On April 28, 1967, Gen. William C. Westmoreland was accorded a rare honor, that of addressing a joint session of Congress. As he ticked off indicators of progress in the war in Vietnam, the general seemed the embodiment of the military professional: trim and erect, with prominent eyebrows and a jutting chin that did not encourage contradiction. “Given the nature of the enemy,” he said, “it seems to me that the strategy we are following at this time is the proper one, and that it is producing results.”
The storm of applause that greeted Westmoreland may have marked the zenith of his career, for just a few years later he would be ignored by Congress, reviled by much of the public and regarded as something of a pariah within the service in which he had spent most of his adult life.
Born in South Carolina, the son of the manager of a textile mill, Westmoreland demonstrated an early interest in the military. He went to West Point, where he was named first captain in the year of his graduation, 1936. He brought energy and drive to the mundane posts to which he was assigned in the Old Army and once made 13 parachute jumps in a single day. Mr. Sorley writes of the young Westmoreland: “Fueled by ambition, driving himself relentlessly … energetic and effective at self-promotion … from his earliest days of service he led his contemporaries, was admired and advanced by his seniors, and progressed rapidly upward.”
“Westy” served with distinction as an artillery officer in World War II and commanded a regimental combat team in Korea. But his real break came in 1955, when he was named secretary of the general staff by the Army chief of staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor. Westmoreland was so effective as Taylor’s “gatekeeper” that he was rewarded three years later with one of the Army’s choice assignments, command of the elite 101st Airborne Division. As a division commander, Westy showed both managerial skill and a concern for the welfare of his men.
His reward was another plum: appointment as superintendent of West Point, a post once held by Robert E. Lee and Douglas MacArthur. Again he impressed, managing the academy during a period of rapid expansion. If there were hints of weakness, they were his total absence of a sense of humor and a penchant for self-promotion.
In 1964, Westmoreland learned that he was headed for Vietnam, first as deputy chief of U.S. forces there, then as commander of the 16,000-man American “advisory” force - a force that eventually would total more than 500,000. The war already was controversial in Washington. Overthrow of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon had been followed by a succession of ineffective military juntas. In the jungles, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were a new type of enemy for the U. S. military.
Westmoreland’s strategy was to fight a war of attrition in the belief that overwhelming American firepower would destroy the enemy. If he could inflict sufficient casualties, so it went, the communists would cease their aggression against South Vietnam. Westmoreland had no respect for the South Vietnamese army; if the war was to be won, the Americans would have to do it. There were doubters in Washington, but among the Joint Chiefs there also was a tradition of deferring to commanders in the field.
Westmoreland’s attrition strategy took the form of search-and-destroy operations - multibattalion sweeps designed to seek out enemy units and engage them. To implement such operations required more and more troops. He received most of what he requested despite doubts on the part of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others. Mr. Sorley writes, “What is baffling is that these senior civilian officials nevertheless allowed Westmoreland to doggedly pursue his flawed approach for year after bloody year.”
From Saigon, the commanding general ordered his senior subordinates to be optimistic and to accentuate the positive in their reporting. The most tangible evidence of progress was the body count, and Westmoreland estimated enemy losses in 1966 at more than 50,000. However, the intelligence experts kept seeing indications of increased enemy strength - indications that contradicted Westmoreland’s optimism. The general’s solution was to drop two categories of guerrillas from the enemy order of battle, an action that kept their total number below the “acceptable” figure of 300,000.
In December 1967, Westmoreland spoke on American TV of “great progress” in the war. The surprise Tet offensive that followed shortly made a mockery of his optimism. No longer was there “light at the end of the tunnel.” When Westmoreland requested 200,000 more troops, on top of the half million already in Vietnam, he was on his way out.
The Johnson administration was fed up with Westy, but it could not fire him without admitting that its Vietnam policy was a failure. As a result, he was kicked upstairs to the post of Army chief of staff, from where he oversaw the beginnings of the Vietnam drawdown. In retirement, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of South Carolina.
As a soldier, Westmoreland lacked the intellectual depth to deal with a highly unorthodox war. In the words of a fellow general, he “had an astonishing lack of interest in a wide range of things.”
In retirement he missed the coterie of aides and horse-holders that he had enjoyed as a four-star general. At one airport, he approached an Army major and identified himself as Gen. Westmoreland. He then explained that he had recently retired from the Army and said, “I don’t know how to get my luggage. They took it when I checked in for my flight, but … I don’t know where my bags are.” The major directed him to the baggage-claim carousel.
Mr. Sorley’s subtitle is misleading. No single general “lost” Vietnam, for the result was a team effort. But the author, who has written extensively on the Vietnam War, has provided a first-rate biography of a second-rate soldier.