Lewis Sorley, a graduate of West Point, served in Germany, Vietnam, and the United States, including teaching on the faculties of West Point and the Army War College. His books include A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, and biographies of Generals William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, and Harold K. Johnson.
Q: Your latest book is titled Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. Why did you choose that subtitle for the book, and what do you see as Westmoreland's biggest mistakes?
A: Great first question! The response, to be credible, will have to be a bit lengthy. General Westmoreland commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam for four years (1964-1968). When, in 1965, the United States began introducing large numbers of ground forces to help the South Vietnamese fight the war, Westmoreland essentially took over the conflict and sought to win it using the U.S. forces being deployed. In response to repeated Westmoreland requests for more and more troops, the U.S. forces deployed eventually grew to well over half a million, numbering 543,400 at the peak.
Westmoreland decided to fight a war of attrition. His premise was that, if he could inflict sufficient casualties on the enemy (the North Vietnamese Communists and the controlled indigenous Viet Cong in South Vietnam), they would lose heart and cease their aggression. In such a war the measure of merit was body count. Westmoreland employed "search and destroy" tactics, typically involving large-scale operations (multi-battalion and sometimes even multi-division) seeking enemy forces in the deep jungles of South Vietnam's western reaches adjacent to the borders with Laos and Cambodia.
It is important to know that Westmoreland had complete freedom of action to choose and employ this approach. Over the years of his command his forces did indeed kill large numbers of enemy, really a horrifying number. But the predicted outcome did not result. The enemy did not lose heart or cease his aggression. Instead he kept sending more and more replacements to make up his losses. Thus Westmoreland had nothing to show for his efforts. He was on a treadmill.
Westmoreland also failed to grasp the significance of the friendly casualties his forces were taking. At one point Senator "Fritz" Hollings from Westmoreland's home state of South Carolina visited Vietnam, where Westmoreland told him, "We're killing these people," the enemy, "at a ratio of ten to one." Responded Hollings, "Westy, the American people don't care about the ten. They care about the one." Westmoreland never seemed to get it.
Meanwhile, completely focused on his unavailing tactical approach, Westmoreland neglected two other key responsibilities: building up South Vietnam's armed forces so they could progressively take over more responsibility for their nation's protection, and rooting out the covert Communist infrastructure in South Vietnam's hamlets and villages where, by use of terror and coercion, the enemy was keeping the rural populace under domination. The latter task was called pacification. Said General Phil Davidson, Westmoreland's J-2 (chief intelligence officer), "Westmoreland's interest always lay in the big-unit war. Pacification bored him."
Westmoreland always maintained that he was doing a great deal to build up the South Vietnamese forces, but there was no substance to the claim. Instead Westmoreland gave the best new weaponry, such as the M-16 rifle, to U.S. forces first, leaving the South Vietnamese for year after year equipped with castoff World War II-vintage U.S. equipment like M-1 rifles and carbines. This was an enormous disadvantage, since they were fighting an enemy equipped by its backers, the Soviet Union and China, with the best available modern weaponry, to include the great AK-47 assault rifle.
After Westmoreland there came a U.S. commander who understood the nature of the war and devised a far more effective approach to its conduct, but even though things went much better the United States Congress (and, to some lesser degree, the public and much of the media) had by then had enough of this seemingly endless war and the South Vietnamese were basically abandoned.
That outcome was a direct result of the fact that General Westmoreland had by his unavailing approach squandered four years of support for American involvement in the war, and that is why he deserves to be regarded as "The General Who Lost Vietnam."
Q: You write, "Taken altogether, the life of William Childs Westmoreland turned out to be infinitely sad." How did Vietnam affect Westmoreland personally, and did he ever doubt the course that he had chosen to follow?
A: Others who served with Westmoreland in Vietnam later reflected, candidly and insightfully, on the results of their approach to conduct of the war. Wrote General William DePuy, who as Westmoreland's J-3 (chief operations officer) had helped develop his search and destroy approach, "We ended up with no operational plan that had the slightest chance of ending the war favorably." Said General Fred Weyand, later Army Chief of Staff: "The Vietnam War was not unwinnable. It was just not winnable Westmoreland's way."
Westmoreland could not, or would not, admit to any failures of concept or execution in his conduct of the war. Noted Charles MacDonald, the distinguished military historian who was ghost writer for Westmoreland's memoirs, "from the beginning Westmoreland probably expected to write a memoir of victory similar to [General Eisenhower's] Crusade in Europe and the books of other successful American generals of the past" and "the defeat in Vietnam had not deterred him from this."
