General W.C. Westmoreland: Fine man, great soldier
The recent death of General William C. Westmoreland brought back a flood of memories of a great human being whom I got to know and admire greatly. We met twice in Vietnam, first along the South China Sea and, later, up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
“Westy,” as he was known, always asked my sky troopers, “Are you getting your mail? How’s the chow? Do you have enough ammunition? Is there anything you don’t have that you need?”
Some reporters tried to make fun of these oft-repeated questions as revealing of a simple mind not focused on Grand Strategy. So what should have Westy been asking my troops? Do you think the orders of President Johnson and Secretary McNamara to fight a War of Attrition rather than a War of Annihilation are the correct approach to winning this conflict? Right.
In late 1970 and early 1971, the recently retired General Westmoreland provided gracious help as I struggled to write a master’s thesis for The George Washington University. We exchanged letters and spoke on the phone. In the early 1980s, as I was finishing War During Peace: The Paradox of Vietnam, my doctoral dissertation, Westy, once again, gave generously of his time. In fact, our relationship blossomed to the point that I felt comfortable inviting General Westmoreland to come speak at a banquet for which I was somewhat responsible. And, as I knew they would, “Kitsy” Westmoreland and Wonder Wife got along famously.
Meanwhile, General Westmoreland and I continued our on-going conversations about the Grand Strategy imposed on him by President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. General Westmoreland was not one to speak ill of anyone. But that did not stop me from insisting that Johnson and McNamara had sent us to Vietnam to “not lose,” rather than “to win.”
I felt we had been victimized by President Johnson and Secretary McNamara who would not let us go after the enemy in its sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam. Instead, we were ordered to fight a ground War of Attrition. – inside South Vietnam.
That meant we could only engage the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) after it entered South Vietnam. The vaunted mathematical mind of Secretary McNamara should have told him that the North Vietnamese could produce 16-year-old soldiers faster than we could kill them under the rules of engagement set by McNamara himself. Moreover, if the NVA had been stupid enough to march four abreast into South Vietnam, we could not have mowed them down at a rate in excess of their reproduction rate. Besides, we Americans would not have done that anyway.
Instead, we should have been ordered to and allowed to fight a War of Annihilation (Decapitation) aimed at defeating the political leadership of the NVA. We could easily have gone right to Hanoi, wiped out the communist leadership, and reached a quick and favorable end to the war -- without the deaths of 58,000 Americans.
Obviously, the Johnson/McNamara War of Attrition wasn’t working, giving rise to the anti-war movement at home. But the Nixon/Kissinger Grand Strategy of Vietnamization worked so well that, by 1973, the sagging North Vietnamese agreed to the Paris Peace Accords by which the North Vietnamese withdrew their troops from South Vietnam. So, in 1973, the last of our fighting forces departed South Vietnam as well.
That “peace” lasted until 1975 when the NVA invaded once again. To our everlasting shame, the U.S. Congress refused to honor our pledge to re-supply and to help the South Vietnamese repel an all-out invasion. Cowed by the anti-war movement, Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of our hard-won victory.
Even McNamara admits he imposed the wrong strategy on our generals. History will deal harshly with both McNamara and Johnson. But history will record General Westmoreland as the epitome of Duty-Honor-Country -- the motto of his beloved West Point -- where Westy now rests in eternal peace.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer and philosopher,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2005. William Hamilton.