Was One Bad General the Reason America Lost Vietnam?

A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52F-70-BW Stratofortress (s/n 57-0162, nicknamed
January 19, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Vietnam WarGeneral WestmorelandCold WarNorth VietnamVietcong

Was One Bad General the Reason America Lost Vietnam?

Warfare History Network spoke to the decorated war hero.

Key point: Rather than a massive influx of U.S. troops into South Vietnam all at one time, a gradual buildup or escalation began, a seemingly never-ending process that grated on the American public back home and was ineffective in the end.

In 1989, this writer had occasion to interview four-star General William Childs Westmoreland, now 86, formerly U.S. military commander in South Vietnam and at the time of the interview a retired Chief of Staff of the Army.

Not only had I read his memoirs just a few days before our meeting, but I had also served in the Vietnam War myself as an enlisted man of the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade during 1966-1967, and thus had my own perspective on the struggle. When I met him in 1989, the general had already been a top soldier, pilot, diplomat, warrior, and confidant of presidents. He was still the ramrod-straight imperial proconsul of my youth.

Westmoreland was the nation’s number one Vietnam vet whose wife, Kitsy, lost a brother killed in the war, LTC Frederick Van Deusen. Westmoreland is still speaking about the war and taking part in memorial marches around the United States. He told an earlier interviewer that the hardest decision of the war for him was to recommend to President Lyndon Johnson that U.S. ground combat forces be committed to Southeast Asia to shore up the flagging South Vietnamese effort there in 1965.

“LBJ,” he recalled, “always did what he said he would do.… During his first year in office, 1964, we went from 500 advisors to 15,000 military personnel.… I don’t dislike [then Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara. He was fair to me.… We were actually operating in the unknown,” he once told veteran Vietnam writer Laura Palmer. A decade earlier, at the time of the French defeat, Westmoreland—then an army general staff officer during the Eisenhower Administration—had been in on the discussions about whether or not to send U.S. troops to aid the French Foreign Legion paratroopers and Vietnamese colonial troops to defeat the Viet Minh, the predecessors of the Viet Cong.

Westmoreland took part in the final decision in 1954 not to send U.S. forces. He later recalled: “All the negatives were exposed. Had I not been in on them, my doubts about the wisdom of committing American troops in 1964 might not have occurred to me.”

"It was Evident That America Was Not Going to Make Good its Commitment to the Vietnamese”

In early 1968, he told Palmer, “Tet was our last chance. The Tet offensive was a terrible gamble by the enemy, and they were crushed. After that defeat, I think there was a really good chance of bringing them to the conference table, but public opinion was disgusted with a war that was dragging on and on. … I object to saying that was the point when the war was lost. That was the point when it was evident that America was not going to make good its commitment to the Vietnamese.

“We had thrown away all our trump cards when we finally got them to the conference table in Paris. Their big trump card was the POWs. We didn’t have any trump cards because we were already withdrawing our troops. We’d even sanctioned letting their troops remain on South Vietnamese soil.”

By 1968 Westmoreland had come home from Vietnam to assume his new duties as Chief of Staff of the Army, the highest post a soldier can aspire to. He resigned in 1972 after a 40-year military career that spanned horse-drawn artillery to nuclear missiles. In the 1980s, he would spend $60,000 of his own money to clear his name in a controversial lawsuit against Columbia Broadcasting System television.

Westmoreland was from South Carolina; his ancestors fought for the Confederacy. His father wanted his son to become a lawyer. “Informed and well-read, he encouraged me in a broad range of activities, from studies to boxing and playing the flute,” recalled the four-star retired general in his 1976 memoirs, A Soldier Reports. Famous friend James F. Byrnes (South Carolina Senator, Secretary of State) steered him instead from South Carolina’s famous military school, The Citadel, toward West Point. He was graduated as an artillery officer in 1936 and soon had served in army bases around the country.

Mid-1941 found him stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC, with an artillery unit of the 9th Infantry Division. When the United States went to war, Westmoreland went with the army to Tunisia.