In retirement Westmoreland ran an inept and unsuccessful campaign to become governor of South Carolina, then unwisely (against the advice of experienced high-powered lawyers who had his interests at heart) sued CBS for libel after the network broadcast a documentary charging Westmoreland with having manipulated data on enemy strength figures during the Vietnam War. Following a lengthy trial, Westmoreland withdrew his suit only days before the case would have gone to the jury. In exchange he received a vanilla statement from CBS, which he claimed exonerated him. "The effort to defame, dishonor and destroy me and those under my command had been exposed and defeated," he asserted. "I therefore withdrew from the battlefield, all flags flying."
Editorial opinion was not so favorable. The New York Times succinctly stated the prevailing reaction. "At the end," it concluded, "[General Westmoreland] stood in imminent danger of having a jury confirm the essential truth of the CBS report. For, in court, as on the original program, the general could not get past the testimony of high-ranking former subordinates who confirmed his having colored some intelligence information."
In later years Westmoreland viewed himself as very much put upon. "My years away have been fraught with challenges, frustrations, and sadness," he told a hometown audience. "Nobody has taken more guff than I have," he claimed, "and I am not apologizing for a damn thing—nothing, and I welcome being the point man!" That outlook, no second-guessing of himself and no regrets, persisted through the end of his life.
Observed a former aide to the general, "Westmoreland's life since Vietnam has been miserable." Westmoreland himself contributed much to that outcome. "The Vietnam War is my number one priority," he told an interviewer some years after retirement. "I've tried to spread myself thin and visit all sections of the country."
But then, in an assertion completely undermining the meaning and purpose of years of incessant, even frantic, self-justifying activity, Westmoreland told a college audience that "in the scope of history, Vietnam is not going to be a big deal. It won't float to the top as a major endeavor."
In his later years, then, Westmoreland, widely regarded as a general who lost his war, also lost his only run for political office, lost his libel suit, and lost his reputation. It was a sad ending for a man who for most of his life and career had led what seemed to be a charmed existence.
Westmoreland's ultimate failure would have earned him more compassion, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame for the endless self-promotion that elevated him to positions and responsibilities beyond his capacity. "It's the aggressive guy who gets his share—plus," Westmoreland maintained. "That principle applies to most anything."
Q: In your book A Better War, you contrast Westmoreland's approach unfavorably with that of his successor, General Creighton Abrams, who took over in 1968, and you write that during the last several years of the war, Abrams, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and the CIA's William Colby "came very close to achieving the elusive goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace." How do you think they managed to come close, and why did they ultimately fail to reach that goal?
A: That is, of course, another complex story that deserves to be told at length and in detail. Just to encapsulate briefly, Abrams, Bunker, and Colby shared a view of the war that was wholly at variance with Westmoreland's. In place of a war of attrition they embarked on what might be termed a war of population security. This, they maintained, must be "One War" in which combat actions (but much revised), improvement of South Vietnam's armed forces, and pacification were of equal importance and equal priority.
Said General Fred Weyand, "The tactics changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams's taking command." Instead of search and destroy operations, forces now concentrated on clear and hold missions in which the "hold" was provided by greatly expanded and improved South Vietnamese Territorial Forces. Thousands of patrols and ambushes replaced the big-unit operations. And, instead of thrashing about in the deep jungle, seeking to bring the enemy to battle at times and in places of his own choosing—the typical maneuver of the earlier era—allied forces now set up positions sited to protect populated areas from invading forces. This put friendly forces in more advantageous situations and forced the enemy to come through them to gain access to the population, the real objective of both sides in the war.
Confirmed a study group led by Daniel Ellsberg after an inspection tour in Vietnam: "We are using more small patrols for intelligence and spoiling, and we are conducting fewer large-scale sweeps, and those sweeps that we are conducting are smaller in territorial scope. General Abrams has begun to concentrate much more on area control than on kills."
Body count was thus no longer the measure of merit. Instead it was population living in secure areas. Said General Abrams, in a typical comment to subordinate commanders, "The body count does not have much to do with the outcome of the war. Some of the things I do think important are that we preempt or defeat the enemy's major military operations and eliminate or render ineffective the major portion of his guerrillas and his infrastructure—the political, administrative and para-military structure on which his whole movement depends."
Later Abrams went further, saying, "I don't think it makes any difference how many losses he [the enemy] takes. I don't think that makes any difference." Later still he told a regional conference of U.S. ambassadors of his conviction that, "in the whole picture of the war, the battles don't really mean much." That of course constituted total repudiation of the Westmoreland way of war.
