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How Westmoreland Lost Vietnam

An Interview with Lewis Sorley, author of Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam – Part 4 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 stayed in command for so long. Parts one, two, and three can be found here, here, and here.


Eric Tegler: Do you think that Gen. David Petraeus drew any lessons from study of the Vietnam conflict and the ideas of Vietnamization and support for the South Vietnamese Army that were rejected by Westmoreland?

Lewis Sorley: I don’t know any more than the average newspaper reader about events in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I do know Gen. Petraeus well. David Petraeus had an assignment at Fort Leavenworth between his time in Iraq and when he went to Afghanistan. One of the tasks he was given then was to write a new counterinsurgency manual that would be used by both the Army and the Marine Corps.

Early in that process he convened a by-invitation meeting of about 40 people who would have some role in drafting that manual. He invited me and said we’d have two keynote speakers, ‘You and me. You’re going to talk about the past – things that might be gleaned from the Abrams years in Vietnam. I’m going to talk about how these lessons could be applied to current and prospective future conflicts.’

We spent three intensive days [at Fort Leavenworth] doing that. The counterinsurgency manual has a lot of history in it which I think is valuable. When [General Petraeus] went out again to command forces [in Afghanistan], I’m convinced that he applied lessons he derived from the Abrams years in Vietnam. I heard him say to an audience once, ‘You cannot commute to a counterinsurgency war. You can’t hole-up in your secure fire bases. You’ve got to be out there where the people are and with them both day and night.’


Could it be argued that Westmoreland’s conduct of the war, and the support of Gen. Wheeler, actually hurt the Army to which they were both committed in Vietnam and for years thereafter?

I don’t think there’s any question that that is the case. When Gen. Westmoreland returned to be the Chief of Staff he encountered many problems, some of which were certainly exacerbated by the long duration of the war and the inconclusive results achieved under his command.

He largely turned his back on those problems and went off on an incessant round of speaking engagements. In 1970 he commissioned a significant study, after being persuaded to do so by Gen. William DePuy, an officer of considerable brilliance and honesty. DePuy would look at things and assess how they turned out, and if they had not turned out well he’d be willing to say so, which Westmoreland never was.

The study came to be called the Army War College Study on Military Professionalism, and it showed that the junior officers thought the senior officers were self-serving in the extreme. It was a very hard-hitting document. It was briefed to Gen. Westmoreland. He put a ‘For Official Use Only’ stamp on it. The authors at the War College in Carlisle said they put about 200 copies in a bathroom somewhere and locked the door. It wasn’t until quite some time later that these devastating findings became widely known and studied.

Less than two years [after burying the study], when Westmoreland was about to retire, he said in several forums, including some op-ed pieces he wrote for the New York Times, that the officer corps of the Army had never been better than it was under his command and that the Army was in wonderful shape. At that time I believe there were 13 divisions, ten of which were considered not combat ready. Gen. Westmoreland always wished to paint a picture which was favorable to him and his stewardship. Very often it was a false picture.


Gen. Westmoreland was succeeded in Vietnam and as Chief of Staff by Gen. Creighton Abrams, who is credited both with stabilizing and improving the war effort in Vietnam and, during the two years before his death in office, enacting reforms which put the Army back on a path to cultural and combat success as seen in the first Gulf War. Comparisons of the two are inevitable, I suppose?

Because of their following one another in these two major positions, the comparisons are inescapable. They’re exact contemporaries, and I think that’s important for reasons that go well beyond individuals.

Some have suggested that Westmoreland’s disabilities, especially in Vietnam, were institutionally and culturally induced. Even with the same record of service in World War II and Korea [Abrams] had an entirely different outlook on the nature of the war and how it should be conducted. That shows that the institution [the Army] was not incapable of adaptation and change or appropriate analysis of the task at hand. It was just Westmoreland.


Why write this book about Westmoreland now?

After 20 years in the Army I went to the Central Intelligence Agency and spent a number of years there. I never thought I’d become an author, but I’d commanded a tank battalion in Germany from 1970-1972 that was descended from Abrams’ World War II battalion. The Army in Europe at the time was in terrible shape. The war in Vietnam had degraded just about every aspect of the Army in Europe and elsewhere, and I was trying desperately to motivate the soldiers I had.

I learned all I could about the battalion’s history in World War II, then wrote and issued a little mimeographed history, gave talks and so on. I don’t think I influenced the soldiers very much, partly because they were just passing through. They’d been drafted, got a little training, went to Vietnam and spent their tours there, and had only three or four months to serve before their two years of service were up. They were sent to Europe just to keep the NATO numbers up so we could claim we were meeting our responsibility there. They weren’t really interested in anything except going home, and I didn’t blame them. I didn’t influence them, but I influenced myself.

[Sorley then spent eight years on his book on Gen. Abrams, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times, followed by books on Gen. Harold K. Johnson and on Abrams’ command in Vietnam].

The only hole left in the Vietnam story was the four years that Westmoreland commanded there. It was not to me a congenial task, but I felt an obligation to history, and I had a lot of material on Gen. Westmoreland that I’d never seen published anywhere else. So I decided to do a full-scale biography.

In the meantime the Army asked me to edit the papers of a general named Donn Starry, which resulted in a two-volume collection. Then West Point asked me to write a book on the history and origins of the Honor Code and Honor System. Then VMI asked me spend a semester there as their first Visiting Professor to of leadership and ethics. Those were opportunities I felt I could just not turn down. Finally I got back to Westmoreland. This book probably would have been more timely earlier, but I got to it when I could.


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

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    WOW. What if this had been published in 1970, or at least given to President Johnson? WOW. Gives terrible meaning to the probably true concept that individual people such as Westmoreland matter in history. He killed a lot of people, Vietnamese and Americans, caused the destruction of one nation, Vietnam, and the near-destruction of his own nation and my own, the United States of America. Is it too late to try Westmoreland for Treason and for Crimes Against Humanity, both War Crimes and Crimes Against Peace?

    I knew he was crazy and duplicitous at the time, also incompetent, but I did not know that he was as close to being a Nazi as makes little difference. Talk about “Big Lie” and “disregard for life!”