, may very well have influenced McNamara to make that choice.

The other three that were proposed included Gen. Harold K. Johnson, who became instead the Army Chief of Staff; Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became the Vice Chief of Staff; and Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., who became the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations – three top people in the Army staff.

We now know, though they couldn’t have known then, that those three officers saw the war very much the same way and understood it to be a war for the security of the people, not a war of body count and attrition. You could argue that we had three chances to start out on the winning track and we got the one which didn’t work that way. It’s rather tragic actually.


That’s one of the quirks of history, as was the death of John Kennedy, who might have altered that decision had he been in office.

That’s probably right. The recently published Jacqueline Kennedy interviews included a number of comments, the most striking I thought was that she said, ‘Anybody but Lyndon Johnson. We all thought he was the worst.’ How the [Kennedy campaign] got from there to choosing him I’m not quite sure. I suppose he was thought to be someone who could balance the ticket and influence the Senate.


In Westmoreland and President Johnson do you see a lesson for military leadership in advising a president in wartime? Johnson appeared to accept at face value the advice of Gen. Westmoreland and Gen. Wheeler without considering other input.

Inevitably my mind goes to Harry Truman and ‘the buck stops here.’ Even though his military service had only been at the level of captain, he understood that a commander in chief has to be commander in chief. It’s troubling to me that, after the 1968 Tet Offensive, Gen. Westmoreland and Gen. Wheeler apparently colluded to mislead the president and try to force his hand.

Johnson had never wanted to call up reserve forces. They asked for 206,000 more troops. Westmoreland maintained for years and years that he had not done so until [ABC News] reporter Sam Donaldson cornered him and Westmoreland admitted that Wheeler had persuaded him to ask for those soldiers.

Westmoreland also tried, and maybe succeeded, we don’t know for sure, in misleading the president about how they were doing in his war of attrition, how many of the enemy they were able to kill and whether that brought about a net reduction in the number of enemy [soldiers] you were fighting, which in Westmoreland’s terms would have meant some degree of success.

We now know, and a lot of people thought at the time, that it didn’t really matter how many of the enemy you killed, he would just keep replacing them. I think it was David Halberstam who said we were fighting the birth rate of a nation.


In the book you explain that one of Westmoreland’s command tenets was simply to go out and meet as many people as possible, not in a cordial or in-depth way, but to show himself, shake a hand and move on to the next person.

What makes it interesting is that in earlier days he was going out primarily to talk to people in units that he commanded. During his time as Chief of Staff he walked away from that and went out to talk to the American public more generally, and overwhelmingly to try to justify his service in Vietnam. But Westmoreland’s traipsing around the country to talk as he did was not a continuation of the way he [spoke to] people in his units earlier.


How did the Army function then with his lack of direction as Chief of Staff?

The person who really ran the Army in those days was the Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Bruce Palmer, Jr., who was Westmoreland’s exact contemporary, his West Point classmate. Palmer had also served under Westmoreland in the latter stages of his command in Vietnam. He was desperately unhappy with the way Westmoreland fought the war. In the Pentagon, we younger staff members would always turn to Gen. Palmer if there was any problem.

When [Westmoreland] became its Chief of Staff, the Army had quite a number of problems, some of its own making, some societal in nature. There was indiscipline in the ranks, racial disharmony, pretty widespread drug abuse, budgetary problems and the necessity to prepare for an inevitable transformation to an all-volunteer force. With all those very serious problems on his plate, Gen. Westmoreland said, ‘I thought my primary role was to go out and talk to the American people.’ And he did.

Continue to part four here.

This interview was originally published on November 21, 2011.


Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...

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