Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

  • Lewis Sorley
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 416 pp.

A thoughtful biography examines the career of the man who did everything “by the book,” but never quite understood the biggest enemy he came up against.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

“[U]nless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never understand fully what happened to us in Vietnam, or why.” Thus begins Lewis Sorley’s biography of “the general who lost Vietnam.” To those of us who still ache over the loss, Sorley’s story is gripping. I knew Westmoreland. During his early years in Saigon I worked for him as a civilian intelligence specialist. The man I remember is the man Sorley has captured in writing, but I view the general and the war from a different angle.

With admirable thoroughness, Sorley details the remarkable career of a soldier who did everything “by the book even though he hadn’t read the book.” Eagle Scout at 15 and First Captain in his graduating class at West Point, Westmoreland received his first star as commander of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, became the youngest major general in the army at 42 and went on to four-star rank as the commander of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam). In 1968 he was named Chief of Staff of the Army, the pinnacle of any army career. Along the way, he got all the right tickets — airborne, artillery, infantry and senior staff, and, most important, plenty of combat command experience, starting in World War II and extending through the Korean War.

He was disciplined, hardworking, organized, ambitious, proud as a lion with his first kill, charismatic when he was at his best and concerned with the welfare of his subordinates. But he lacked an affinity for the plight of soldiers in combat and was short on insight and intelligence. Sorley’s Westmoreland shows himself to be vain, arrogant, not a good listener, willing to curry favor with superiors and quick to take offense. Most telling, Westmoreland never understood the most important enemy he faced, the North Vietnamese.

But he looked the part. Tall and handsome with a jutting chin, never less than immaculately dressed, always upright as a ramrod, he knew how to command the attention of those around him. At his best in the field, he stood tall on the hood of a jeep in combat fatigues, jaw thrust forward, addressing his troops in a clarion voice. Ever conscious of his own image, he dressed in combat fatigues for his portrait as Army Chief of Staff and once donned a coat and tie for breakfast to impress house guests.

Lewis Sorley comes to the job of military biography well equipped. His career resembles that of Westmoreland in key aspects — he, too, was an Eagle Scout and graduated, as had his father and grandfather, from West Point. He served in Vietnam and in the office of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff and commanded a tank battalion. Before and after his retirement as a lieutenant colonel, he earned military and civilian advanced academic degrees, culminating with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. His earlier books have won awards, especially his A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

My view of Westmoreland parts company from that of Sorley not in substance but in degree and context. When I worked for him, Westmoreland always treated me with respect, and he listened carefully to the unique information I was able to give him.

Later, in a stateside intelligence job, I sat through the rancorous meetings in the 1967 SNIE (Special National Intelligence Estimate), which Sorley reports in detail. Westmoreland’s representatives were under orders to assure that enemy troop strength estimates never exceeded 300,000. They arrived at that figure by omitting troop categories other than main forces, arguing that local forces and guerrillas were little more than women and children, unarmed or with inferior weapons at best. I and others from civilian intelligence agencies objected strenuously that, on the basis of good evidence, Vietnamese Communist non-regular forces were as important in combat as regular North Vietnamese units. As the SNIE deliberations dragged on past the completion deadline, I left for a new assignment in Vietnam (in the field, not at MACV headquarters) and learned later that the Westmoreland’s troop figure had finally won the day. The shakiness of the number became obvious early the next year when MACV’s own reckoning of enemy casualties resulting from the Têt Offensive, subtracted from Westmoreland’s figure, left the Communists without enough troops to continue the war, even though Communist main force units continued to attack with undiminished strength.

The flaw was a two-pronged misunderstanding of the war. First, Westmoreland stated repeatedly (as Sorley reports) that the conflict was one of attrition — we needed to kill enough Communists in main force units that the regime in the north would realize it couldn’t win. That led, among many distortions, to inflated body counts, always debiting main force units. It didn’t take into account North Vietnamese determination to fight to the death as a nation, a political will the United States lacked or the plentiful supply of manpower the north was willing to call up from its population of 16 million in the north and many millions more in the territory it held in the south.

Second, the war was more political than military, with the Communists giving priority to controlling the people; the role of the military was to keep the U.S. and South Vietnamese at bay while the Communist Party did its work. So the U.S. strategy of search-and-destroy, seeking out enemy main force units and engaging them with superior firepower, fell nicely into the Communist trap of striking and withdrawing, luring U.S. units into territory advantageous to the Communists — guerrilla war tactics writ large. All the while, Communist Party cadre permeated the population, recruited more soldiers and established a shadow government. Westmoreland gave short shrift to the importance of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) armed forces and a reliably democratic, corruption-free government. Rooting out the Communist apparatus among the populace was not his mission. Warnings that the war was less military than political and economic were lost on him.

Significantly, MACV intelligence reporting continuously distinguished between VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army), essentially the southerners who posed an insignificant threat, and the northerners who could cause major trouble. The Communists themselves made no such distinction; all soldiers — regular forces, local forces and guerrillas — were part and parcel of a unified military. Even Sorley doesn’t challenge the VC/NVA dichotomy.

But to denigrate Westmoreland individually misses the point. First of all, he was iconic of the military officers of his day. Alternative thinking, creativity and the ability to see the war from the Communist point of view were not traits that got one promoted. The right look and stance, hard work and cleaving to the conventional wisdom were. Westmoreland was only the best of breed.

Second, Westmoreland was the victim of a disease that many governments have suffered from: allowing propaganda to pollute intelligence. The “Progress Offensive” launched by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1967 sought to persuade a restive U.S. public that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam. Westmoreland, as a loyal subordinate, assured the nation that the war was approaching the “cross-over point,” when the enemy would begin to run short of men and sue for peace. That meant that intelligence had to be reshaped to prove the argument. When propaganda, especially ideological propaganda, distorts intelligence, disaster is sure to follow. Witness the fall of Saigon when Ambassador Graham Martin was persuaded beyond reason that the Communists would never take the city, and the putative possession of nuclear weapons by Saddam Hussein as a pretext for invading Iraq.

It was, in other words, the nation as a whole and particularly its leaders who misunderstood Vietnam. Westmoreland was merely following the pack. My indictment of him is that he lacked the imagination and intellectual independence to see beyond Johnson’s reshaping of fact and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s insistence on numbers. My difference from Sorley is that I don’t perceive Westmoreland as individually wrong-headed; he was, rather, a casualty of group-think.

Despite my variance in view, I can recommend Westmoreland as a thoughtful and conscientious biography. Sorley underlines the failure of intellect that got us into Vietnam in the first place and led to defeat. The implicit parallels with Afghanistan are obvious, even though Sorley does not cite them. That alone makes the book worth reading.

Writer Tom Glenn served as a civilian intelligence operative in Vietnam on multiple tours from 1962 to 1975, when he was evacuated under fire as Saigon fell.

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