Historian's new book faults Westmoreland for Vietnam outcome
The following interview with military historian Lewis Sorley focuses on his newest book, “Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam.” Sorley, a West Point graduate, served in armor units in South Vietnam and West Germany before teaching at the U.S. Army War College. He later worked for the CIA and with several global-security think tanks, also earning a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.
Sorley’s 1999 book, “A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam,” earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination and was read by military policymakers in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Conducting the interview was Paul Akers, opinion editor of The Free Lance-Star, a daily newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va.
Paul Akers: You first came to my attention when I picked up “A Better War.” Then I saw the book’s subtitle, “The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam,” and I thought, at last! Somebody’s got the real story of Vietnam.
The book centered on Gen. Creighton Abrams and his command of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, which was, you argued convincingly, superior to that of his predecessor, Gen. William Westmoreland. So the Westmoreland book (“Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam,” Mariner Books, 2012, 432 pp.) is almost a prequel to “A Better War.”
Lewis Sorley: The title, “A Better War,” requires a little explanation. I got it from a quotation by Robert Shaplen, who covered the war for The New Yorker. He had said, “It’s too bad, you know, Abrams is very good. He deserves a better war.” My contention in the book was not only did Abrams deserve one, he created one.
You asked me to describe what Westmoreland did in the earlier years. Some have contended that Westmoreland was a product of his times and the Army of his times, and how could you expect him to have done other than what he did?
So I want to lay down this marker. Westmoreland commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from June 1964 to June 1968, and his successor, Abrams, commanded another four years, from June 1968 to June 1972. So they had similar tenures there.
Westmoreland was there a half year before his command tenure as a deputy. Abrams was there a year before his four years in command as deputy to Westmoreland. Westmoreland graduated from West Point in the Class of 1936 and went into the field artillery and served in World War II and in Korea and then became the commander in Vietnam. Abrams graduated from West Point in the Class of 1936. He went into the calvary, later the armor, served in World War II and Korea, and then went to Vietnam.
They had very similar backgrounds. You cannot lay the blame for Westmoreland’s approach to the conduct of the war on institutional or environmental factors. He and Abrams were subjected to much the same experiences in the exact same period. They are West Point classmates. Yet one understood the war and one did not, and that was a factor of their individual intellects and insights.
Akers: So where did Westmoreland go wrong?
Sorley: Westmoreland’s idea was that he would conduct a war of attrition.
It is very important to know he had almost total freedom of action to determine how he was going to conduct the war within South Vietnam. We’ve heard these stories about President Lyndon Johnson with his senior advisers, mostly civilians, micro-managing the war, even picking individual bombing targets. All true. But they were managing the war outside South Vietnam. Inside South Vietnam, the commander had almost total freedom.
So Westmoreland decides to conduct a war of attrition using “search and destroy” tactics. “War of attrition” means your objective is to kill as many of the enemy as you can, and the measure of merit in such a war is body count, which became an infamous aspect of the war.
Westmoreland’s premise was that if he killed enough enemy, they would cease their aggression against South Vietnam and go back home. The search-and-destroy tactics he used to try to impose these casualties involved large formations — multi-battalion, sometimes even multi-division — typically out in the deep jungle along the western borders of South Vietnam with Laos and Cambodia.
Those borders were sacrosanct in terms of our ability to go after the enemy if he withdrew into Laos or Cambodia. We said, “No, those are neutral countries.” When the enemy got tired of fighting or had taken enough casualties, he just withdrew into the sanctuaries.
Even given that and the difficulties of finding and fixing the enemy, Westmoreland did succeed in inflicting enormous casualties on the enemy. However, his premise — that if he inflicted a lot of casualties on the enemy he would lose heart — did not play out. In fact, he accomplished very little. Perhaps nothing.
He would go out there and he would kill all those enemy, and they would just send replacements down. Pretty soon, he has got the same outfits back again, refitted, retrained, re-equipped, and he has got to through the whole drill again.
A senator from his home state of South Carolina, Fritz Hollings, goes to Vietnam and Westmoreland describes to him, with some pride, that we are killing the enemy at a ratio of 10:1. And Hollings looks him in the eye and says, “Westy, the American people don’t care about the 10, they care about the one.” Westmoreland never grasped the significance of that.
