The Vietnam War was one of the fiercest and most controversial wars in American history, claiming over 50,000 American lives over the decade that Americans began to occupy Vietnam to prevent the Communist takeover of the friendly South Vietnamese territory. In 1968, the peak of the Vietnam War, Gen. Westmoreland was the Army Chief of Staff during the Tet Offensive. He fought the war under the rules of attrition, hoping to keep biting at the heels of North Vietnamese until they finally surrendered. The strategies he employed caused the NV’s to fully use guerrilla tactics which denied Anti-Communist forces from using their full potential, and public caused the war to end in a withdrawal and defeat of our allies. His care for the lives of his soldiers among his other great leadership traits made him great, but one can also learn from his failures which allowed current military leadership to better adapt to the current situation in the Middle East.
William Westmoreland was born in Spartanburg County, West Virginia in 1914. From a young age he was already well on the road to becoming a leader, as he joined the Boy Scouts of America and remained there until adolescence. He became part of the “Long Gray Line” at the United States Military Academy in 1932 after attending the Citadel in South Carolina. He proved to be an excellent leader in the making graduating at the top of his class or “First Captain” in 1936, and received the Pershing Sword, as an award for being the top cadet.
He became an artillery officer for the 82nd Airborne Division during WWII in the European front and rose to the rank of colonel. After the war he was made the regimental commander of the 82nd and then commander of the 187th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division during the Korean War. In 1953 he was promoted to Brigadier General and worked in the Pentagon and then in 1956 he was promoted, making him the youngest Major General in the Army. In 1958 he took control of the 101st Airborne and begun RECONDO training.
As a veteran of D-Day, he realized it was important for smaller units that have been separated from higher command to take action as efficiently as possible to defeat their foe. He began by having several officers sent to Ranger school and return to teach these lessons to their platoon and squad members these techniques. Reconnaissance and Doughboy (infantry) skills were taught and was essential especially in the upcoming war.
In 1960 he became superintendant of WestPoint and commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps in 1963. “In April, 1964, Westmoreland was made military commander of South Vietnam, in part because of his ostensible knowledge of guerrilla warfare” (Sparticus). In this position he gave a positive outlook to Vietnam and publicly announced this to the media. In 1968 he was promoted to Chief of Staff during the U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War and during its decline in popularity.
By the end of 1965 there were approximately 180,000 American troops sent to Vietnam and by 1967 there were approximately 500,000 troops deployed to Vietnam, which were requested by Westmoreland to help the war effort. General Westmoreland had said, “[The ARVN] cannot stand up to this pressure without substantial U.S. combat support on the ground. The only possible response is the aggressive deployment of U.S. troops” (Danzer). Gen. Westmoreland was unimpressed by their ally’s inability to properly fight off the communists.
Using the U.S. Army’s superior technology and combat abilities Westmoreland hoped to quickly end the war; however the jungle terrain and the enemy’s guerilla tactics turned the war into a frustrating stalemate. “Massive bombing, artillery and defoliation campaigns [strategies] did result in the Vietnamese suffering heavy losses, an estimated 2 million people” (Spartacus). Westmoreland also hoped that keeping by keeping track of the body count the enemy would be too demoralized to fight. “As combat operations increased, so did the casualties, announced each week on the nightly news, along with the “body count” of alleged Vietcong dead” (Tindall). Yet what the general failed to understand was that when, “The United States saw this strictly as a military struggle; the Vietcong saw it as a battle for their very existence, and they were ready to pay any price for victory” (Danzer).
Westmoreland claimed to have, “won every battle” during Vietnam as the Communist forces were not gaining any sort of advantage prior to the Tet Offensive in January. NV forces staged used the Battle of Khe San as a distraction while several groups gathered around many cities all around Vietnam that were occupied by the enemy and attacked almost simultaneously. Fierce fighting broke out and both sides took heavy losses, but the anti-communists forces ultimately prevailed by inflicting a much heavier body count for the enemy. This moment however shook the general’s confidence in the ongoing struggle to silence communist aggression and he then began to question the state of the war. The communist forces were refusing to surrender even though Westmoreland’s plan was to basically wear down the enemy until they gave up by using heavy bombing and artillery. However when the enemy did detect aircraft, they immediately ran into their tunnel system and hid in the nearest village, making it difficult to effectively create kills. “The more the Americans tried to drive us away from our land, the more we burrowed into it”, recalled Major Nyugen Quot of the Vietcong Army” (Danzer).
“By summer [of 1965] American forces were engaged in search and destroy operations throughout South Vietnam” (Tindall). U.S. forces on the ground were vigorously trying to hunt down the NV forces with varied success, mainly because their style of guerrilla warfare did not allow for U.S. forces to use their full technological potential. These small groups that came and went, performing hit and run strikes on American patrols made it difficult to pin any sort of victory. Burning the forests to the ground did massive damage and inflicted major casualties, but cave systems and constant movement forbid the anti-communist forces to use tactics in the large scale. Guerrilla warfare was used much better in the hands of the NV forces and these attacks that came out of nowhere hurt morale. The general wanted to expand warfare into Cambodia to cut off the supply of troops and supplies that were sneaking in to the flank of American and SV positions. Then the Tet Offensive occurred, which was a major turning point in the war. The U.S. came out victorious in this surprise attack, but proved the enemy was never going to die down. This encouraged Westmoreland to ask for reinforcements, but, “the United States was overcommitted. The Army could send few additional combat units to Vietnam without making deep inroads on forces destined for NATO or South Korea” (Stewart)
After the Tet offensive the U.S. and the SV armies had, in spite of difficulties, held the upper hand, but popular opinion drove America to demilitarize the Army of its troops ultimately leaving the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves. “Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams in 1968. On his return to the United States he was appointed as Chief of Staff to the United States Army. However, President Richard Nixon rarely consulted him and he was never promoted to the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” (Spartacus). Although General Westmoreland seemed like a failed general he had many military victories, however it was the North Vietnamese’s fierce determination and America’s hate for the war that did not allow him to escalate the war further to allow victory.
“Through its logistical, engineer, signal, medical, MP, and aviation commands established in the course of the buildup, USARV commanded and managed a support base of unprecedented size and scope” (Stewart). Gen. Westmoreland was able to manage several forces at once to create an effective ECONOMY OF FORCE and have a base set up so that supplies and reinforcements would arrive when needed. Hoping that the enemy would be overwhelmed by the heavy presence of American military he asked Johnson for several troops. The MASS number of them did in fact tilt the scales of the casualty counts in the Americans favor.
The mission was SIMPLE: find and kill all communist who oppose the friendly government until they surrender. This OBJECTIVE was clearly defined however it was hard to distinguish friend from foe at times as the enemy essentially blended in with everyone else. Still the numbers spoke for themselves with 50,000 U.S. dead (over 300,000 including allies) against over one million dead communists.
He took the OFFENSIVE and quickly helped the South Vietnamese government take back lost territory, defend towns, and assist troops when they were needed with air support. He exploited the North Vietnamese low-tech armies; the result was Operation Rolling Thunder. “This massive bombardment was intended to put military pressure on North Vietnam’s Communist leaders and reduce their capacity to wage war against the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam” (History.com). The heavy presence of American soldiers around S. Vietnam gave heavy SECURITY despite difficulties. “In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans” (Spartacus).
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