William C. Westmoreland
William C. Westmoreland; drawing by David Levine

There is an old army saying that an officer should never be seen pushing a baby carriage, carrying a large bundle under his arm, or holding an umbrella. William Westmoreland recalled this adage during a rainstorm on Guam in the spring of 1967 when he was amused to see a fellow general, from the air force, holding an umbrella over Lyndon Johnson’s head as the president addressed a crowd of airmen. It is impossible to conceive of Westmoreland doing any of those things, or presenting himself in any pose except the most dignified, the most commanding.

A caption under a photo in his book notes “the author in a favorite stance atop a jeep.” His hands are on his hips, his right hand resting on his leather holster. The caption says he is “talking” to the men; but the word that springs to mind when one observes the thrust-out chin, the bushy black eyebrows, the grim, resolute expression is “exhorting.” Simple words always seem to stand a little taller with Westmoreland. In his vocabulary a man is not “tough” or “loyal.” He is “staunch” or “stalwart.”

Appearance is a serious business with him. One of his toughest decisions, during the years when he was the army chief of staff, was determining the length of GIs’ hair. This caused him “anguish,” he tells us.

Perfectly turned-out soldiers abounded in Vietnam when I was there—you saw them especially around Westmoreland’s headquarters. Yet even there Westmoreland was special, a little starchier, a bit more polished, he had more “military bearing.” He was always at briefings—either giving them or listening to them. There, in front of huge maps and charts, he was in his element—jabbing at unit position markers, raising his fists like a boxer to show that there were both offensive and defensive sides to the war. People who saw him regularly—other soldiers, diplomats, journalists—remembered the way he looked rather than what he’d said at those briefings. They were struck by the perfection of his appearance in much the way one is struck by the beauty of a woman.

Westmoreland believes that the military is a special calling—perhaps a higher calling. A general is a very special person, and people should be made aware of this. Immaculate appearance is one way of underscoring the dignity of rank. There are other ways as well. Once, after a tennis game at the Cercle Sportif in Saigon, he directed his partner, a young foreign service officer who spoke Vietnamese, to assemble the Vietnamese ball boys for him. He wanted them to know who he was, he told them, and he wanted to thank them for their outstanding performance as ball boys. With the urchins lined up in front of him as if on review he spoke slowly and deliberately in his solemn, southern voice, giving the young diplomat time to translate each phrase: “As a token…of my gratitude…I want to give you…these tennis balls.”

He was distressed when generals did not behave with southern propriety. “Tri was a tiger in combat,” he recalls of the late General Do Cao Tri, “South Vietnam’s George Patton, and like Patton he was remiss in some aspects of human relations. In the days before American dependents departed in 1965, he embarrassed Kitsy [Mrs. Westmoreland] and me by taking us to a cabaret in Dalat where the other ladies at the table were obviously Tri’s mistresses.”

Westmoreland took so well to military life from his first days in uniform that great things were predicted for him. Like a good many other West Pointers, he came from a small southern town and had a Confederate officer among his ancestors. He was an enthusiastic Boy Scout, and says he was drawn to the “discipline” of military life. Although an average student at West Point, he was selected as First Captain of his class for those intangibles which the army calls “leadership capability.” During World War II he attracted attention as a colonel and battalion commander in Europe: he was thought to be a good “manager.” Some officers who worked with him in Vietnam say that he reached the limit of his talents at that time, but the army thought otherwise. He rose steadily in rank, accumulating the right combination of command, staff, and school postings. One of his stops was the Harvard Business School, an experience particularly useful at a time when the army was anxious to copy the techniques of corporate management.

Becoming a paratrooper between World War II and the Korean War gave his career an enormous boost. A paratrooper, one would think, is simply a soldier who jumps out of airplanes. Moreover, parachuting has been virtually obsolete as a tactic since World War II. Nevertheless, there is still a mystique in the army about “the airborne” roughly equivalent to that of Harvard and Yale law schools on Wall Street. Westmoreland’s 121st jump—the last recorded—was, he says, “the parachutist’s supreme compliment” to Nguyen Van Thieu, who was making his first jump from the same plane. Champagne followed. Westmoreland was cementing his relations with Thieu, who was cementing his own relations with ARVN airborne troops, who had their own mystique: Thieu needed their support to stay in power.


