Westmoreland

The Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, hints at criticism of General William Westmoreland, the head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the military command for forces operating in Vietnam. Westmoreland pursued a strategy of attrition, believing that if the U.S. killed enough Vietnamese Communists, Hanoi would sue to end the war.

In virtually every battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese forces, the U.S. won hands down. But all too often, the U.S. couldn’t locate the enemy—he attacked, then disappeared. What Westmoreland never understood, it seems to me, was that the North Vietnamese were following to the hilt Mao Tse Tung’s formula:

Enemy advances, we retreat.

Enemy camps, we harass.

Enemy tires, we attack.

Enemy retreats, we pursue.

On 10 June 1968, Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton Abrams as commander of MACV. Abrams changed the emphasis in the war to concentrate on the hamlet-village level, winning over the population, and engaging the enemy at the small-unit level. The Abrams strategy was working, but the U.S. public by then had become so adverse to the war that the U.S. Congress pushed for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. The end result is that the U.S. and South Vietnam lost the war.

The criticism of Westmoreland I hear most often is that he looked and acted the part of a general but lacked the intelligence to understand the nature of the North Vietnamese approach. The military outcome under his command suggests that the diagnosis is accurate. I can’t say I knew him well enough to judge. I briefed him several times. He was always cordial but asked few questions. I wondered at the time if he was in a hurry to get through the briefing or perhaps didn’t understand what I was telling him or maybe simply didn’t accept it.

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