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Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam,

by Gregory A. Daddis, Oxford University Press, 2014

Addressing the seemingly dogged entanglement in South Vietnam with General William Westmoreland, Brig. Gen. Willard Holbrook Jr. advised the incoming chief of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to avoid being made a scapegoat “for a situation for which there may be no solution.” Holbrook’s counsel proved prescient. Westmoreland, perhaps more than any other figure, has become virtually synonymous with America’s failure in Vietnam.

Yet what if Westmoreland was in fact a good general burdened with a bad war? Colonel Gregory A. Daddis explores that question in Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam.

Most critics of American military strategy in Vietnam argue that Westmoreland and the U.S. Army, hopelessly wedded to conventional war, expressed little interest in counterinsurgency warfare and failed to comprehend the sociopolitical, post-colonial context of Communist-inspired “national wars of liberation.”

Daddis demonstrates that neither charge is accurate. Army officers in the 1950s frequently read Mao Zedong writings on revolutionary warfare. Later, as the United States shifted its strategic focus to Southeast Asia, students in the Army school system studied Mao, Vo Nguyen Giap and French counterinsurgency expert David Gulua. Moreover, during Westmoreland’s time as superintendent at West Point (1960-63), he insisted that counterinsurgency instruction be added to the core curriculum. These courses emphasized the role of political and social reform in countering insurgencies.

The author makes clear that when Westmoreland assumed command in 1964, he did it with the understanding that the conduct of the war would differ from campaigns he had waged as a battalion and regimental commander in World War II and Korea. The war “is political because the ultimate goal is to regain the loyalty and cooperation of the people,” the MACV chief noted in 1965, “and to create conditions which permit the people to go about their normal lives in peace and security.”

Plainly Westmoreland, contrary to claims that he relied on body counts as the principal metric for success in the field, recognized that a strategy based entirely on killing the enemy would not secure victory.

Daddis, a veteran of operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom who is teaching at West Point, details the broadly conceived, carefully considered military strategy Westmoreland proposed to counter the threat from North Vietnam with U.S. forces, train the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) and promote “pacification” programs that used military, political, social and economic means to uproot the Viet Cong presence around the country and extend the South Vietnamese government’s control.

Sensitive to cultural considerations, Westmoreland initially thought it best to assign the delicate task of pacification to indigenous forces. The sheer size of the enemy threat, however, prompted greater ARVN participation in the war waged with big units. Responsibility for securing the population thus fell more heavily on South Vietnam’s territorial forces, which never managed to wrest control of the countryside from the Viet Cong.

ARVN units, crippled by corruption, ineffectual leadership and poor morale, sometimes mistreated the civilians they were asked to protect. Nor was the U.S. Army always above reproach in its treatment of the civilian population. Even in areas where the allies “got it right,” political support for the South Vietnamese government did not necessarily follow.

Frustratingly, the South Vietnamese government made only modest strides behind the main-force shield American units struggled to erect.

“Despite its power,” Daddis writes, “the U.S. mission in Vietnam could not simultaneously create an army, build a nation and fight a war.”

Masterfully explaining the MACV and the intricacies of modern command, Westmoreland’s War is revisionist scholarship at its best and a reminder that a sound military strategy can only achieve so much in the service of an otherwise flawed grand strategy.


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.