Most of the dominant officers in the army after World War II—Maxwell Taylor, Matthew Ridgway, James Gavin among them—were airborne soldiers in Europe. They comprised what came to be known as the Airborne Club and, like good club members, they looked out for the interests of their younger brothers. By the early Sixties, when Westmoreland had become superintendent of West Point, the Airborne Club was extremely powerful. Kennedy had called Maxwell Taylor out of retirement to lead military thinking away from “massive retaliation” to the new—for the US Army—strategy of counterinsurgency. The airborne made counterinsurgency its special project. Westmoreland sponsored a “counterinsurgency conference” at West Point and invited Walt Rostow to take part. From West Point, Westmoreland went briefly to the most important domestic airborne command at Fort Bragg and then, with a little help from his friend Taylor, to the most coveted post in the army at the time—COMUSMACV.

At Eisenhower’s urging, Westmoreland kept a diary of his experiences in Vietnam, which, he says, was a great help in writing his book. A Soldier Reports covers enormous ground, and even has room for Bob Hope anecdotes and a mention of the number of scout dogs lost in Vietnam (thirty-six KIA and 153 wounded). From the beginning Westmoreland probably expected to write a memoir of victory similar to Crusade in Europe and the books of other successful American generals of the past. The defeat in Vietnam has not deterred him from this:

Viewing the conduct and achievements of the military services in Vietnam in an over-all context, the record, for all the necessity of a long learning curve, was remarkable: the mammoth logistical build-up; various tactical expedients and innovations; the advisory effort; civic action programs; but perhaps most impressive of all, the accomplishment for the first time in military history of a true air-mobility on the battlefield.

At times, the book is like one of his briefings, filled with statistics and self-congratulation. He hardly seems aware that the prodigious installations he built are now in the hands of his old enemy:

Where there was but one deep-draft port at the start—Saigon, with its antiquated facilities—there were in the end seven, including Newport, built from scratch just upriver from Saigon to handle military cargoes while leaving Saigon for civilian needs. Where there were but three airfields capable of handling jet aircraft, there were in the end eight, plus eighty-four tactical airstrips that could accommodate propeller-driven planes, including transports, and hundreds of helicopter landing pads. Where there had been virtually no military storage facilities, there were in the end 11 million square feet of covered storage, over 5 million square yards of open storage, and 2.5 million cubic feet of cold storage…. In a short span of time South Vietnam acquired facilities possessed by few nations other than the most highly developed.

Westmoreland declares that “the Oriental’s preoccupation with ‘face’ is real.” He should have been right at home in the East.

What he tries to do in his book is called among soldiers “covering your ass.” He has no desire to become a controversial public figure like Admiral Zumwalt, an aggrieved general rousing the voters. He is too careful an organization man for that. He wants respect. In 1969, at Eisenhower’s funeral, he met Charles de Gaulle, who “complimented me on my efforts, which hardly represented endorsement of my decisions, but neither did it suggest rejection.” The loss of Vietnam was not, anyway, his fault. “Despite the final failure of the South Vietnamese, the record of the American military services of never having lost a war is still intact…. I am convinced that history will reflect more favorably upon the performance of the military than upon that of the politicians and policy makers,” he says.

Westmoreland harbors far more animosity toward American civilians than he does toward the Vietnamese whom he fought. Since he was tactful, obedient, and eager to please during the war, his attacks on government officials now are striking. When Robert McNamara was about to arrive in Saigon Westmoreland behaved like a high school drama coach preparing for parents’ night. McNamara usually sent his questions ahead and Westmoreland spent hours in dress rehearsals of the briefings, reordering the sequence of charts, telling other generals how to speak. In Honolulu in 1966 President Johnson took him aside and said: “I hope you don’t pull a MacArthur on me.” Westmoreland’s comment is somewhat baffling: “Since I had no intention of crossing him in any way, I chose to make no response.” Johnson might have been happier with an assurance from Westmoreland, but in any case he did not “pull a Mac-Arthur.” His deference had helped him to get his job and helped him to keep it.