And Westmoreland is also almost totally ignoring two other important responsibilities. His command was called the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam, and whom are we supposed to assist? The South Vietnamese. Westmoreland is ignoring the South Vietnamese armed forces instead of training them, equipping them, and preparing them to take over more and more of the security of their own country.
The South Vietnamese are pathetically armed with castoff World War II American equipment, while the enemy they are fighting is getting the very best modern infantry equipment from their sponsors, the Soviet Union and China, to include the great AK-47.
Akers: Even the Viet Cong?
Sorley: Even the Viet Cong over time. So for all the Westmoreland years, the South Vietnamese are outgunned, they are being ignored, and so he is failing in that responsibility.
And there is another one. He is ignoring pacification, the necessity to get into the hamlets and villages of rural South Vietnam and root out the covert enemy infrastructure, which is keeping the people under enemy domination through terror and coercion.
Those two things languished during the entirety of his tenure. So that is the story of his approach to the conduct of the war.
Akers: And Abrams does what when he takes command?
Sorley: The contrast could not be more dramatic. Under Abrams, the South Vietnamese are taking on more and more of the conduct of the war. It is now going to be a war, not of attrition, but of population security. The emphasis now is protecting as many of the populaces of South Vietnam from the enemy as you can.
You don’t go out and thrash around in the deep jungle anymore. You position yourself where the people are. Abrams wanted hundreds and thousands of patrols and ambushes set day and night, because in the earlier period the enemy had dominated in the night. Now, the war is going to be day and night, and if the enemy wants to get at the people, he has to come through you.
Equally important is that the South Vietnamese are now getting attention. They are starting to get very good weaponry of the kind they had been denied in the Westmoreland years, and they are increasing in size.
Instead of search and destroy, Abrams’ approach was clear and hold. Clear it and hold it, and don’t let the enemy come back in. And the “hold” came from increases in South Vietnam’s armed forces, primarily in Regional Forces and Popular Forces. These guys stay and fight where they live and, more important, where their families live, where their crops live, where their livestock live. They are highly motivated.
Akers: Westmoreland seemed to have a career-long disdain for the Marines, which reached a peak in Vietnam, where the Marines were in charge of the northern military region called I Corps.
The Marines did things differently than the Army. The Marines took the Abrams approach, as much as they could, to protect the population. In fact, they even inserted platoons of Marines called CAPs (Combined Action Platoons) who lived in the village and went on patrols with the Popular and Regional Forces.
Is there evidence that during the four Westmoreland years the Marine approach in I Corps paid dividends not seen elsewhere?
Sorley: The Marines were in the five provinces that made up the northern portion of South Vietnam. They were not autonomous, however; they were under Westmoreland’s command. But it was an uneasy relationship, and they tried to thwart him because they didn’t believe in his approach. The Marines were always trying to do things much like what Abrams instituted countrywide when he came in.
The chief of staff of the Army during the same four years Westmoreland commanded in Vietnam was Gen. Harold K. Johnson, and General Johnson from the beginning was distraught about the way Westmoreland was fighting the war. He tried to persuade him that spewing all this ammunition out into the jungle was disadvantageous. You might hit the people you are trying to protect and keep the good will of. Westmoreland was impervious to that logic.
General Johnson commissioned a study called PROVN — the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam.
It was published in spring 1966 — with still a couple of years to go in Westmoreland’s tenure. PROVN said the way Westmoreland was conducting this war could not work, because it was ignoring hamlets and villages where the enemy was keeping the populace under domination.
Westmoreland rejected the study out of hand. But the vice chief of staff of the Army when Gen. Johnson was having this study conducted is Abrams. So Johnson gives up Abrams to go out to be the four-star deputy to Westmoreland, and it is planned that he will take over. But that doesn’t happen for 13 months. So Abrams waits. As soon as he gets his chance, he implements PROVN, which emphasizes protection of the population.
Akers: At some point, I think, Westmoreland said about pacification, if I had all the troops I wanted, I could do pacification and search and destroy. But I can’t have large units of NVA running all over the country because it wouldn’t matter what we did in the villages, they would just come and run roughshod over everything.
What effect would calling up the reserves have had? With the extra troops, would Westmoreland have given due attention to the “other war” in the villages and the population centers?
