The Magazine

Lessons Learned?

A second look at General Westmoreland’s strategy

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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In his often-cited but little-read On War (1832), Carl von Clausewitz observes that “in war, the result is never final.” His observation can be applied to the historiography of war as well. A case in point is this study by Gregory Daddis, an Army colonel who earned a doctorate at Chapel Hill, served in the Iraq war, and now teaches at West Point. Westmoreland’s War is the latest salvo in a battle over Vietnam that goes back many years.  

2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Dong Ha (1966)

2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Dong Ha (1966)

Since 1975, interpretations of the Vietnam war have come in waves. The first wave of the narrative held that the United States could never have won, given the nature of the war and the commitment of the Vietnamese Communists. Over the past 20 years, however, a number of observers have called this narrative into question. A second wave argued that our defeat could be traced to a flawed national strategy, which they blame mostly on civilian policymakers, especially Robert McNamara. But a third wave has indicted the military itself for the failure, blaming the U.S. military leadership in Vietnam, especially General William Westmoreland, for adopting a defective operational strategy. 

Early representatives of this narrative include works by David Palmer, Andrew Krepinevich, and Stanley Karnow. More recently, studies by John Nagl, Thomas Ricks, and Max Boot have echoed the charge. But the most influential critic of Westmoreland’s conduct of the war has been Lewis Sorley, the author of Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam (2011). Sorley, a career Army officer who served in Vietnam and earned a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins, first laid out his fundamental argument in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999) and refined it in Westmoreland. According to Sorley, Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam in a “war of the big battalions”—multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior firepower. According to Sorley, such search-and-destroy operations were mostly unsuccessful since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous to accept. They were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and to the Vietnamese civilians in the area. 

Sorley contends that when General Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland, shortly after the 1968 Tet Offensive, he adopted a new approach that came close to winning the war. Working closely with Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring, and the CIA’s William Colby, who coordinated pacification efforts, Abrams pursued something like a unified “one war” approach. According to Sorley, Bunker and Abrams and Colby “employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. .  .  . [I]n the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable [South Vietnamese] nation and a lasting peace.” For Sorley, Westmoreland represented the triumph of style over substance, and the best he can say of the general is that he was a prisoner of his own experience who lacked the flexibility to move beyond the things that he knew.

Although Daddis mentions Lewis Sorley infrequently, Westmoreland’s War is clearly intended as a response to Westmoreland. But while Daddis is correct to accuse many of Westmoreland’s critics of recycling flawed circular arguments, he cannot with any justice make this charge against Sorley, whose books on both Abrams and Westmoreland are as well researched as Daddis’s. In addition, while Daddis relies on the written record, Sorley’s work emphasizes interviews, which provide the context often missing even from official reports. 

Nonetheless, Daddis offers a fair, if not altogether convincing, defense of William Westmoreland. He contends that Westmoreland was not the “unthinking officer portrayed so contemptuously” in so many histories of the war and that he did, indeed, develop “a comprehensive military strategy for Vietnam, one not confined to simple attrition of enemy forces.” That said, it is also the case that the major pacification program in Vietnam, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, was imposed on Westmoreland’s command by Lyndon Johnson in 1967 because Johnson believed that nation-building was not receiving enough attention.