Could a Single U.S. General Have Doomed the Entire Vietnam War?

Warfare History Network

Key point: A slow troop build-up didn't make sense and was very costly. Washington made many mistakes and it would cost them the war and tens of thousands of lives.

In 1989, this writer had occasion to interview four-star General William Childs Westmoreland, now 86, formerly U.S. military commander in South Vietnam and at the time of the interview a retired Chief of Staff of the Army.

Not only had I read his memoirs just a few days before our meeting, but I had also served in the Vietnam War myself as an enlisted man of the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade during 1966-1967, and thus had my own perspective on the struggle. When I met him in 1989, the general had already been a top soldier, pilot, diplomat, warrior, and confidant of presidents. He was still the ramrod-straight imperial proconsul of my youth.

Westmoreland was the nation’s number one Vietnam vet whose wife, Kitsy, lost a brother killed in the war, LTC Frederick Van Deusen. Westmoreland is still speaking about the war and taking part in memorial marches around the United States. He told an earlier interviewer that the hardest decision of the war for him was to recommend to President Lyndon Johnson that U.S. ground combat forces be committed to Southeast Asia to shore up the flagging South Vietnamese effort there in 1965.

“LBJ,” he recalled, “always did what he said he would do.… During his first year in office, 1964, we went from 500 advisors to 15,000 military personnel.… I don’t dislike [then Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara. He was fair to me.… We were actually operating in the unknown,” he once told veteran Vietnam writer Laura Palmer. A decade earlier, at the time of the French defeat, Westmoreland—then an army general staff officer during the Eisenhower Administration—had been in on the discussions about whether or not to send U.S. troops to aid the French Foreign Legion paratroopers and Vietnamese colonial troops to defeat the Viet Minh, the predecessors of the Viet Cong.

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