In this book, perhaps suspecting that he may become one of the scapegoats of the war, Westmoreland is defending himself. One senses he is angry for having been too obedient; but it is an anger he cannot release and it becomes muffled into petulance. “Would I, a military man, presume to tell a team of surgeons how to operate?” he asks. “What special audacity prompted civilian bureaucrats to deem they knew better how to run a military campaign than did military professionals? Is no special knowledge or experience needed?” McGeorge Bundy was typical: “like numbers of civilians in positions of some governmental authority, once he smelled a little gunpowder he developed a field marshal psychosis.” Sometimes Washington, rather than Hanoi, seems the enemy capital. It was not hospitable to military men. After all, Brigadier General Francis G. Brink, who was the first American commander in Vietnam, had “died a suicide while in a mood of depression during a visit to Washington.”

No doubt Westmoreland had reason to be exasperated by some of the arrogant fools in Washington. “They can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval,” Johnson used to boast. But his intensely suspicious cast of mind goes far beyond the soldier’s traditional distrust of civilians. This most important American soldier of his generation is not only alarmingly ignorant, but contemptuous of the American political system.

His explanation for the defeat in Vietnam is that “constraints” were forced upon him by the civilians making policy. He believes the policy of “graduated response” in bombing allowed North Vietnam to absorb damage and recuperate. In view of the damage we did in Vietnam, Westmoreland’s notion of “constraint” is curious, but certainly the destruction would have been worse if he had had his way. He regarded the Têt offensive as a US victory, and he wanted to import more troops, mine the northern harbors, and invade three more countries—North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

When Washington turned him down, Westmoreland seems to think its decisions were made in a vacuum. Policy makers were “timid” personalities who did not understand the uses of power—and, or so it seems to Westmoreland, timid people make timid decisions. Thus he dismisses as “chimerical” any concern that a vast escalation might have brought a severe Chinese or Soviet reaction. He has himself no clear idea why the US was in Vietnam—he never seems to have thought much about it—and he cannot understand why American public opinion turned against a war that political leaders could not justify.

Westmoreland seems to feel that military requirements should always take precedence over any other considerations. To raise doubts about military measures is simply a defect of a democracy. “Despite the long years of support and vast expenditure of lives and funds, the United States in the end abandoned South Vietnam. There is no other true way to put it,” he says.

Presumably reflecting the attitude of a majority of the American people, the Congress was tired of the Vietnam struggle. “Additional aid means more killing, more fighting,” the press quoted Senator Mike Mansfield as saying. “This has got to stop sometime.”

In Westmoreland’s version of the “stab-in-the-back” theory, it was the American public that held the dagger.

If he could not understand American political life, he was even less perceptive about Vietnam and the Vietnamese. Force, Westmoreland tells us, “was the only language the North Vietnamese understood.” In fact, it was the only language he himself understood, always wanting more of it and seeing it as the eventual solution to all his problems. His strategy of “attrition,” which cost so many casualties on both sides, was simply the mechanical use of more firepower both in the jungle and in populated areas. Somehow, for all his training, he was unable to comprehend any of the subtleties of the situation in Vietnam. For him it was just another place in the Orient. “I had had previous dealing with Orientals in Korea and Japan and considered that I had developed a certain understanding of them,” he says. “Yet my colleagues and I in Vietnam were for a long time on what I called a ‘learning curve.’ There was no book to tell us how to do the job.”

He did it the only way he knew how—and was certain that it would work. Even now, despite the outcome, he seems to think it was the right way. He always underestimated his adversary—unable to believe that guerrillas and the soldiers of a poor Asian country could withstand the army of the mightiest nation in the world. He takes extraordinary pleasure in his own “triumphs” in a losing war. In the spring of 1972, while he was chief of staff, he personally recommended as a target a bridge at Thanh Hoa, south of Hanoi. The bridge had been dedicated by Ho Chi Minh and had been attacked unsuccessfully by American pilots for years. “Ho Chi Minh having died in 1969 and new so-called ‘smart bombs’ having become available, I saw destroying the bridge as a possible way to strike a blow at any lingering sense of invincibility that might exist in the minds of the North Vietnamese. The Joint Chiefs of Staff enthusiastically agreed. At long last the bridge that had defied destruction went down.”

