A Quora - General Westmoreland had a brilliant career prior to Vietnam

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Jun 4, 2022, 10:56:08 AMJun 4
History Planet ·
Michael Hutton

May 25
General Westmoreland had a brilliant career prior to the Vietnam War,
but, was unable to adapt to the realities of an unconventional war.

Michael Hutton
MA in National Security Studies, Georgetown University (Graduated
1987)Updated Feb 7

What is the consensus on General William Westmoreland among historians?
Did he do a bad job leading American forces in Vietnam, or was his task
basically impossible from the start?
An auspicious start…General Westmoreland is an interesting case study in
the development of a combat commander. He had a superb combat record in
World War II and he equaled it in many ways in the Korean War. (My
father served under Westmoreland on two occasions, couldn't stand him,
but praised him for how he conducted several operations during the
Korean War.) He followed his sterling record in Korea with a highly
successful peace-time command of the 101st Airborne Division.

He ended WWII as the golden boy of the US Army and by 1960, had emerged
as marked for the highest levels of command.

…Founders on the realities of an unconventional war. The Vietnam war,
though, showed General Westmoreland’s limitations in the extreme. The
great generals have a suppleness of thought, an ability to understand
the nature of the war they’re fighting and the ability to tailor their
tactics and operations to achieve the ends of strategy. In this regard,
General Westmoreland was lacking and it showed in his conduct of the war.

John Noel Bartlett
· Mon
I have a low opinion of Westmoreland. Frankly, he began to lie to his
President, to Congress and worst of all to his men repeatedly
proclaiming victory was at hand, just give me more. He knew it was BS.

Jacques René Giguère
· Mon
Worst he lied to himself. To extend on Lloyd George quote: “The War
Office keeps three sets of numbers. One to fool the public, one to fool
the government and one to fool themselves because the real fourth one
would not fool anyone.”

David Peters
· Tue
Australian forces showed how it could have been done.

Having fought in Malaya against an insurgency they knew that regular
patrols over the same ground were needed to keep the enemy from settling
in. It was not large pitched battles which were needed, the enemy would
not engage in them.

Donald Wilhelm
· Tue
Had there been true fairness, Westmoreland would have been relieved, if
not actually prosecuted, for his role in the attempted coverup of My Lai.

Aj. Raymond James Ritchie
· May 30
Westmoreland really got up Australian officers noses. They tried to
explain to him how they had been able to succeed against the communist
guerillas in Malaysia on very few men and resources but he took no
notice of them and treated them as a bunch of hicks. The Australians
understood jungle warfare, Westmoreland did not.

Famously he said he liked Australians serving in Vietnam because it
changed the flag on some of the body bags.

Charles Robison
· Mon
It is amazing how arrogance is the most common denominator in the
failings of leaders. If you think you know everything, you’re usually

Stuart Freeman
· Thu

As a Marine in Nam we rotated from area to area then we started over
once again. The VC were always a step behind us in setting up their
effective booby traps which we unfortunately usually ran into in our
return to those areas.

General Westmoreland in Vietnam at the 1st RAR military base.
(Credit...Tim Page/Corbis, via Getty Image)

There are some sources that try to give him credit for doing well; but
these efforts are a stretch. He could not grasp the politics
underpinning the war and he failed to develop and implement a strategy
that would have achieved an acceptable outcome.

The consensus on General Westmoreland is best captured by Lewis Sorley
in his scorching 2011 indictment, “Westmoreland: the General who Lost
the War”.

Sorley outlines in damning detail the case against its subject:
everything from ignoring his tactical advisers in order to pursue a
bludgeon-style “war of attrition” against the Vietcong to lying about
enemy strength levels to his civilian superiors back in Washington.

In Sorley’s view, Westmoreland viewed the war as a steppingstone to his
fifth star and the chance to write the equivalent of Eisenhower’s
“Crusade in Europe”. He achieved neither.

General Westmoreland was criticised in his own day for his tone-deaf
approach to the complexities of the Vietnam War, his insistence on
massive conventional maneuvers against a highly fragmented guerrilla
resistance, and his relentless pursuit of “high body counts” achieved by
means of “big unit” confrontations and “search and destroy” missions
that were famously indiscriminating in their choice of targets. And,
historians ever since have been almost unanimous in their condemnation.

There are generals who earn high praise for outstanding leadership and
operational capabilities under pressure even though they lose in the
end. Westmoreland is not one of those generals.

His tactical plan: kill the enemy
His operational plan: kill the enemy
His strategic plan: kill the enemy.
And kill we did, inflicting more than a million KIAs on the enemy. It
yielded nothing, had little chance of success and Westmoreland’s peers
have admitted as much.

Future four-star general Volney Warner who also served as Westmoreland‘s
executive officer said Westmoreland quite simply “didn’t understand the
war then, doesn’t understand it now.” General William DePuy, a close
associate of Westmoreland, later admitted the futility of the
Westmoreland way of war. In his words:

“We ended up,” he said, “with no operational plan that had the slightest
chance of ending the war favorably.”
Westmoreland was incapable of acknowledging this reality.

One of Westmoreland’s flaws was that he never attended any of the Army’s
senior service schools and was proud of it. And, he was proud that he
was not a voracious reader. But, by not attending, his thinking on war
was never challenged and he was never compelled to work through the
complexities of higher command or campaigns and the problem of
developing tactics and operations appropriate to meet the ends of strategy.

As to the second part of the question, was the war unwinnable from the
start? It seems that way; but, if we review how General Abrams did as
the successor to Westmoreland, it’s obvious that the situation would
have turned out much better if US forces had been commanded by a better
general, which General Abrams was.

General Creighton Abrams on the right (1969). Patton said of Abrams "I'm
supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one
peer—Abe Abrams. He's the world champion.”

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