Ambassador Colby said of Abrams: "I was enormously impressed by his grasp of the political significance of the pacification program. Finally we had focused on the real war." Early in his command (which began near the end of June 1968) Abrams cabled General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report that in pacification "we are making our major effort; so is the enemy. In my judgment, what is required now is all out with all we have. The military machine runs best at full throttle. That's about where we have it and where I intend to keep it."
While all this was going on U.S. forces, which as noted above had progressively and massively increased during the Westmoreland years, were now incrementally and unilaterally withdrawn. That meant that the successes being achieved were, more and more, achieved by the South Vietnamese.
All that had been accomplished was scuttled when, in the aftermath of the 1973 Paris Accords, the United States Congress decided it no longer wished to support our ill-fated South Vietnamese allies, even though by that point the only help being provided was financial. Since neither North Vietnam nor South Vietnam was self-sufficient militarily, that decision was fatal for the South. Cabled Tom Polgar, the last CIA Chief of Staff Saigon, in one of his final messages: "Ultimate outcome hardly in doubt, because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam's war-making capacity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China."
Q: A Better War became very influential at the Pentagon during the Bush and Obama administrations, as the military faced wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What lessons were drawn from Vietnam as the United States dealt with more recent conflicts?
A: While I of course was not a party to those discussions, I gather from press accounts and conversations with some participants that the principal insights involved the importance of General Abrams's emphasis on clear and hold (rather than search and destroy) tactics, on upgrading indigenous forces, and on providing security for the populace.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: I'm currently drafting some selective memoirs—just for my family, of course, not for publication. Over the years my children have encouraged me to do this, but until now I always responded (with complete accuracy) that I was busy telling the stories of far more important people. With publication of the Westmoreland biography I came to a point where I felt I could spare some time for the more personal task, although I was unsure of how it would go.
The first afternoon I sat down to give it a try, I wrote about the dog my father gave me when I was eight and he was about to leave for World War II. That turned out to be a very nice dog, and I found there were quite a number of things I enjoyed recording about her and our shared adventures. The next day I wrote about my sixth grade teacher, one of the greatest friends I ever had, and that seemed to go well, too. So since then I have been adding anecdotes and reminiscences as they float up in my memory. I can recommend this to everyone. It is especially gratifying to remember all those to whom we have owed so much over the years—dogs of course, but also family members, teachers, friends, and writers and composers and artists and film makers and on and on.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There are, despite an absolute flood of books about Vietnam and related matters, still some books we need. I am very slow, taking three or four or even five years to produce a book, so I may not have enough time remaining to undertake these projects. One that should be written, though, might be entitled Also Great: The Generation That Fought the Vietnam War. That references, of course, Tom Brokaw's widely known book The Greatest Generation in which he so characterized those who fought World War II. Many people do not know that two-thirds of the World War II cohort were drafted and only one-third volunteered, whereas during the Vietnam War the statistics are just the opposite, with two-thirds of those who served volunteering and only one-third drafted. That in itself seems to me to warrant paying some attention. I would never disparage the World War II veterans, among whom are my father and my uncle, but I do think Vietnam veterans also deserve an account that specifically recognizes their patriotism, valor, and service.
One other necessary book could be entitled Living the Dream: The Vietnamese in America. After we abandoned the South Vietnamese and they were conquered by the North, many fled their own country to find freedom and new opportunities elsewhere. As we now know, many perished in the attempt, lost at sea or dead of starvation or sickness or even the victims of piracy. Many more, though, made their way to Australia, to Canada, to France, and in lesser numbers to other nations of the world. Fortunately for us, one of the largest concentrations of expatriate Vietnamese is in America, where they have demonstrated strong family values, a thirst for education, and capacity for hard work.
In closing A Better War I wrote this: Nearly a quarter-century after the war Nick Sebastian, a West Point graduate then with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, spent three months in what had once been Saigon interviewing candidates for political asylum in the United States, former "boat people" who had been forcibly returned from refugee camps elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It was for Sebastian a moving and humbling experience, for he found both the country of Vietnam and its people beautiful, persevering with admirable spirit under a repressive regime and terrible economic hardship. "The people I met throughout the country," he reported, "accept their loss and in many cases unbelievable subsequent persecution with an equanimity, fortitude, strength of character, and will to survive that is awe-inspiring."
I hope someone will one day tell their story.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.