That there was any other kind of struggle in Vietnam beyond a violent war eluded him then and eludes him still. He tells how he pushed for a military academy for the ARVN patterned after West Point and how he set up staff and command schools on the model of the American army. That the ARVN plundered the countryside and behaved like an army of occupation he barely notices. He will probably never understand the brutality of his “search and destroy” tactics or his policy of uprooting and “relocating” large populations—nor their consequent failure. He is baffled by the Vietnamese peasants, seeing them as obstacles who kept getting in his way, as in this revealing passage:

By depicting evacuation of the fortified village of Ben Suc in the Iron Triangle early in 1967 as an act of inhumanity rather than the essential and—under the circumstances—beneficent act that it was, a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, Jonathan Schell, added to the misunderstanding. That it was infinitely better in some cases to move the people from areas long sympathetic to the VC was amply demonstrated later by events that occurred when the discipline of an American company broke down at a place called My Lai.

Westmoreland writes about the war in the kind of slogans which army staff schools produce, in the style of TV advertising. Vietnam was a house, he tells us, and the VC were termites, gnawing away. Near by were “bully boys” with crow-bars—the North Vietnamese army. At his bedside he kept copies of the Bible, Mao Tse-tung’s book on guerrilla warfare, Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, and several books by Bernard Fall. Any of them might have been instructive, but “I was usually too tired in late evening to give the books more than occasional attention.”

In the film Hearts and Minds, he is seen making a characteristic statement, that “Orientals” put a lower value on life than “we” do. This has since worried him. “My own filmed remarks…on the Oriental’s value of life were used completely out of context, juxtaposed on scenes of Orientals wailing for their dead.” What context would have been correct?

Westmoreland misunderstood America, Vietnam—and, eventually, his own army. There was, he admits, some dissent and rebellion within the ranks, but these were “usually fanned by outsiders.” In any case, morale problems were never very serious, he claims. “Nor were the military services ever anywhere near the distressful state that some hand-wringers tried to depict.”

He is wrong. David Cortright, a veteran of three years of active duty in the army, is hardly a hand-wringer. He has made a careful inquiry into the attitudes of US troops; his book is an exhaustive account of rebellion in all the armed forces, not only in Vietnam but throughout the world. He makes it clear that by 1971 the greatest danger facing the US Army might well have been itself. Cortright, who was himself a member of the GI antiwar movement, maintains that

In a very real sense, the American Army was fighting on two fronts, one against the Vietnamese guerrillas in the jungles and the other against embittered militants within its own ranks. The strain of black resistance was a key factor in crippling US military capabilities in Vietnam.

That view is probably exaggerated. Despite the disaffection, in varying degrees, of countless officers and enlisted men US military forces were still able to crater the landscape and kill Indochinese quite effectively until they were pulled out. Many infantrymen resented being sent on dangerous missions whose only purpose was more glory and promotions for ambitious officers. Still most orders to go on patrol were obeyed. But it remains true that the fear that growing dissent among GIs would spread was one of the main reasons why US forces withdrew from Vietnam.

The most vivid acts of rebellion occurred when men refused to go into combat and officers were “fragged,” both in the field and in the “base camps.” But Cortright shrewdly points out that the more common kind of rebellion was less obvious; it was in fact a second, nonviolent guerrilla war:

Solidarity was expressed symbolically through long hair and afros, rock and soul music, beads and black bracelets, peace signs and clenched fists. The consequences of open defiance could be extremely harsh, and most GIs thus normally expressed their loathing for the military through more subtle means. Vast numbers of Vietnam-era servicemen participated in countless minor acts of sabotage and obstruction designed to clog the gears of the “Green Machine.”

Every unit had its examples of intentionally bungled repair or paperwork, of unexplained minor damage to equipment, of constant squabbling between certain GIs and the “lifers,” of mysteriously appearing peace signs, etc. The cumulative effect of thousands of such acts constituted the reality of the morale crisis.

Perhaps Cortright’s most important conclusion is that most of the GI resistance came not from draftees “but from volunteers…from working class backgrounds.” He shows convincingly that the poor blacks and high school graduates who enlisted were quite as opposed to the war as the more publicized college protesters. My own experience as a reporter in Vietnam suggested that many of the volunteer combat soldiers were more seriously skeptical about the announced aims of war than those at home. They found themselves risking their lives for an “ally” whose army did not want to fight.

This should be borne in mind when one considers the current volunteer army, much of it black and most of it drawn from the poorer classes. By many accounts the tumult of the early Seventies has subsided and the army is getting back on its feet. But to do what? It is hard to conceive of any place right now where the new all-volunteer army could engage in sustained combat. That may be one of the most important consequences of the war in Vietnam.

This Issue

May 13, 1976