The United States Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962-1967.
Graham A. Cosmas, Center of Military History, 2006, 524 pages. Available through the Government Printing Office, $53 clothbound, $50 paperback.
American policy in Vietnam may have been inarticulate and devoid of practical goals, and U.S. strategy perhaps unimaginative and focused on the short term, but both were products of extensive and extended deliberation. This is the overwhelming impression conveyed by the latest volume in the U.S. Army’s official history of the Vietnam War, a capstone work intended to provide the broad overview that illuminates the official history volumes that cover combat operations over specific periods or technical services and thematic issues.
Awaited with anticipation, this book took almost as much time to declassify as the Vietnam War was long, and more than that in careful crafting by its author, Graham A. Cosmas. We cannot know what was lost to the keepers of the secrets, but what we do see is judicious, comprehensive, and well grounded in the records.
Most of the literature on the decisions behind the Vietnam War is written from the perspective of the White House. The Pentagon Papers, of course, took the viewpoint of the secretary of defense, and other works focus on the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the army high command. This literature has notably lacked the view from the theater command. Aside from memoirs and biographies of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) commander General William C. Westmoreland and Pacific theater commander Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, there has been virtually no coverage from the MACV perspective. Moreover, the memoirs have been concerned primarily with justifying those officers’ positions and actions in various circumstances.
Until Cosmas’, there has been no book that concerned itself not only with MACV strategy but also with the evolution of this joint command and its staff, MACV’s role in the war, and the relationship between the theater command and Washington. Cosmas has illuminated these aspects in considerable detail.
Another lacuna filled here concerns the prehistory and creation of MACV. Excepting a single biography of General William T. (“Hanging Sam”) Williams, there is very little on Westmoreland’s predecessors, particularly Paul D. Harkins. Cosmas treats this period in some detail, pointing out how the essential problem of treating a “very unconventional situation in a basically conventional manner” was identified by General Lionel McGarr as early as 1961. How what became MACV functioned simultaneously as a military assistance unit and a troop command is elucidated.
Some of the author’s discoveries break new ground, even while bringing up familiar themes. For example, defense secretary Robert S. McNamara originally wanted MACV to report directly to him. Interservice politics trumped that scheme: The Joint Chiefs wanted the Vietnam field command to report to the Pacific theater “CinC,” while the navy feared the precedent set by an arrangement like that might lead to new inroads into its chain of command in the Far East and other areas.
Many decisions were made to keep MACV in its place. For example, when General Harkins first requested authority to convene courts-martial on his own, the theater command refused. The arrangement that emerged over time was a hybrid, however, with Westmoreland under formal Pacific theater control but enjoying a range of independence from none (in the case of the air war) up to considerable (on ground operations, he reported to the Joint Chiefs—with administrative control vested in the Pacific theater command). Cosmas concludes that MACV “labored…under complicated, difficult conditions.”
This official history does a good job of putting MACV’s task within the context of the developing war, using recent sources to layer in Hanoi’s decisions and operations, with somewhat less attention devoted to the South Vietnamese. (The exception being President Ngo Dinh Diem, as Cosmas records how Paul Harkins opposed the coup against Diem and made certain moves to thwart it.)
Cosmas’ judgments on relations between MACV and the South Vietnamese army command at various times in the war would have been useful. The heart of this period in the Southeast Asian conflict is the progressive U.S. escalation to engage in ground combat and then to build its expeditionary force up to more than a half-million troops.
Much of this story is familiar, but Cosmas adds an extra MACV perspective. Westmoreland’s constant pushing of the envelope on ground troop deployments played its part in souring President Lyndon B. Johnson on the ground war. Unfortunately MACV: The Years of Escalation does not directly confront the question of Westmoreland’s motives, or the relationship between Westy’s troop requests and his back channel communications with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle Wheeler, who fed the MACV commander a constant stream of private information on the political climate in the White House.
It is perhaps in the nature of official history that questions like these are passed over. Images of institutions are at stake when telling their own stories, not to mention those of the characters, their protégés, and successors. Another shortcoming of the genre, repeated here, is failure to make enough use of valuable accounts in the broader literature. On the other hand, Cosmas and his fellow official historians open the door to a swath of cables, reports, and similar records that help deepen our understanding of the Vietnam War. MACV: The Years of Escalation advances the story in a number of ways. It is well worth reading.
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.