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Sorley on Westmoreland: Loss of Vietnam War, NOT!

Lewis Sorley, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost the Vietnam War. NOT!

By Roger Canfield

We are forever grateful to Lew Sorley for reminding us in a Better War that the war in Indochina
was a strategic battle in the Cold War fought well for honorable purposes.  Lew Sorley is surely on that very short list
of historians of the Vietnam War worth reading.

In Westmoreland: The General Who Lost the Vietnam War, Sorley has now written a masterful work
on the legendary character flaws of Gen. William Westmoreland. [pp. 119, 302-3]
Westmoreland was somewhat late in adopting pacification, CORDS in 1967, as a part
of overall strategy. He and all of his superiors failed, to assault sanctuaries
in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam (Hanoi, Haiphong). He and others failed to
conduct a relentless propaganda/counter-propaganda/truth/information war, e.g.
Frank Capra’s Why We Fight in WWII.

That said, Sorley has given insufficient attention to the
context of Westy’s failures, his foes in Washington as well as Hanoi.

Westmoreland was in over his head, but the rot began at the top.
Kennedy was a dilettante and LBJ was a coward fearful of the USSR, China,
weapons and war protesters alike. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara,
contemptuous of military men, gathered young lawyers and   game theorists around him to devise a cost
benefit strategy of gradual escalation. Nowhere was there a win or victory. DC
counted bodies and ammunition. Nixon hired a Harvard Professor, Henry
Kissinger, whose expertise was the diplomacy of a third rate power in the 19th
Century, Metternick of crumbling remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They
bombed Hanoi into submission to American concessions (Negroponte). Nixon’s Defense
Secretary Melvin Laird retained Kennedy-Johnson holdovers like Paul Warnke,
Robert Pursley, Harold Brown, Dan Henkins, Jack Stempler.

Hanoi’s strategic game plan was no secret–three phased
warfare.  North Vietnam’s key strategist
and Minister of Defense, General Vo Nguyen Giap, says, How We Won the War,
“[Our party] combined military struggle (dau tranh vu trang) with
political struggle (dau tranh chinh tri) and at certain stages … also
with diplomatic struggle, in order to completely defeat the U.S.-Thieu
neo-colonialist war of aggression.”[1]
Le Duan, Lao Dong Party Secretary, instructed the Viet
Cong COSVN:  “The armed struggle [dau tranh vu trang] must be simultaneously
conducted with the political one [dau tranh chinh tri]. …” This principle was consciously applied in the
streets of America [dich van] far outside of Westmoreland’s responsibilities.

Hence, American disputes and Sorley’s own account, about
contending war strategies of attrition (Westmoreland) v. pacification (Abrams) are
overly simplified. Setting aside the decisive, politics and diplomacy, armed
struggle in all of Indochina was protracted, dynamic and ever changing
combinations of guerrilla terror and main force operations.

Hanoi actually defeated America in diplomacy and in politics
but not on the battlefield or in the hamlets. Until the Nixon-Kissinger bug out
and Congressional betrayal, America’s southern ally had won both the war of
attrition [Phillip Davidson, Vietnam At War] and the war of pacification [Mark Moyer, Phoenix and Birds of Prey].

Westmoreland was no more clueless about the enemy’s strategy than his superiors.

Westmoreland and Abrams fought the war presented to them by
the enemy and their civilian superiors. Westmoreland did not want to pursue
only a war of attrition. [Sorley 91-92] Westmoreland had greater strategic
objectives including a major operation to cut, block and hold the Ho Chi Minh
trail in Laotian panhandle. Hanoi has admitted this would have been fatal to
“the revolution”. Defense Secretary McNamara and his wonder boys put
the hex on that in 1966. (McMaster, Dereliction of Duty).

In different times and places both superior firepower (1965,
1968, 1972, 1975) and pacification were critical. After the failures of Tet
1968, on May 5, 1968 Politburo member Truong Chinh presented plans for a new
strategy, return to protracted and guerrilla war and to place the greater
efforts upon political struggle.[2] Giap neither believed “guerrillas” could win the war nor planned on
winning it using only guerrillas. The implication that VC/NVA could or did win
the war by elusive retreats after major battles is absurd.

The opposition in Hanoi saw many paths to victory (military,
political and diplomatic), many phases of the war (guerrilla, main force and
political), many wars fought throughout Indochina. The enemy nearly always held
the initiative. He fought, or not, at times and places of his own choosing. He
“stood and fought” at Dong Xoai in ’65, Thach Tru in ’66, At Dak To
in ’67. Hue and Khe Sanh and many other places in Tet ’68.

The war culminating in a massive, overwhelming conventional
warfare victory, the very superior firepower that Sorley insists was Westmoreland’s
uniquely flawed strategy. [101-102, 107]. In the end, just as Giap and Truong
Chinh planned, it was overwhelming conventional superior firepower that turned
the trick. “Pacification” alone would not and could not have withstood the assault.

Westmoreland did not ignore pacification. He did what he
could when he could with Diem’s flawed strategic hamlet program and he was slow
to adopt the MACV’s CORDS pacification.

General Abrams did not simply change to tactics that Westmoreland
could have easily adopted.  Abrams capitalized
on some factors attributable in part to Westmoreland’s efforts such as plummeting
VC recruitment and capabilities and improved RVNAF troops and modernized
weapons (no more WW II surplus) Hence, Abrams ably gave more attention to

After Tet’s decimation of Viet Cong and NVA main forces in
1968 either Westmoreland or Abrams would have pursued the very same
policy–clean up the remnants at the hamlet level.

That Abrams and the Thieu/Ky regime did it so brilliantly does not mean that
Westmoreland’s earlier strategy was forever fundamentally flawed.

Yes, Westmoreland was a stuffed shirt as were MacArthur and
Patton in their own way.

Sorley highlights the critical issue of counterinsurgency, pacification, now so
critical to the future in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “Arab Spring.”

We can all learn from Generals Westmoreland and Abrams and
yes, Lew Sorley.

I would like to thank Bill Laurie upon whose thoughts I have
drawn heavily.

Roger Canfield, ATN2, VF-121, NAS Miramar, 1962-1964. Author
of Comrades in Arms: How the Americong
Won the War in Vietnam Against the Common Enemy—America
.  Also China’s
Trojan Horses” Red Chinese Soldiers, Sailors, Students, Scientists and Spies
Occupy America’s Homeland

[1] General Vo Nguyen Giap, How We Won the War, Philadelphia: RECON
Publications, 1976, 28 originally in Nhan Dan and Quan Doi Nhan,
June 31, July 1, 1975 and as “A New Development of the Art of Leading a
Revolutionary War, Vietnam Courier, August and September 1975.

[2] Thomas K. Latimer, “Hanoi’s Leaders and Their South Vietnam Policies:
1954-1968.” Ph.D. dissertation, History, Georgetown University, 1972,
Leaders, 336, cited in Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam At War: the History:
, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 543-4, 571, 573n14.

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