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Time for a reappraisal of Westmoreland

Several years ago some journalist wrote the condescending and all- knowing line, “Well, the art of war isn’t exactly rocket science.” He was right. Rocket science, governed by the laws of mathematics and physics, is much more predictable and controllable than war. If you crunch the numbers correctly, the rocket goes where you point it. If you don’t, it doesn’t. War is a far messier business. For one thing, the enemy always gets a vote. And the price of failure in war is always much higher than the price of failure in rocket science. But even if you succeed in war, you still pay a heavy price. Rocket science is 100 percent logical. War has a huge irrational component— human nature.

It is nearly impossible to understand a war fully when you are in the middle of it. Wars only come into proper focus years after the fact, and usually after the last living participants are long gone. Historians are now just coming to grips with World War I. And of course, we have been arguing about Vietnam for more than 50 years, going at least as far back as to when Dien Bien Phu fell.

It has long been an article of faith in far too many quarters that former MACV commander General William C. Westmoreland was the bad guy—or at least the dummy—who screwed up Vietnam. A corollary dogma is that his successor, General Creighton Abrams, was the smart guy who started doing it right and almost pulled it off. It is an appealing belief system that seems to make sense—so long as you don’t dig too deeply beneath the surface. But that’s the problem. This view is far too pat, too black and white. War just isn’t that simplistic.

In this issue, leading Vietnam War historian Dale Andrade challenges some long-held assumptions and makes a strong argument that Westmoreland and Abrams faced very different strategic and operational situations and had to fight different kinds of wars. Indeed, the success, or partial success at any rate, that Westmoreland achieved was what allowed Abrams to alter the tactics and fight the war much differently.

In the long run both Westmoreland and Abrams failed. After all the blood and treasure America expended, Saigon still fell to the North in 1975. But the primary reason they failed was because of a factor far beyond their control. As many historians, including our founding editor Harry Summers, have argued, the United States went into Vietnam without an overarching strategy. We went in with no clearly articulated end-state and no strategic plan for how to get there. Generals don’t make national strategy, they only implement it. And a general without a strategic framework is ultimately condemned to winging it from crisis to crisis.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here