General William Westmoreland and American tactics in the Vietnam War

Born March 26, 1914, William C. Westmoreland graduated from West Point in the class of 1936 with several distinctions, and entered the Army as an artillery-man. During World War II he served in North Africa and Sicily and as a staff officer during the invasion of France (Utah Beach, Normandy). He later commanded the 101st Airborne Division (the famed 'Screaming Eagles') and the 19th Airborne Corps.

At the age of 42 he was to become the youngest Major General in the Army. The most talked about part of Westmoreland's career would be his post as the Commander of U.S forces in the Vietnam War between the years of 1964 to 1968. Westmoreland's offical position was Chief of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV).

Westmoreland's strategy was one of attrition. He wanted his better-armed and more mobile troops to kill the Viet Cong guerillas and the North Vietnamese Army soldiers faster than they could be replaced. As Westmoreland would point out, the "Western front" in the Vietnam War was almost a thousand miles long, longer than that of World War I. This front consisted of the Vietnamese borders with Cambodia and Laos, through which Communist units were infiltrating at an alarming rate along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Westmoreland had at his disposal the elite Airborne Cavalry, and his strategy of attrition involved sending out patrols of men to "brush" the enemy, and then airlifting in additional troops to deal with the siutation.

Westmoreland also pioneered the idea of "firebases" to take advantage of his new helicopter troops. Artillery positions were set up on top of hills consisting of guns transported in by helicopter. The troops patrolling in these areas would be encouraged to stay within the 10,000 to 20,000 yard range of these artillery positions.

Westmoreland presided over the Tet Offensive, a major Communist assault of American-defended towns and bases during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Although the Americans were prepared for the assault and the Communists suffered heavy losses, the television pictures soured the American public more and more to the conflict over a jungle 9,000 miles distant. It eventually got Westmoreland his ticket home as a review of American options and prospects in the war was launched.

Westmoreland would argue after the war that it was lost politically, not militarily. The two points he would hilight as being influential in the war's loss would be limited resources and American-sanctioned enemy safe-zones. In a 1996 interview for CNN Westmoreland said -

I mean, when the enemy moved into the South Vietnamese soil, he was defeated, he took great casualties; but then he moved across into Cambodia or to Laos, licked his wounds, and restored his military capability.

The President had stated from the outset of the war that he would not geographically broaden it. The job of MACV was to stop Communist infiltration of South Vietnam, not interfere with any other country in the region. Invasion of the North, Laos or Cambodia was strictly forbidden at this time - although it was once considered an option to cut into Laos so far as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was decided this would be a breach of Laos' neutrality1.

There is however strong evidence that the American tactics were not working. Guerillas simply avoided patrols near firebases, and although when patrols made contact with the enemy helicopters could quickly be flown in to destroy them, the fate of the patrol was not usually quite so happy for the Americans. The guerillas had merely to anticipate the patrols to set up traps or ambushes, or to hide in their tunnel complexes and set up camp again once the American patrol had passed through.

Westmoreland retired from the Army in 1972, and since has acted on the boards of several companies. He tours the country lecturing on the war.

1. Eventually, the U.S. and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam invaded both Cambodia and Laos - the North Vietnamese couldn't complain without admitting they were also breaching the neutrality agreements.

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