Sorley: The enemy was not going to be running roughshod over the population if you repositioned your forces to protect the population, as Abrams did. Then the battles took place on terrain and in positions favorable to the friendly side.
Akers: You talk in your book about a destructive decision during Vietnamization (the gradual hand over of the war to the South Vietnamese), when U.S. troops are being withdrawn. Westmoreland is now at the Pentagon doing what?
Sorley: He is chief of staff of the Army.
Akers: And so, when U.S. troops are being withdrawn, rather than pulling troops a unit at a time, we take individuals out of units, which has what effect?
Sorley: A devastating effect. Here’s why: Abrams is pushing hard for taking out units as they are constituted at the time. Westmoreland says “no”: Equity demands that those soldiers who had been there longest come home first.
Think about that. Every unit has a mix of people who have been there a long time and those who arrived fairly recently. Say we are going to take out the Ninth Infantry Division. We have to transfer out of that unit all the people who have been there a relatively short time and transfer into it the longest-serving people from other units around. We make up this amalgamation of long-serving people from wherever they come from and we send that home as the “Ninth Division.”
Meanwhile, all these guys that we took out of the Ninth Division because they didn’t have as much service have to be plugged into other units, meaning they have to get to know the people they are with again. Any cohesion that existed, any teamwork, has to be reinstituted.
But remember, there are 14 of these increments, so every time you do that, you are reconfiguring all the remaining units. I think it was Gen. Donn Starry (commander, 11th Armored Cavalry Rgt.) who told me, because he was a redeployment planner for Abrams, “You had a self-created situation in which young leaders stood in front of men they did not know and who did not know them, and those leaders tried to take them into combat.”
Akers: Not to be a chauvinistic jarhead, but my recollection is — I was in Vietnam from ‘69-’70 in the Marines — that the Marines did it differently, that they withdrew “true” units all at one time. Am I wrong?
Sorley: I think that since Westmoreland made that decision as the Army chief of staff, it pertained only to Army personnel. So I think it entirely possible that the Marines could have had a different policy. If so, that is to their great credit.
Akers: There was a basic divide during the Vietnam War among Americans. One opinion was that the Vietnam War was immoral. We shouldn’t have been there. It was unwinnable. We never had a chance. The other one was that it was a good cause and we did have a chance to win had we done the right things from the start.
What is your take on this idea that Vietnam was “unwinnable”?
Sorley: I say in “A Better War” that there came a time at which the war was won. If it was won, then it’s a winnable war. I go on to say the fighting hadn’t ended, but the war was won, and the reason it was won was that the South Vietnamese had acquired, with our help, the capacity to defend themselves and maintain their independence so long as — this is the crucial condition — we kept the commitments we made to them.
Those commitments were three in number. First, we induced the South Vietnamese to go along with the Paris Accord signed in January 1973 that theoretically ended the war by telling them that if the North Vietnamese violated the accord and resumed their aggression against the South, we would intervene militarily to punish them. Ware talking about B-52s now, not more ground forces.
Second, we said if there was renewed fighting, we would replace any major combat-systems losses by the South Vietnamese. We’re talking about things like tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, on a one-for-one basis.
Third, we said, we would continue robust financial support for the indefinite future. Some people have put a figure of a billion dollars a year on that — not much compared to what we had been spending at the peak of our involvement.
In the event, we defaulted on all three of those commitments to the South Vietnamese, and as a consequence, the war that was won was no longer won.
By his unavailing conduct of the war, Westmoreland squandered four years of support for the war by the American people, the Congress, and much of the media. And so, even with General Abrams and even with the South Vietnamese getting better and better, Congress had tired of keeping our commitments even though, at that point, it was only money.
Akers: Yes. My tour of duty in Vietnam ended in June 1970. I started college the next year, and I was pretty optimistic about Vietnam. What a lot of people don’t remember is that the North Vietnamese launched a massive conventional offensive against South Vietnam around Easter 1972. And at that point, we were keeping our promises.
Akers: We had no ground troops involved except some advisers, but the South Vietnamese did enjoy our air and naval assets. It was a close call, but they held.
Akers: We might talk about Ripley at the Bridge.
Sorley: That’s a great story.
Akers: But our time ends. Thank you, Dr. Sorley.
Sorley: Thank you.