I asked him to discuss his role at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in 1943, and he recounted the following: “We made a forced march from Algeria to Tunisia in the middle of the winter. I was the first American to arrive before this beleaguered British brigadier who was in command in a CP in a basement. He just had a road map on the wall, and a German tank was burning outside. I got there about 2 am. I asked him what the situation was. He was very cool, calm, and collected and said, ‘Well, I have a few tanks left and one platoon of infantry,’ and that was about it. He said he was glad to see us!”

“Have You, Personally, Physically, Ever Killed Anybody?”

Next, we talked about his role in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. “I went in with combat troops of the 9th Infantry Division,” he recalled. “I saw quite a bit of action there. I was shot at a lot. A mine we ran over destroyed my vehicle, but it was well sandbagged, so only it was blown up. I went down to the aid station, where a doctor checked me over and gave me a shot of whiskey—but [laughing softly] no Purple Heart.”

“Have you, personally, physically, ever killed anybody?” I asked. “Not knowingly,” was his reply.

We discussed his crossing of the Remagen Bridge in March 1945, the later battles in Nazi Germany, and his view of General George S. Patton. “I was chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Division. I was one of the first persons over and led the division headquarters across in the middle of the night. At that time, we had one regiment across the Ludendorff Bridge, and finally we brought the whole division over to the German side of the Rhine. The Germans were bringing mortar fire on us. I also went through the Siegfried Line and the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, which was a terrible mistake, one of the major mistakes of the war. It just chewed up one, two, three, four—about five divisions. My division got chewed up twice there!

“I liked Patton,” he continued. “I knew him when he was a lieutenant colonel. He visited my unit in North Africa, I saw him in Sicily, and I saw him in Germany after the war, shortly before he died. I knew Patton very well, and we had a good rapport.”

Commanding the division’s 60th Infantry Regiment during the Allied occupation of the blasted Third Reich, Westmoreland later remembered, “I had to relieve two battalion commanders for improper conduct and to prefer charges against a captain for stealing furs.”

Westmoreland Strikes the Balance of Stalwart, Yet Charming With His Troops

But if Westmoreland did things “by the book,” he was not a man without humor. He recalled a wartime visit of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the 9th early in 1944. “When he arrived to address the assembled troops, he went at first not to the speaker’s stand, but behind a small outbuilding. He reappeared minutes later, deliberately buttoning his fly, making sure no one missed the reason for the delay. The troops loved it.”

In mid-1951, Westmoreland assumed command of 187th Airborne Combat Team as the Korean War was still raging against the Red Chinese and the North Korean armies. Almost killed by an errant mortar round from his own side, Westmoreland later found himself and his men beset by attacking Chicoms. “When a Chinese Communist attack drove a salient into the lines of two adjacent units, it left my combat team holding a critical shoulder of the salient.” Ordered to withdraw twice or be relieved of command, he did so, but only under duress and a direct order.

I asked the general to give me his impressions of the Red Chinese Communist troops he had fought in Korea. He recalled: “They were like a herd of sheep, just poor peasant boys. They didn’t know how to fire their weapons and they didn’t have too much support, either. Somebody would blow a bugle, kick them in the butts, and they’d move forward! They didn’t mind dying. They used massed manpower against our massive firepower. The carnage was terrible.”

Back in Washington, Westmoreland was assigned to Pentagon duty. By 1958 he was in command of the 101st Airborne Division based at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. In 1960, President Eisenhower named him Superintendent of West Point.

VIP visitors to the Point during Westmoreland’s tenure included Vice President Johnson, JFK, novelist William Faulkner, and General MacArthur, who made his famous “Duty, honor, country” speech there in 1962. Trapped in an old elevator that dated back to MacArthur’s days as a cadet, the two men rode up and down until they came to the right floor. When Westy passed along a request by press photographers for the old man to remove his hat, MacArthur testily replied, “I will take off my hat when I am ready. Don’t pay any attention to them!” Later, during the review of the Corps of Cadets, Westmoreland recalled, MacArthur removed “his hat with a flourish” and “placed it over his heart.”